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Archaeology in Israel: Tel Qasile

Tel Qasile lies within the city limits of Tel Aviv, at the mouth of the Yarkon River. In antiquity, the river at the foot of the tel (mound) served as an inner harbor, protected from the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The settlement itself was on a kurkar (a kind of sandstone) hill on the northern bank of the river and, in its heyday, covered some four acres.

The first excavations at Tel Qasile were conducted from 1948 to 1950. Excavations were renewed between 1971 and 1974. The most significant remains include a Philistine residential quarter with a sacred area, dated to the beginning of the Iron Age (12th - 10th century BCE). The excavations provided evidence of continued settlement through the 10th century, when the area came under the control of the kings of Israel. Remains of settlement from the end of the Iron Age to the Early Arab period were also found.

The Residential Quarter

Excavations in the southern part of the tel revealed three distinct Philistine settlement strata dating to the beginning of the Iron Age.

Buildings of the lower Stratum (XII) were constructed directly on the kurkar ridge of the hill. Meagre remains from this stratum include depressions cut into the rock and some segments of walls and pavements. The first town, of Stratum XI, was surrounded by a strong brick wall, ca. 5 m. thick, remains of which were found on the western side of the tel. Next to a large building made of kurkar stones was a plaza, where two clay crucibles for melting copper were found.

In Stratum X, dwellings were found throughout the excavated area, surrounded by streets. The houses were built next to one another in a line, and access to them was from the street only. They consisted of a side courtyard with two long rooms along its two sides. In some instances, a row of columns was placed in the courtyard, evidence that it was partly roofed. The rooms were used for living, working and storage, and the varied assemblages of Philistine, Canaanite, and Israelite pottery attest to the composition of the population in the 11th century BCE, where for the first time, iron implements came into use. This settlement was destroyed in a great conflagration.

The Philistine Cult Center

On the eastern side of the tel a Philistine cult center was exposed, consisting of a series of temples constructed one upon the other, thus preserving the tradition of the sanctity of the place for some 200 years. The temples were built according to a common plan, and with the same construction techniques.

The remains of the Philistine temples uncovered at Tel Qasile are of exceptional importance for the study of temple architecture and the Philistine cult at the end of the second millennium BCE. For the first time it is possible to observe the architectural and cultic connections between the Philistine and Canaanite temples here, and those in the Philistines' lands of origin - mainland Greece, Cyprus and the Aegean islands. But the identity of the deity to whom the temple at Tel Qasile was dedicated could not be established.

The First Temple, Stratum XII

Temple excavation

The first of the series of temples was found in Stratum XII. It was a small temple, consisting of a single room (6.6 x 6.4 m.) built of mudbrick with plaster-covered walls. The entrance to the building was in the center of the eastern wall and benches built of brick stood along some of the walls. Inside the room, opposite the entrance, was an elevated platform (bema) built of plastered brick. The cell behind it perhaps served as a repository for cultic objects. A broad courtyard, where remains of ash and bones from sacrifices were found, extended east and north of the temple.

Southeast of this courtyard was a public building with several rooms and a large hall with benches along its walls. In the hall was a raised, elliptical brick hearth, covered with potsherds and with a depression to contain the fire. Aegean parallels for this type of installation attest to the cultural origin of the Philistines who lived at Tel Qasile. The public building was clearly part of the Philistine administrative center. The pottery vessels found in this stratum are white-slipped with typically Philistine decoration.

The Second Temple, Stratum XI

This temple was built on the ruins of its predecessor. Its area was enlarged to 8.5 x 7.7 m., and its 1 m.-thick walls were built of kurkar stones. The entrance was in the eastern wall. This structure consisted of a single room with built benches along its walls. The southwestern corner was separated by brick walls, creating a small room (2.8 x 1.5 m.), in which a variety of objects were found: primarily pottery vessels, but also a mask with a human face, a small duck-shaped ivory box and a pyramid-shaped shell that was probably used as a horn. In this stratum too, a broad courtyard extended north and east of the temple, in which a burial pit for cultic vessels (favissae) was found. Many of these were decorated with red and black Philistine motifs but there were also fragments of zoomorphic masks and a unique female-shaped vessel with breasts that were spouts for pouring liquid.

A smaller temple (5.6 x 3.5 m.) was found west of this temple. Along the brick walls were benches and at the far end, opposite the entrance, was a small bema with two steps, built of plastered bricks. Leaning against the bema were three high ritual stands made of pottery: a cylindrical base painted in red with black designs, with perforated "windows", and on top a bowl with a bird's head.

The public building south of the temple remained in use and another large building was erected next to it. In this stratum the pottery was typically Philistine, red-slipped with black decoration.

The Third Temple, Stratum X

During this phase, the temple was enlarged (14.5x8 m.) incorporating the walls of the previous temple. The entrance was now on the northern side of the entrance room and a wide opening connected it with the main hall (heikhal) of the temple. Here, two columns (of Cedar of Lebanon), resting on stone bases, supported the roof. Along the walls was a double row of plastered benches. A partition wall created a small storage room along the western wall of the temple; against the partition wall stood a 90 cm.-high brick bema with two steps on each side.

A wealth of artifacts was found near the bema and in the storage room of this temple, which was destroyed by fire. They include: a clay plaque in the form of a temple façade, with a pair of figures at the entrance; a cylindrical cultic stand perforated with windows; a cylindrical cultic stand on which a pair of lionesses support a bowl; and another cylindrical cultic stand decorated with a bird. Several libation vessels of pottery are of unique form: a kernos - a hollow ring-shaped vessel with figures atop it; a vessel shaped like a cluster of fruit; a zoomorphic vessel in the form of a hippopotamus; and two pomegranate-shaped vessels.

Northeast of the temple was a courtyard enclosed by a stone wall. In this stratum too, a room was located at the northern edge of the courtyard, and opposite the entrance to the temple a square foundation was uncovered, apparently that of a sacrificial altar.

North and west of the temple was yet another walled courtyard, with an opening towards the street going north. In a small room in the northern corner of this courtyard cooking facilities were uncovered, indicating that this was the kitchen of the temple complex. The small temple of the previous stratum, located west of the temple, continued to be used during this phase.

South of the temple complex, part of a residential quarter built on the public building of the previous stratum was exposed. One of the dwellings, which was completely uncovered, measures 13.5 x 8.5 m. and is indicative of the type of dwelling at Tel Qasile during this period. It had a large courtyard with a row of five wooden columns on stone bases at its center, so that part of the courtyard was roofed while the rest was probably left unroofed. Of two square rooms built at the side of the courtyard, one was obviously used as a storeroom, as 80 ceramic storage jars were found in it; in the other room, household utensils were found.

The Period of the Kings of Israel

The coastal region was annexed to the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Solomon. A public building (14 x 12 m.), probably the regional administrative center, was built in the southern part of Tel Qasile. It included an entrance hall, several rooms south of it, and a staircase leading to a second story. This town was destroyed in the campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak (924 BCE) and the tel was abandoned until the end of the Iron Age.

An ostracon with the ancient Hebrew inscription "Ophir gold to Beth Horon, 30 shekels" was found on the tel. This is a commercial document dealing with a shipment of 30 shekels of Ophir gold (fine quality gold or gold from a place called Ophir (see I Kings 9:28) to the town of Beth Horon (on the road from Tel Qasile to Jerusalem) or to an unknown temple dedicated to the Canaanite God Horon.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry