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The historic Philistines (see note "Philistines" below) were a people that inhabited the southern coast of Canaan around the time of the arrival of the Israelites, their territory being named Philistia in later contexts. Their origin has been contended among scholars (see "Origins" below), but modern archaeology is suggesting early cultural links with the Mycenean world in mainland Greece. Though the Philistines adopted local Canaanite culture and language before leaving any written texts, a handful of Philistine words can be linked to Indo-European ones, thus suggesting an Indo-European origin.

They are spoken of in the Book of Amos as originating in Caphtor: "saith the Lord: Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?" (Amos 9:7). Later, in the 7th century BCE, Jeremiah makes the same association with Caphtor. Scholars variously identify the land of Caphtor with Cyprus and Crete and other locations in the eastern Mediterranean. If the Philistines are to be identified as one of the "Sea Peoples", then their occupation of Canaan will have taken place during the reign of Rameses III of the Twentieth Dynasty, ca. 1180 to 1150 BCE. Their maritime knowledge would have made them important to the Phoenicians.

In Egypt, a people called the "Peleset" (or, more precisely, prst), generally identified with the Philistines, appear in the Medinet Habu inscription of Ramses III[1], where he describes his victory against the Sea Peoples, as well as the Onomastica of Amenope (late Twentieth Dynasty) and the Great Papyrus Harris (Papyrus Harris I), a summary of Ramses III's reign written in the reign of Ramses IV. Nineteenth-century Bible scholars identified the land of the Philistines (Philistia) with Palastu and Pilista in Assyrian inscriptions, according to Easton's Bible Dictionary (1897).

The Philistines occupied the five cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath, along the coastal strip of southwestern Canaan, which belonged to Egypt up to the closing days of the Nineteenth Dynasty (ended 1185 BCE). "David and Goliath" as well as "Samson and Delilah" are two biblical accounts of Philistine/Israelite conflicts. The biblical description of Goliath's armor is consistent with Philistine iron-smithing technology of the time.

This powerful association of tribes made frequent incursions against the Hebrews. There was almost perpetual war between the two peoples. They sometimes held the Hebrews, especially the southern tribes, in servitude; at other times they were defeated with great slaughter. The Philistine cities were ruled by seranim, "lords", who acted together for the common good, though to what extent they had a sense of a "nation" is not clear without literary sources. After their defeat by the Israelite King David, kings replaced the seranim, governing from various cities. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon eventually conquered all of Syria and the land of Canaan, and the Philistine cities became part of the Neo-Babylonian empire. Subsequently the cities were under the control of Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and "Philistia" was governed as a territory.

The Philistines long held a monopoly on iron smithing, a skill they probably acquired during their conquests in Anatolia.

Philistia the name of the Philistine Kingdoms became "Palestine" under the Romans.


Origin of the Philistines

It has been suggested that the Philistines formed part of the great naval confederacy, the "Sea Peoples", who had wandered, at the beginning of the 12th century BCE, from their homeland in southern Greece and the Aegean islands to the shores of the Mediterranean and repeatedly attacked Egypt during the later Nineteenth Dynasty. Though eventually repulsed by Ramesses III, he was, according to the theory, apparently unable to dislodge them from their settlements in Palestine.

The connection between Mycenean culture and Philistine culture was made clearer by finds, especially pottery styles, at the excavation of Ekron one of the five Philistine cities in Canaan, undertaken in 1981 - 1996. At Ekron, of particular interest is a large, well constructed building which covers 240 square meters. Its walls are broad, designed to support a second story and its wide, elaborate entrance leads to a large hall, partly covered with a roof supported on a row of columns. In the floor of the hall is a circular hearth paved with pebbles, as is typical in Mycenean buildings; other unusual architectural features are paved benches and podiums. Among the finds are three small bronze wheels with eight spokes. Such wheels are known to have served as wheels for portable cultic stands in the Aegean region during this period and it is therefore assumed that this building served cultic functions.

Papyrus Harris I details the achievements of the reign of Ramesses III. In the brief description of the outcome of the battles in year 8 is the description of the fate of the Sea Peoples. Ramesses tells us that, having brought the imprisoned Sea Peoples to Egypt, he "settled them in strongholds, bound in my name. Numerous were their classes like hundred-thousands. I taxed them all, in clothing and grain from the storehouses and granaries each year" Some scholars suggest that it is likely that these "strongholds" were actually fortified towns in southern Canaan, the cities that would eventually become the five cities of the Philistines (Redford 1992, p. 289). Hebrew tradition, recorded in Genesis 10:14, included the Philistines among the sons of Egypt. The theory that the Sea Peoples included Greek-speaking tribes has been developed even further to postulate that the Philistines originated in either western Anatolia or the Greek peninsula, though the biblical sources are unanimous that they were descended from Egypt.

The Philistines settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast at about the time when the Israelites settled in the Judean highlands. Politically independent, they preserved their traditions, which were clearly related to those of the Mycenaean culture. Architectural features and many finds indicate this relationship, especially the early Philistine pottery decorated in shades of brown and black, which later developed into the distinctive black and red decorations on white slip. Their kings were called Abimelech.

There is some limited evidence that validates the assumption that the Philistines originally spoke some Indo-European language. A number of Philistine-related words found in the Bible are not semitic and can in some cases, with reservations, be traced back to Indo-European roots. For example, the Philistine word for captain, seren, may be related to the Greek word tyrannos. The name of Goliath's headgear koba or qoba can be connected to Indo-European cap, Latin caput and Greek cephalos, meaning head.


Philistines: (פלשתים, Standard Hebrew Pəlištim, Tiberian Hebrew Pəlištm). Philistia (פלשת, Standard Hebrew Pəlšet / Pəlšet, Tiberian Hebrew Pəlšeṯ / Pəlāšeṯ).

Philistine as a disparaging term

For the word philistine in non-historical usage, referring to a person deficient in the culture of the Liberal Arts, a smug and intolerant opponent of the bohemian, who exhibits a restrictive moral code, unappreciative of artistic ideas, see Philistinism.


  • Dothan, Trude Krakauer. 1982. The Philistines and Their Material Culture. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society
  • Dothan, Trude Krakauer, and Moshe Dothan. 1992. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company
  • Ehrlich, Carl S. 1996. The Philistines in Transition: A History from ca. 1000–730 B.C.E. Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 10, ser. eds. Baruch Halpern, and Manfred Hermann Emil Weippert. Leiden: E. J. Brill
  • Gitin, Seymour, Amihai Mazar, and Ephraim Stern, eds. 1998. Mediterranean Peoples in Transition: Thirteenth to Early Tenth Centuries BCE. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society
  • Oren, Eliezer D., ed. 2000. The Sea Peoples and Their World: A Reassessment. University Museum Monograph 108. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
  • Redford, Donald Bruce. 1992. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press

External links

British writers of the 19th century and very early 20th century sometimes referred to the Arabs of Palestine as "Philistines". This was apparently not due to a belief in a strong connection with the ancient Philistines, but merely reflects the former convention that "Philistine" simply denotes "native of "Palestine".

Last updated: 08-28-2005 21:47:14
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