Asqalan: ancient port city on the Mediterranean

The city of Asqalan started to grow into a big city during the Canaanite period, between 2000 and 1550 BCE. The city stretched over 1100 meters along the coast and was about 600 meters in width. Around the city the Canaanites built a city wall. One of the city gates was excavated and not only can you see it during a visit to the National Park, you can even walk through it. That makes the city gate of Asqalan even more interesting than the Canaanite gate in Tel Dan, which dates from around the same period. This mud brick gate rests on a foundation of kurkar, the typical sandstone that can be found all along the coastline. The gate was preserved by the walls and gates that were built over the Canaanite gate in later times, protecting it from the elements: wind, water and sun.

Asqalan or Ashkelon

The name Asqalan is used in Arabic while Ashkelon is the Hebrew name. The root letters are the same as that of today’s currency: the shekel. In ancient times the shekel was a weight used to weigh products to stipulate their price. As the city was an important port for trade, it would be no surprise if the name came from the shekel.

In the area of Asqalan they used to grow a lot of spring onions, that are also known as scallions. And that word also sounds very similar to Asqalan or Ashkelon, so it is suggested that the city gave its name to the produce it was famous for.

The ancient port city was destroyed and became out of use after the Ayyubids and later Mamluks ruled the country and they demolished all the port cities, fearing that the Crusaders could return and retake the fortresses.

Asqalan part of the Philistine pentapolis

Whether the Philistines were sea peoples coming from the Aegean area or local Canaanite tribes is still debated, but the center of their culture was along the coastal area where they had their five main cities: Gaza, Asqalan, Asdod, Ekron and Gath. These five cities were called in Greek: Pentapolis, penta meaning five and polis meaning city.

Majdal near Asqalan

During the Mamluk time a new town developed near the ancient city, called Majdal. It became very well known for its weaving industry. The residents of Majdal were forcibly displaced by the Zionist militias that attacked in 1948 and they were never allowed to return after the establishment of the State of Israel.

New Ashkelon grew rapidly north of the ancient city and today there are about 120.000 inhabitants.

What can you see in Ashkelon National Park

The National Park is beautiful especially in the winter and spring time. It is very green and full of flowers. As it is directly on the Mediterranean coast, you have beautiful views of the sea and you can access the beach. If you love history then there are several interesting archaeological excavations to visit. For example the largest Roman basilica that was found in the area, with partially reconstructed columns that have beautiful Corinthian capitals. They also found statues of different deities that have been reconstructed. The goddess Nike and a goddess combining the attributes of the goddesses Isis and Tyche.

Also from the Roman period is the mosaic floor that was found close to the Canaanite city gate, which was part of a rural mansion, a so called villa rustica, for Roman elites.

You can see the remains of an antilia, a water wheel that was used to fetch the water from the well using cogwheels and animal power.  The sweet rain water is lighter than the salty water of the sea and floats above the salt water table, so that there is easy access to fresh water for drinking and for agriculture.

Next to one of these water wells is a big sycamore tree that we know from the biblical account of Zaccheus in Jericho, climbing up a sycamore tree to see Jesus in the crowds.

There is a nice circular route that takes you around the whole national park, partially over the old city walls and partially over the sand dunes. It is very suitable for a day out with the family. There are toilet facilities and a lot of picknick tables. There is even a camping site area.