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Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus, Vassos Karageorghis, BAR 10:02, Mar-Apr 1984.

ceremonial-drinking-vessel-from-cyprusIf you really want to know about Philistine origins, come to Cyprus. Not that the Philistines originated here, but here the evidence seems clearest.

The Philistines were one of a group of related peoples called the Sea Peoples, who emerged seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the 13th century B.C. As we know from the Bible, they ultimately settled in southern Canaan and dominated the surrounding area until subdued by King David in the early 10th century B.C.

To understand the origins of the Philistines, we must understand the state of the world at the time of their emergence in the late 13th century. That world was coming apart at the seams.

Regular readers of BAR have already read about this turmoil, for example, in James Muhly’s “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World—And Gave the Philistines a Military Edge,” BAR 08-06; in Trude Dothan’s “What We Know About the Philistines,” BAR 08-04; and in Claude Schaeffer’s moving description of the destruction of Ugarit (“The Last Days of Ugarit,” BAR 09-05). In short, the great empires of the Late Bronze Age (1550 B.C. to 1200 B.C.) were collapsing; prosperous urban centers were destroyed; earthquake, drought and famine, invading armies and migrations all took their toll. The Greeks and Egyptians, the Hittites and Syrians, the Trojans and the Canaanites—all felt the blows. The new age, the Iron Age, beginning in about 1200 B.C., began as an age of poverty and isolation when, as the Bible says in another context, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21-25).

The Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, entered the stage of history somewhere in the Aegean during the turbulent years at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

How this occurred and how it profoundly affected the ancient world can be illustrated nowhere better than on the island of Cyprus.

For Cyprus, as we shall see, geography is history. An island in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus is about 500 miles from Athens but only 264 miles from Egypt on the south, 76 miles from the Syrian coast on the east and 43 miles from the shores of Asia Minor (Anatolia) on the north. Over the millennia, this geographical position has determined Cyprus’s fate—from remote antiquity to, alas, the present day.

As early as the seventh millennium B.C., neolithic navigators crossed the narrow waterway from Anatolia (modern Turkey) and landed on the northern coast of Cyprus. We know this because they brought with them obsidian to make the hard black flint blades that people used in these pre-metal and even pre-pottery times.

At the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (just after 3000 B.C.), Anatolian immigrants settled on the island, bringing with them a knowledge of metallurgy.

Not until the Late Bronze Age (1550 B.C.-1200 B.C.), however, did Cyprus develop extensive relations with the Syro-Palestinian coast and with Egypt. Also during the Late Bronze Age, the peoples of the Aegean—principally the Achaeans (or early Greeks) and the Cretans (another island people)—“discovered” Cyprus. The Cretans often called at the harbors of Cyprus’s northern coast, a convenient stopping place and trading center on the way to Ugarit on the Syrian coast, where the Cretans had a commercial colony.

As early as about 1500 B.C., under Cretan influence, the Cypriots, as the people of Cyprus are called, used a linear script. They borrowed this script from the Cretan traders and adapted it to their own language. Today this script is referred to by scholars as the Cypro-Minoan script. (Minoan refers to the Minoan civilization that thrived on Crete.) The Cypro-Minoan script remains undeciphered. All efforts to break the code have thus far been unsuccessful. But we have not yet given up.

At the beginning of the 14th century B.C., the Minoan civilization on Crete came to an end, and the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece gained hegemony over the Aegean Sea area. As far as Cyprus was concerned, the Mycenaeans replaced the Minoans as the traders from the west. The Mycenaeans dominated all the old trade routes formerly plied by the Minoans from Crete, including those that led to Ugarit on the Syrian coast as well as to the coastal cities further south in Canaan.

At about this same time, the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos from Egypt and established a pax aegyptiaca in the region. Peace, as always, fostered commercial relations not only with Cyprus but also with the rest of the Mediterranean world. To assure the peace, however, the kings of Cyprus (or Alasia, as ancient Cyprus was called, according to surviving texts) paid a periodic tribute of copper ingots to the Egyptian Pharaohs, as recorded in the famous Amarna letters, cuneiform tablets from the 14th century B.C. found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt.

The peace of the 14th and 13th centuries brought prosperity to Cyprus. Large harbor towns developed on the eastern and southern coasts of Cyprus—at Enkomi, Kition, Hala Sultan Tekké, Maroni, and elsewhere.

Aside from the peaceful conditions, there were two keys to Cyprus’s prosperity at this time. The first was copper; the island abounds in copper. In antiquity copper was as precious a commodity as oil is today. Copper is far less widely distributed than iron, which in any event was not widely used at this time. This was the Bronze Age, not the Iron Age, and copper is the principal ingredient in bronze. (Tin is the other.) Cyprus was rich because it was rich in copper.

The other key to Cyprus’s prosperity was its geography. The island was a center of trade. Both for the Mycenaeans and for the peoples of the Near East, Cyprus was the place to buy copper. But it was also the place where goods were traded between the east and the west. The trading relations between Cyprus and the Near East were especially close. Here the peoples of the Near East could obtain all kinds of Aegean goods, particularly luxury pottery. Thus, because of her geographical location, Cyprus became an economic bridge between the Orient and the Occident.

Then, as it always does, something happened. As I noted at the beginning of this article, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, the world of antiquity seemed to fall apart. On mainland Greece, two centuries of centralized administration in the Peloponnese came to an abrupt end. Shortly after the middle of the 13th century B.C., major Mycenaean urban centers like Mycenae and Pylos were destroyed or abandoned. The empire that they led was dissolving. Some scholars attribute this sudden decline to a natural disaster such as a long drought. Or perhaps the empire had simply reached the end of a natural cycle; it was time to die.

In any event, the inhabitants of these Mycenaean centers left their homes, became wanderers and eventually sought refuge to the east, after passing through the Dodecanese and perhaps Anatolia as well. Some of these people ended up in a land their fathers and forefathers had known as traders- copper-rich, hospitable Cyprus.

No doubt the Mycenaeans were also joined by others on the way eastwards. Crete had been part of the Mycenaean empire since the beginning of the 14th century B.C. So Crete too was affected by the disaster which befell the Mycenaean empire; Cretans were no doubt among those who came to Cyprus while migrating east. At this time too the city of Troy (level VIIA) was destroyed, as excavations by a Cincinnati University archaeological mission have shown. So Anatolians may also have joined the Mycenaean refugees on Cyprus.

Of course not all these displaced people became refugees who settled on Cyprus. Some, in their effort to survive, became plunderers. Some became adventurers and attempted to raid the coastal cities of Egypt and other states bordering the Mediterranean.

Out of this melting pot of refugees, plunderers and adventurers emerged a group of ethnically related peoples called the Sea Peoples, one of whom was the Philistines.

“The Sea Peoples” is the name given to them in Egyptian records of the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., such as the famous hieroglyphic inscriptions at Medinet Habu. The names of the individual “Peoples” suggest that their origins are Aegean and Anatolian. For example, Tjeker (Teukrian) and Denyen (Danuna) stand for lands in Anatolia; Ahhiyawa (Achaeans) and Millawanda (Miletus) indicate Aegean territories.

Some of the Hittite and Ugaritic documents from the end of the 13th century also reflect turmoil, shifting alliances, and unsettled conditions. For example, in a letter to the king of Ugarit, the king of Cyprus (Alasia) writes that he is very disturbed by the appearance of foreign ships near Cyprus and warns the king of Ugarit to stand firm. He suggests to the king of Ugarit, one Hammourapi, that he mobilize his army within the city walls. In another letter the king of Ugarit reports that seven foreign ships plundered his country while his own troops and ships were off fighting in Anatolia, the land of the Hittites.

We are naturally tempted to infer an alliance between the Cypriots and the Ugaritans, but things were not so simple or straightforward. It was a time of great diplomatic instability and uncertainty, a time when alliances and treaties meant little and confusion reigned supreme. In one letter from a high Cypriot official, he complains that Ugaritan ships joined an enemy fleet that had attacked the northern coast of Cyprus. Ugarit was hardly a dependable ally.

Recent excavations in Cyprus illustrate and clarify the process I have just described in broad general terms. I would like to take you to two sites. One, on the southeast coast of the island, is called Pyla-Kokkinokremos. Pyla in Greek means “the gates,” signifying the pass from the Larnaca Bay to the Mesaoria plain inland. Kokkinokremos means “the red rock.” The other site, on the west coast, is called Maa-Palaeokastro (palaeokastro means “old fort”). It is named for the Late Bronze Age city wall that has always been visible on the surface. We will refer to these sites as Maa and Pyla for short.

Pyla is built on an oblong plateau about 200 feet above sea level. It was settled shortly after the middle of the 13th century B.C., say about 1240 B.C. or 1230 B.C. It is an inhospitable place to build a settlement, which explains why it had not been settled before. It has no water supply, and it is unsuitable for agricultural purposes.

The area around Pyla has many Late Bronze Age sites, mostly cemeteries, but these sites are all earlier than Pyla. The inhabitants of these earlier sites had no interest in the high, arid plateau of Pyla.

Then suddenly, after the middle of the 13th century, as the Late Bronze Age was coming to an end, the plateau of Pyla became attractive for a settlement. What characteristics did it have that made it attractive?

Only one. It was attractive from a military viewpoint. It was easily defensible and it dominated the area around it. Its steep sides rise abruptly from the middle of a marshy plain that may have been a harbor in antiquity. The plateau of Pyla also controlled an important pass that connects the coastal plain of Larnaca with Mesaoria inland.

Our excavations show that the new settlers of the Pyla plateau clearly were interested in security. They built their houses to form a continuous row of casematesa along the edge of the whole plateau, leaving an open common area in the middle of the settlement. The outer wall of these houses was thicker than the other walls because it did double service as the city wall. From the flat roofs of the houses, the soldiers of Pyla could easily keep watch and give warning of any imminent attack.

The houses of Pyla were large, with at least five rooms. These settlers were not poor. Some of the rooms were used for storage. We found large jars that contained grain and wine. But most important were the jars for water because there were neither wells nor springs on the plateau.
The community was obviously a wealthy one—the settlers left behind gold jewelry, bronze and alabaster vessels, bronze tools and silver bowls. We also found some beautiful Mycenaean pottery, although very few pieces—trade and communication in the Aegean were difficult in these times, a result of the shaky political conditions that no doubt caused the settlers to build their houses on the Pyla plateau.

Who were the inhabitants of Pyla? On the present evidence, we can’t be sure. Some of them must have been Cretans, judging from the unusually large amount of Late Minoan pottery found in the settlement. In addition, a fragment of a limestone trough decorated in relief with so called “horns of consecration” was excavated. The “horns of consecration” are a symbol of the Minoan religion. A few sherds of Anatolian ware were also found, but the bulk of the pottery is of local manufacture.

Of one thing we may be sure- the settlers of Pyla firmly determined to live on their own.

Shortly before the end of the 13th century B.C. something happened that ended life on the plateau. It was not a natural phenomenon but was some kind of menace from outside. The inhabitants of the plateau carefully concealed their valuables before leaving. A goldsmith put his gold beads in a hole and covered them. In the same hole he placed his gold earrings and the gold foil he used to make jewelry. A silversmith concealed two silver ingots and fragments of a silver bowl between two stones of a bench. A coppersmith gathered all the pieces of a copper ingot that he had and put them in a pit in a courtyard together with bronze tools, vessels and a small figurine he kept in his atelier.

Obviously, these people expected to return to their houses after the danger had passed, hoping that would be soon. This phenomenon has been common in all periods of history; Cypriots did the same as late as 1974. The danger that caused the inhabitants of the Pyla plateau to leave their houses was not, however, short-lived. The inhabitants of Pyla never returned. Their valuables were recovered only in 1982 during our excavations. Who knows where they fled? Perhaps to the nearby town of Kition, seven miles to the southwest. Life on the plateau ended permanently after less than a quarter of a century.

Our second site, Maa-Palaeokastro, or Maa for short, helps us understand why Pyla was abandoned. In many ways Maa’s history follows the same pattern as Pyla’s. Like Pyla, Maa was settled for the first time in the second half of the 13th century B.C. (ignoring a small Chalcolithic settlement at Maa in the fourth millennium B.C.).

Again like Pyla, the location of the settlement was chosen principally for defensive purposes. Situated on a promontory that sticks south like a sickle into the Mediterranean Sea on the west coast of Cyprus, Maa is connected to land only on the north. On the west is the Mediterranean Sea. On the east is a bay. The surface of this promontory is 50 feet above the sea and is protected by steep cliffs on the east and west. At the bottom of the cliffs are large sandy bays ideal for anchorage. Toward the southern part of the promontory—the tip of the sickle—the land slopes down gently toward sea level. There and at the northern connection to the island, defense walls were built but not on the east or west where the natural cliffs sufficed.

The landward defense wall, over 11 feet thick, was constructed with large boulders in two parallel bows. The core between the rows was filled with rubble. The superstructure was mudbrick. A “dog-leg” gate provided access to the settlement from the mainland. Similar defense walls, called “Cyclopean” for their huge boulders, have been found at major Cypriot urban centers like Enkomi, Kition and Sinda (west of Enkomi). A similar wall, nearly 13 feet thick, was also built along the-southern tip of the promontory. From a rectangular tower in the middle of this wall, militia could control the approach of ships from the west. Maa thus was situated advantageously from a defensive viewpoint, and it, like Pyla, also controlled the area around it militarily. This more than made up for the fact that the promontory had no water supply and the inhabitants had to rely on stored water and a spring 300 meters away.

The houses in Maa were for the most part modest, one-story buildings with one, two or three rooms. One building, however, was considerably larger than the average house. It is a squarish building, nearly 40 feet on a side. Since it was located near the city gate, we speculate that it was either an official residence or an administrative building. Two bull figurines in terra cotta found in 1983 in debris and ashes outside this building suggest that the building may have been a sanctuary (the bull was the symbol of fertility in the prehistoric religion of Cyprus).

Another building that stands out may have housed a metalworking industry, or it could also be part of a sanctuary. In the center of the largest room was a large cemented hearth about five feet in diameter. Indications are that this hearth was open to the sky. Near the hearth we found a bronze knife. In another room we found a fragment of a copper ingot. The large room with the hearth had walls plastered with mortar.

At the end of the 13th century—in about 1200 B.C.—the settlement at Maa was destroyed by a violent fire. A thick layer of ash covered this level of the site. Above the ash layer were fallen mudbricks mixed with lumps of clay from the roof. The clay bore clear impressions of beams and reeds that once formed the roof.

Unlike Pyla, Maa was immediately resettled after the destruction. Another floor was built above the topmost layer of debris from the destruction level, and new buildings were constructed. Sometimes the foundations of the earlier buildings were reused. In other areas, entirely new building complexes were erected. The second settlement covered the entire site. The new houses are modest, in many cases reusing materials from the destroyed houses of Period I and even sherds from large jars. The fortifications on the seaward (south) side were reinforced; a fort was built near the “dog-leg” gate; the “dog-leg” gate was blocked up and a new gate opened to the west. The large building near the old gate—the one that may have been an administrative center or sanctuary—was split up into smaller houses. The other large building of the earlier settlement—the one that may have been a sanctuary—was also divided into two. The poor building quality in Period II suggests that the newcomers did not intend to stay long at Maa. And indeed, they occupied the settlement for fewer than 25 years, finally abandoning it in about 1175.

Who lived in the first settlement at Maa? Who destroyed it and why did they leave the second settlement?

We assume the people who built the first settlement were much like the people who built Pyla. They settled both sites at the same time; they chose sites which could be easily fortified. At the same time, they wanted to be near large urban centers that they intended to infiltrate.

The identity of the people from the second settlement—the people who destroyed the first settlement and rebuilt it—is suggested by the pottery from Period II. The vast majority of this pottery is local pottery that imitates so-called Mycenaean IIIC-1b pottery; that is, the style it imitates is from the Aegean area and dates to just after 1200 B.C. It appears that the newcomers to the site, who destroyed the houses of Period I, were Achaean (Greek) immigrants or refugees from the Aegean, who introduced this new ceramic style and built the settlement of Period II. They may well be related ethnically to the settlers whose towns they razed. But in that unhinged time of turmoil and confusion, considerations of survival were all that counted.

Thus, both Pyla and Maa were built by newcomers to the island. Our identifications of these newcomers until now have been general. If we may be more specific, it seems likely that they were in fact Sea Peoples. At Pyla and Maa, shortly after the middle of the 13th century B.C., they built military outposts at defensible sites that had previously been uninhabited. It was a troubled period in the Aegean, and troubles were to continue. In the last years of the 1200s—the very end of the 13th century—a new wave of people, Achaeans from the Peloponnese, violently destroyed the settlement at Maa and probably other sites in the island as well and spread fear that caused the Sea Peoples to abandon Pyla. The Achaeans were ethnically related to some of the Sea Peoples, but in troubled times, when the stakes were survival, this did not matter.

The pattern we have observed at Pyla and Maa was not confined to these sites. The same sequence of events may be seen at Sinda, west of the major city of Enkomi. Sinda was excavated nearly 35 years ago and remains unpublished. We hope to see this report soon.

Waves of Achaeans continued to settle in Cyprus throughout the 12th century. Gradually they became the ruling class in the principal urban centers of the island, such as Enkomi, Kition, Palaepaphos and elsewhere. The last of these successive waves of immigrants followed the so-called Dorian invasion of Greece, which brought a new people from the northeast to mainland Greece. The Dorians in effect replaced the Achaeans.

According to Cyprus’s mythic traditions, Greek heroes founded the cities of Cyprus after the Trojan War. These heroes were probably in fact the last wave of Achaean refugees who came after the Dorian invasion of Greece.

We have evidence from the early part of the 11th century that the Greek language had already been introduced on Cyprus. A bronze skewer or obelos found in an 11th-century tomb at Palaepaphos is engraved with a Greek proper name in a form of genitive characteristic of the Arcadian dialect. In this way the tradition that the founder of Paphos was a certain Agapenor, former king of Tegea in the Peloponnese, has been substantiated.

The 11th century in the Aegean was generally a time of poverty and illiteracy. The Achaean immigrants who came to Cyprus, however, were both prosperous and literate. Artifacts in unusually large quantities and of exceptional quality were buried with their dead in the cemetery of Palaepaphos-Skales. Vases of varied forms, bronzes, some unique iron tools and weapons, fibulae of bronze, iron, and even silver and gold were among the offerings. Incidentally, these fibulae, which held flowing garments together, were part of the new fashion in women’s dresses introduced by the Achaean immigrants.

Especially pertinent to our discussion here, however, is the extraordinary number of objects of Near Eastern origin contained in these tombs. Storage jars, known as “Canaanite” jars, no doubt once contained liquid goods imported from the Near East; other objects included vases, jugs and flasks. There were also objects from Egypt—a faience bowl and scarabs. One large scarab is engraved with the name of Pharaoh Amenophis III (1402–1364 B.C.). How did a 14th-century scarab get into an 11th-century tomb? It was probably an heirloom handed down within the family for centuries. When it was placed in the tomb of the dear departed, the relatives surely had no idea that this would present a problem for archaeologists 3,000 years later who were trying to date the tomb.

The material from the Palaepaphos tombs indicates that the Achaean immigrants to Cyprus had a different fate from their relatives who stayed behind in Greece. In Cyprus, they exploited the copper mines, just as their forefathers had a century earlier; they introduced new metallurgical skills and produced bronze and iron objects of advanced technology They traded with the Near East, again following the example of their forefathers. But they also maintained trading contacts with the Aegean. In this way, they created a prosperous community with accumulated wealth and a high standard of living.

The island’s culture at this time, however, included a heavy dose of both Aegean and Near Eastern elements.

Cyprus thus served as a bridge between the Orient and the Occident. The island profited from its contact with these different cultural regions. But Cyprus also enriched Mediterranean culture by providing a center where these cultures could interact and mutually influence one another.
Meanwhile, the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, moved on—fighting, marauding, and finally, just as the Achaeans had done on Cyprus, settling and prospering on the southern coast of Canaan. The rest of the Philistine story is in the Bible.

For a short account of the archaeology and history of Cyprus at the time of the “Sea Peoples,” see V. Karageorghis, Cyprus from the Stone Age to the Romans (Thames and Hudson- London, 1982). For more scholarly accounts on Pyla and Maa, see the article by the same author in Comptes Rendu de L’Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (1982), pp. 706–724. For a general account of the “Sea Peoples,” see N. K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples, Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean (Thames and Hudson- London, 1978).

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