Map of Philistines' Seaborne MigrationIn the March/April issue of BAR, two scholars, Tristan Barako and Assaf Yasur-Landau, presented contrasting arguments about how the Philistines, one of the feared Sea Peoples, left their Aegean homelands and came to settle on the coastal plain of Canaan. (“One if by Sea … Two if by Land- How Did the Philistines Get to Canaan,” BAR 29-02) The migration took place sometime after 1200 B.C., when the great palace cultures of the Mycenaean and Aegean world collapsed and when many cities in the eastern Mediterranean were destroyed. How did the Philistines get to Canaan?

Barako argued on behalf of a large-scale seaborne migration, and Yasur-Landau countered that a land route was likelier, one that passed along the southern coast of Anatolia and then into Syria and finally Canaan. According to Yasur-Landau, the Late Bronze Age city-states of Mycenae, Miletus and Tiryns, among others, could not possibly have launched a maritime migration of significant proportions; after all, these once-glorious polities were only shadows of their former selves in the aftermath of the destruction of 1200 B.C. He also noted that the 50-oared galleys called
penteconters could only have accommodated a migrating party of a small number of men. Women and children would have been left behind. And yet, reliefs at Pharaoh Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu in Egypt show women and children—traveling in oxcarts—migrating to Canaan, along with male Philistine warriors. Yasur-Landau also pointed to the lack of archaeological evidence relating to maritime activity at the initial Philistine settlements in Canaan—places such as Ekron, for example. But according to Barako, Yasur-Landau doesn’t tell the complete story; he offers here a rebuttal to some of Yasur-Landau’s arguments.—Ed.

To begin with, let me clarify my conception of the Philistines’ seaborne migration. Although I firmly believe that a large population of Philistines arrived in southern coastal Canaan primarily by ship, they probably didn’t do so all at once, but rather in stages, the way most migrations take place, whether by sea or land. Therefore, the Philistines could have used a relatively small number of ships for multiple trips. On this point Yasur-Landau and I appear to be in general agreement; on others we clearly differ.

By a selective use of data, Yasur-Landau underestimates the capabilities of Late Bronze Age polities to carry out a large-scale seaborne migration. First, there is the matter of the ships. It is true that most of the vessels used at this time were narrow penteconters; however, another type of seagoing vessel existed that was much roomier—the cargo ship or merchantman. These larger ships must have been moored in every major coastal city in the eastern Mediterranean region at the beginning of the 12th century B.C. Indeed, the only depiction we have of a seaborne migration from the ancient Near Eastern world gives us an idea of how the Philistines most likely traveled- A relief from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh depicts the Tyrians, who were evacuating their home on the Mediterranean coast and heading to Cyprus, fleeing in both war galleys and merchantmen.1 The two best preserved Late Bronze Age shipwrecks, found at Uluburun and Cape Gelidonya along the western coast of Turkey, were also cargo ships.

Yasur-Landau similarly distorts the evidence when calculating the number of oarsmen available to the various polities after 1200 B.C. He focuses on urban populations, to the exclusion of the people who inhabited neighboring towns and villages bound to a central city. According to Homer’s “Catalogue of Ships,” for example, the Achaean cities did not furnish ships for the Trojan War on their own; instead they mustered fleets with the help of their dependencies. The Linear B tablets from the Greek city of Pylos that Yasur-Landau cites describe a similar state of affairs. For example, the 30 rowers sent to the port of Pleuron, mentioned in tablet An 1, hail from five different settlements within the Pylian kingdom.2 Furthermore, the best preserved portion of an Ugaritic alphabetic text describes a crew comprised of men from four different villages all within the kingdom of Ugarit.3 And since cargo ships required only a few crewmen, the Late Bronze Age polities and their satellites could indeed have launched sizeable fleets made up of both cargo ships and penteconters.

Yasur-Landau argues that the dearth of evidence for maritime activity in strata associated with the Philistines’ initial settlement in southern coastal Canaan minimizes the likelihood of a seaborne migration. But one should keep in mind an important axiom of archaeological interpretation- “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Prior to the Philistines’ settlement, however, abundant, unequivocal evidence associates the Philistines and other Sea Peoples with the sea. Most notable is the naval battle relief from Medinet Habu, which shows Philistine and Sherden (another Sea People) warriors in their ships being routed by the Egyptian army. Also, numerous XIXth and XXth Dynasty inscriptions (dating to c. 1300–1070 B.C.) describe the various Sea Peoples as being “of the sea.” The text expressing most succinctly the maritime character of one of the Sea Peoples, however, comes from the archives of Ugarit- A letter from the king of Hatti reports that the “Sðikalayu [Sikils], who live on ships,” have taken an Ugaritian prefect hostage.4 The Philistines and their fellow Sea Peoples, then, were by no means strangers to the sea.

According to the logical principle known as Occam’s razor, the optimal solution to a problem entails the least number of assumptions. In other words, the best answer is the simplest. Bowing to this wisdom, I concede that the oxcarts carrying Philistine men, women and children depicted at Medinet Habu must have come overland. However, I would argue that they set out not (as Yasur-Landau argues) from Cilicia, Asia Minor or beyond, but rather from southern coastal Canaan—where they had arrived by sea.5

Finally, I take issue with the last sentence of Yasur-Landau’s article- “Since in the future we are unlikely to find an Egyptian depiction of a bulky oxcart and four oxen tightly squeezed between the rowers’ benches of a sleek Philistine warship, we can assume that the primary mode by which the Philistines reached Canaan was by land.” In the strictest sense he is correct. But consider the following Egyptian depictions and texts that attest to the remarkable carrying capacity of Late Bronze Age ships- A wall painting from an XVIIIth Dynasty tomb depicts two oxen, along with numerous other items of trade, being off-loaded from Syrian merchantmen.6 Another XVIIIth Dynasty tomb painting shows two pairs of caged oxen on board a small cargo ship.7 Royal gift exchanges between Alasûiya (Cyprus) and Egypt are recorded in the Amarna tablets; according to one, Pharaoh gave five teams of horses to the king of Alasûiya, and in another the king of Alasûiya requests from Pharaoh two horses and a chariot.8

That such transactions were even carried out is yet more evidence of the seaborne transport of large animals at this time. It is wise, then, not to underestimate the maritime capabilities of Late Bronze Age seafarers, especially if they happen to be Sea Peoples.

1. See plate I in Richard D. Barnett, “Ezekiel and Tyre,” Eretz Israel vol. 9 (1969), pp. 6–13.

2. John Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, second edition, (Cambridge- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 186–187, 431.

3. For an English translation of the text (KTU 4.40) with further bibliography, see Jacob Hoftijzer and Wilfred H. van Soldt, “Texts from Ugarit Pertaining to Seafaring,” in Shelly Wachsmann, Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant, (College Station, TX- Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1998), p. 337.

4. RS 34.129. See Hoftijzer and van Soldt, “Texts from Ugarit,” p. 343.

5. This notion is based on the theory, first formulated by the German Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann, that both the land and naval battle scenes at Medinet Habu were set in the eastern Delta; see “Die Abwehr der Seevölker unter Ramses III,” Saeculum 19.2–3 (1968), pp. 156–171.

6. See plate 8 in Norman de G. Davies and R.O. Faulkner, “A Syrian Trading Venture to Egypt,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology vol. 33 (1947), pp. 40–46.

7. See plates 132–133 in Nina de Garis Davies, The Tomb of Huy, Viceroy of Nubia in the Reign of Tut’ankhamun (Theban Tomb Series, Fourth Memoir), (London- Egypt Exploration Society, 1926).

8. For an English translation of these texts, see William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore- Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 105–107, 110–111.