Ancient Trench Warfare on the Landscape

Source:, Louvre Museum

In Deuteronomy 11, Moses tells Israel what they will be required to do once they have entered the land of Canaan to capture it. “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses. As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal. You are about to cross the Jordan to enter and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you. When you have taken it over and are living there, be sure that you obey all the decrees and laws I am setting before you today.”

In the Bible, the Canaanites were just one of the nations that Israel was expected to defeat when they captured the land. Similarly, in 2 Kings, when Aram attacked the land, the Israelites were but one of the entities they were seeking to defeat. Another group was the Philistines.

The Philistines were centered in the southwestern corner of the land of Canaan. The Philistine Pentapolis of five major cities included the cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. These cities ran along the trade route to Egypt and to the north, with ports that could transport shipped goods into the interior. As such the area would be attractive to an invader.

In the 9th century BCE, the largest and most powerful of these cities was Gath, which has been determined to have been at the site of today’s Tell es-Safi.

In 2 Kings 12, after defeating the Israelites, the Aramean king turned his attention from the Kingdom of Israel to the Philistines. “About this time Hazael king of Aram went up and attacked Gath and captured it.”

How Aram fought the Philistines is hinted at on an archaeological artifact and on the landscape.

The Stele of Zakkur is a monument that was created by King Zakkur of Hamath and Luhuti in Syria in the early 8th century BCE. In the stele, Zakkur records that “Bar-Hadad, son of Hazael, king of Aram, united against me seventeen kings . . .all these kings laid siege to Hazrach.” But the god “Baalshamayn” told King Zakkur not to be afraid, and he triumphed.

What the stele shows is that the Aramean method of attacking a city would be to lay siege to it.

Gath has a significant destruction layer that appears to have occurred in the latter part of the 9th century BCE. Moreover, after this destruction layer the city never returned to its former size, permanently diminished as a Philistine center after the invasion.

Along with the destruction layer, archaeologists identified a 1.5 mile long trench that extends around three sides of the ancient city. This appears to have been a siege trench dug to encircle the city and prevent an escape or attack by the besieged.

The destruction layer at the end of the 9th BCE is potential evidence of an Aramean invasion, and the siege trench, similar to that which is described in the Stele of Zakkur, may have been the method by which the Arameans defeated the city of Gath.

The Stele of Zakkur is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.