Sunny Ashkelon has something for everyone. With 12 kilometers of clean and beautiful beaches stretching along Israel’s southern coast, there’s camping, swimming and water sports – and courses to learn how to do them. You can spend a day at the national park, where shady picnic and barbecue areas compete for your attention with antiquities, hiking and nature trails and spectacular ocean views.For history lovers, there’s an archeological museum, plus Philistine, Roman and Byzantine excavations and ruins in and around the city. Art lovers can browse through the galleries, attend workshops and visit artists’ homes.Ashkelon offers plenty of diversions for families, groups and those seeking to just get away for a few days. You can choose from a variety of hotels where “pampering” is the most important word in the staff’s vocabulary.
It’s one of the world’s oldest cities.Excavations prove that the first dwellers were Neolithic shepherds who stayed to butcher their flocks in season, and used sea water to preserve the meat.Then the Canaanites arrived by sea, around 1950 BCE, and settled in the region. They came with the intent and skills to build a great, fortified city. The preserved Canaanite arched gateway inside the national park attests to the city’s strategic importance as a seaport and great trading center, lying as it did along the web of coastal and land trade roads that linked Egypt and northern regions up to Mesopotamia. The watchful Canaanites built a corridor and the arched gate, with high ramparts around, ca.1850 BCE. It was a fortification against the conquest-hungry Egyptians.Merchant ships loaded with goods anchored in the harbor. The traders, either goading donkeys or carrying heavy packs themselves, trudged uphill from the beach, arriving at the city ramparts and passing through the north gate to reach the bustling market.Canaanite Ashkelon was crowded, with 15,000 people living inside the city walls. As agriculture alone couldn’t support the population, many lived on commerce. Local olives, olive oil, wine and fabrics were exported all over the Levant from there. Dyers’ workshops processing sea snails dotted the beach, making expensive green, royal blue, crimson and purple dyes. Spices, jewelry, henna, cattle, the famous Ashkelon onions, and undoubtedly slaves were bought and sold. Hoards of coins, precious metals, written receipts and scales and weights prove that a healthy market existed there. In a later epoch, the Romans imported marble for their statues.
The seafaring Philistines arrived and held the area, although often fighting Egyptian overlords for dominance. They were followed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the city destroyed for the first time. But the lure of Ashkelon’s prime trade and military location brought in turn the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Hasmoneans, the Romans and the Persians, all of whom rebuilt the city in their own styles over the centuries.Later, the Arabs destroyed Ashkelon again. The Crusaders rebuilt the city as a military base, but the Egyptian Mamelukes, conquering them, destroyed the city for the last time in 1270, fearing to leave fortifications that would tempt the warlike Christians to return. It remained in ruins, hiding layer upon layer of civilizations under sand, and was sparsely populated until Israeli independence.Today’s Ashkelon has 150,000 residents.New neighborhoods under construction are expected to attract people from the center and south of the country, expanding the population to 250,000. The municipality forecasts reasonably priced real estate, a hi-tech park, new kindergartens and schools, libraries and community centers. The traditional markets and city center are already being renovated. Efrat Tzahor, head of the Ashkelon’s tourist division, told Metro that “It’s like building a city inside a city.” Metro toured Ashkelon with the Tourism Ministry’s branch for the promotion of domestic tourism. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of attractive things to do and see in town and on the beach.For the family, Sea Park is an extensive recreational center offering lawns and shady areas for relaxing in the salty air, picnic spots and activities such as climbing walls for adults and for children, a rope park, cycling for all ages, and more.There are five beaches, including a separate one for the religious community, and a beautiful promenade. Close to the marina there’s an “escape room.”The hotels offer diversions for kids of all ages. The Ashkelon National Park, described below, provides many family activities. There are camping grounds in the National Park. The Ashkeluna water park features rides and thrills for youngsters and parents.Arts and cultureMany artists live and work in Ashkelon, and one may visit them in their homes. We visited the house of the late Ilana Shafir, best known for her astonishing mosaics. The small house is where the Shafir family lived until her death in 2014. The house and garden are festooned with small sculptures of imaginary creatures with human faces; grotesques perhaps emanating from her experiences as a Holocaust refugee. But Shafir’s mosaics are explosions of fantastic beauty, surreal celebrations of life and nature expressed in tesserae, pebbles, ceramic shards, foraged pieces and glass.Shafir taught art for many years. She also founded and directed the Ashkelon Art Center. She was a popular guest speaker at mosaic conferences in Israel and abroad, being a member of the International Association of Modern Mosaic Artists, Ravenna, Italy, and of the Society of American Mosaic Artists.The house is open to groups only, once weekly. Visitors may wander at will throughout the house, garden and Shafir’s studio, with her last mosaic in progress still lying on the worktable. A full visit will take an hour. Shafir’s son Giora, an architect, has edited several films about his mother and her work, which he screens for visitors and may also be viewed on YouTube. Find the Ilana Shafir website at www.shafirart.com.The Ashkelon Academic College, with its avant-garde architecture, houses an archeological gallery, the International Congress Center, three auditoriums and two restaurants. It offers plays, concerts, movies and more. The college is disabled- accessible and provides hearing aids. It’s located on 12 Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Street. Call (08) 678-9118 for groups. Individuals enter free.For more on visiting Ashkelon’s artists at their homes, consult the municipality’s promotional pamphlet, online in English at http://ashkelon.perfection.ws/en/#p=1.Food and boozeThere are many good restaurants and eateries in Ashkelon, especially in the Migdal pedestrian mall and around the Marina area. Many restaurants are kosher.Beer lovers can treat themselves to a tour of the Carlsberg brewery’s visitors’ center, which includes the Museum of the History of Beer, a Pub Museum, and naturally, tastings. The brewery also offers Beer Evenings, with a film about beer, a tour of the plant, dinner with free drinks and karaoke. Call (08) 674-0727 for reservations, or email visitcenter@ carlsberg.co.il. The center is disabled-friendly. Entrance only to people over 18.For wine appreciators, a wine festival featuring 25 Israeli wineries will take place on June 13 and 14 at the International Conference Center. www.convention.org.il (Hebrew). Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on 2017.Sport Water sports and sailing are prominent in Ashkelon, but there’s also a modern sports center that offers archery, wrestling and more. You’ll find a diving club and bowling alleys at the Delilah Beach Tourism Center. Ashkelon also has a tennis center.Environmental toursIf environmental issues interest (or trouble) you, take a tour of the Rutenberg electricity plant and learn how Israel’s electricity is produced. A tour of the Ashkelon Desalination Facility shows how reverse osmosis works to provide the country with sweet water from the sea.The Ashkelon National ParkOn the southern side of Ashkelon lies the extensive national park. I could have spent an entire day wandering through the park and past the scrub and salt bushes, down to the quiet, clean beach that was once a busy harbor.Walk down and up a pebbly path to the site of the Canaanite northern gate, recovered from a sandy grave by a Harvard University excavation team led by Prof. Laurence Steiger, and rebuilt by the Israel Antiquities Authority.Enjoy the spectacular sea view all around as you walk, passing the site of a shrine to Baal, a Canaanite deity in charge of storms. Travelers would have stopped there to pray, or give thanks, for a safe journey. A small, silver-plated calf representing the god was found there, giving us an idea of what its larger relative, the Golden Calf, might have looked like.Press your hand on the original clay bricks that built the gate thousands of years ago. Their rough texture under your palm brings a vivid picture to mind, of the primitive conditions and physical hardiness of the traders, sailors and locals streaming through that very ground. Pass through to where the market stood for 250 years. A few meters up and away, you’ll find a late-Roman mosaic lying on the ground, open to the elements and not even roped off. We trust that you’ll stand at its edges.There were 80 wells of fresh water in Ashkelon once. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority reconstructed some in the park, one of which draws water via the antilla system. With a couple of strong adults or some willing teenagers pulling the rope, the wheels inside will turn, a bag will fill, and a sudden gush of water will spout out. It was meant to be collected in an adjacent basin cut into the ground, for irrigating the fields behind the well. Today you can simply enjoy getting wet, old style. Close by there’s a field of shallots, retro-cultivated to the original Ashkelon onion, which was a shallot.There’s a collection of Roman marble statues, a sarcophagus, and capitals on the park grounds. There are also plenty of picnic and barbecue spots, with trees providing welcome shade and birds chasing each other in flight.The atmosphere of history and the different peoples who moved through the land is almost palpable, despite modern roads and paths that run through part of the grounds and waste baskets placed here and there.The Nature and Parks Authority offers a variety of activities for the whole family or groups, including a moonlight tour, a lamplight tour of the antiquities, a scavenger hunt and water fun at the park’s wells. Call (08) 673-6444 or email the Authority at email@example.com. The authority also has a Facebook page. The website: www.parks.org.il/sites/English/ ParksAndReserves/ashkelon