Amazing Ashdod

The historical southern city is rapidly growing and tourist friendly.

The sea gate in Ashdod (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The sea gate in Ashdod
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When cruise ships dock at Ashdod Port, and passengers disembark for a look at Israel’s fifth-largest city, their first stop is often Givat Yona (Jonah’s Hill). For it is on Givat Yona, today the site of a delightful overlook, that the prophet Jonah was buried over 2,700 years ago.
True, tradition places his burial site both in Jaffa and the Galilee. But it is only in Ashdod that a tomb many hundreds of years old, and inscribed with the words “Yunis the Prophet is buried here,” was discovered. (Unfortunately, in the early 1960s a group of Jerusalemites destroyed the tomb. They replaced it with a plaque that reads: “Yona [Jonah] son of Amitai, prophet,” which is now the shady overlook’s main feature.)
You too can start a tour of rapidly growing, tourist-friendly Ashdod at Givat Yona. From there, move on to a wonderfully preserved citadel; a burial site nearly 2,000 years old; the city’s newly renovated Museum of Philistine Culture; and, of course, the beach. Along the way, you will encounter dozens of striking sculptures and drive past or stroll along a lovely and innovative promenade.
Begin at the junction of Jabotinsky Street and Yair Street and park at the parking lot above the Ilanot School. Climb the low “Yaffa’s Hill” (see the nearby statue), and stand under a pergola for a view of the sea below. Then ascend (many) steps to the overlook on Givat Yona, an archeological mound consisting of both sea limestone rock and man-made remains.
At 53 meters above sea level, Givat Yona is the highest hill in the whole coastal strip. You are standing right above the Lachish River where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea, with a view of the Jewish National Fund’s Lachish-Ashdod Park. From here, on a clear day, you can see the ridges of the Judean Hills, the plains, and, of course, the coastline.
According to archeologist Saar Ganor, district director for the Antiquities Authority and our guide on our visit to Ashdod, Givat Yona has always been considered a strategic site. That’s because the Via Maris – the ancient Way of the Sea – passed right below, following the line of the sand dunes. Basically today’s Route 4, the Via Maris took merchants south to Gaza and from there to Egypt, north into Megiddo and Tyre (in today’s Lebanon), and east through Israel to Syria and Mesopotamia.
The fact that the coastline doesn’t have a single natural bay posed a serious problem for traders. So captains would anchor their ships as close to land as they could and send little boats filled with merchandise to shore.
During the Mandate era, British soldiers living in tents camped out on the shores below. Their mission was clear: to prevent Jews – refugees and Holocaust survivors – from landing in Palestine.
The red-and-white lighthouse was built together with the port in the early 1960s and can be seen from a distance of 17 kilometers. After its construction, Ashdod Port became far more important than the port in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and was big enough even to handle the Queen Elizabeth II, which operated from 1969 to 2008 and was the largest ship in the world.
Ashdod was populated by Canaanites even before the Philistines arrived on the scene, but not much is known of their history. The Philistines occupied an area near today’s Ad Halom Junction to the southeast of the “port,” today known as Tel Ashdod. The Israelites settling the land were unable to conquer Ashdod – or any of the other Philistine cities.
Strife between the two civilizations was constant, and Ashdod is mentioned over a dozen times in the Bible. One reference talks about the giants who lived in Ashdod (“only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, did some remain” [Joshua 11:22]).
Another speaks of the crucial fact that after capturing the Holy Ark in battle, the Philistines brought it to Ashdod.
As you begin descending Jonah’s Hill, look left to see remains of a small defensive fortress uncovered during development of the overlook. The fortress dates back to the ninth or eighth century BCE.
That would be just about the time that Jonah was swallowed by a fish and then was “vomited” onto dry land. Ganor reflects that all kinds of artifacts from Jonah’s time were discovered nearby – so who knows? Back in your vehicle, head for Hatayelet (Promenade) Street, which turns into Moshe Dayan Boulevard. You will pass an amphitheater (on your left) topped by a large, creative and wheelchair- accessible park, then stop at the Struma Monument Plaza on your right.
It features an 8-meter-tall bronze sculpture commemorating the disaster that befell two World War II vessels – the Struma and the Mefkura – carrying Romanian Jewish refugees.
The shaky Struma was torpedoed by a Soviet ship and sank in the Black sea on February 24, 1942; the schooner Mefkura suffered the same fate two-and-a-half years later. Over 1,000 refugees from Romania were killed, while only six survived.
Pass Alliance Square, and at the sign for the Metzuda (fortress/citadel) turn toward the beach. As you approach you will see vast patches of green and brown.
These conceal masses of sand dunes covering Ashdod Yam (Ashdod of the Sea), which existed at the same time as Tel Ashdod. Indeed, there were many ties between the Philistines’ seaside town and inland city, with Ashdod Yam hosting a port of trade. There were even times when Ashdod Yam became the bigger and more important of the two Philistine settlements.
But it was during the Roman and Byzantine eras that Ashdod Yam really came into its own. Indeed, until the Muslim conquest of Israel in 638, Ashdod Yam was filled with churches and splendid colonnaded streets.
Park and walk into the citadel. Called Minat al-Kal’a (port castle), the citadel reaches a height of eight meters and covers a quarter hectare. It was constructed by none other than Caliph Abd al-Malik, who erected Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in 691. Because it was covered over with sand for centuries and thus beautifully preserved, you barely have to use your imagination when you explore its interior.
Minat al-Kal’a was only one of a series of fortresses in the Muslim coastal defensive line, for the Muslims were not known for their seamanship. Smoke signals and beacons were used for communication among the citadels, and when they warned that enemy ships were approaching, soldiers from the cities joined those on the shore in defending the port.
Of all their enemies, the Byzantines – intent on winning back their empire – were the worst. Many a Muslim was taken prisoner in battle.
One of the citadel’s two gates opens to the sea, and if you look carefully you will discover its marble threshold. The other gate faced dry land and featured a wide moat and a drawbridge. It was blocked off near the end of the Muslim period.
There are eight towers in the fortress, half of them round and the rest square.
You can climb staircases on both the beach side and that facing inland, and from the top get a stunning view of the fortress interior. Explore the rooms that surround the central courtyard. Some experts believe that people slept in the rooms you see on one side, and animals on the other. Look for the cistern, which was fed by clay pipes in the walls that collected water from the rooftops.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Crusaders conquered Ashdod. They took over the citadel until the Mameluke conquest in the 13th century. Afterward, Ashdod Yam was abandoned – and covered in sand. These days, aside from visitors exploring the citadel, the site is regularly used by brides and grooms for their pre-ceremony photos.
Your next stop is along the promenade.
To get there, you can walk south for 15 or 20 minutes atop the sand dunes to reach the site (especially if you are here in winter and spring, when they are full of flowers and you may spot a gazelle or two). Alternatively, stroll the promenade for a kilometer and a half, or continue driving along Moshe Dayan Boulevard.
Near your next attraction – family tombs – brightly colored drawings line the promenade. Remarkably free of graffiti, the promenade here also features benches under shady trees, stone sunbathing divans and even a spot with kick-boxing equipment! Discovered a few years ago after Ganor noticed something interesting sticking up out of the ground, the family graves were excavated and preserved in situ.
Last year, after much preparation, they were opened for public viewing complete with one of the city’s new archeological signposts and a wheelchair-accessible path.
Ganor explained that it is impossible to build burial caves along our southern coast. So, long ago, poor people were laid to rest in the sand; if you were better off, you built a family mausoleum in the dunes. Here you see two family tombs.
The one closer to the sea dates back to the Roman era and features three vaulted graves and a rolling stone, while the second is Byzantine.
To reach the last attraction on this suggested tour, backtrack on Moshe Dayan Boulevard, turn right on Yerushalayim Avenue and head left on Hashayatim Street. Park next to the big Maccabi Health Fund building, and signs will lead you to the Museum of Philistine Culture.
Originally built as a community center, the museum had its start 20 years ago, when city fathers decided to display an exhibition on the history of Ashdod.
But, obviously, you can’t put thousands of years of history into one small building.
So it became a museum about Ashdod’s most influential population: the Philistines.
Last year, with the help of archeologist/ curator Galit Litani, the museum was revitalized. Litani’s emphasis was on the people who lived in Ashdod and less on the historical events that took place.
“When people hear the word “Philistine,” their first thought is “fierce,” “conqueror” or “enemy,” she says. “But as both archeologist and curator, I have to ask: Why did they come here? What did they eat? How did they live and why did they leave such a deep impression on Israel’s historical memory? Simply put: What was their story?” And what you learn, while exploring this museum, is this: The Philistines came to this region looking for a place where they could raise their children.
Litani sees exhibits as performances, where you take findings – facts from the field – and turn them into a story for an audience. The Philistine story begins at the end of 13th century BCE, when chaos reigned in the Middle East.
Through drawings and animation, the museum tries to help you observe “not with what you already know, but with your heart,” she remarks. “They help the visitor see how similar cultures are to one another and to realize that the Philistine story was closer to ours than you would think.”
Displays are lively, exciting and often hands-on. My favorite – and I don’t want to spoil the surprise – has to do with Samson! A temporary exhibit on the museum’s bottom floor, curated by Yael Wiesel, explores modern Ashdod which, notes Litani, is a true “gathering of the exiles” and populated by 99 ethnic groups. Currently on view: items from the kitchens of seven different Ashdod cultures, and the tales that go along with them. They include a matza-hole-maker, a special oatmeal spoon for children, an Ethiopian coffeemaker and a nostalgia corner.
Don’t leave Ashdod without taking advantage of one of the city’s seven beaches.
Each has been awarded the “blue flag” granted to communities that have met strict environmental criteria, including bathing-water quality and proper sewage treatment. Facilities and parking are free!
The museum is open seven days a week and is wheelchair-accessible. Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Monday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.