Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Archeology



First Samuel 17: 2     

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Everyone knows the end result of that contest in the Elah Valley.  Armed with a sling and a stone, David was the undisputed champion, while Goliath lost his head.  When the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled for their lives.  Then verse 52 states, "The troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron."

Biblical Gath, Goliath's hometown

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Biblical Gath (Tel es-Safi), Goliath's hometown

Since I became a guide over three decades ago, Ekron and Gath have been identified without a doubt.  But just very recently, Shaaraim (pronounced shah-are-RYE-yeem) has been located.  Not without a doubt – that will take time until the scholars hash out the evidence – but it's very likely.
In the meantime the site is known by its Arabic name, Khirbet Kheiyafa.  (It's sometimes called in English "Elah Fortress.")  Because of the dating of its pottery, to the tenth century BC, Khirbet Kheiyafa has stirred up a lot of controversy among biblical scholars and archeologists about the extent of the kingdom of David.

Map of the Elah Valley showing Khirbet Kheiyafa, Azekah, Socoh, Gath and Bethlehem

Adapted from Bible Mapper by itsGila

The Elah Valley runs between Khirbet Kheiyafa and Azekah, Socoh & Adullam


My friend Elie and I had tried to find the site two years ago while we were also searching for the Cave of Adullam.  (We found the cave!  At least we think we did…) But Elie's car broke down before we had finished checking out all our hunches about where Khirbet Kheiyafa might be.

We decided to try again. While guiding at the summit of Azekah, the Philistine stronghold, Elie noticed a path across the Elah Valley leading up to a ridge with excavations on top.  So early one Shabbat summer morning we drove in Elie's wannabe 4 x 4 along a stony dirt road peppered with home-made signs saying
Khirbet Kheiyafa.


Socoh and the Hebron Hills as seen from Khirbet Kheiyafa

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Across from Khirbet Kheiyafa, the rounded hill in the center is Socoh

The beginning of the Hebron Hills can be seen in the distance to the left

Neither of us had ever been there, so we didn't exactly know what to look for where. All we knew is that Shaaraim means "two gates" in Hebrew and that the excavator Yossi Garfinkel claimed to have found two gates, one in the west and one in the south.  So we took out our new iPhones, tested the compass feature and voila, we found the two gates!

Western gale of Shaaraim with Azekah in the background

Photo:  Elie Ben Meir

Western city gate of "Shaaraim" -- Azekah with the trees is on the right

The sun got stronger, so we climbed into a "no entry" antiquities zone for some shade.  We made ourselves comfortable on some boulders as I read aloud a 12-page article about Khirbet Kheiyafa I had clipped from a newspaper.  We brainstormed theories about the scope of David's kingdom and laughed over some funny comments about the rivalry between Tel Aviv and Hebrew University departments of archeology.
We realized from the article that we had missed the newly discovered cultic area (announced in May 2012 with five standing stones, two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines).  But we couldn't figure out where that
area was.  We knew we'd be back....

Southern gate of Shaaraim with the Elah Valley below

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Southern city gate of "Shaaraim" -- the Elah Valley sits below

It was time to go and just as we finished climbing over the fence out of the "no entry" area, we were startled to encounter a group of very nicely dressed elderly Israelis.  (Some of the guys were even wearing white button down shirts – in this super dusty place!).  They had a guide and Elie and I spontaneously decided to join the tour.  (Now when I'm guiding, I call people who join without permission 'infiltrators'!)
Well, the guide was none other than the chief excavator himself, Yossi Garfinkel.  He led the group to the western gate and as he stood in the tenth century BC threshold, he recounted the story of David coming down from Bethlehem armed with dried grain, ten loaves and some cheeses.  I had always thought that this detail meant that all the fighters were responsible for providing their own supplies which hints at the fact that Saul's army was not that well organized or efficient in terms of logistics.
But Yossi noted that the cheeses were meant for the officers commanding David's older brothers.  It's in the text, but I had missed it during my hundreds of readings. 
I found myself wondering what it meant -- would these cheeses give the brothers better weapons, a better position in the battle line-up, or better sleeping accommodations on the hard rocky ground?
As we looked down into the valley below, Yossi said, "This city is the sentry of the kingdom of Judah.  The Elah Valley is the route that leads from the coastal plain to the hill region.  On one side, in the plain, you have the five Philistine cities and on the other side, to the east, the kingdom of Judah is taking shape."

The excavator estimates 500 to 600 people lived in the fortress city

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Archeologist Garfinkel estimates 500 to 600 people lived in the city

Yossi went on to discuss the evidence that the site was Israelite.  He pointed out the casemate (double) wall which is similar to the casemate wall of Israelite Beersheba and mentioned the fact that no pig bones were found at the site.  (The Philistines were known to gorge themselves on ham sandwiches and pork chops.  Only partially kidding – the Philistines did indeed eat pork, whereas the Israelites and Canaanites
did not.)

Khirbet Kheiyafa excavations at the end of the 2012 season

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Excavations at Khirbet Kheiyafa (Shaaraim?) at the end of the 2012 season

Another intriguing Khirbet Kheiyafa controversy rages around an inscribed ostracon (potsherd) found by Yossi and his team at the site.  They claim it's the oldest Hebrew inscription found until now. Not all scholars agree. Stay tuned.
if Khirbet Kheiyafa is indeed proved to be Shaaraim, then we have a vital clue pointing to the true site of David's battle against Goliath.  Come with me to the Elah Valley and you will see with your own eyes!

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"Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights"

Gila Yudkin calls herself a Connecticut Yankee living in King David's court.  For over three decades she has been reenacting David's contest with Goliath when visiting the Elah Valley with her groups.  She even divides the group into Israelites and Philistines with each team creating its own war chant.  Her tours are a mix of archeology, geography, Bible and fun.
Late 19th century explorers Bliss and Macalister didn't have iPhones for compass directions, weather reports or breaking news, but they did identify Philistine strongholds of Azekah and Gath.  Read more about them.
Not everyone who visits the holy land has the time to make an excursion to the Elah Valley.  And only a fraction of those who do, ever come close to the authentic battlefield.  If this is your heart's desire, then book Gila for your next holy land tour!
In Jerusalem David bought the threshing ground of Aruna and planned the building of the Temple.  Tour the Temple Mount in the company of David and Solomon and your iPhone.  For more info check out Gila's Temple Mount audio tour.
"Let's identify yet another biblical site in the Elah Valley (as text without the photos) is one in the series of free quarterly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights" please contact Gila. 

Copyright  2012  Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

More on archeology and the Biblical narrative:
Let's look for the clay tablet treasure at Hazor

Let's follow Abraham all the way to DAN

Let's visit Gezer, Solomon's wedding gift

Joshua / Hazor

Abraham / Dan

Solomon's dowry / Gezer





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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin