Monday, January 12, 2009

Putting the Ash in Ashkenaziss

The cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, in the news recently due to the rockets falling on them, are close to one another and have similar names. Is this just a coincidence?

There is one other place name, originally from Tanach, which resembles Ashkelon and Ashdod: Ashkenaz. The Biblical Ashkenaz is almost certainly NOT France/Germany, the medieval meaning from which our word "Ashkenazi" comes. In Breishit 10:3 Ashkenaz is mentioned as one of the peoples descended from Noah after the flood, and a close relation of Yavan (Greece). Verse 10:5 might mean that Ashkenaz, like Yavan, lived on "islands". In any case, it seems like the Biblical Ashkenaz was at some place in the eastern Mediterranean region that was mainly accessed from Israel by sea.

In the Bible, Ashkelon and Ashdod were two of the five main Philistine cities. It is known (see Amos 9:7 and archeological sources) that the Philistines descend from the "Sea Peoples" who came by boat across the Mediterranean and conquered part of Canaan about the time the Jews were leaving Egypt. It's entirely possible that Ashkelon and Ashdod were either founded and named, or conquered and renamed, by the Philistines.

If so, the names they gave them are fascinating. For the Philistines came from the Greek islands or nearby - exactly where Ashkenaz is located - and then they started giving cities names like Ashkelon and Ashdod. Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ashkenaz - if one nation uses all of these names, then there is likely a common element between them.

A disproportionate number of Biblical Hebrew place names start with the word "Beit". This is to be expected since "beit" means "house of" or "place of" so it is a very logical first half of a place name. Similarly, many place names names start with "be'er". It seems from the above discussion that many Philistine place names start with "Ash". In the original Philistine language, whatever it was, I suspect that the word "ash" meant either "house", "town", "well", or a similar word. Then "kelon", "kenaz", "dod" would all be suffixes attached to the common prefix, "ash".

I can't help noticing that "dod" in particular resembles "Dodanim", the name of a Greek people mentioned in Breishit 10:4 who might have been another ancestor of the Philistines. Let me then go out on a limb and predict that the name Ashdod, "Ash"-"dod", can be translated to English as "Town of the Dod-ites."

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