Erich Lessing

A sleek hunting dog, from the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, approximates the size and shape of the dogs buried at Ashkelon. The dramatic scene is part of a series depicting Alexander the Great and the client-king of Phoenicia engaging in a hunt and is now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

The dogs—whose closest modern counterpart is the Bedouin sheepdog known as the Palestinian pariah dog—died of natural causes, were of medium height and build and had a mortality profile (60 to 70 per cent of them were puppies) similar to urban dog populations today. The dogs, therefore, were not sacrificed as part of a ritual, nor were they eaten. Excavators puzzled over why the people of Persian-period Ashkelon would have gone to such lengths to bury so many ordinary-seeming dogs. Author Stager suggests the dogs were part of a healing cult, perhaps associated with the Phoenician god Resheph-Mukol. This or a similar cult led Deuteronomy 23:18 to declare: “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog [paid for healing services] into the house of the Lord your god in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.”