Friday, June 09, 2006

 

Diving into history in King Herod's harbor

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Washington Post
By Corinne Heller
June 06, 2006


CAESAREA, Israel - Above the glistening waves off the shores of the Israeli city of Caesarea, a group of scuba divers suit up to begin their descent into history.

As they slowly sink underwater, the light disperses to reveal remnants of what experts say was one of the biggest and most sophisticated sea ports of the Roman Empire.

After around 2,000 years, the ancient harbor is again open for business. The tourism business, that is.

Israeli and North American archeologists discovered the ruins some 40 years ago and, since last year, have worked to preserve the remnants, some of which once rested above the surface, to create Israel's first underwater archeological museum.

Metal poles with numbered signs mark 36 exhibits lying about 20 feet below the Mediterranean's surface over an area of 783,000 square feet.

Among the artifacts are remains of a sunken Roman vessel, giant anchors, loading piers, marble and granite columns and an ancient breakwater.

With waterproof maps and an instructor to guide them, scuba divers can maneuver through the larger artifacts by following ropes tied between the poles placed in the sea bed. Snorkelers can view remnants found in more shallow waters.

A ticket costs 12 shekels (about $2.50), not including the rental of equipment.

"The visibility was low but that just made it more dramatic," said Boaz Gross, a 22-year-old student. "You feel like you're in an ancient atmosphere and you feel the depth of the history of the place."

However, Yossi Kwart, a 25-year-old student, said strong currents put a damper on his dive.

"The fact that the dive was very difficult took away from some of the fun," he said.

After around 2,000 years, the ancient harbor is again open for business. The tourism business, that is.

Israeli and North American archeologists discovered the ruins some 40 years ago and, since last year, have worked to preserve the remnants, some of which once rested above the surface, to create Israel's first underwater archeological museum.

Metal poles with numbered signs mark 36 exhibits lying about 20 feet below the Mediterranean's surface over an area of 783,000 square feet.

Among the artifacts are remains of a sunken Roman vessel, giant anchors, loading piers, marble and granite columns and an ancient breakwater.

With waterproof maps and an instructor to guide them, scuba divers can maneuver through the larger artifacts by following ropes tied between the poles placed in the sea bed. Snorkelers can view remnants found in more shallow waters.

A ticket costs 12 shekels (about $2.50), not including the rental of equipment.

"The visibility was low but that just made it more dramatic," said Boaz Gross, a 22-year-old student. "You feel like you're in an ancient atmosphere and you feel the depth of the history of the place."

However, Yossi Kwart, a 25-year-old student, said strong currents put a damper on his dive.

"The fact that the dive was very difficult took away from some of the fun," he said.

Sarah Arenson, a maritime historian involved in the project, said the ancient harbor first opened in 10 BC and served for more than a century as the main gateway for goods such as exotic spices, textiles, dyes and cosmetics shipped to the Roman Empire from places as distant as the Far East.

"It probably overshadowed the old and very important ports of the eastern Mediterranean," Arenson said. "Caesarea eclipsed these old famous harbors in economic importance and splendor."

The port's architecture was also among the most sophisticated in the known world at the time, she said.

The materials used included marble, granite and wood, as well as an innovative ingredient at the time -- pozzolana, a kind of cement made from volcanic ash imported from Italy.

"Augustus marked the start of the 'Vox Romana', the unique political and economic entity that was the Roman Empire at the time," Arenson said, adding that after a Jewish rebellion from 66-70 AD, business in Judea declined and the port was less prosperous.

INNOVATIVE CONSTRUCTION
Archeologists were surprised to discover that the harbor was built in only 12 years, Arenson said.

"Even today, building a harbor this size would (take) about the same time," she said. "To think (Herod) did it with his technology in that time; it probably required many thousands of people working in coordination."

Experts believe workers built artificial islands from which they could later drop blocks onto the sea floor to create a solid platform for the port's breakwater.

A minor wall was constructed around the main breakwater to protect it during construction -- a tactic Herod used in the building of Jerusalem's Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Many experts believe the port's foundations were eventually smashed by erosion from earthquakes in a region that lies on a major fault-line. Others blame tidal waves.

Several countries boast underwater archeological exhibits, like a palace in Egypt's Alexandria, which historians believe was used by Cleopatra. Arenson said the Caesarea project is the world's first public underwater sea port exhibit.

Avi Baz, a diving instructor, said hundreds of people had already visited the underwater exhibit, a 40- to 50-minute dive. He predicts numbers will only grow.

"Divers in general have a tendency to look for new sites, new adventures, new thrills," he said.


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