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Fortress Discovered Under Water at Tel Dor Israel

Fortress Discovered Underwater at Tel Dor Israel

SYNOPSIS:An underwater Helenistic fortress from the 2nd century BC has been discovered at the site of Tel Dor on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel. The find highlights the conflicts related to the Maccabean Revolt and the rising sea levels that impact new archaeological discoveries and even the search for the sea of the Exodus.

“Your rowers have brought you out into the high seas. The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the sea.”

– Ezekiel 27:26 (ESV)

Archaeologists Fight Rising Sea Levels to Study Ancient Harbor and Fortress of a Seleucid King

A submerged harbor at the site of Tel Dor in northern Israel has begun to give up its secrets. Archaeologists searching underwater have discovered a massive fortification system built during the wars fought for the control of Israel in the 2nd century BC. The finds give insight to this turbulent period of history and provide clues that even impact the search for the miraculous sea crossing of the Exodus account.

Located about 12 miles south of Haifa, Tel Dor was on one of the few natural harbors in Israel. Researchers recently wrote of their efforts to investigate the archaeological remains in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. The team was made up of Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau and Ehud Arkin Shalev from Haifa University along with Prof. Thomas Levy of the University of California.

The investigators were frustrated by the tons of shifting sands that had inundated the bay. Matters have been complicated by the fact that though the structure once was located on the shore, sea levels have risen several feet over the last two millennia, submerging large sections of the site.

Divers originally came across three stones that had once been part of a small wall. ”When we started excavating, we saw that these three stones were actually standing on a huge amount of neatly hewn stones,” said Prof. Yasur-Landau according to Haaretz. Based on the style and makeup of the walls, they linked the structure to building techniques from the Hellenistic period (the phase of Mediterranean history between the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, and the emergence of the Roman Empire).

Aerials of Tel Dor from Samuel Magal on Vimeo.

According to the article in Ancient Origins about the Hellenistic Fort, the fortification is about 20 meters (65 feet) from shore and lies about 6 feet under the surface of the sea. The structure once stood two stories high and covered an area of more than 60 by 120 feet. Much of the upper story is lost due to the battering of waves over the centuries. Post holes in some of the stones cause the researchers to propose that they were used for wooden beams to unload ships and that platforms supporting catapults may also have been installed.

According to the article in Ancient Origins about the Hellenistic Fort, the fortification is about 20 meters (65 feet) from shore and lies about 6 feet under the surface of the sea. The structure once stood two stories high and covered an area of more than 60 by 120 feet. Much of the upper story is lost due to the battering of waves over the centuries. Post holes in some of the stones cause the researchers to propose that they were used for wooden beams to unload ships and that platforms supporting catapults may also have been installed.

A Timeline of Israel Between the Testaments

This defensive structure was once part of a coastal defense network. The era of the finds and historical sources tie the construction of the fortifications to a well-documented period of strife around 150 BC; the prime suspect being Tryphone, a Seleucid (Greek) king during the era of the famous Maccabean revolt when the Jewish Hasmoneans were fighting the Greeks over the control of the land of Israel.

The following timeline gives context to these events:

  • 586/587 BC: Defeat of Judah and the destruction of the 1st Temple and most of Jerusalem, with much of the prominent population deported to Babylon.
  • 539-332 BC: After defeating the Babylonian empire, Persia gains control of Israel beginning with Cyrus the Great who allows a Jewish presence to return to Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
  • 332 BC: Alexander the Great takes control of the land of Israel after the successful siege of the city of Tyre. In a campaign lasting six short years, he defeats and occupies the entire Persian Empire.
  • 301 BC: After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, his Hellenistic (Greek) empire is divided between his generals. After decades of conflict with the control of Israel going back and forth between different factions, Israel joins Egypt and Libya as part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 301, with the Seleucid Empire controlling Syria and vast areas to the north and east.
  • 200: BC Land of Israel passes from Ptolemaic to Seleucid control.
  • 175 BC: Antiochus IV Epiphanes becomes King of the Seleucid Empire. He increases persecutions and efforts to eradicate the Jewish religion by replacing the high priest, massacring Jews, outlawing the Sabbath and circumcision, and erecting an altar to Zeus in Jerusalem’s Temple where he sacrifices a pig.
  • 167 -160 BC: The Maccabean revolt, where the Jews contest for control of Israel. As related by the historian Josephus and 1 Maccabees 2:15-32 (a historical book that is not part of the canonized Hebrew Bible), the revolt began when Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and father of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, was ordered to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods; he refused, killed a Jewish priest who stepped forward to obey the command as well as the government official who ordered the act. This sparked the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus where Jewish forces were successful in liberating and rededicating the Temple. The events of the war are celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah.
  • 160 BC: The Seleucids gain back control of Jerusalem and most of Israel after Judas Maccabeus is killed and his forces defeated.
  • 140-63 BC: The Hasmonean Kingdom and the independence of a Jewish state in Israel after more than 400 years. The brothers of Judas Maccabeus had continued their resistance after his death and then formed the Hasmonean Dynasty. According to Wikipedia, the Hasmonean Dynasty ruled semi-autonomously from the Seleucids from 140-113 BC and afterward became independent when the Seleucid Empire began to crumble under the pressure from the Romans and the Parthians.
  • 63 BC: Rome invades Israel and controls the subjected Hasmonean Dynasty.
  • 37 BC: The Hasmoneans are completely removed as Herod the Great begins the Herodian Dynasty in Israel, under the control of Rome.
  • 19 BC: Herod the Great begins a massive upgrade of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, making it one of the wonders of the world.

The Seleucid King Tryphon

Coin depicting the Seleucid king Tryphon
A coin depicting the Seleucid king Tryphon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dor was fortified by Diodotus Tryphon who declared himself a Seleucid king after he revolted beginning in 145 BC. In a series of shifting alliances and political maneuvering, he first gained control of much of the empire and then lost it. The fortress at Tel Dor was constructed to solidify his position.

Archaeologists had long known of the northern wall, much of its ruins existing on land. The newly submerged walls and fortress appear to have been a first line of defense with the northern wall as the second line defending the inner city. The finds are increasing the knowledge of scholars regarding military fortifications and strategies and also the impact of rising sea levels at sites across the world.

Tryphon had to fight both rival Seleucid kings and Jewish Hasmonean forces after he betrayed the Jews by offering them an alliance. When their leader Jonathan showed up with only a small army they were wiped out and Jonathan held for ransom before being executed.

Tryphon was defeated at Dor in 140 BC, and he fled to another location where he was either killed or committed suicide in 138 BC.

Sea Levels and the Location of the Miracle at the Sea

Lennart Moller diving at the Red Sea
Lennart Moller diving at the Red Sea. (© 2013, Patterns of Evidence LLC.)

Underwater archaeology is increasingly finding new submerged sites around the world, including a harbor built on the Red Sea by the Old Kingdom Egyptian King Cheops as much as 4,600 years ago. However, there is much more to explore if resources were available.

“Under the sea is probably the world’s biggest museum,” said James P. Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology based in Texas in a Smithsonian magazine article titled Ancient Cities Lost to the Seas. “There’s not a lot of work going on in this area right now, however. The issues are time, money, interest, and research. Just to do a single shipwreck can take years…. Underwater archaeology costs 10 times more to dig.”

The lands of the Exodus map
The lands of the Exodus. (© 2014, Patterns of Evidence LLC.)

This reality impacts the search for the sea of the Exodus. Many in the past have proposed areas for the crossing site that are land now, but (they claim) were once were covered by the sea. The thinking was that if areas north of the current shoreline of the Gulf of Suez or some parts of the Nile Delta border were covered by water, this would open up whole new possibilities for Exodus sea crossing sites.

In reality, though determining exact sea levels is complicated, a survey of many studies shows that sea levels were about 3-6 feet lower at the time of the Exodus than they are today. This means these proposed crossing sites were actually higher and drier 3,500 years ago than they are today, not covered by an inundation of the sea.

Other factors can also affect the level of the shoreline in some locations, such as land rising or falling due to geological forces. At the Nile delta, the land has steadily been expanding into the sea due to thousands of years of silt being pushed down the Nile River. Some areas that are now on the shoreline were 20 miles out to sea at the time of the Exodus. The immense weight of the silting is actually contributing to the sinking of the land in the northern part of the delta.

The combination of the Nile Delta expanding, the land being higher and the sea being lower means that Lake Menzaleh on the northeast side of the Delta did not exist at the time of the Exodus. Yet this site is favored by some for the sea crossing miracle of Exodus.

This is one of the issues that will be covered in our next film Patterns of Evidence: The Red Sea Miracle. All the major proposals will be examined to see what patterns of evidence emerge for any of the options. – Keep Thinking!

TOP PHOTO: The Tel Dor archaeological site on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. (Wikimedia Commons)

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