Ancient Harbors in Israel


The Mediterranean coastal region of Israel has an extended maritime history of about 4000 years. Trading, fishing and shipping activities have left an abundance of wrecked vessels, cargoes, anchorages and port installations that are threatened by marine erosion, treasure hunters and intensive coastal development. Underwater surveys and excavations revealed numerous archeological sites and artifacts that shade light on the history of seafaring, ancient navigation, technology and material culture of the coastal inhabitants. The archeological material is concentrated within a narrow strip of c.180 km long and 200 m wide close to the shoreline.


Physical Conditions

The Israeli coast is straight and gently graded with the exception of the Haifa Bay, which is open and does not provide shelter. Along the coast there are no islands or bays to provide natural shelter for watercrafts during heavy storms.

In the coastal plain there are several kurkar (sandstone) ridges running parallel to the shore. Some of these ridges are partly submerged forming small islets and discontinuous reefs at 150 to 600 m offshore. Some of these ridges may provide partial protection to anchoring vessels.

Several rivers are running east west across the coastal plain. Most of them are generally dried, except during the winter rainy seasons when they are occasionally flooded by heavy rains and their outlets tend to clog with sea born and alluvial sediments.


Typology of Port Facilities and Anchorages Along the Israeli Coast

Underwater and coastal research carried out during recent decades enabled us to classify the ports and anchorages into five main categories (Galili & Sharvit, 1991):




  1. Man-Made Built Harbors: quays, breakers, jetties, etc. These facilities were constructed most probably by the ruling authorities starting at the Persian period. Three such harbors were found at Akko, Atlit and Caesarea (see map).
  2. Proto - Harbor (3-7 m water depth): Usually the lee side of a kurkar ridge partly submerged at some distance offshore, with some man-made improvements provided a good shelter and mooring. Such anchorages were used since the Middle Bronze Age for night mooring by sea-going vessels or crafts waiting for proper sailing winds. Remains of related features were found at Caesarea, Apollonia, Yavneh Yam and Tel Ridan (see map).
  3. Deep Water Natural Anchorage (4-10 m water depth): Usually the lee side of kurkar ridges partly submerged forming small islands offshore provide a protected anchorage. This type of mooring was used as early as the Middle Bronze period. Its function was similar to Type B. Remains were found at Achziv, Atlit, Neve Yam, Dor, Ma’ agan Michael, Caesarea, Michmoret and Jaffa (see map).
  4. Shallow Water Natural Anchorage (1-4 m water depth): Suchlike anchorages are created by utilizing minor natural features found close to the coastline (bays, abrasion platforms, etc.). Associated features were common along the Israeli coast (see map), and have been used in ancient times by fishermen and lighters unloading cargoes from offshore-anchored large watercrafts. Traditional fishermen currently use such features.
  5. Open Sea Anchorage: submerged kurkar ridge, 200-600 m offshore, with its peak at least 4-12 m beneath the sea level. Feature like this provides an optimal holding ground for ancient stone anchors. Ancient watercrafts especially chose such places for anchorage in areas where no shelters or port facilities were available and the sea bottom was silty or sandy. Anchorages of this type were found in the southern coast of Israel (see map).


Some scholars suggested that rivers beyond their outlet served as inland harbors during the Bronze Age (Raban, 1985). There are other researchers who reject this assumption for reasons outlined bellow (Galili, 1986):

  1. Thus far no evidence for the existence of such river-harbor was ever detected.
  2. Hundreds of stone anchors recovered from proto-harbors and anchorages of types C, D and E suggest that these mooring basins were used during the Middle Bronze Age.
  3. Underwater and coastal investigations indicate that in general the coastal riverbeds were shallow and could not serve as inland harbors for substantial watercrafts.
  4. As mentioned previously sandbars obstruct most outlets of the coastal rivers most of the year. Unclogging those obstacles is a complex and expansive task even today and more so in antiquity.

The coast of southern Levant had been a busy sea route at least for the past five four thousand years. The shortage of natural shelters along coast and the strong winter storms were an everlasting problem. Therefore various solutions were demonstrated by ports and anchorage typology enumerated above.



Zaraza Friedman
University of Haifa Israel

Ehud Galili
Antiquities Authority
Underwater Branch


Selected Bibliography

Flemming N. C., Raban A. & Goetschel C., 1978: Tectonic and Eustatic Changes on the Mediterranean Coast in Israel in the Last 9,000 Years - Progress in Underwater Science; In: Proceedings of the Underwater Association, 5 (J. C. Gamble & R. A. York, eds.); Pentech Press, London; pp. 33-93

Flinder A., 1985: Secrets of the Bible Seas: An Underwater Archeologist in the Holy Land; Seven Houses Publishers, London

Galili E., 1986: Historical Sea Level Changes and Seafaring Along the Southeastern Mediterranean Coast; In: Cities on the Sea - Past and Present; 1st International Symposium on Harbors, Port Cities and Coastal Topography; Summaries; September 22-29, Haifa, Israel; pp. 69-73

Galili E. & Sharvit J., 1991: Classification of underwater archeological sites along the Mediterranean coast of Israel: Finds from underwater and coastal archeological research; Tracia Pontica V; Actes du Symposium International; 7-12 October, Sozopol, Bulgaria; pp. 269-296

Neev D., Bakler H. & Emery K. O., 1987: Mediterranean Coast of Israel and Sinai; Taylor & Francis, New York

Raban A., 1980: Silting and Development of Mediterranean Harbors in Antiquity; In: Oceanography: The Past (Merriman M. & Sears M., eds.); Springer, New York; pp. 750-764

------------- 1985: The Ancient Harbors of Israel in Biblical Times; In: Harbor Archeology; Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Ancient Mediterranean Harbors-Caesarea Maritime, 24-28.6.83 (Raban A., ed.); BAR International Series 257; pp. 11-44


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