June 6, 2006

Diving into history in King Herod’s harbor

By Corinne Heller

CAESAREA, Israel (Reuters) - 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

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.


The Romans conquered Caesarea in 63 BC. King Herod named
the port city in 22 BC to honor his patron Caesar Augustus and
commissioned the building of the harbor, as well as other major
projects, the remains of which are now on display.

The city later became the Roman provincial capital of
Judea, a region which now encompasses Israel and the
Palestinian territories.

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


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.