Hellenistic fortress linked to biblical battles discovered off Israeli coast

If there’s anything from the Bible that archaeologists can prove actually happened historically, it’s the battles that are described in often vivid detail. And now they have found a fortress where some of those bloody battles occurred off the coast of Israel.

In the Books of the Maccabees, three kings known as Diodotus Tryphon, Demetrius, and Jonathan Apphus vie for control of Israel. Tryphon lures Jonathan into a trap after inviting him to negotiate a peace. Tryphon and his army slaughter the 1,000 troops Jonathan brought and held him hostage until he eventually had him executed.

With Jonathan dispatched, Tryphon moved to take down Demetrius. The Parthians beat him to it, and Tryphon couldn’t seize the territory because Demetrius’ widow cleverly married another powerful ruler named Antiochus VII to protect the kingdom.

In the end, Jonathan’s successor, Simon, joins Antiochus and chases Tryphon and his dwindling forces down and traps him in the coastal fortifications at Dor. Tryphon barely escapes with nothing but his life and flees to Apamea. While there, he is put to death or commits suicide depending on the interpretation of the text.

This all occurred between 145-138 BC, which makes it even more amazing that researchers actually found the site of Dor, which had been a mystery for nearly two millennia.

It turns out that sea-level rise was a problem then, just as it is today. As the seas rose, the fortress at Dor was lost under the ocean and remains there.

But due to the efforts of University of Haifa professors Assaf Yasur-Landau and Ehud Arkin Shalev and University of California professor Thomas Levy, the site has been discovered.

According to their paper in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology:

Tel Dor overlooks the eastern Mediterranean on the southern Levantine coastline of Israel. Underwater surveys and a coastal excavation in the North Bay of Dor have produced evidence of an anchorage at the 4th–7th century CE Byzantine city of Dora. The existence of such an anchorage at the northwestern extremity of the city had been contemplated in the past.

Harretz described the finding in their report:

The fortification is about 20 meters from the shore and two meters underwater. When it was built, the sea level was about a meter lower than it is today, so the base of the structure still stood about a meter underwater. It rose to a height of at least two stories, and was 20 by 40 meters.

Indentations had been carved in some of the stones, possibly for the insertion of wooden beams to be used to unload ships. Yasur-Landau speculates that a catapult may have stood on this fortification, overlooking the port and capable of sinking enemy ships.

Despite the fortification’s massive size, it apparently only helped guard the port for a few decades, before collapsing into the sea due to storms and lack of upkeep.

“The Hellenists are known for their habit of building white elephants that don’t endure,” Yasu-Landau says. “The sense is that Dor only managed to maintain the fortification for a short time.”

And when one of these “white elephants” are found, it’s a very rare and satisfying achievement, especially if the sands beneath the waves don’t shift too much.

“You work an entire day and if you’re lucky, when you come back the next day you can continue,” Yasur-Landau says. “If you’re unlucky, you find a lot more sand than when you started. At first, we saw three dressed stones, standing in a row. We said there must be a small wall there, we’ll have to come back and excavate it. When we started excavating, we saw that these three stones were actually standing on a huge amount of neatly hewn stones.”

The fantastic find helps gives scholars a better understanding of Hellenistic warfare and defenses. This coastal fortress featured two walls, an outer wall, and an inner wall. Soldiers that made it through the outer wall were doomed to be slaughtered in a kill-zone between the two walls. Many artifacts such as coins and projectiles have been found, giving us a picture of how soldiers lived and fought at the time.

The site also serves as a warning about rising sea-levels, which we are experiencing today. If a mythical fortress can be swallowed up by the sea, so can our great coastal cities, something the researchers hope humanity can learn before it’s too late.

“Rising sea level means less available land, more pressure on human settlements because of flooding and storms,” Yasur-Landau says. “New tricks constantly need to be found: defense systems against storms, economic systems that involve a greater reliance on agriculture, bringing water from distant places. These are problems of population, land, water and sea.”

Sites like the Dor fortress are found underwater every day, meaning the map we know today was much different in the past. We would be wise to learn that lesson, lest our own coastal structures suffer the same fate.

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