Diving into (Roman) history

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 under water, the light disperses to reveal remnants of what experts say was one of the biggest sea ports of the Roman Empire.

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

Israeli and North American archaeologists 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 archaeological museum.

Metal poles with numbered signs mark 36 exhibits lying about 6m below the

Mediterranean’s surface over an area of 73 000sq m. Among the artefacts 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 manoeuvre through the larger artefacts by following ropes tied between the poles placed in the sea bed. Snorkellers can view remnants found in more shallow waters.

A ticket costs 12 shekels (about R16,50), 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 63BC. King Herod named the port city in 22BC to honour his patron Caesar Augustus and commissioned the building of the harbour, 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 harbour first opened in 10BC and served for more than a century as the main gateway for goods such as 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 harbours in economic importance and splendour.”

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 66-70AD, business in Judea declined and the port was less prosperous.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the harbour was built in only 12 years, Arenson said.

“Even today, building a harbour 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 co-ordination.”

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.