An Ancient ‘Harbor’ Was Actually a Sacred Pool Designed for Scanning the Stars

Archaeologists think the devotional zone was dedicated to the god Ba’al

A reflective pool looking out on the Mediterranean Sea
Archaeologists now think this is a devotional pool to an ancient god, not a harbor or ship repair area.  Sapienza University of Rome

For over a century, archaeologists thought a man-made harbor on an island near Sicily was just that—an ancient harbor that offered ships passage to the Mediterranean or provided a safe place for ship repairs.

How wrong they were: New research published in Antiquity concludes the basin was used both to worship the god Ba’al and track the movement of the stars.

The enigmatic pool is located in the ancient city of Motya, Italy, on the modern island of San Pantaleo. It was first discovered in 1906 by Anglo-Sicilian archaeologist Joseph Whitaker, per Haaretz’ Ruth Schuster. When Whitaker realized the channel that connects the basin to the sea was manmade, he became mistakenly convinced the harbor was similar to that of the ancient Tunisian stronghold of Carthage, whose outer port, or kothon—a Greek term applied to a glass for drinking wine—was also manmade.

Fifty years later, writes Lorenzo Nigro, an archaeologist with the Sapienza University of Rome, in the present study, another archaeologist, B.S.J. Isserlin, posited the pool was for repairing ships, not accessing the sea.

But those established beliefs were called into question 12 years ago when archaeologists looking for harbor buildings instead discovered the remains of a temple to Ba’al, the Guardian’s Rafqa Touma writes.

“Ba’al – a widely used Semitic word meaning “lord” – has often been likened to the Greek god Orion, who was believed to exist as a constellation among the stars,” the Guardian notes.

The temple discoveries shed new light on the purpose of the almost 8-foot-high statue of the god discovered in the pool in 1933. In a statement, Nigro and colleagues say that when they drained the pool, they realized the statue would have stood at its center. They also found other clues to the pool’s real use, including stelae and other temples to the god.

There was already compelling evidence suggesting the pool couldn’t have been used as a harbor, Haaretz says, noting that it’s “on the wee side for a harbor.” Ships would have found it hard to navigate inside the pool; it’s only 2.5 and 5 feet deep, not to mention the difficulty of steering around the Ba’al statue in the middle of the water.

The archaeologists confirmed their suspicions when they drained the pool. It turns out the “harbor” was never connected to the sea during Phoenician times and was, instead, fed by natural springs.

All told, the researchers say in the release, “this was not a harbor but a sacred pool at the center of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean.”

The placement of the stelae and the reflective surfaces of the pools, the researchers write, all indicate the pool could have been used for astronomical observations.

Its users could have “[observed and measured] … celestial bodies and their angles relative to the horizon,” they write in the study. “The constellations and their positions in the night sky on significant dates, such as solstices and equinoxes, are mirrored in the alignments of the main structures at the site, as well as through sacred features that include stelae carefully placed … to mark the rising, zenith, or setting of the stars over the horizon.”

The pool is oriented toward the point in the horizon where Orion, the constellation associated with Ba’al, rises on the winter solstice, the researchers note.

The Phoenicians were less of an established country and more like a confederation of sea traders, and the group remains shrouded in mystery. Even the name “Phoenician” is a modern nomenclature, as it’s unknown what they may have called themselves. The Phoenicians flourished between about 1,500 B.C. to 300 B.C.E. and were known for trading coveted items like Lebanese cedarand the murex shells used to make purple dye.

Motya was once a thriving Phoenician colony, reports Ancient World magazine’s Joshua R. Hall. Founded about 800 B.C.E., it was a busy trade center, even after being destroyed by Carthage in the mid-sixth century B.C.E.

The discovery, write the researchers, “[shows] that Motya was open to cultural interactions and hybridization, counterbalancing Carthage's growing political and economic domination.”

Beyond serving religious purposes, the “beautiful transparent water” of the pool, as Nigro describes it to the Guardian, would have served as a sort of liquid map of the heavens. Quoting Leonardo da Vinci, Nigro tells the Guardian that “the only good mirror in antiquity is water.” By marking the position of the stars reflected in the pool, Phoenician sailors could create a celestial map before heading out to sea.