‘Harbor’ of Ancient Island City Was Really a Sacred Phoenician Pool
Excavations at the Iron Age Phoenician settlement of Motya have been ongoing for many decades. Located on a Mediterranean island just off the western coast of Sicily, this long-deserted ancient city has yielded an array of impressive artifacts and ruins, including a rectangular inland lake or basin that was previously identified as a man-made harbor. This inland harbor, or ‘kothon,’ was supposedly built to facilitate Motya’s growth into one of the most important seaports in the western Mediterranean in the first millennium BC.
But a well-respected expert on Motya and its ruins has now come forward to dispute this notion. In the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro, who is affiliated with the Italian Institute for Oriental Studies at Sapienza University in Rome, offers a new hypothesis about the real purpose of the basin.
“Rather than a harbor, the so-called ‘Kothon’ is revealed as a sacred freshwater pool at the center of a monumental circular sanctuary hosting three large temples,” Nigro wrote in his Antiquity article. “The pool, watched over by a statue of Ba’al, also served as a surface for observing and mapping the movement of stars, as emphasized by the alignment of structures and features.”
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The surface of the pool reflected the night sky, and could be used for observing celestial movement. (© Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya / Antiquity Publications Ltd).
Nigro’s idea is supported by evidence collected during the most recent round of excavations in the area next to the ancient basin. These excavations uncovered the ruins of a vast ancient religious complex, and the basin’s location inside its perimeter puts Nigro’s theory on solid footing.
Phoenician Temples and the Sacred Pool of Motya
The Phoenician island city of Motya on the island of San Pantaleo has been a focus of intense archaeological investigations for the past 60 years.
Excavations have revealed that Motya was first occupied at the beginning of the second millennium BC. Over the centuries it developed into a bustling port city, hosting ships and welcoming traders from North Africa, Iberia, and Sardinia. It was located in the very center of the Mediterranean, making it a natural stopping point for travelers moving from one shore to another.
Phoenician migrants arrived on San Pantaleo sometime between the seventh and eighth centuries BC and settled in Motya soon after. Rather than conquering the island by force, they mixed freely with the existing inhabitants, known as the Elymians, and created a unique culture with a distinctive “Western Phoenician” identity.
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Aerial view of the sacred area of the ‘Kothon’ on the island of Motya, with the main structures investigated by Rome ‘La Sapienza’ University (© Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya / Antiquity Publications Ltd).
In the mid-sixth century BC, Carthaginian forces under the leadership of one General Malco sacked Motya, seeking to eliminate it as a major commercial competitor in the region. But the people of Motya didn’t give up so easily. They quickly rebuilt their city, this time erecting a perimeter wall that could protect them from future invasions. They also constructed large religious shrines or compounds, as part of a reconstruction phase designed to restore the city to its past greatness.
The kothon (a Carthaginian term for artificial harbor) of Motya was also constructed during this building spree, and at a very interesting location as it turns out.
Identifying this 172-foot by 121-foot (52.5-meter by 37-meter) rectangular basin as an inland harbor made sense at one time, given the state of archaeological knowledge through the 1990s. But archaeological work carried out at Motya between the years 2002 and 2020 uncovered evidence that contradicts this idea rather definitively.
This evidence is nothing less than the excavated ruins and remains of a sprawling and complex religious compound that surrounds the basin on all sides. Digs over the last two decades uncovered three stone religious temples next to the “harbor,” all built after the Phoenicians arrived on the island and all apparently linked to Phoenician spiritual practices.
The most prominent of these temples was devoted to the ancient god Ba’al, the major deity of the Phoenician pantheon who was also worshipped by the Hittites, Assyrians, and Canaanites (while being identified as the chief enemy of the God of the Bible by the Israelites). The second temple was dedicated to the Syrian-Phoenician goddess Astarte, while the third temple was called the ‘Sanctuary of the Holy Waters’ by archaeologists because of the hydraulic systems that were installed inside.
Sandstone statue of a male deity found in 1933 in the Marsala Lagoon (height: 1.28 m), Palermo, Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas (© Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas, Palermo/ Antiquity Publications Ltd).
These three temples, the rectangular basin, and various other stone monuments and symbolic installations at the site were all enclosed inside a circular stone wall that was 10 feet (three meters) high and 390 feet (118 meters) in diameter. The enclosure of the larger space clearly connects the basin (or sacred pool) with the rest of the complex, leaving little doubt that there was a strong association between the two, as Nigro concludes in his Antiquity analysis.
The southern wall of the ‘Kothon’, section M.4575 (see Figure 4) separating the pool from the Marsala Lagoon; viewed from the north (© Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya / Antiquity Publications Ltd).
At one time there had been a stone platform in the middle of the basin (blocks for the platform were moved and left around the perimeter of the pool in later years). Nigro believes this was built to hold a statue of the mighty god Ba’al, and in fact the block that would have sat at the top of the platform still has a statue’s stone foot attached.
Like so many other ancient religious sites in all parts of the world, the complex at Motya reveals an ancient people’s preoccupation with the stars and the sky.
“Temples, architectural niches, stelae and other features within the complex were orientated towards rising and setting stars and constellations of practical and symbolic significance (e.g. equinoxes, solstices),” Nigro noted. He believes the sacred pool would have been used to track the movement of stars and the moon across the night sky, as observers could have done by following the reflections of these bodies on the surface of the still water.
This preoccupation with astronomy is a familiar pattern from history. It links the metaphysics of the Western Phoenician culture with the ancient Egyptians, the mound-building Native Americans, the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs in the southern Americas, the mysterious builders of Stonehenge, and so many more ancient cultures that looked to the heavens for guidance and good luck, and for coded information that would reveal the secrets of life and death and the truth about the creation of the universe.
The Resurrection of the Ancient Western Phoenician Culture
Motya’s reign as a Phoenician cultural and religious center lasted from the mid-sixth century BC (when construction on the temples and sacred pool began) until the year 396 BC, when the Greek tyrant Dionysus I of Syracuse invaded San Pantaleo and destroyed the city for good.
This destruction of the Western Phoenician capital and its singular culture represented a tragic loss at the time. But archaeologists working on Motya have been able to gradually reconstruct the history of this fascinating ancient city, one new discovery at a time. Even after six decades of excavations new information about the people of Motya and their cultural and religious innovations is still coming to light, as Lorenzo Nigro’s discovery that what was once presumed to be a man-made harbor was part of what he calls “one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean” clearly demonstrates.
Top image: Protruding ledge M.4555 (see Figure 4), roughly at the mid-point of the northern side of the ‘Kothon’; viewed from the west. Source: © Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya / Antiquity Publications Ltd View of the refurbished ‘Kothon’ with a replica of the statue of Ba’al at its center (© Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya / Antiquity Publications Ltd).
By Nathan Falde