Rewriting history: Phoenician ‘harbour’ revealed to be religious site that aligns with the stars

Off the west coast of Sicily lies the remains of the ancient city of Motya. There, a compound of temples and shrines offers a window into the life of Phoenicians settlers who journeyed from Lebanon across the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC.

While it has been studied for a century, the site is still giving up new secrets. Earlier this month a rectangular basin, long-believed to have served as an artificial harbour for protecting naval ships and participating in trade, was revealed to be something else entirely – a religious site, designed and constructed to perfectly align with the stars.

The basin, larger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool, was rebuilt in 550 BC along with Motya after it was destroyed in an attack by Carthage, another Phoenician colony from across the sea. The city was then abandoned in Roman times.

The southern wall of the ‘Kothon’, separating the pool from the Marsala Lagoon.
The southern wall of the ‘Kothon’, separating the pool from the Marsala Lagoon. Photograph: Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya

Since the pool’s discovery in the 1920s, it was thought to be a “kothon” – an artificial military harbour. Kothon are “quite a common thing” in the Mediterranean, Ania Kotarba, senior lecturer in archeology at Flinders University, says. The most famous is in Carthage.

But recent excavations and decades of research led by archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University of Rome and published in the journal Antiquity this month unearthed clues suggesting the pool is instead the heart of a sprawling religious site.

“Sacred pools are less common [than kothon],” Kotarba said. “So one on such a scale is quite impressive.” Since his team’s research, perceptions of the basin have “drastically changed,” Nigro said in a statement.

What was thought to be a harbour for centuries may soon be interpreted as “a sacred pool at the centre of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean”.

Sandstone statue of a male deity found in 1933 in the Marsala Lagoon (height: 1.28 m), Palermo, Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas
Sandstone statue of a male deity found in 1933 in the Marsala Lagoon (height: 1.28 m), Palermo, Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas Photograph: Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya

Unearthing the truth

Reinvestigation of the basin began 12 years ago, when remains of a temple to the god Ba’al were discovered where excavators expected to find harbour buildings.

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

Kotarba says Ba’al was associated with the god of storms in the Phoenician period. As Phoenicians’ were known to be seafarers, traders and explorers, their deities were associated with celestial bodies.

“Their livelihoods were connected to celestial movements around the sky,” she says. “Storms are the greatest adversary to seafarers, and the god of storms could interrupt their safe passages.”

“So it is not unexpected that their key sanctuary would be dedicated to Ba’al, and have something to do with astronomy working out movement of celestial bodies,” Kotarba says.

A 10ft statue of Ba’al once stood at the pool’s centre. Its torso was discovered in the 1930s in a nearby lagoon, and stone blocks used for its feet were found by the pool’s edge.

A basin off the coast of Sicily is now thought to be a sacred pool aligned with the stars
A basin off the coast of Sicily is now thought to be a sacred pool aligned with the stars Photograph: Lorenzo Nigro

Quoting Leonardo Divinci, Nigro said; “the only good mirror in antiquity is water”

“It became clear the function of the basin was to be a pool for watching the stars, reflecting them like a mirror,” Nigro said. His research found the water’s reflection was used as a tool to map movement of the stars for navigation – something crucial to Phoenicians, who Kotarba calls “the greatest navigators of the Mediterranean and beyond”.

‘A piece of humankind in the past’

Upon mapping the site, the research team also found the configuration of Motya itself aligned with the heavens.

Aerial view of the sacred area of the ‘Kothon’ on the island of Motya, with the main structures investigated by Rome ‘La Sapienza’ University
Aerial view of the sacred area of the ‘Kothon’ on the island of Motya, with the main structures investigated by Rome ‘La Sapienza’ University Photograph: Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya

Key features line up with constellations – the temple of Ba’al aligns with the rise of Orion’s constellation at the winter solstice. Recent excavations also found several more temples bordering the pool, alongside inscribed stone columns, altars and offerings.

And critically, unlike harbours, the pool is not connected to the open sea. Draining of the kothon for excavation began in 2005. So, when one morning Nigro arrived to find a small pond of “beautiful transparent water” in the basin, he “could not understand how it was possible”.

It was not until 2019 that excavation revealed channels carrying water to the pool from three natural springs.

Thousands of years on, the Phoenician engineering of fresh water to the basin continues to work.

Nigro calls discovery of the Phoenician’s “pre-scientific tool” a “piece of human-kind in the past”.

“We can not use our science to understand this past science,” Nigro told the Guardian. “But it can teach us there exists a diversity in science. There could be solutions in it for us.”

“The Phoenicians colonised, built up cultures and civilisations. They built roads and crossed seas, but they never destroyed their environment.”

“We are the only civilisation destroying the environment,” he says. “We should ask, are we the ones who have more science, or them?”