Ancient Fortress Discovered Off Israel's Northern Coast Solves a Seleucid Mystery

Dozens of meters wide, at least two stories high, 2,200 years after it was built, the Kingdom of Tryphon's first line of defense has been found underwater

Archaeologists examine the remains of an ancient fortress off the coast of Dor Beach, Israel, March 19, 2019.
Hagai Nativ

The small natural bay of Dor Beach, today the beach of Kibbutz Nahsholim south of the northern Israeli city of Haifa, has witnessed many dramatic events throughout history. An underwater archaeological excavation recently unearthed a large structure, thought to be a fortress built by a Seleucid king, that disappeared beneath the waves during the Hellenistic Period, more than 2,000 years ago.

Trying to follow the political and military developments in the waning days of the Hasmonean Kingdom in the second century B.C.E. is like trying to keep track of the plot of “Game of Thrones.” Three rulers vied for control of the land: rival Seleucid kings Diodotus Tryphon and Demetrius, and Jonathan Apphus, ruler of Judea and Jerusalem.

The three fight one another, forge alliances and conquer territory from one another at a dizzying pace. In 143 B.C.E., Tryphon’s and Jonathan’s armies are about to do battle at Beit She’an when Tryphon persuades Jonathan to release his troops and come with him to Acre to set the terms of relations between the two kingdoms.

Jonathan releases most of his army and goes to Acre with around 1,000 men. There, Tryphon betrays Jonathan and massacres his army: “Now as soon as Jonathan entered into Ptolemais [Acre], they of Ptolemais shut the gates, and took him, and all them that came with him they slew with the sword.” (1 Maccabees 12:41-50).

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Tryphon initially used the captive king as a bargaining chip, but ultimately had him executed. Tryphon’s victory over his two enemies was completed when Demetrius was abducted and killed by the Parthians (or the Dothraki, for our plot purposes). But just as Tryphon was about to seize control of the seven kingdoms,” Demetrius’ widow foiled his plans by marrying Antiochus VII, another Seleucid ruler, who quickly took over Demetrius’ former kingdom.

Simon, Jonathan’s successor, then joins the war on his brother’s murderer. Demetrius retreats and entrenches his forces in the city of Dor as his rivals close on the city from land and sea. “Pursued by Antiochus, Tryphon fled to Dor, by the sea, realizing what troubles had come upon him now that his soldiers had deserted him. Antiochus encamped before Dor with a hundred and twenty thousand infantry and eight thousand cavalry. While he surrounded the city, his ships closed from the sea, so that he pressed it hard by land and sea and let no one go in or out” (1 Maccabees 15:11-14).

Archaeologists examine the remains of an ancient fortress off the coast of Dor Beach, Israel, March 19, 2019.
Hagai Nativ

Until recently, scholars believed that the massive wall that surrounded Tel Dor and the city in the northern part of the bay was the line of defense for Tryphon and his troops. Arrowheads and slingshots from that battle were also discovered there. Some of the stones are etched with a lightning bolt, the symbol of Zeus, and others bear the inscription “victory over Tryphon.”

But three months ago, researchers discovered underwater, on the southern side of the port, an area where no structures from any period had been found, the remnants of a large fortification. Its similarity to another fortification on land and other artifacts led researchers to date this fortification to the Hellenistic Period. Now it appears that this fortification – situated in the sea – was likely Tryphon’s first line of defense, and the northern sea wall his second line of defense.

The underwater excavation was conducted by Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau and Ehud Arkin Shalev of the University of Haifa together with Prof. Thomas Levy of the University of California, San Diego. Such an excavation is a complex logistical and scientific challenge: Much of the work is done by removing sand using pumps placed on boats and guided by excavators in scuba gear. A bit of luck is also needed, as the sea constantly shifts the sand around.

“You work an entire day and if you’re lucky, when you come back the next day you can continue. If you’re unlucky, you find a lot more sand than when you started,” says Yasur-Landau. “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 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. Scholars believe that between the Hellenistic and Roman periods, between the second and first centuries B.C.E., the sea level rose quickly, undermining the structure. Roman-era coins found at Dor bear inscriptions saying the city “rules the seas,” but by that time the fortification was already resting on the seabed. Yasur-Landau believes the purpose of the coins was to defy Caesarea, the big neighbor to the south.

Archaeologists examine the remains of an ancient fortress off the coast of Dor Beach, Israel, March 19, 2019.
Hagai Nativ

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

The research at Dor is part of a more comprehensive study of human settlement over thousands of years along the Carmel coastal area. One focus of this research is how humans coped with the rising sea level, a question that is relevant for our times too. In the coming decades, the sea level is expected to rise by dozens of centimeters, according to some estimates.

“Rising sea level means less available land, more pressure on human settlements because of flooding and storms. 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,” says Yasur-Landau. “These are problems of population, land, water and sea.” The same kind of problems we have today.