Indiana Jones and the Lost Treasures of Ashkelon

The adventures of finding antiquities near the southern Israeli town - particularly those underwater - is almost worthy of the cinematic swashbuckler.

Prof. Daniel Master, an American archaeologist from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois and also a researcher at Harvard University, holds a small cardboard box in his hand. He is excited and sweating. It’s the heat of noon in Ashkelon National Park, but a pleasant breeze is blowing in from the sea. Master opens the box with care and takes out two small stone cylinders, one of them nicely carved in the shape of a lion’s head. “We found this two hours ago, here at the site,” he says with a broad smile. “I guess it’s 2,500 years old, from the Persian period.”

For more than 20 years, Master has been coming to Ashkelon every summer, and is now one of the heads of the delegation. He says Ashkelon is a treasure full to bursting for him, since 1,000 years ago it was one of the busiest ports on earth. Every day he finds “prizes” such as the cylinder with the lion’s head.

Master’s delegation has 46 students and staff members who will be excavating three sites in Ashkelon National Park until the end of July. They come to Israel for a six-week study dig that includes a great deal of practical, sweaty work − and they pay for the privilege.

When I ask why Ashkelon is not considered a particularly popular tourist site, Master is quiet for a moment. Then he tells me quietly that Ashkelon is an amazing place, but every Google search yields 300 articles about rockets fired at it from Gaza. He believes that Ashkelon could be developed into a fascinating archaeological tourist site, in a class by itself, since it is also on the seacoast. I think of two places − Caesarea, 200 kilometers to the north, and the Maya Tulum area in Mexico, on the Yucatan coast, several thousand kilometers to the west. Both places attract millions of visitors. Ashkelon National Park only gets about 200,000 visitors per year.

When Omri Buchnik, a city resident and the Nature and Parks Authority employee who runs the national park, takes me snorkeling at the nearby beach shortly afterward, he tells me, “Ashkelon has two treasures: beaches and antiquities. They just need to be displayed.” In our dive off the coast of the national park, we see dozens of ancient stone columns strewn at a depth of four meters. Visibility in the water is awful that day, making everything foggy and blurred. Although the columns − remnants of buildings thousands of years old − lie underwater, their pink color, the fish that swim among them and the green hue of the water suddenly create, in the midst of this hot day, a great adventure that I don’t want to end.

Just a few minutes with a yellow snorkel among these beautiful, round stone columns have me convinced that a new Indiana Jones movie about the search for an ancient underwater treasure is playing. On the shore opposite where we are diving, more stone columns jut out from the sandstone wall. A short distance away from us, several workers are reinforcing a support wall at the cliff to keep it from collapsing. Employees of the Nature and Parks Authority talk seriously about having guided dives off the coast of the park. Then they tell me that Ashkelon’s ancient port has not yet been found. They say that the erosion of the sea, together with the many problems and changes along the sandy shore, has hidden many findings from us.

The Canaanite gate

The findings on the shoreline are more stable. Buchnik shows me the Canaanite gate − a source of price for the Ashkelon National Park, the first national park to be declared in Israel. The oldest arched gate on earth, it was built 4,000 years ago. The structure looks like a curved corridor with an opening at each end in the shape of an arch. It is built of mud brick, which is still in good condition. A few dozen meters past the Canaanite Gate, Buchnik crouches on the ground, clearing away some sand to expose a beautiful, intact mosaic that has been covered for its protection. Except for the heat, we could use the metaphor that what we see here is just the tip of the iceberg of a magnificent past − but in early July, there’s no sense in even trying. I restrain myself and don’t take one of the ice pops being handed out to the students on the dig.

Buchnik and I continue onward to a few more archaeological sites in the national park. We visit the basilica, the remnants of the wall and beautiful lookout points along the shore. At the end of the tour of the park, we reach the nighttime camping spot, on a high hill next to which the members of the delegation are digging. There are family activities here over the summer, and the option of camping out at the heart of the ancient site near the sea sounds pretty pleasant, if one considers that the sun disappears at about 8:00 P.M. and the breeze blows throughout the day as well.

The marina

The national park is at the southwestern corner of Ashkelon. The coal port and the chimneys of the power plant near Zikim are clearly visible from the rocky beach where we went snorkeling. A short trip northward ‏(Ben Amar Street, followed by Hatayasim and Yefe Nof Streets‏) brings us to Ashkelon’s marina. It has two breakwaters and room for 600 boats. The marina itself is pleasant, and several cafes and restaurants operate there, but the sight of the gigantic buildings that were constructed right above it is a bit unsettling. The temptation to struggle with the luxury real estate is great, and from the marina it doesn’t look like the struggle has gone all that well.

As I continue northward ‏(Yefe Nof, Yekutiel Adam and Rafael Eitan streets‏), I reach the Bar Kochva Promenade, which stretches from west of the road to the cliff overlooking the sea. The most prominent structure along the promenade is the Holiday Inn Hotel, which the architect Yaakov Rechter built in 1998 as one of his last projects. Rechter built quite a few hotels ‏(including the Hilton, Carlton and Sheraton in Tel Aviv‏), and all of them look like tidy cubes. In Ashkelon, he went wild. The Holiday Inn is a kind of enormous white igloo that gleams in the sun. At one of the sites, I read that its round shape “corresponds” to the dome of the tomb of Sheikh Awad, 200 meters to the south. That might have been written as a joke, since the sheikh’s modest tomb, which dates back to the 15th-century Mamluk period, was recently repaired and has a small dome on top, while the hotel, with its round shape, can be seen from as far away as Ashdod and even Gaza.

South of the hotel, past the sheikh’s tomb and along the line of the cliff, the Shimshon Restaurant is being built ‏(yes, the name is entirely appropriate‏). The location is gorgeous, as long as it holds and doesn’t fall into the sea like the sandstone cliffs all along Israel’s coastline.

Antiquities galore

No other place in Israel is this rich in antiquities. They are scattered about the city with a serenity that accepts them as part of the landscape, almost invisible. Near 59 Zvi Segal Street, a street filled with villas, are the remnants of a large Byzantine church that’s about 1,600 years old. Beside it is a small sign, nothing more. Afterward I learned of a theory that this was the Church of the Three Egyptian Saints, an important site that appears on the well-known Madaba Map.

This serenity, the almost nonchalance, toward the ancient treasures of Ashkelon reaches its peak at the Afridar Center, a small shopping center at the corner of Hanasi and Zaphaniah streets in the city’s main neighborhood. Between two fuel stations and near several cafes that do not look all that inviting is a lovely “archaeological courtyard” with two sarcophagi that are, without doubt, the “most beautiful that were found in Israel.” ‏(The courtyard is open every day until 3 PM and closed on Saturdays.‏)

These white marble sarcophagi, with their complex carvings, impressive figures and wonderful art work, are remnants of the Roman period. They have been in Ashkelon for 2,000 years, but that doesn’t excite most of the patrons of the nearby cafe, who shrugged indifferently when I asked their location. I walked around that depressing shopping center until I found the sarcophagi behind Beit Ha’am, but they were worth the effort. The big question is whether Ashkelon deserves them. The professors are sure they do, but they will shortly be heading back to Chicago.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Boker
Moshe Gilad