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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Good news: Israel builds underwater museum in Caesarea

Time for good news for a change...

It was the largest, most impressive port in the Roman Empire when it was inaugurated in 10 BCE. And some 2,016 years later, the ancient port of Caesarea - along the Mediterranean coast of Israel - was inaugurated again last week, this time as the world's first underwater museum.

Divers can now don their wet suits and tour the sign-posted remains of the magnificent harbor built by King Herod to honor his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. The site has been excavated over the last three decades by a team led by the late Prof. Avner Raban of the University of Haifa's Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies.

It's not your ordinary museum tour. Visitors float from one 'exhibit' to the next, marveling in silence at the untouched remains of a once-glorious harbor: a Roman shipwreck, a ruined lighthouse, an ancient breakwater, the port's original foundations, anchors, pedestals.

"It's a truly unique site," said Sarah Arenson, a University of Haifa maritime historian and participant in the project. "This port was built as the state-of-the-art port of the Roman Empire, and made the other ports of the time, including those of Rome, Alexandria and Piraeus, look small and out-of-date by comparison."

Arenson notes that the port is also unique today: "There are no other ancient ports in the world that are accessible to ordinary divers," she told ISRAEL21c. Some such ports are restricted to authorized scientists. Others may be open to any diver, but would be meaningless to such visitors "because," explains Arenson ,"all you would see is a bunch of stones."

At Caesarea, divers view some 36 different sign-posted sites along four marked trails in the sunken harbor covering an area of 87,000 sq. yards They are given a water-proof map which describes in detail each of the numbered sites along the way (currently maps are in English and Hebrew; within a few months they will be available in six additional languages.) One trail is also accessible to snorkelers. The others, ranging from 7 to 29 feet below the surface, close to the beach, are appropriate for any beginner diver.

And what does the visitor see?

In a sense, an abrogated history of this once prominent port town - from its entrance at sea (about 350 feet from the current shoreline) to the Roman shipwreck that signaled the demise of the port, probably due to an earthquake, about a century after its construction, researchers believe. And, in between, divers can view the remnants of the original foundations that made this harbor one of the wonders of the Roman Empire.