Today in Israel there are a number of major shipping ports where goods are received and sent across the world. However, Israel’s ports are not just essential to modern Israel, in ancient times the country’s ports were vital. Today it is possible to visit a number of these ancient ports and they provide a real insight life in ancient Israel.
The northern city of Akko was one of the most important ports in the country during the first century. It provided a trade-link between Israel and other Mediterranean countries. Akko is also where the Roman legions landed when they were sent to subdue the Jewish forces in the Galilee in 66-67 CE.
Akko remained an important port for many hundreds of years, there are even first-hand accounts of new harbours being constructed as late as the year 880. During the crusader rule, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Akko was the country’s main port and was the point of arrival and departure for the European crusaders. A number of famous Jewish rabbis also landed there, such as Maimonides, and if you have the chance to visit you can see a plaque on the wall that reads, “In this harbour, on the third day of the month of Sivan 4926 [16 May 1165] landed the learned Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the eagle and stronghold of Judaism.”
Today all that is left of the Akko port is a fishermen’s jetty from the Turkish era. However, you can still see the ruins of a crusader breakwater and lighthouse and there are older ruins beneath the sea.
Another major ancient port was Caesarea, which was established by King Herod in 20 BCE. Herod dedicated the port to Augustus, Caesar of Rome and he put a huge amount of effort into making it as beautiful and large as possible. Caesarea is where the Roman legions first landed in Israel and in the years 66-70CE they set off from there to assault the Jewish strongholds.
Caesarea remained the main gateway to the Roman Empire from Israel throughout the remainder of the Roman period but in the end, the harbour and town were destroyed. Nonetheless, today you can still see some extremely well preserved ruins.
To give you an idea of the scale of the original port, here is a quote from Josephus Flavius’ account of it, “However by dint of expenditure and enterprise, the king triumphed over Nature and constructed a harbour … including other deep roadsteads within its recesses. Notwithstanding the totally recalcitrant nature of the site, he grappled with the difficulties so successfully, that the solidity of his masonry defied the sea while its beauty was such as if no obstacle had existed.”
Israel’s other ancient port is Jaffa, one of the world’s oldest ports. Jaffa dates back to biblical times and it was to Jaffa that cedars were sent to King Solomon from Lebanon for the construction of the First Temple. The port was used again during the construction of the Second Temple and it is also the port from which Jonah set sail. In modern times, Jaffa was an important entry point for Jews before the State of Israel was established and it remained Israel’s main port until the British Mandate built Haifa’s harbour.