Discovery of an ancient sacred pool aligns with the stars

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

A man-made lake off the west coast of Sicily was once one of the largest sacred pools in the ancient Mediterranean 2,500 years ago – and it was aligned with the stars, according to new research.

Previously, scholars believed that the rectangular lake was a military port that participated in Mediterranean trade. But new excavations and research at the adjacent site of the ancient Phoenician island city of Motya have revealed the lake to be the heart of a circular, sprawling religious sanctuary.

Motya was a bustling port during the first millennium BC. Scholars have dated the construction of the pool to 550 BC, when the city was rebuilt after an attack by Carthage, a nearby Phoenician city along the North African coast that was Rome’s main rival. Now Motya is better known as San Pantaleo, an idyllic spot for tourists.

Researchers first discovered the basin in the 1920s and determined that it must be an artificial harbor like the one discovered in Carthage, called the Kothon.

When new excavations were undertaken at Motya, archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro, a professor at La Sapienza University in Rome, and his team determined otherwise.

“For a century, the ‘Kothon’ of Motya was thought to be a port, but new excavations have radically changed its interpretation: it was a sacred pool at the center of a huge religious complex,” said Nigro, l lead author of the study, in a press release.

The study published last week in the journal Antiquity.

Reveal a sacred site

Excavations have been ongoing at Motya for 60 years, offering further potential clues regarding the true purpose of the pool. At the edge of the artificial lake, the researchers discovered a structure which they determined to be the Temple of Ba’al, rather than port buildings. This discovery in 2010 is what stimulated a new perspective of the Kothon.

The sacred pool was filled with fresh water, bordered by three temples, and featured a statue of Orion – known as Ba’al to the Phoenicians – supported on a pedestal in the center.

The statue of the male deity was originally found in the lagoon in 1933 and was exhibited at the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo. It was about 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) tall.

Over the past decade, Nigro and his team have drained the basin to conduct excavations. The artificial lake was longer and wider than an Olympic swimming pool.

“It revealed that it could not serve as a port, as it was not connected to the sea. Instead, it was fed by natural springs,” Nigro said.

During their work, the researchers also discovered other temples along the basin, as well as altars, offerings, a pedestal in the center of the lake which once housed the statue, and stone stelae or columns bearing inscriptions.

The finds provided further support for the site being a sacred pool rather than a port. And when they mapped the religious complex, they realized it was aligned with the stars. Key structures and features in the complex point to specific constellations and other celestial sightings.

“The nearby Temple of Ba’al is aligned with the rise of Orion at the winter solstice, while stelae and other features were aligned with other astronomical events,” Nigro said. “It shows the profound knowledge of the sky attained by ancient civilizations.”

The researchers also believe that the horizontal surface of the pool may have been used as a reflective tool to map the movements of stars – crucial for navigation as well as for observing certain religious festivals at the time.

“The stars and constellations were considered by the Phoenicians to be sacred gods and ancestors,” the authors write in the study.

The pool was filled and a replica of the statue of Ba’al was placed on the pedestal in the center of the lake in 2019.

A city of free thinkers

Motya was a hub of activity during the Bronze and Iron Ages as it offered a wealth of natural resources, such as fresh water, salt and fish, as well as being a well-protected port. The location was also strategic between North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and Sardinia.

By the seventh century BC, Motya was involved in trade across the central and western Mediterranean, which brought them into direct conflict with Carthage across the Strait of Sicily.

Carthaginian forces attacked Motya in the 6th century BC, but the island city bounced back and built a surrounding wall, along with two religious complexes.

Historical records show that Motya was a welcoming cultural melting pot, so festivals and celestial events belonging to other ancient cultures were probably celebrated there. Unfortunately, this openness drew the ire of Carthage, which was focused on maintaining political and economic power.

When Dionysius I, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse, besieged Motya, Carthage was slow to provide assistance. Ultimately, Motya was besieged and destroyed between 396 and 397 BC, leading to its downfall.

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