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Divers welcome to explore the past at Israel’s first underwater national park

Israel Antiques Authority marine archaeology unit hopes visitors will help find submerged archaeological discoveries

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screen capture from video of the underwater national park at Caesarea, Israel. (Channel 13 News)
Screen capture from video of the underwater national park at Caesarea, Israel. (Channel 13 News)

Israel has opened its first underwater national park at the ancient port city of Caesarea, where divers can tour the 2,000-year-old remains of what was once a major complex extending into the sea.

Caesarea is already one of Israel’s top tourist attractions where archaeologists have, over decades, uncovered the remains of massive sprawling building projects on the shore constructed by the first century BCE King Herod.

However, much of Herod’s work now lies beneath the sea.

With the inclusion of marine areas in the existing national park, authorities hope to attract divers to the area, where they will be encouraged to help out in piecing together the port’s past. While local divers have been helping out with archaeological work for years, administrators are eager to attract visitors from further afield.

Screen capture from video of the marine national park at Caesarea. (Channel 13 News)

“We want to develop diving tourism and tourism in the country,” said Kobi Sharvit, director of the Israel Antiques Authority marine archaeology unit, told Channel 13 news in a report broadcast on Saturday.

“We expect that divers who see something will report it to us,” he said. “For the most part, a small discovery by divers can lead to a very large and impressive discovery and change our entire understanding of the place.”

“That happened more than once to us in recent years,” Sharvit said and noted that stormy weather earlier this year had uncovered some of the wooden structures used in the port.

Gold coins found off the coast of Caesarea by divers (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

A large discovery of gold coins in 2015 and a trading boat that still had cargo in the hold of wreck were two examples he gave.

Items found by divers are examined, cataloged and the more interesting pieces displayed in museums, Sharvit said.

The area of the underwater port is spread over an area of some 50 acres, though the national park covers an even larger area. Aside from the archaeological remains, much of which is covered with silt and algae, there is also rich marine life.

As a declared national park, the area will benefit from better monitoring and enforcement of preservation.

The ruins of the ancient port city Caesarea, April 12, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Herod built Caesarea as a major seaport, opening it in 22 BCE. It was remarkable in that it was not built in a cove or bay but rather extended out into the sea. However, just a hundred years later it was no longer in use and around 250-300 years after it was opened, the port collapsed into the sea. What caused the collapse is still not clear, with a tsunami suggested as one explanation.

According to a report from Ynet earlier this year about the national park, the project is a result of the Israel Planning Administration policy to include offshore areas at coastal historical sites in the country’s national parks program.

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