The sacred pool of Ba'al: a reinterpretation of Motya’s Kothon
Archaeologists have found a 2,500-year-old artificial basin in Sicily, once identified as a military harbour, is actually one of the largest sacred pools in the Mediterranean. The lake was aligned with the stars as the centrepiece of a massive religious sanctuary. This finding was made in the island city of Motya, which was a bustling Phoenician port in the first millennium BC. The pool was added around 550 BC when the city was rebuilt after an attack by Carthage, Rome's ancient rival.
The basin was rediscovered in the 1920s. Archaeologists concluded it was an artificial harbour as Carthage had a similar structure, called the Kothon, that served as a military port. However, new research at Motya, published in the journal Antiquity, has revealed this was not the case. "For a century it was thought Motya's 'Kothon' was a harbour but new excavations have drastically changed its interpretation: It was a sacred pool at the centre of a huge religious compound," said Professor Nigro from Sapienza Università di Roma, author of the research conducted together with the Regional Superintendence for Cultural and Environmental Heritage of Trapani, Sicily.
These new excavations are part of a decades-long project at Motya. Previous research had found a Temple of Ba'al on the edge of Motya's Kothon, rather than the expected harbour buildings. This unexpected discovery prompted the reinvestigation of the Kothon starting in 2010. During the next 10 years, Professor Nigro and the team drained and excavated the basin, which is longer and wider than an Olympic swimming pool.
"This revealed it could not have served as a harbour, as it was not connected to the sea. Instead, it was fed by natural springs," said Professor Nigro. Crucially, the team also found additional temples flanking the Kothon, along with stelae, altars, votive offerings, and a pedestal in the centre of the lake that once held a statue of Ba'al.Together, these indicate this was not a harbour but a sacred pool at the centre of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean. Mapping this site revealed it was aligned with the stars: "The nearby Temple of Ba'al is aligned with the rise of Orion at the winter solstice, whilst stelae and other features were aligned with other astronomical events," said Professor Nigro. "This points to the deep knowledge of the sky reached by ancient civilizations."
Additionally, the flat surface of the pool may have been used to track these celestial movements, which were important for both navigation and religious holidays. Notably, many of these stem from other ancient cultures suggesting Motya remained an open and accepting cultural melting pot. Historical records also attest to an open attitude, indicating it caused animosity with Carthage that contributed to Motya's eventual downfall. The basin has since been filled, and a copy of the statue of Ba'al has been placed in the centre of the pool to replicate the visual impact that an inhabitant of Motya might have felt.
The sacred pool of Ba'al: a reinterpretation of the ‘Kothon’ at Motya - Lorenzo Nigro - Antiquity DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.8
Italian Institute of Oriental Studies