Huge artificial lake in Sicily is identified as an ancient sacred pool

Huge artificial lake in Sicily is identified as an ancient sacred pool that was aligned with the STARS and used in religious ceremonies 2,500 years ago, study reveals

  • 2,500-year-old artificial basin in Sicily has been revealed as one of largest sacred pools in the Mediterranean
  • Archaeologists said the lake was aligned with the stars as the centrepiece of a massive religious sanctuary
  • 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 attack by Carthage, Rome’s ancient rival 

A massive artificial lake in Sicily – originally thought to be an ancient military harbour – was actually a sacred pool that was aligned with the stars, archaeologists have revealed.

They believe it was used in religious ceremonies 2,500 years ago, after being added to the island city of Motya when it was rebuilt in 550 BC following an attack by Rome’s ancient rival Carthage.

The basin was rediscovered in the 1920s and, because Carthage had a similar structure called the Kothon, was first identified as an artificial military harbour. 

However, new excavations as part of a decades-long project at Motya, which was once a bustling Phoenician port in the first millennium BC, has revealed this was not the case. 

A massive artificial lake in Sicily (pictured) has been identified as an ancient sacred pool that was aligned with the stars and used in religious ceremonies 2,500 years ago

Archaeologists said the flat surface of the pool may have been used to track these celestial movements, which were important for both navigation and religious holidays


Scientists at Sapienza Università di Roma found a pedestal in the centre of the lake that once held a statue of Ba’al (pictured)

The pool is believed to have been added around 550 BC when the island city of Motya, which was a bustling Phoenician port in the first millennium BC, was rebuilt after an attack by Carthage — Rome’s ancient rival.  A plan of what the site may have looked like is pictured above after being put together by the archaeologists

WHO WAS BA’AL? 

Ba’al was worshipped widely by a number of Bronze Age communities, particularly in the Middle East.

He was prominent amongst the Canaanites and may have arose as a figure for worship in their cities.

Ba’al was seen as a fertility god, in fact known by the title Lord of the Earth and the God of Rain and Dew. 

This was particularly important for the Canaanites as the rain and dew were vital for fertile soil. 

Worship of Ba’al became popular in Egypt from about 1400 BC. As vanquisher of the sea, Ba’al was regarded by the Canaanites and Phoenicians as the patron of sailors.

From Canaan, worship of Ba’al spread to Egypt and the Med following the waves of Phoenician colonisation in the early 1st millennium BC.

‘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 Lorenzo Nigro from Sapienza Università di Roma. 

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 his 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,’ he said.

Crucially, the archaeologists 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, often seen as a fertility god.

Ba’al was worshipped widely by a number of Bronze Age communities, particularly in the Middle East, and was known as the Phoenician god of storms and fertilising rains.

As vanquisher of the sea, the deity was regarded by the Canaanites and Phoenicians as the patron of sailors.

From Canaan, worship of Ba’al spread to Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean following the waves of Phoenician colonisation in the early 1st millennium BC.

Sapienza Università di Roma experts said their discovery indicated that the artificial lake was not a harbour but a sacred pool at the centre of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean.

Mapping the site also 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 civilisations.’

Additionally, archaeologists said 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 refilled and a replica of the statue of Ba’al placed back on its plinth.

The discovery has been published in the journal Antiquity.

New excavations have been carried out as part of a decades-long project at Motya, which was once a bustling Phoenician port in the first millennium BC

Archaeologists found additional temples flanking the Kothon, along with stelae, altars, votive offerings, and a pedestal

Together, these indicate the artificial lake was not a harbour but a sacred pool at the centre of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean

WHO WERE THE CARTHAGINANS AND HOW DID THEY IMPACT THE HISTORY SICILY?

Pictured: the location of Carthage, with the extent of the Carthaginian Empire in blue

Ancient Carthage was a Phoenician civilisation centred around Carthage, on the Gulf of Tunis, which founded by colonists from Tyre in 814 BC.

At its height during the fourth century BC, the city-state became the largest metropolis in world, with an empire that dominated the western Mediterranean. 

It had a mercantile network that extended from north Europe down to west Africa and across to west Asia.

Far less is known about Carthage’s peoples than those of ancient Rome or Greece, as most indigenous records were destroyed — along with the city — following the Third Punic War in 146 BC.

Their victory in this conflict paved the way for the Roman civilisation to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. 

The First Punic War had been fought between the Phoenicians of Carthage and Rome in the early third century BC.

The longest naval war of antiquity, the conflict raged from 264–241 BC in the waters around Sicily and North Africa.

It began when Roman forces gained a foothold on Sicily and, allied with the people of Syracuse, laid siege to the Carthaginian’s main base on the island, that of Akragas. 

Following this, Rome built a navy to rival that of the Phoenicians’ and, after a series of minor victories, launched an invasion of North Africa which was intercercepted at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus — in what many consider, by the number of combatants, to be the largest naval battle of all time.

Beaten, Carthage sued for peace, but fought on after rejecting the Roman’s harsh terms for such.

After several years of effective stalemate, the Roman forces deployed a successful blockade of the garrisons at Drepana and Lilybaeum.

Carthage dispatched a fleet in 241 BC to relieve their outposts, but this was intercepted and bested at the Battle of the Aegates — in which the nimble Roman vessels deployed battering rams against their opponents to devastating effect. 

In the wake of the battle, Carthage sued for peace, ultimately surrendering Sicily to Roman control. 

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