Israel is a land of history. From the moment you arrive in the airport there are flyers and advertisements enticing you to come and see some of its most important sites. Museums and temples, heritage sites and natural wonders. You could spend years trying to see them all and probably still miss a few.
But history in Israel isn’t something that’s only found behind velvet ropes and glass displays, it’s in the soil of the place. It’s in the metallic clink of a gardener’s spade hitting an ancient coin. It’s in the ruins found by highway crews just beneath the surface of a long stretch of desert. Sometimes, it’s even deeper than that.
Below sea level, beneath the waves on the coastline of Haifa, time stands still. You can wade out into centuries of rising sea levels and swim to where thousands of years ago others once stood. If you have an oxygen tank and wetsuit, dive down deep and look. Even in the murky water Atlit Yam can be seen, the preserved remains of an ancient village. Eerie and awe inspiring, these may just be the oldest existing structures in the world.
The ruins can be found about 300m off the north bay of Atlit approximately 8-11m below sea level depending on the season. An ancient fishing village now submerged, the site was first discovered and studied in the 1980s. Since then it has seen numerous aquatic excavations as historians dive into the waters in search of more knowledge and understanding of the culture which created it.
The most striking thing about Atlit Yam is how incredibly well preserved it is. Large sections of the village are still clearly recognizable. Such as the seawall spanning the perimeter of the village. An impressive piece of ancient engineering that suggests the inhabitants of the village were combating a rising sea level even at the time when they were living there. Clearly it was a battle they did not win.
Other features such as a 5.5-meter-deep stone well hint at a high level of technological sophistication of the inhabitant. As does the bones of several species of domesticated animal including cattle, sheep, and even cats! Flint and stone tools have been pulled from its depths, clay pots and fragments, and most surprisingly, excavators discovered hundreds of olive pits from the production of olive oil.
These were not foraging nomads, this was a village that housed generations of people in wood and stone homes. A community supplied by well water and a thriving understanding of agriculture. One supported by civic engineering projects. It is an incredible look at how these people lived and helps in our understanding of the whole history of Israel.
Atlit Yam as it is today is an otherworldly sight to take in. Its most prominent feature is a semicircle of standing rocks, like a series of outstretched fingers reaching up from the water. It’s not entirely clear what purpose these monoliths served. Due to their similarity to the Stonehenge rocks, some suspect that they were used as a calendar or time keeping device of some kind, but we may never know for sure. The stones weigh over 1300 pounds begging questions of how they were arranged and set. For the final mysterious touch, they bear deliberate "cup” markings, an ancient artistic flourish seen across many cultures. Because if a series of upright stones under the water wasn’t halting enough, they also have cryptic designs on them!
When we think about Israel, it’s always vital to remember just how important the land is to world history. As a nexus of trade, travel, and technological improvement over centuries and millennia and with a uniquely suited climate for preservation, Israel can provide us with a glimpse into the past like nowhere else on the planet. Who knows how many more gifts this ancient land is still waiting to give us? How many more Atlit Yams rest just below the surface of Israel?