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Geography of Israel: Atlit

Atlit is an ancient port on the Mediterranean coast of Israel that is now site of a modern village.

The ancient city of Atlit has been identified with Kartha, a city of Zebulun, mentioned in some Greek versions of Joshua 21:34. Excavations have shown that the site was inhabited in the Iron Age, probably by Phoenicians. A colony of Greek mercenaries with Egyptian and native wives settled at Atlit in Persian-Hellenistic times. In 1217, Crusader pilgrims built a castle there called the Château des Pélerins (Castrum Peregrinorum) and it served through most of the Crusader period as a kind of immigrants' hostel and absorption and clearing station for newly arrived knights of the Cross.

In 1250, King Louis IX of France spent time in the castle of Atlit and fortified its walls; and one of his sons was born there. In 1256, the Mamelukes, attacked the city of Atlit, whose residents fled to the castle. The castle walls held. In 1283 an armistice was signed between the Crusaders and the Mamelukes. The agreement allowed the Crusaders to keep the city of Atlit and the castle, in return for half the estate's revenue. The castle of Atlit was not attacked, but after the fall of Acre, its defenders fled secretly (to Cyprus), on the night of August 14, 1291. The stronghold's downfall would come six weeks later, at the hands of the Mamelukes.

The modern village of Atlit was founded in 1903 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Most of its lands were bought from Arab fishermen who had built their shacks among the Crusader ruins. In 1911, an agricultural station was founded there by Aaron Aaronsohn. In World War I, it became a center of Nili, the clandestine pro-British intelligence organization. During the Mandatory period, the British set up a prison in Atlit and a detention camp for "illegal" immigrants.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the camp became a large immigrant reception center.

The ruins of Atlit served as a quarry for the construction of Acre. One of the great marine archaeological finds, the Ram of Atlit, was discovered off the coast of Atlit.

The Ram is the only known ram of its kind in existence in the world and considered to be one of the largest bronze finds of antiquity. Found in 1980 in the waters of Atlit (south of Haifa) this three-pronged ram has contributed much to the knowledge of naval warfare. Many people are familiar with the battering ram used on land, but are not aware of the existence of a similar weapon in naval engagements.

Iconographic representations, (from the eighth century BCE on) all show a ship bearing a ram. Naval rams underwent various changes throughout the years. Single pointed rams seem to have been used most often, but had the disadvantage of breaking easily. These types of rams, which only created a hole in the enemy ship, caused limited damage. It was also dangerous, since the attacking ship could find itself literally entangled in the enemy ship, when its ram would be caught in the enemy ship's hull and the attacking ship would find itself unable to disengage itself from its prey.

Later naval rams took on the shape of an animal's head. The three-pronged ram (such as the Ram of Atlit) developed at the end of the sixth century BCE and had the advantage of shattering an enemy ship's hull, creating damage that could not be repaired at sea. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Etruscans throughout the Mediterranean used the three-pronged ram in naval battles.

An impressive artifact, the Ram of Atlit, is on display at the National Maritime Museum. Shaped like a chariot, the ram was found devoid of its ship and was probably made in Cyprus. It features mythological symbols including eagles, a thunderbolt and more. The existence of and use of three-pronged rams is known from a variety of sources including, coins, pottery etc. But the Ram of Atlit is the only actual known specimen of this type. It weighs 465 kilograms (almost half a ton) and is composed of 90.1% copper, 9.5% tin and trace elements of iron and sulphur.

The National Maritime Museum covers 5,000 years of maritime history while emphasizing the ongoing relationship between Eretz Israel (and Jews) to the sea. The museum features underwater archaeological finds, ship models, a large collection of antique maps, pottery, coins and more. The museum is located just above the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum and is also within walking distance of Elijah’s Cave.

Sources: Gems in Israel; Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.