By Rivka Borochov
The land of Israel holds ancient secrets yet to be uncovered. Its ancient ports welcomed seafarers, pilgrims and prophets throughout the ages, and great conquerors like King Herod established magnificent cities, including Caesarea Maritima, along its coasts. But the treasures from peoples of the past are getting lost as massive chunks of land along Israel’s coastal escarpments break off during storms. The coastal areas erode slowly over time, and the process sometimes causes loss of life, real estate and livelihood.
Recognizing the importance of protecting this valuable natural resource, a new Israeli government initiative worth half a billion shekels (about $135 million) is aimed at preserving Israel’s 45-kilometer (28-mile) coast along the Mediterranean Sea.
Canadian-Israeli geo-archeologist Beverly Goodman has studied the impact of ancient tsunamis on Israel’s coast – in particular at Caesarea. She says that protecting coastal erosion is vital, not only as a means to prevent cultural loss, but also for the people of today and the future.
Natural and manmade causes
Counting heads, there are just centimeters of coastline allotted to every Israeli citizen, she says. "There is a lot to be said about this issue," says Goodman, who works at the Leon Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa. "The coastline is a precious resource, especially for Israelis. It’s a sensitive area, one that is under threat both because of natural occurrences and ones that are manmade. And as the population increases, here and worldwide, it will be more important that we protect what we do have." Erosion of coastal areas is a natural process, but it has been exacerbated by climate change and the construction of new marinas.
Goodman notes that most people live within a one-kilometer radius of a coastline. "It’s important that coastlines are heavily invested in and protected," says the researcher who won distinction from National Geographic for her groundbreaking work in enhancing our understanding of climate change. The coast is valuable both to the tourism industry and to citizens’ quality of life. "From a leisure perspective, it’s important to have open beaches and spaces and not to have building on the [public] land," Goodman adds.
Losing information every year
More applicable to her line of work, coastal erosion means losing invaluable cultural material. She is now working on documenting and recording objects on the coast, and also underwater, before these items disappear forever. "We are losing information on an annual basis," she says.
Last December, a major storm closed down the Caesarea National Park in the ancient city, wiping out the break wall and leaving the area vulnerable to damage from waves. Some experts called it a national disaster. After the storm, about 80 percent of what Goodman had documented earlier was simply gone.
Many old artifacts were washed away from Caesarea during last December’s violent storm.
(Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism)
During the same storm an ancient statue was also uncovered on a beach in Ashkelon. The headless, and armless statue of a woman in toga and sandals was made of white marble, and found half-buried in sand by a resident walking near the shore. Experts also found pieces of a mosaic floor from an old Roman bathhouse.
The artifacts were part of a cliff side archaeological site that collapsed when high winds and waves hit the shore. Many other artifacts from the site were washed away in the storm.
In April, the prime minister’s office agreed to fund the establishment of a network of parks along an eight-mile tract of land in both populated areas and archeological sites. Sand will be channeled to the beaches, and additional breakwaters built together with reinforcements to the coastal slope. If not protected, the Israeli escarpment could lose some 50 meters (164 feet) of coastal land over the next 50 to 100 years.
Protecting antiquities, creating beaches
According to government assessments, this measure will reduce risks to human life and property, and will significantly increase the number of beaches that are made accessible to the public. The initiative will also protect antiquities sites such as Apollonia and Tel Ashkelon.
According to Israel’s Protection of the Coastal Environment Law enacted in 2004, the sea and shore are considered one unit that extend from Israel’s territorial waters to 300 meters inland. The law recognizes that this entire area is a public resource – something to be preserved and protected. "Rehabilitating the coastal escarpment will expand beach areas, which will remain open to the public and facilitate the safe use of the escarpment areas," said Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan upon announcing the initiative.