Rising Seas, Changing Fortunes

How Sea Level Shaped the Bible’s Coastal Cities

Ruins of Dor

Overlooking ruins from the port city of ancient Dor along the northern coast of Israel. Photo by Joan C. Wrenn (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The ancient coastal center of Dor, which is located 13 miles south of modern Haifa, flourished from the Middle Bronze Age into the Late Roman period. Across more than two millennia of uninterrupted habitation, the city managed to survive the Bronze Age collapse and takeover by multiple regional powers. The one thing that Dor could not survive, however, was nature.

Although it had previously been assumed that the sea level along Israel’s coast had remained relatively stable over the last 4,000 years, a recent scholarly paper suggests otherwise, showing a sudden and dramatic rise in sea level between the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods (c. 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.). The project team—a joint collaboration between the University of Haifa and the University of California, San Diego—used ancient Dor as their test case and discovered that the sea level rose as much as 2.5 meters during this 400-year period. This irreversibly changed the coastline and crushed the local maritime economy.

Dor was first inhabited by Canaanites in the Middle Bronze Age, before possibly being taken over by one of the infamous Sea Peoples groups at the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.). The city then flourished under the Phoenicians, who established trading ties with Cyprus and Egypt, along with the Aegean and Sardinia. During the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., however, it became part of the northern kingdom of Israel. The city was conquered by the Assyrians in the late eighth century, but remained a strong and prosperous coastal city for hundreds of years after the fall of the northern kingdom, and even boasted large fortifications and a monumental sea gate. This prosperity, however, would not last.

Possibly as early as 200 B.C.E., the sea level began to rise. This would have led to the flooding of buildings along the shoreline and would have eventually rendered unusable ports that had been active for thousands of years. The first places affected by this change would have been the region’s smaller towns and villages, which relied primarily on their maritime economy. Larger cities, such as Dor and Akko, would have been better suited to manage this shift, at least for a short time. The entire coast would have been drastically affected by the rising waters, and by the end of the Hellenistic period, most ports in the area had fallen out of use.

By the beginning of the Roman period (first century B.C.E.), the loss of safe coastal ports could have led Herod the Great to build a new port city, Caesarea, which is located 8 miles south of Dor. In discussing the poor coastal conditions prior to Caesarea’s construction, the Jewish historian Josephus states that the shores of the area “do not permit smooth landing; but the merchants are generally forced to ride unsteadily at their anchors in the sea itself” (Antiquities 15.333). While scholars had previously puzzled over Caesarea’s grandeur, its excessive size may have been a result of the loss of nearly every other coastal port in the region.

Although the reason for this shift in sea level remains unknown, its discovery has shed much light on the conditions of the southern Levantine coast during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. As for Dor, the city managed to survive a few hundred more years into the Late Roman period. It was never able to overcome the loss of its maritime economy, however, and eventually faded into history.

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Read More about Dor in the BAS Library:

A Death at Dor by: Andrew F. Stewart
It’s not every day that you dig up a dead woman. And in archaeology, the most dramatic discoveries always seem to come at the most awkward times; this one, true to form, appeared less than 36 hours before we were due to leave the excavation at Tel Dor.

A Temple at Dor
Again the telephone rang. An antiquities dealer was calling the professor. From previous calls, Professor Nachman Avigad of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem knew the antiquities dealer. The two men had come to like and trust each other. Each knew what the other wanted and each was willing to supply it.

The Many Masters of Dor, Part 1: When Canaanites Became Phoenician Sailors
History runs deep at Tel Dor—45 feet deep to be exact! Layer upon layer of ancient cities, each built on the ruins of its predecessor, have formed this immense mound on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, about 12 miles south of Haifa. As extraordinary as the mound’s size is the large number of different people who have occupied or controlled the site. Following the Canaanites, who led Dor in a coalition of cities opposing Joshua, the city experienced a series of conquests by Sikils—a Sea People tribe—Phoenicians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Despite this succession of conquests, the Phoenicians remained the dominant cultural force at Dor, which preserves one of the best records of their culture yet found.

The Many Masters of Dor, Part 2: How Bad Was Ahab? by: Ephraim Stern
Tel Dor, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, is the site of one of the most conquered cities in the Levant. Although practically every major people of the region occupied or ruled the site at one time or another—leaving behind an accumulation of debris 45 feet high—it was the Phoenician culture that dominated Dor for some 800 years. Twelve years of excavation at this site 12 miles south of Haifa have revealed a wealth of remains and new discoveries, now presented by Ephraim Stern, director of the Dor excavation, in this three-part article.

The Many Masters of Dor, Part 3: The Persistence of Phoenician Culture by: Ephraim Stern
Twelve years of excavation have barely begun to uncover the 3,900 years of history buried at Tel Dor. Located 12 miles south of Haifa, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, this 45-foot high mound contains the largest Phoenician city in a good state of preservation. Dor was not exclusively a Phoenician city, however. Although Phoenician culture dominated Dor for some 800 years, practically every major people of the region occupied or ruled the site at one time or another, as excavation director Ephraim Stern shows in his three-part article.

Buried Treasure: The Silver Hoard from Dor by: Ephraim Stern
At first, our discovery—an unadorned clay jar—seemed deceptively modest. For months we had been excavating an area overlooking the southern harbor of ancient Dor, south of Haifa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Digging conditions had been particularly arduous. To shield ourselves from the intense daytime heat—temperatures often reached triple digits, especially in the absence of a cool sea breeze—we put up a black gauze screen over the dig squares. Just beyond Dor’s southern harbor, a picturesque beach, frequently filled with bathers, proved tantalizing: Our volunteers were often distracted, longing for a refreshing dip as they perspired under the unforgiving Mediterranean sun.

Excavations at Tell Mevorakh Are Prelude to Tell Dor Dig by: Ephraim Stern
When archaeology began in the Middle East more than a hundred years ago, it was almost a treasure hunt. About the turn of the century, archaeologists began to pay attention, not simply to what would look impressive in a museum, but to stratigraphy and ceramic typologies in order to date the levels of a mound; the result of this shift in emphasis was that pottery and stone walls and destruction layers sometimes became more important than gold jewelry and figurines. In our generation, archaeology, growing ever more scientific, has now added other, new concerns.

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