Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Great Harbor at Carthage

What is a Cothon?

A cothon is a man-made harbor found in the ports of ancient Phoenicia. In actuality, cothon refers to a man-made island at the center of a harbor, but because this island was typically included in the harbor design, its name eventually became the general term for the type of harbor. The great harbor of Carthage is the most well-known example, although others existed in Cyprus and Sicily.

The relationship between Carthage and Phoenicia is much deeper, of course, than the mere copying of a harbor design. Carthage, circa 814 B.C, began as a Phoenician colony at the start of the first millennium B.C. later to become independent of its mother country. The name Carthage is Phoenician for “New City”. As the Carthaginians moved forward to build their own nation, they used the Phoenician model of building an economy based on trade. After the Greek settlements in the Italian peninsula caused the Phoenicians to retreat to the eastern Mediterranean, Carthage was in position to dominate the western Mediterranean, which she accomplished by 650 B.C. Carthage remained a maritime power until she was crushed by the Romans at the end of the third Punic War in 146 B.C.

We don’t know when the great harbor was built because the history is lacking. The best information about it comes from Appian, far removed from the events he writes about. Polybius would have been a great source because he was eyewitness to the Roman attack on Carthage at the end of the third Punic War, but his writings are lost.

Here is what Appian had to say:

The harbors had communication with each other, and a common entrance from the sea twenty meters wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships' tackle. Within the second port was an island which, together with the port itself, was enclosed by high embankments. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. Above them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbor and the island. On the island was built the admiral's house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself overlooked everything. The island lay near the entrance to the harbor and rose to a considerable height, so that the admiral could observe what was going on at sea, while those who were approaching by water could not get any clear view of what took place within. Not even the incoming merchants could see the docks, for a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards.

Above is a drawing of the harbors of Carthage.

The architecture of the military harbor was stunning as you can see from the drawing below by RadoJavor, copyright 2012-2014.

The photograph below shows the harbors today.

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