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Seafaring in Ancient Israel

How did seafaring develop in the ancient Near East?

While not a major seafaring nation, the land of Israel did have reasons and opportunities to develop seafaring technology. There were select pockets, or areas, where this was necessary: Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (though Israel proper did not often control much of that territory), the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee, and on the shores of the Dead Sea.

When breaking down the human motivation for seafaring two reasons become obvious: First, in harvesting various and valuable resources like fish from the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee, and bitumen from the Dead Sea. Second, in being able to travel across the water in order to trade these goods more efficiently and enhance commerce overall. Biblically, we see King Solomon develop a fleet of trade ships in partnership with the seafaring city states of Tyre and Sidon. Through archaeological work, it is known that these areas in Israel were being used for resources and travel long before Israel was even a nation. Shells from the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and Dead Sea bitumen have been found at sites throughout Israel, Jordan, and Egypt dating from the Neolithic era (9750 BC) and onward. This shows that from very early on, there were not only sea products available but there was widespread demand for them. This demand would have fueled seafaring technology. Better, faster and more secure ways would be sought to collect more efficiently, and ways to safely transport and effectively trade these goods would become a priority.

There’s an interesting study that has been done on the Dead Sea area specifically that demonstrates the natural but quick growth of seafaring technology. The Dead Sea’s most valuable resource is by far its bitumen deposits that float to the surface of the water. The Sea’s difficult shoreline and the sheer size and value of the bitumen lumps that would surface made collecting them by raft and boat a much more attractive idea than waiting for the wind to carry the deposits to shore. This would have served as motivation for the development of rafts and boats.

The next challenge faced by harvesters of Dead Sea Bitumen would have been transporting their goods once collected and processed. There is a lot of unhospitable desert and land surrounding the Dead Sea that would have to be covered if the trips were attempted on land. Crossing the sea, however, was shorter by up to three times, and overall just an easier, more direct distance. This Dead Sea travel is documented from the Hellenistic time period onwards (323 BCE), but was likely initiated much earlier than this. How early is not known, but the demand for dead sea bitumen was widespread as seen from remains at Neolithic sites, and in the early 2000’s the discovery of a 7th Century BCE anchor pushed the evidenced date for seafaring into the early time of the kings. While this study on the Dead Sea does not give us a conclusive date for how early residents utilized seafaring, it does show the whys behind the process. Value, demand, industry, and convenience all drove people, as they still do, to become creative with the world around them and monopolize on good opportunities.

Corie Bobechko is a daily co-host, speaker, and writer of Bible Discovery. She also hosts a YouTube channel that shows how history and archaeology prove the Bible. Her heart for seekers and skeptics has led her to seek truth and share it with others. Corie also has a Bachelor of Theology from Canada Christian College.

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  1. Is there any evidence of maritime or overland trade with India in biblical times ? Would appreciate if you can enlighten me on this issue.