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Shipwreck Off Israeli Coast Changes What We Know About the Early Islamic Period

Author: Ariel David

Affiliation: Haaretz English

Organization/Publisher: Haaretz English

Date/Place: March 30, 2022/ Tel Aviv


Word Count: 1963

Keywords: Byzantine Empire, Islamic Caliphate, Mediterranean Sea Trade, Levant Shipwreck, Ma’agan Mikhael 


In 2005, divers from Ma’agan Michael, an Israeli kibbutz on the northern coast of Israel, uncovered ancient timber beams, pottery fragments, and ballast stones in the Mediterranean. However, the waves quickly covered the shipwreck in sand, and investigators were unable to discover it. Fortunately, it was discovered a decade later by scientists, who discovered that it was a 1,400-year-old wreck of an early Islamic commercial ship. It is one of the most significant marine archaeological discoveries in a long time, because the ship and its contents contradict the Western-dominated historical perception that the period was a dark age “marked only by war and international isolation.” Deborah Cvikel, professor of nautical archaeology at the University of Haifa and the excavation’s director, stated, “We have an incredibly small number of shipwrecks from this period.” To avoid confusion with another ancient ship discovered in front of this kibbutz in the 1980s, the acronym MMB should be used. The more famous Ma’agan Michael ship (without the “B”) dates further back to the Persian period and is significantly smaller and older than this current discovery. A more precise date range is 648–740 CE, when the Islamic Caliphate was established, and Muslims took control of the Levant. Based on evidence gathered over the seven-year underwater excavation, Cvikel explains that the ship carried commodities between Christian and Muslim-controlled territories and was operated by a multicultural crew. PhD candidate and researcher Sierra Harding (University of Haifa) explains that this challenges the traditional view of the early Islamic period that libels the era as being marked by “little contact between Mediterranean regions.” The cargo discovered on board, including scrap glass to be recycled and Turkish walnuts in Egyptian jars, indicate regional trade between the Sea of Galilee, Southern Palestine, Cyprus, the Nile, Northern Sinai, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Syria. Cvikel believes that the sailors on board may have survived the catastrophe, as no bodies have been discovered. Inscriptions on the cargo and the wood timbers of the ship itself incorporate Greek and Arabic letters, as well as Christian crosses and Muslim invocations such as bismillah “in the name of God.” According to scholars, etching Christian symbols and Arabic pleas to Allah into the ship’s wood may have been a way to bless the ship’s perilous journeys over the sea and protect the crew. Resurrecting the ship would be an “enormous undertaking” that would almost certainly take a lifetime.  But the shipwreck shows us that these people were “more connected and united in working together than the history books would have you believe,” and which books paint any wars or battles between the Byzantine Empire and early Muslim Caliphates with current geopolitical narratives.

By: Maryam Khan, CIGA Research Associate



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