The mythical temple of Hercules Gaditano, called Melqart in Phoenician times, was a great pilgrimage center in ancient times. Millennia later, its location is a mystery and has become a sort of holy grail for historians and archaeologists, who have been searching for it for centuries. The big question now has a new answer, launched as a hypothesis by a doctoral student at the University of Seville, Ricardo Belizón. The researcher, supported by a team of scientists from the University of Seville and the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage, has located traces of a monumental building in the Sancti Petri channel, a coastal and intertidal area of the Bay of Cádiz between Chiclana de la Frontera and San Fernando, thanks to the analysis of aerial photographs with new technologies. If the find is confirmed, the sanctuary through which characters such as Julius Caesar or the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal passed, dated at least to the 9th century BC, would be located right in the area where various archaeological discoveries have been pointing for centuries.
“Who knows how far the land extended into the sea along the midday band and how many areas of these lands would have been sea, particularly in what are now called marshes?” The question, then rhetorical, was asked in 1794 by the historian and traveler Antonio Ponz in 1794, when he contemplated those labyrinths of land and sea that make up the Bay of Cádiz. And it is precisely the doubt that Belizón set out to reveal when he wanted to find out what the coastal landscape of Cadiz was like in ancient times in a hotspot of archaeological finds. The combined analysis of ancient sources, past archaeological findings and data from the Digital Territory Model (DTM) provided by the National Geographic Institute – something like a visual representation of heights with respect to sea level – has resulted in the location of a large rectangular stain in Sancti Petri that matches the traces of the temple. The researcher is not alone in his thesis, defended by scientists from the Department of Archeology of the University of Seville and the Center for Underwater Archeology (CAS) of the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage, at whose headquarters in Cádiz the important finding was presented this Wednesday, also sponsored by the Territorial Delegation of Culture of the Junta de Andalucía in Cádiz and before an important media expectation.
The hypothesis would clear up the unknown around a sacred space that there seems to be no doubt that it existed and that it was so important that it is cited by various classical sources such as the place where Julius Caesar wept bitterly before a representation of Alexander the Great or in which, before, the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal went to entrust himself to the divinity before a military campaign. For now, the indications are preliminary data, endorsed by non-invasive incursions into the territory, but which will require new studies and campaigns, as both Antonio Sáez Romero, professor at the Department of Prehistory and Archeology, and Milagros Alzaga, head of the CAS, both participants in the discovery.
After decades of comings and goings, academic controversies and location proposals of various kinds, the one now formalized by the University of Seville and the IAPH is just in the immediate radius of the option that was drawn as more evident for its location, but which carried Already years stuck without great significant advances. The place —a huge marsh spout dominated by an islet and the Sancti Petri castle that rises above it— has been producing important archaeological finds for more than two centuries, some fortuitous and others sought after that today populate the showcases of the Museum of Cádiz. This is the case of large-format marble and bronze sculptures of Roman emperors —one appeared in a blast in the 1920s — and various statuettes in the form of votive offerings from the Phoenician era. All these discoveries drew a cloud of points that delimited the location of the great monument between the slopes of the islet itself and a tongue of fine sand and intertidal rocky areas, known as Punta del Boquerón.
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But the exact definition of the area, right at this last point, is due to the superposition of these findings with the elevation data collected in the MDT and the Marine Oceanographic Institute. The objective, after applying layers of filters to this cloud of heights, was to be able to trace the paleo-landscape 3,000 years ago in an area that has been highly exposed to the oscillations of the sea, the erosion of storms and catastrophic events, such as tidal waves. It is there when the team found the surprise of a rectangular construction that seems to fit with the classic descriptions that speak of a great Phoenician monumental complex that was accessed through two columns, with a frontispiece that recounted the 12 labors of Hercules (in his Roman stage) and inside which there was a flame that never went out. The holy site was accessible to Phoenician, Punic, and Roman ships and became famous for the large number of supposed relics of the ancient world that it housed.
The digital work has been contrasted with some first incursions on the ground and under water, in which it has been possible to document – in the case of the land visit – vestiges of important ashlars and even ceramic remains. But the modeling of that ancient Cadiz coast has not only revealed the surprise of the possible temple of Melqart. In this ancient landscape, an inland port or basin appears next to the sanctuary -which was a flooded area until a little less than two centuries ago-, various breakwaters, basements and a powerful anthropomorphization of the coast with varied buildings yet to be defined, mainly from Roman times. . From that date is the large space, larger than the entire excavated area of the site of the Roman city of Baelo Claudia (Tarifa), which the team has located in a natural area of marshes to the north of the temple, near the Arillo de San Fernando.
This new hypothesis fits with various findings and proposals made since the Modern Age and throughout the 20th century, but it also collides with others that draw different locations for the temple. The last one was the one proposed by the study The location of the Melqart shrine in Gadir: contribution of PNOA-LiDAR data, by Antonio Monterroso-Checa, professor in the Area of Archeology at the University of Córdoba. The scientist rejected the possibility that the sanctuary was in Sancti Petri for reasons such as orographic changes and the lack of new evidence for the classical location and pointed out the option that the monument was on the Cerro de los Mártires de San Fernando, a place which was formerly another of the islands. Research and time will definitely answer that question that Ponz raised, more than two centuries ago. The end of the unknown is looming long. “We have work here for years,” Milagros Alzaga sums up with visible enthusiasm.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.