Uncovering the Past: New theory on Motya’s sacred pool of Ba’al

TWH – In early 2022, the journal “Antiquity” published an article, “The Sacred Pool of Ba’al.” In that article, Lorenzo Nigro, Ph.D., Professor of Near Eastern and Phoenician Punic Archaeology in the Department of Oriental Studies at the Sapienza University of Rome, proposed that a water basin in Motya, Sicily functioned as a reflecting pool, and formed the center of a ceremonial complex.

Priests used the reflections of the night sky in the pool to track the movements of stars and planets. Nigro challenged the prior theory that the water basin had been an inland harbor.

History of Motya

Located off the west coast of Sicily, the island of Motya began to attract settlers in the Second Millennium B.C.E. Around 850 B.C.E., the Phoenicians arrived in Motya from the eastern Mediterranean.

Motya (2012) – Image credit: Verity Cridland – Uploaded by Markos90 – CC BY 2.0 


Phoenicians were master navigators and founded trading centers throughout the Mediterranean. Motya became a trade hub for the western and central Mediterranean. Another trading center was the more famous Carthage. The Phoenicians mixed with the locals, developing a “West Phoenician cultural identity.”

Excavation and interpretation

Nigro developed this new theory because recent excavations found no evidence to support the inland harbor theory in Motya in the period from 550 to 396 B.C.E. These new findings required a new interpretation of the data.

Three temples form a ceremonial complex surrounding the reflecting pool.

A circular wall partially enclosed the sacred precinct or ceremonial complex. The pool was located at its center. Around the pool, three temples stood. One was to Ba’al, one to Astarte, and one to “the Holy Waters.”

The wall stood 3 meters (9.8 feet) high. Its thickness varied from 0.7 meters (2.3 feet) to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). The area within the wall had a diameter of 118 meters (387.1 feet).

The Temple of Ba’al stood at right angles to the circular wall, east of the pool.. It was in use from 800 to 396 B.C.E.

The Temple of Astarte was aligned with the pool’s long axis. It was located to the northeast of the pool.

On the northwestern side of the complex, stood the Sanctuary of the Holy Waters. It had links to the sunset and the netherworld. It also had a shrine and an area for offerings. A large stone-lined votive pit may have served as a portal to the underworld. Two large anchor stones had been set into the floor where the wall ended at the Sanctuary.

Three below-ground freshwater springs fed the pool. That pool sloped downward from north to south. On its north side, the pool had a depth of 0.8 meters (~2.6 feet). On its south side, it had a depth of 1.5 meters (~4.9 feet). This shallow depth precluded large vessels from entering in the pool.

In the center of the pool, stood a stone podium. Similar pools in other Phoenician temples had statues atop podiums in their center. Nigro believes this pool also would have had a statue on that podium.

Archaeologists found a pedestal with a sculpted stone foot. In 1933, they also found in a nearby lagoon a statue of a male deity. They also found a Greek inscription in a votive pit, near the pool’s southeastern corner. It was to Ba’al. The statue had a height of 2.4 meters (7.9 feet). In 2019, archaeologists placed a replica of the statue on the podium in the pool’s center.

History of the Ceremonial complex

The ceremonial complex formed part of living west Phoenician culture. As such, it changed over time. Between 550 and 470 B.C.E., a major building project transformed the ceremonial complex. A natural pond became the stone-lined basin. Its rectangular shape had a north-northeast to south-southwest orientation.

Excavations at Motya (2008) – Image credit: DAVID HOLT – CC BY-SA 2.0


In 396 B.C.E., Dionysius I, known also as the tyrant of Syracuse, laid siege to Motya and sacked it. Although Motya recovered somewhat, the complex was not rebuilt.

The reflecting pool as an astronomical observatory

Nigro argued that people had observed the stars reflected in the pool.

Archaeologists found a statue of a dog-headed baboon, a common image of Thoth. In Egypt, Thoth was the god of knowledge and wisdom. Astronomy was under Thoth’s purview, as well.

In clear weather, the pool would have reflected the positions of the stars in the night sky. If the temple priests had used poles to mark the position of a star’s reflection, they could calculate its movements.

The structures within the ceremonial complex were aligned with solstices and equinoxes. The builders of the complex placed inscribed stone slabs along the complex’s circular wall. Those slabs marked where certain stars rose and set.

To the Phoenicians, the constellations were gods and ancestors. They called the constellation Orion, “Ba’al.” They called the planet Venus, “Astarte.”

The builders of this complex oriented the gateway to the Temple of Ba’al. They aligned some stelae with the rising of Orion after sunset on the winter solstice.

For the priests of this complex, the autumnal equinox must have had major importance. A niche and offerings in the ceremonial wall mark where the star Capella rose at the autumnal equinox. A stone slab in the south marks where Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, rises at the autumnal equinox.

Most modern theories about Stonehenge involve it being a type of observatory, time-keeping device, calendrical system, or all three. Nigro argues that the ceremonial complex at Motya served a similar function.


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