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Melqart: Spanish researchers discover possible location of legendary temple of Hercules Gaditanus | Culture

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Aerial view of the temple’s possible location.
Aerial view of the temple’s possible location.Juan Carlos Toro

The legendary temple of Hercules Gaditanus, who was known as Melqart in Phoenician times, was a key pilgrimage site in ancient times. According to classical records, the temple witnessed the passage of historical figures such as Julius Caesar and the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal, and dated at least as far back as the ninth century BC.

But thousands of years later, its location remains a mystery, and finding the temple has become something of a holy grail for historians and archeologists, who have been searching for it for centuries.

Now there is a possible answer to this great mystery. Ricardo Belizón, a Ph.D. student at Seville University in southern Spain, has come up with a new hypothesis, which is backed by scientists from his university and the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage (IAPH). Thanks to free software and digital terrain modeling, Belizón has identified traces of a monumental building in the Caño de Sancti Petri, a shallow channel in the Bay of Cádiz, between the towns of Chiclana de Frontera and San Fernando, in the southern region of Andalusia.

“Who knows how far the land extended into the sea on the south side and how much of this land must have been sea, particularly in what is now considered marshland?” This question was raised in 1794 by historian and traveler Antonio Ponz, when he contemplated those labyrinths of sea and land that make up the Bay of Cádiz. And it was exactly this question that Belizón set out to answer when investigating what the coastal landscape of Cádiz was like in ancient times in his doctoral thesis. But he was not expecting his research to take such a surprising turn.

“We researchers are very reluctant to turn archaeology into a spectacle, but in this case, we are faced with some spectacular findings. They are of great significance,” said Francisco José García, the director of the department of Prehistory and Archaeology at Seville University, during the recent presentation of the research at the Cádiz Center for Underwater Archaeology.

The temple of Hercules Gaditanus is mentioned in classical Greek and Latin literature as the place where Julius Caesar wept bitterly before a representation of Alexander the Great and where the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal went to offer thanks for the success of his military campaign a century and a half earlier. All these references mention “a changing environment, in contact with the sea, subject to the changing tides, in a temple where there must have been port structures and a seafaring environment,” says Milagros Alzaga, head of the Center for Underwater Archaeology (CAS), who also participated in the research.

Hypothetical view that the archaeologist García y Bellido made of the Hercules temple, in 1968, based on the one in Jerusalem.
Hypothetical view that the archaeologist García y Bellido made of the Hercules temple, in 1968, based on the one in Jerusalem.EL PAÍS

Following decades of academic controversy and different proposals for the temple’s location, the one put forward now by Seville University and the IAPH falls within a radius earmarked as the most obvious. The site is a huge marshy channel dominated by an islet and the castle of Sancti Petri, which rises above it. For more than two centuries, the area has been yielding important archaeological finds, now on show in the Museum of Cádiz, such as large marble and bronze sculptures of Roman emperors and various statuettes from the Phoenician period. All these discoveries helped to delineate the location of the temple of Hercules Gaditanus as lying somewhere between the slopes of the islet itself and a slither of fine sand and a rocky intertidal zone, known as Boquerón point.

More fieldwork needed

The exact area has been defined thanks to technology known as Digital Terrain Model (DTM) which was provided by the National Geographic Institute and the Navy Oceanographic Institute. “We have worked with public data, with digital terrain modeling and with free software,” says Belizón. The objective was to trace the paleo-landscape from 3,000 years ago in an area that has been exposed to sea variations, erosion from storms and catastrophic weather episodes, such as tidal waves. The researcher discovered several aberrations in the terrain that revealed “a totally anthropized coastline, with a large building [the possible temple], several breakwaters, moorings and an inner harbor.”

Measuring 300 by 150 meters – like the island on which it stood – the rectangular structure lies between five and three meters underwater and seems to fit with descriptions in the classics that describe both the location of the temple and its definition as a great Phoenician monument. According to the classics, this complex was accessed through two columns, with a frontispiece that depicted the Labors of Hercules, within which there was an eternally burning flame. The sacred area was separated from the current Boquerón point by a canal and was accessible to Phoenician, Punic and Roman ships, becoming famous for the large number of supposed relics it housed from the ancient world.

A 3D model showing the Boqueron point in San Fernando (Cádiz) and the rectangular structure of the possible temple of Hercules Gaditanus now submerged under the Caño of Sancti Petri
A 3D model showing the Boqueron point in San Fernando (Cádiz) and the rectangular structure of the possible temple of Hercules Gaditanus now submerged under the Caño of Sancti Petri

The digital work was contrasted with some initial investigations at low tide when it has been possible to document traces of important ashlars and even ceramic remains. Although the investigation has been underway for almost two years, much more archaeological fieldwork will be necessary to confirm or reject what, for now, is a hypothesis, albeit an advanced one. “These are areas that are difficult to work in and have poor visibility,” says Alzaga.

The modeling of the ancient Cádiz coastline has not only revealed the possible temple of Melqart, but also an inner harbor or dock south of the temple, which was a flood zone until less than two centuries ago, and an important settling along the coast with various buildings mainly from the Roman period yet to be defined. Altogether, it covers a large space – larger than the entire excavated area of the Roman city of Baelo Claudia in Tarifa. “It is larger than the surface of Gades and its size could change the idea we’ve had until now of what the bay was like,” says Antonio Sáez Romero, a professor from the department of Prehistory and Archaeology, who also took part in the research.

The new hypothesis of the location of the temple fits with various findings and proposals made throughout the 20th century, but also differs from others, the last of which was The location of the sanctuary of Melqart in Gadir: contribution of the PNOA-LiDAR data, by Antonio Monterroso-Checa, professor in the Archaeology department at Córdoba University. Monterroso-Checa rejected the possibility that the temple was in Sancti Petri due to orographic changes and the lack of new evidence, suggesting instead that the monument had been built on the Martyrs of San Fernando hill, which was also formerly an island. Further research will definitively clear up the mystery that Ponz flagged up more than two centuries ago. “With these kinds of exceptional findings, we can get ahead of ourselves. We want to be very cautious. They are very interesting and hopeful, but it is now that the most exciting part begins,” says Sáez.

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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