A catalogue of Ancient Ports and Harbours
This web site presents work done to collect, identify and locate ancient harbours and ports. It is based on a study of existing documentation. The result is a list of around 3500 ancient ports based on the writings of 66 ancient authors and a few modern authors, incl. the Barrington Atlas.
A few “potential ancient harbours” from a nautical point of view, have been added, based on nautical guides/pilots used by modern sailors.
If you are looking for the location of a specific port, use the search engine (top right of this page) that will lead you to the page where this port is mentioned.
If you are uncertain about the spelling, you may enter just the part of the name you are certain of into the search engine.
This work is published in 4 volumes, all available in pdf versions, and most of it is reproduced on this web site:
Volume II gives the French translations of the texts of the listed ancient authors.
Volume IV gives twenty stories about ancient mariners.
You will have to excuse my limited knowledge of the English language.
A harbour is a place where ships can seek shelter. The concept of ‘shelter’ has to include anchorages, landing places on beaches, and ports including structures such as access channels, breakwaters, jetties, landing stages, quays, warehouses for storing commodities and equipment, shipsheds and slipways. Shelters of interest for this catalogue include all places which may have been used by seafarers sailing over long distances. This means that villae maritimae are of interest, but shelters for the likes of local fishermen, who may have landed their boats on the beach in front of their homes, are of less interest. In another limitation, only maritime harbours and some river ports that could be reached by deep sea ships are considered.
Ancient seafarers often used beaches to land their ships on. It may be noted that a 37 m military trireme with 170 “strong” oarsmen could be hauled on the beach if the slope was mild enough, say no more than 1: 7 (about 15%) which was also a maximum for slipways (Blackman, 2013). This requires sand of a certain grain size (Komar, 1998): the very fine sands (or silts) found in large deltas yield a very flat slope which keeps ships far from land. Conversely, a shingle beach has a steep slope that is dangerous for landing ships on.
During military expeditions, 200 people had to be fed on board triremes. It was impossible for ship masters to fill their ships with tons of food. In the absence of ports, ship pilots had to find beaches with a degree of shelter where drinking water could be found, and river estuaries could provide both. The Stadiasmus (from an anonymous author) is an example of a collection of such knowledge, and can be considered the ancestor of medieval portolans and modern nautical instructions.
Commercial ships obviously preferred sheltered creeks, possibly with some kind of jetty, as their ships were too heavy to be pulled on the beach.
Seafarers obviously preferred shelters with clear landmarks on shore (such as a typical mountain) and many shelters were needed, as seafarers often followed the coast, using safe shelters to stop overnight and escape bad weather. Even though they could sail 50 to 100 nautical miles in a day (see Ancient Measures), it was important to know where they could find safe shelter within two to three hours of navigation, i.e. only approx. 10 miles (Capt. Maurice MATTEI, « Observations sur le Cap Corse de la carte de Ptolémée », A Cronica, octobre 2001). With the length of the Mediterranean coast being around 25 000 nautical miles (according to Wikipedia), as an order of magnitude, they would hence have required a total of 2 500 shelters around the Mediterranean Sea. The present work collects about 2300 ports and shelters around the Mediterranean Sea between Gibraltar and Tangier (excluding the Black and Red seas). This shows that we probably found a fair percentage of them.
Many of these sheltered creeks still exist today, but large changes have sometimes occurred:
- crustal movements (e.g. Alexandria, Crete) which explain why ancient ports are sometimes buried under the modern ports;
- a eustatic sea level rise of around 0.50 m over the past 2000 years (estimations range from nil to more than 1.50 m, see Nic Flemming’s work and Morhange, 2014);
- seismic events inducing tsunamis which devastated adjacent coastal areas (e.g. Crane/Agrostoli);
- river estuaries usually tend to silt up, as rivers carry most of the materials that create beaches, and this explains why some ancient ports are now so far from the sea (e.g. Portus at Fiumicino, Ephesus) or have simply filled up with sand (e.g. Leptis Magna);
- in some large cities, the ‘old port’ has been reclaimed to create a new waterfront area (e.g. Marseille);
- beaches are subject to sedimentation and erosion by wave action, and the latter explains why some ancient ports were lost to the sea (e.g. in Tunisia).
It should be noted also that ports mentioned here have been collected from texts of various dates ranging from 500 BC (except for Homer) and 500 AD (with a few exceptions), that is 1000 years. The various authors have not seen the same things … and some authors have just repeated what others wrote before them!
We finally came up with a list of over 3400 ports and shelters based on the texts of 66 ancient authors and a few modern authors. We reviewed French translations of the ancient texts looking for explicit mentions of ports, shelters and anchorages. After that, it was decided to include all coastal sites mentioned in the Periples and in the Barrington Atlas. On rivers, the limit was to include only the places that could be reached by sea ships. We had to stop the list somewhere …
This list must be seen as an uncompleted collection and the geolocation is sometimes a bit speculative. This work needs to be corrected and completed. So, do not hesitate to contact me if you have any suggestions.
The present fourth edition of this catalogue (January 2nd, 2014 ) is now translated into English; it comes after a third edition (February 26th, 2013), a second edition (March 29th, 2012) and a first edition (September 19th, 2011).