A Reality at Last : Ma’agan Mikhael Ancient Ship Museum

Long before the birth of Elisha Linder, founder and former head of the University of Haifa’s Center for Maritime Studies, Theodor Herzl, the founding father of the Zionist Movement, coined the phrase “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Linder, a member of Kibbutz Ma’agan Mikhael, dreamt for years of finding an ancient ship and salvaging it from the sea.

Towards this end, he spent his summer vacations in places like Italy and Crete searching for boat wrecks from Phoenician times.

Little did he imagine that his dream would be realized less than a hundred meters offshore from the kibbutz which is his home.

In 1988, while Linder was in Italy, fellow kibbutznik Ami Eshed came across some underwater stones which suggested that there might be a ship below.

Dating back 2,400 years, it turned out to be one of the oldest ships discovered.

The problem was that the kibbutz did not have the resources to salvage it.

In 1987 Lord Jacobs, then Sir Anthony Jacobs, gave his first donation to the University of Haifa. It was not earmarked, and after he was prodded to decide where it should go, he allocated 10% to the Center for Maritime Studies.

Four months later Linder went to London to see him, under the impression that Sir Anthony was keenly interested in maritime archaeology.

That was not exactly the case, but when reminded where his gift had gone, Sir Anthony sat down to listen to Linder’s request.

When he heard how much the project would cost, his immediate reaction was “Forget it.”

Six months later, Linder returned.

At this point Sir Anthony had been won over and asked how Linder would feel if the funding for the project was spread over five years.

Linder instantly made a deal.

During the salvage operations, Jacobs joined the professional divers to look at the vessel at close quarters.

He was on hand when it was finally lifted out of the water. A piece of the wood broke off. It was pine wood. Linder told him to smell it. Even though it was 2,400 years old, it smelled “as if I’d just cut it off the tree,” said Lord Jacobs at the dedication this week of the Ma’agan Mikhael Ancient Ship Elisha Linder Museum adjacent to the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa.

Jacobs and his wife, Lady Evelyn, declined to have the ship museum named in their honor, declaring that the honor belonged to Linder for his tireless preseverence.

Although his name is on the plaque at the entrance to the museum. Linder chose not to keep the glory for himself but to share it with his colleagues, family and friends. He recalled that forty years ago the late Commander Yossele Dror had dedicated a tiny museum at Ma’agan Mikhael which exhibited the finds of fishermen and former Navy commandos who became the nucleus of the Undersea Exploration Society of Israel.

It was amazing, Linder marveled, that the ancient ship was found at the very spot where marine archaeology in this country began.

Aside from financial assistance and moral encouragement which he received from Lord Jacobs, there was no less encouragement from University President Professor Yehuda Hayuth, “our partner in its fullest meaning, with whom we have the sea as a common denominator,” and from Vice-president for Development Yael Metser.

But the highest praise was for Dr. Ya’acov Kahanoc who was once Linder’s student, then his research assistant, then his associate and finally his full-fledged partner who has taken over the curatorship of the museum. “My student overgrew his teacher,” said Linder. “I could not have dreamt of a better friend, partner and successor.”

Both Linder and Kahanov announced that the museum will be a living laboratory over the next few years during which period the boat which was found in an outstanding state of preservation will be reassembled.

“We have to sort out this big puzzle which came without instructions and a lot of questions,” said Kahanov. The ship suffered from unknown distortions and additional shrinkage during its ten years of conservation.

The ship will be reassembled on a temporary, flexible and adjustable scaffolding. The project will cast new light on ancient shipbuilding techniques.

Linder plans to build a replica of the ship that will said along and across the Mediterranean, suing the ancient navigational routes and methods. He invited students, lecturers and researchers will be invited to come aboard on the maiden voyage. The vessel, he said, will serve as an ambassador of goodwill and peace.

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