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“Ships of Kittim” Ply the Seas

“Ships of Kittim” Ply the Seas

“Ships of Kittim” Ply the Seas

THE eastern Mediterranean has witnessed numerous naval battles. Try to picture one encounter five centuries before Christ. A highly maneuverable ship called a trireme sails at full power. About 170 oarsmen in three banks are straining their powerful muscles as they row, sliding back and forth on leather cushions strapped to their buttocks.

At a speed of seven to nine knots [8-10 mph; 13-17 km/​hr], the ship cuts through the waves toward an enemy vessel. The target ship tries to get away. At the critical moment, it flounders, and its flank is exposed. The bronze-clad ram of the trireme plows into the other ship’s light hull. The crash of splintering planks and the sound of seawater gushing through the gaping hole terrify the enemy oarsmen. On the trireme, a small band of heavily armed warriors race along the center gangway to storm the stricken vessel. Yes, some ancient ships were indeed formidable!

Bible students have been intrigued by references, some prophetic, to “Kittim” and “the ships of Kittim.” (Numbers 24:24; Daniel 11:30; Isaiah 23:1) Just where was Kittim? What do we know about its ships? And why should the answers interest you?

The Jewish historian Josephus referred to Kittim as “Chethimos,” associating it with the island of Cyprus. The city of Kition (or, Citium) on the southeastern part of the island further links Kittim to Cyprus. Geographically located at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, Cyprus was ideally positioned to benefit from its proximity to maritime centers of the eastern Mediterranean. Forced by its geopolitical status to take sides between warring nations, Cyprus also became either a potent ally or a bothersome obstacle.

The Cypriots and the Sea

Archaeological evidence from marine excavations and tombs, as well as ancient writings and designs painted on pottery, helps us to visualize ships from Cyprus. The early Cypriots were skilled shipbuilders. Their island was thickly forested, and protective bays provided natural harbors. Trees were felled not only for building ships but also for use in smelting copper​—a natural resource that made Cyprus famous in the ancient world.

The vigorous export trade of Cyprus did not escape the attention of the Phoenicians, who established colonies at locations along their trade routes. One such settlement was Kition, in Cyprus.​—Isaiah 23:10-12.

After the fall of Tyre, some of its people evidently took refuge in Kittim. Likely, Phoenician colonizers with seafaring experience contributed greatly to the Cypriots’ naval technology. Kition’s strategic location also afforded excellent protection for Phoenician ships.

Involved in Brisk International Trade

Ancient trade activity in the eastern Mediterranean during this period was complex. Valuable commodities from Cyprus were transported by ship to Crete, Sardinia, and Sicily as well as to the islands of the Aegean. Jars and vases from Cyprus have been discovered in such locations, and fine Mycenaean (Grecian) pottery has been found in great quantities in Cyprus. Analyzing copper ingots discovered in Sardinia, some scholars believe that they came from Cyprus.

In 1982 a shipwreck from the late 14th century B.C.E. was found just off the coast of southern Turkey. Underwater excavations revealed a diverse treasure trove​—copper ingots that are believed to be from Cyprus, amber, Canaanite jars, ebony, elephant tusks, a collection of gold and silver Canaanite jewelry, and scarabs and other objects from Egypt. Analyzing the clay from pottery on board, some sources identify the ship as probably of Cypriot origin.

Interestingly, about the estimated time of this shipwreck, Balaam referred to ships from Kittim in his “proverbial utterance.” (Numbers 24:15, 24) Evidently, Cypriot ships had become well-known in the Middle East. What were these ships like?

Merchant Ships

Many clay models of ships and boats have been discovered in burial chambers at the ancient city of Amathus in Cyprus. These give valuable indications as to the types of Cypriot vessels, and some are on display in museums.

The models show that early ships were obviously used for peaceful trading. The smaller craft were usually powered by 20 oarsmen. The broad, deep hulls were designed to transport goods and passengers on short trips hugging the coast of Cyprus. Pliny the Elder mentions that the Cypriots designed a small, light ship that was oar propelled and that could carry up to 90 tons.

Then there were the larger merchant ships like the one found off the coast of Turkey. Some could carry up to 450 tons of cargo on the open seas. Large ships might have as many as 50 oarsmen, 25 on each side, and be 100 feet [30 meters] long with a mast over 30 feet [10 meters] high.

“Kittim” Warships in Bible Prophecy

The spirit of Jehovah was responsible for this pronouncement: “There will be ships from the coast of Kittim, and they will certainly afflict Assyria.” (Numbers 24:2, 24) Did this prediction come true? How were vessels from Cyprus involved in the fulfillment? Those “ships from the coast of Kittim” were not peaceful trading vessels that plied the Mediterranean Sea. They were warships bringing affliction.

As the needs of war changed, the basic designs were adapted to produce swifter and more powerful vessels. The earliest Cypriot warships were probably represented in a painting discovered in Amathus. It depicts a long slender ship with the stern curving upward and inward, similar to a Phoenician warship. It has a ram and circular shields on either side near the stern and toward the bow.

The eighth century B.C.E. saw the first biremes (ships with two tiers of oars) in Greece. These ships were about 80 feet [24 meters] long and 10 feet [3 meters] wide. At first, the ships were used to transport warriors, the actual fighting taking place on land. Before long, the advantage of adding a third tier of oars was recognized, and a bronze-clad ram was fitted to the bow. The new ship became known as a trireme, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. This type of ship gained prominence during the battle of Salamis (480 B.C.E.) when the Greeks defeated the Persian navy.

Later, Alexander the Great, in his quest for domination, mobilized his fleet of triremes eastward. Such ships were designed for battle, not for long voyages on the high seas, since there was limited room for storing supplies. This called for stops at Aegean islands for provisions and refits. Alexander’s aim was to destroy the Persian fleet. To succeed, however, he first had to overcome the formidable island fortress of Tyre. Cyprus was a stopover on the way.

The Cypriots rallied to Alexander the Great during the siege of Tyre (332 B.C.E.), providing a fleet of 120 ships. Three kings of Cyprus led fleets to join Alexander. They shared in a siege of Tyre that lasted seven months. Tyre fell, and Bible prophecy was fulfilled. (Ezekiel 26:3, 4; Zechariah 9:3, 4) To express his gratitude, Alexander granted special authority to the Cypriot kings.

A Remarkable Fulfillment

First-century historian Strabo relates that Alexander commissioned ships from Cyprus and Phoenicia for his campaign into Arabia. These ships were light and easy to dismantle, so they reached Thapsacus (Tiphsah) in northern Syria within just seven days. (1 Kings 4:24) From there it was possible to travel downriver to Babylon.

Hence, a seemingly obscure statement in the Bible had a remarkable fulfillment some ten centuries later! In line with the words of Numbers 24:24, the military machine of Alexander the Great advanced relentlessly eastward from Macedonia and conquered the land of Assyria, finally defeating the mighty Medo-Persian Empire.

Even the limited information we have on “the ships of Kittim” unmistakably points to a fascinating fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Such historical testimony strengthens our conviction that predictions found in the Bible can be trusted. Many such prophecies involve our very future, so we do well to take them seriously.

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Aegean Sea









[Picture on page 16]

Model of a Greek warship, a trireme

[Credit Line]

Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.

[Picture on page 17]

Model of an ancient Phoenician warship, a bireme

[Credit Line]

Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.

[Picture on page 17]

A vase depicting a Cypriot ship

[Credit Line]

Published by permission of the Director of Antiquities and the Cyprus Museum

[Picture on page 18]

Ancient cargo ships, such as those mentioned at Isaiah 60:9