HMS Friday: So Where The Hell is Tarshish?

by Mark Lukach

From 1 Kings 10:22, “For the king had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.”

"Jonah boat to Tarshish" by Ruth Coleman

According to ancient traditions, Tarshish was an exceptionally wealthy trading town. Like out-of-this-world wealthy. So rich that, according to one source, Phoenecian traders would show up, abandon their iron anchors, and sail home with anchors made of silver, just to squeeze as much wealth out of each visit. The place was that rich. Sort of like Dubai and Monaco and Wall Street all bundled into one. Much of the wealth accumulated by King Solomon, who reigned over the most prosperous era in all of Israeli history, is believed to have originated in Tarshish.

Sounds awesome, right?

But no one knows where it is.There is no modern city called “Tarshish.” There are a whole bunch of coastal towns that have names that are kind of close to Tarshish, but none with the exact same name. And none of those kind-of-named-Tarshish cities have recorded histories which indicate that it was one of the wealthiest cities of all time.

A major, complicaing factor is the issue of extinct languages. We know the city as Tarshish because of modern translations from the Old Testament, but dozens of languages, both ancient and modern, have different names for the city.

In all of this confusion, there are five, count that, FIVE, theories explain where Tarshish might be.

  • Theory 1: Spain. is so damn convinced that Tarshish was in Spain that they actually have a map of Tarshish, with about two dozen Bible quotes that have absolutely no indication that the Tarshish was in Spain, but are presented like some sort of proof. In truth, Spain kind of makes sense. Much of what we know about Tarshish comes from the Old Testament, particularly passages that relate to the reign of King Solomon. And in light of this, if we are talking ancient Israeli sailors, they probably weren’t going too far, and the edge of the Mediterranean (aka Spain) seems like a great place for a distant, uber-wealthy city.
  • Theory 2: India. This one is a bit more of a stretch, because of how far away India is from Israel. The ancient Israelis were not that into naval exploration, and had very crude nautical technology. For example, they often had to row against the wind, because they could not figure out how to work sails properly. But…..look at that Bible quote again: “ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” Not too many of those in Spain, but plenty of those in India. Abundance of ivory, apes, and peacocks in India.
  • Theory 3: Knossos. Immanuel Velikovsky, one of the most significant historians of ancient Israel, is absolutely and entirely convinced that Tarshish refers to the island of Crete, and especially the capital city of Knossos. By piecing together an incredibly complex array of obscure Bible passages, Velikovsky believes that through about 10 different trade routes, those Indian goods found their way to Knossos, and that is where the Israelis would have encountered them.
  • Theory 4: Mines in Assyria. Apparently “Tarshish” might have meant “furnace,” and so it’s possible that Tarshish wasn’t actually a town, but more just a collection of mines located outside of Phoenecia in Assyria. This is kind of a let down of a theory, because that pops the whole illusion of a magical, rich city. But just because it’s not exciting, doesn’t mean that it’s not a possibility.
  • Theory 5: Tarshish is actually Atlantis. This is a fun one to consider. The reason we don’t know what happened to Tarshish is because it just disappeared under the sea. The descriptions between the two cities are pretty consistent–absurd wealth, nautical powerhouse, and then inexplicably gone. And National Geography recently produced a movie that kind of, sort of implies that Tarshish and Atlantis are one and the same. If that’s the case, we have a opened a whole new can of worms.

And then there’s actually a sixth theory. This one is the biggest let down of them all: There is no Tarshish. “Tarshish” in ancient Greek means “oars.” Which means that “the navy of Tarshish” simply translates to, “the navy of oars.” Or in other words, pretty much all merchants. So of course “the navy of Tarshish” was bringing fantastic goods back to Israel….because that phrase was a generic reference to all merchant ships trading throughout the world. Sigh.

So where the hell is Tarshish? Actually, the real question is where the hell was Tarshish? Or even worse, was there even a Tarshish?

This all started when I read about the anchors made out of silver, and after having done too much research on the topic, I am no closer to understanding where Tarshish might have been located, or if it even existed.

Sometimes history will do that to you. Sometimes you’ll dig and dig and dig, and have the Indiana Jones moment where you uncover the answer. But just as often, you dig and dig and dig, and you find yourself at the bottom of a big hole, with no answers, and not even a clear idea of why you started digging in the first place.

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