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Caesarea National Park

Caesarea is an impressive archeological site. So, how does one make this ancient city come to life in a meaningful way in just a few hours?

 

It is very helpful to start with the question – what was this city built for? This is not a question asked about most cities. Cities are built to live in! But this was not how Herod the Great conceived this city. He built it for two reasons. One was to project his grandeur, influence and political power. The other was to construct the only large port between Alexandria in Egypt and ports in Syria (although this port also reflects his grandeur). This harbor of Sebastos was one of the most impressive harbors in antiquity, rivaling that of Cleopatra’s harbor in Alexandria, and making Caesarea a major center of trade.

 

These two concepts are apparent in two groups of buildings that between them cover much of Caesarea. One conceptually and physically-linked group consists of the Promontory Palace, theater and auditorium. The other group is the harbor and a temple to the goddess Roma and god-king Augustus (for whom this city was named). The temple platform had projecting wings on the north and south that embraced the inner harbor and made it into one unit. They were also linked by a monumental staircase. The breakwaters for Herod’s harbor eventually became submerged and the temple was pulled down in 400 CE. The breakwaters for Herod’s harbor have since become submerged and the temple was pulled down in 400 CE. The breakwaters were subsequently repaired by the Crusaders, although only the foundation of the temple is present.

 

The Promontory Palace was an audacious project, extending almost into the sea, and this is where Herod would entertain his important guests. The theater was where audiences would come from near and far to be entertained and from where Herod could also display his political power. The hippodrome was designed for chariot racing, and was also used for athletic competitions. Later in history there were gladiator fights and fighting wild beasts. Both the theater and hippodrome were built in 10/9 BCE for the 192nd Olympiad, and this event recurred every four years.

 

In sum, Herod made Caesarea into the grandest and second most important city in Judea after Jerusalem. The city is also a case study on this megalomaniac character.

 

My advice is to first understand the major aspects of Caesaria’s history; and the easiest way to do this is through the two movies shown here, although the location of the movies and their subject-matter do not reflect the grouping discussed above.

 

Directions: Enter into Waze “Caesarea National Park.” This will bring you to the parking area by the main entrance. If you wish to see the movie at Time Treck first, park in the eastern parking lot. Enter “חניון מזרחי קיסריה “ into Waze.

DirectionsEnter into Waze “Caesarea National Park.” This will bring you to the parking area by the main entrance. If you wish to see the movie at Time Treck first, park in the eastern parking lot. Enter “חניון מזרחי קיסריה “ into Waze.

Admission: : The park is open from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and Saturday and 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. on Friday during the summer. The park closes one hour earlier in the winter. There is an admission charge. The harbor is open every day until the late-night hours but payment is only during normal operating hours. This enables you to use the restaurants into late. The Harbor Visitor Center is open from 8.30 a.m. until 1 hour before the park closes. Their phone number is 04 626 2056. This is their website.

Public transport: Enter “Caesarea National Park” into Moovit. There is a close bus stop at Sedot Yam. There is also a bus from Tzomet Binyamina to the park. Otherwise, it is about a 2.5-Km/31-minute walk.

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Ruins of the harbor.

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This webpage focuses on 6 areas – 1. The Harbor; 2. The Caesarea Harbor Visitors’ Center which includes a movie; 3. The hippodrome; 4.  Time Treck with its movie; 5. The theater; and 6. The Promontory Palace. For the many other areas on this site, see the brochure.

 

  • Waze will direct you to the main parking area adjacent to the main entrance to the National Park. Be sure to request a brochure with a map. The map in the brochure Caesarea Harbor National Park happens to be the best map to follow. even though it is in Hebrew; the other aerial maps are confusing. An argument can be made to go to the southern entrance early in your visit in order to see the historical movie at Time Track. This way you have a historical perspective on the ruins. Older kids will also enjoy it. However, make sure you have the show times figured out in your language or you will spend time just hanging around. Look at the times below.

 

  • From the main entrance, you will immediately come to an area with restaurants and a WC. Continue ahead to the harbor for a splendid view of the sea front. You can also walk along the promontory that projects into the sea.

 

How did he do it? How did Herod’s builders take an open area of seafront and convert it into a deep-sea inner and outer harbor. They first made two 500 yard breakwaters with the entrance to the harbor between them. They used an unusual form of cement made from a special type of volcanic ash, which they had to import, and which was mixed with slaked lime. This form of cement must have had the reputation of being suitable for sea water. He also used a local kurkar stone as ruble. To make the northern breakwater, carpenters constructed bottomless wooden crates which were floated out to sea. The crates sank to the seafloor and its corners were staked down. It was then filled with cement and ruble until it rose above sea level. The southern breakwater was in a more exposed position regarding the sea and barges filled with the concrete were sunk on location.

 

Warehouses were built on the breakwaters, as well as promenades that gave access to ships in the harbor basin. Herod’s engineers also built an outer breakwater to diminish the force of the sea. The harbor took 12 years to build and was named Sebastos after the Emperor Augustus.

 

So where are these breakfronts today?  Herod was not to know this but his harbor was built along a geological fault line along the coast which over time caused his breakwaters to tilt and settle into the seabed. They are now 5 meters below the surface. However, between the 11th to 12th centuries, the harbor was restored by the Crusaders after hundreds of years of neglect.

  • Walk back towards the Caesarea Harbor Visitors’ Center. This is located in historical vaults and it offers media displays, historical exhibits, archaeological artifacts, and a visual display about King Herod. The movie is about his family problems and the treacherous actions of his wife and two sons.

There are many things one can talk about regarding Herod the Great (see the essay below). However, although the movie shown here is entertaining and suitable for older kids, his family problems are the least important aspect of this city and not particularly relevant. What Herod tried to do was to compartmentalize his country.  He built a beautiful Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem. He built the city of Sebaste in Samaria for the Samaritans. He wanted a splendid city to demonstrate his allegiance to Rome, that would bring Roman culture into the country and would bring trade and wealth into Judea. He named it Caesarea after the emperor Augustus, which was common practice among client kings and local rulers in the Roman world.  His city included a temple to the emperor Augustus and the goddess Roma and other aspects of Roman culture such as a theater and hippodrome. But this was not what the Jews wanted. They did not want Roman paganism and culture in their country - and they hated him for it.

 

The Jews wanted Judea totally Jewish as in the days of the Hasmoneans (two of whom Herod had already murdered). His wife Miriam was both Jewish and Hasmonean. His two sons by Miriam were Jewish (Herod was only half-Jewish by his converted father). This was a set-up for family intrigue and revolution. There were good reasons that Herod was paranoid about his safety. 

  • Walk towards the Hippodrome and then towards the city’s most southern complex. You can hardly miss the Hippodrome since it is 450 meter long. You can either walk along the path by the seafront or walk above it via the Roman bathhouse.

 

This hippodrome was built was built by Herod and was used for chariot and horse racing and sports. Hippos is a Greek word meaning horse and dromos Greek for course. These activities were very popular in the Roman world and would have been part of the city’s cultural and social life for residents and visitors. The hippodrome was oval in shape with tiered seating and had a central barrier adorned with statues and obelisks. Each race was seven laps and concluded in front of the officials’ tribune.

 

A hippodrome is not the same as an amphitheater. An amphitheater was a round, smaller structure used for gladiator games and hunting games with wild and hungry animals. A good example is in Beit Guvrin. Herod would never have built anything like this since these type of blood sports are totally un-Jewish. However, towards the end of the Roman period, the southern end of the hippodrome was converted into a round amphitheater. It is recorded that after the Jewish Revolt of 70 CE, 2,500 captives were slaughtered in gladiatorial games in Caesarea and this is likely where they took place. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was executed during the Hadrianic persecutions in Caesarea for teaching Torah. He was tortured before his death with iron combs flaying his skin and he died with the words of the shema prayer on his lips. It is likely that he was executed in either the hippodrome or its amphitheater section.

 

  • Now head to the Time Treck in its own separate building just beyond the rest rooms at the southern entrance/exit of the park. A movie is shown about the history of Caesarea. This is a must-see, since it explains very nicely the entire history of Caesarea. It’s a shame, though, that the movie is shown by the southern entrance rather than by the main entrance, where it would have been a more useful introduction to this site. Note the times of showing of the movie, otherwise you could waste a lot of time hanging around. It is shown in Hebrew on weekdays at regular intervals from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on weekends at 11.15 a.m., 12.15 p.m. and 3.15 p.m.  It is shown in English on weekdays at 11.15 a.m., 12.15 p.m. and 3.15 p.m. and at weekends from 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. 

  • Now head to the Reef or Promontory Palace. No one is certain who built it, but most likely it was the handiwork of Herod the Great. It is worth thinking about what this building implies.

 

The person who built this palace on a reef premonitory projecting into the sea was clearly someone with grandiose ideas for whom nature was only an obstacle to be overcome. The palace had two sections – an Upper Palace and Lower Palace. The Lower Palace adjoined the sea and has been mainly worn away by sea exposure but the outlines of its swimming pool can be made out. Its freshwater was fed from the aqueduct to the city. East of the pool was a two-storied building, with a central dining room looking out onto the pool and side rooms.

 

A staircase led to the Upper Palace. This has been preserved more because it became covered with sand. Unlike the Lower Palace it had more public functions, namely judicial and administrative, and the reception and entertainment of dignitaries. Paul of Tarsus was probably imprisoned here before he was transferred to Rome. All this changed completely towards the end of the Roman period when the Upper Palace was partitioned into private dwellings. It was totally abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period.

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The spectators' stand of the hippodrome.

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Outline of the freshwater swimming pool that was in the Lower Palace.

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The deep sea port shown in the Time Treck.

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Reconstructed plan of the Lower Palace

HEROD THE GREAT

 

(From my book "In and Around Jerusalem for Everyone. The Best Walks, Hikes and Outdoor Pools")

 

Herod ruled Judea, Samaria and the Galilee from 37 to 4 BCE. Most of his Jewish subjects hated him. Nevertheless, it is possible to see both positive and negative aspects to his reign. Many of these would impact the Jewish people well after his death.

 

Herod succeeded in bringing prosperity to a favored semi-independent province of Rome. He was genuinely concerned about the welfare and religious freedom of his Jewish subjects, and Judaism was able to flourish under the leadership of sages such as Hillel and Shammai. He rebuilt the Temple, and this magnificent edifice brought knowledge of monotheism to the entire Roman world. This encouraged conversions to Judaism and laid the ground for the proselytizing of the early Christians. 

On the other hand, he delivered his country to Rome and destroyed any hope of Jewish independence. He eliminated all members of the Hasmonean dynasty even when they were his own flesh and blood. His appointment of high priests diminished the prestige of the priesthood and encouraged corruption. The large sums of money flowing into his kingdom aggravated social tensions.  

 

Attempting to analyze his psychological state also leads in contradictory directions. He was a cruel and vindictive egomaniac. Yet these same attributes enabled him to keep a tight lid on Jewish aspirations for independence, maintain peace throughout his reign, and bring fame and wealth to his kingdom. 

 

He was raised as a Jew in Rome. His father, Antipater, was from a noble family in Idumaea who had converted to Judaism with his family when the Maccabees conquered Idumaea and forcibly converted the population. Herod's mother was Nabatean. Many in his kingdom regarded him as no more than half-Jewish.  

 

The Hasmoneans destroyed their own dynasty, and with it hopes for Jewish independence when the two sons of Alexander Yannai engaged in a civil war for kingship. This struggle allowed Antipater to take control of Judea by becoming an advisor to one of the brothers, Hyrcanus, and by strongly allying Hyrcanus' kingdom with Rome. Antipater was poisoned, but Herod would follow the devious machinations of his father and his strong pro-Roman policies.

When the Parthians invaded Judea and defeated the legions of Rome, Antigonus, a nephew of Hyrcanus, reopened the previous rift in the family by allying with the Parthians and taking over Jerusalem. Hyrcanus accepted the situation, but Herod, who by now had a governmental role, escaped to Rome and persuaded his childhood friend Mark Anthony to appoint him king of the Jews with the intention of realigning the Jewish kingdom with Rome. The Roman Senate ratified his appointment. Herod then raised an army and spent the next 3 years fighting Antigonus until he succeeded in conquering Jerusalem. Antigonus was beheaded and his supporters were massacred.

Following the assassination of Julius Cesar, Mark Anthony and Octavian vied for power, and in the Battle of Actium the forces of Mark Anthony were defeated and Mark Anthony committed suicide. Octavian renamed himself Augustus and began the process of changing Rome from a republic to an empire. Herod had been the protégé of Mark Anthony but he ingratiated himself with Augustus who saw the usefulness of such a ruthless person and a close friendship developed between them. This close friendship was advantageous to both during Herod's 34-year reign.

 

Herod maintained his close connections to Rome by adopting the ways of a Roman aristocrat. His palaces displayed the best of Roman décor and he entertained guests to Herodium in his theater and fed them with the finest of imported foods and wines. 

To satisfy his egomania and curry favor with his subjects, Herod began building on a lavish scale. The best technological building skills of the Roman Empire were brought to his kingdom. For the Jews, he built a tomb over the Cave of Machpela, the site where the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs were buried, and rebuilt the Temple. Jews from throughout the Empire flocked to its precincts. Its construction was one of the wonders of the Roman world and Jerusalem became famous as a tourist site, even for non-Jews. For the pagans in his kingdom, he built Sabastia in Samaria and the port of Caesarea.

 

His personal life was a shamble. He was fond of women and had 10 wives. He married Miriam, a granddaughter of the Maccabean Hyrcanus, to provide legitimacy to his rule. However, he was paranoid, perhaps with some justification, of a Hasmonean attempt to return to power. He appointed Miriam's brother, Aristobulus III, as High Priest, but when Aristobulus flaunted his popularity Herod invited him to his winter palace in Jericho and drowned him in a pool. He genuinely loved Miriam, but she was associated with a palace intrigue and he had her put to death. Whether Mariamne was actually guilty of conspiring against Herod or if she was framed due to Herod's paranoia is a matter of historical debate. There are no contemporary records that definitively establish her guilt or innocence, and much of what we know about her comes from later historical accounts. His two sons by Miriam were also suspected of treachery and were strangled.

Following his death, no ruler after him was able to replicate his ability to create some form of modus vivendi between Jewish and Roman culture. Not his son Herod Archelaus who reigned after him, but who was fired by Augustus for cruelty and divisiveness. And not the Roman procurators appointed by Rome who lacked the sensitivity to dampen the messianic yearnings of the Jewish people. Within 74 years of his death the Jews had revolted against Rome in the Great Revolt of 70 CE. The glorious Temple he had erected was destroyed and the Jerusalem he had helped beautify was burned to the ground. 

Caesarea and its Christian and Jewish associations

 

Caesarea was once a sleepy Jewish village known as Stratton’s Tower. It had been part of the Phoenician trading empire and was conquered by the Hasmoneans in the 1st century BCE. When the Roman Empire annexed Judea in 63 BCE, it was declared an autonomous city. Between 25 to 13 BCE, the vassal king of Judea, Herod the Great, decided to build a city here that would be as Roman as any Roman city, down to the last temple. It would have everything a major Roman city would have, including running water, Roman baths, a theater, a hippodrome and an incredible deep-sea harbor on a coastline that had no natural barriers for such a port. He called the city after the Roman Caesar, Augustus Caesar, who had put him in power.

 

When Herod died, administration of the country passed to Roman officials, including the Roman procurator Antonius Felix and prefect Pontius Pilatus, it was only natural then that Caesarea would become the capital of the country and its administrative center, rather than Jerusalem. It became the largest city in Judea. It was predominantly non-Jewish, although Jews still lived here.

 

During the Byzantine period, it became an important center for early Christianity.

 

Of the 12 apostles, Peter in particular had a considerable influence on the spread of Christianity. According to the New Testament, while in Jaffa and staying at the home of Simon the Tanner he had a vision: “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven” (Acts 10:11-16).

 

Following this vision, Peter received messengers to visit a Roman centurion in Caesarea called Cornelius. Cornelius had also received a vision from God: “Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’” Peter explained to those gathered in Caesarea about the resurrection of Jesus and they were all baptized.

 

This story is important because it shows the movement of early Christianity beyond its Jewish roots and Jewish law. These visions appear to be announcing that Christianity is as much as for the gentiles as for the Jews and that both can abandon the Jewish dietary laws designed to increase individual holiness. Despite this story, there is considerable evidence that the early Jewish Christians never abandoned their practice of Jewish law, although they had no problem with gentiles not accepting Jewish law.

 

Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for 2 years (around 57 to 59 CE) as described in Acts. He was tried before Roman governors. It is possible that he was kept in a prison by the Upper Palace.  After the Herodian period an underground cistern was converted into a prison. A courtroom was also built nearby. This area has been identified and excavated.

 

Following his trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. He was shipwrecked on the way in Malta but reached Rome where he was put under house arrest. While in Rome he continued to preach the Christian message. Tradition and early Christian writings suggest that he was eventually put on trial in Rome and executed as part of the persecution of early Christians.

 

Caesarea began as a Jewish village, although it became predominantly non-Jewish. According to the historian Josephus, the Great Revolt against Rome in 66CE began in Caesarea and was provoked by the Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue. Caesarea became a battleground and Jews would be massacred by the Roman governor early in the revolt. During the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, Jewish communities lived in and around the city. A synagogue is among the ruins found in Caesarea to the north of the northern exit, and this might well have been the location of the Jewish Quarter.  

 

Caesarea fell to Muslim forces in the 7th century CE and declined as a port city. It was conquered by Baldwin I in the First Crusade in 1101 and it remained under Crusader control until 1187, and then again between 1191 and 1265. The place was mainly neglected during the Ottoman period. In 1952 the Jewish town of Caesarea was established 1-2 Km north of the ruins of the old city, and these ruins were incorporated into the newly-created Caesarea National Park in 2011.

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The Roman theater in Caesarea.

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The Roman theater shown in the movie in the Time Treck.

Other nearby activities

 

The two Ralli Museums in Caesarea are set in a 40,000 square meter property and are aimed, together with 5 other Ralli museums throughout the world, to disseminate knowledge of contemporary Latin American art. They were founded by Harry Recanati. The museums are dedicated to the memory of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition and the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which was almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust. One museum has five exhibit halls, a sculptural square with sculptures by famous European artists such as Dali and Rodin and Latin-American sculptors and sculptural garden. The second museum has four stories with paintings on Biblical themes created by European artists pf the 16th to 18th centuries. A fountain is surrounded by marble statues of Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and Spinoza. Both museums effectively integrate the visual arts of architecture, sculpture and painting.

 

Directions: Enter “Ralli Museum” into Waze and click on “Ralli Museum, Caesarea.” The museums are closed Sunday and Wednesday and are open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 10.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., Friday 10.30 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. and holiday eves 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Entrance is free. Their phone number is 04 626 1013. This is one of their websites.

Caesarea has 15 beaches. Two worthy of consideration are the beach within the National Park and Hof Shonit. A swim in park can, of course, be conveniently combined with the rest of the archeological park and can be a nice incentive for the kids.

 

The former is in a calm cove in the ancient harbor. It has a lifeguard on duty in season, showers, chairs and umbrellas. There is no extra charge other than the park admission. WCs are those for the entire park and are close by. The closest entrance is via the northern entrance to the park.  

 

A popular beach is Hof Shonit or Reef Beach. It has a lifeguard, WCs and cold showers, refreshment stand, restaurant, and structures providing shade. There is also the nearby Neve Yam Waterpark with jacuzzies, large waterslides, children’s world with slide and pools for toddlers, lawn and sun beds. There is an admission charge. The phone number for the waterpark is 04 984 1885.

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