For many people, Israel is at the top of their travel wish-lists. This tiny country has a long and complex history, with so many strands woven together: the Israelites, the Jewish story, the Biblical story, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire and that of modern Arab world. Its spiritual center, Jerusalem, is claimed by three of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—and for centuries it’s been the center of geo-political turmoil.
Israel is about the size of the US state of New Jersey, with a population of around 8 million (11 million if you add Gaza and the West Bank). Yet, it has a millennia-old civilization and so many layers of history that it would be nearly impossible to peel them all back.
Recently, we were lucky enough to visit Israel for the first time. My husband was invited to talk at a conference at the Dead Sea, and our hosts delighted in showing us as much of the country as we could fit into our short visit. Our main stops were Caesarea, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada, and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the Galilee due to an unseasonal snowstorm.
The first excursion was north of Tel Aviv to Caesarea, a metropolis in Roman times, with a port built by Herod the Great. Our guide was Danny Hermann, an archaeologist and an amazing fountain of knowledge. Along the route, we traveled through history—full of stories and the places that many of us heard in our childhood. For example, the Israelites lived in the mountains, the Philistines on the coast, and a famous battle between them was David and Goliath.
Caesarea through history:
As so often happens with historically strategic places, Caesarea was built on earlier ruins. The Phoenicians built a shoreline settlement, where the ground water level was high. The village flourished in the Hellenistic period (332-37 BC) and was first mentioned as Straton’s Tower. Around 100 BC, Alexander Jannaeus captured Straton’s Tower to develop the shipbuilding industry and enlarge the Hasmonean Kingdom. It remained a Jewish city until the Romans came in 63 BC, when it became the administrative center of the Judaea Province of the Roman Empire.
In 30 BC, it was awarded to Herod the Great, who ruled between 37-4 BC. There were many changes to the city under his rule, such as renaming the city Caesarea to honor the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.
In 22 BC, Herod began constructing a harbor, as there wasn’t one between Egypt and Beirut. It was a huge achievement in and of itself, and he knew that it was an vital mid-point along the Mediterranean coast. Herod also realized that he could collect many taxes for this service, and he was known as a great tax collector for the Romans. Between 25-13 BC, Herod also built storerooms, markets, wide roads, baths, temples, a theater, a hippodrome, and imposing public buildings. The remains of many of these are still visible today and make up the Caesarea National Park.
Caesarea was important until the Crusades, and the subsequent sacking by the Mamelukes. It was then largely abandoned, except for small groups of people dedicated primarily to fishing. After the state of Israel was established in 1948, excavations started in Caesarea. It’s an extensive site with enough unearthed around the harbor area to offer a good idea of what this port city was in its heyday.
Caesarea is an amazing site because of the continuity in its history. It’s not only interesting for Jewish history but also for Bible/Christian history. For example, Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for about two years and was sent from here to be tried in Rome.
We first stopped at the Bird Mosaic House, a former mansion on the hills overlooking the sea (now the modern rich want to live around here). It must have been a beautiful dwelling, as the mosaic floors are still glorious—panels with all kinds of birds, and edgings with animals. The aqueduct is another feat in engineering, as it was the conduit that brought in water from the Carmel Mountains.
We spent 2-3 hours rambling around the old port city. We started at the south gate by the theater, and strolled through the city, past Herod’s Palace, a prison (where Paul was probably kept), and the public latrines at the entrance to the hippodrome. Other sites we appreciated along the way included the governor’s palace, the bath houses—hot, tepid, cold—many of which contained marble and mosaic floor, marble-paved streets, and special buildings constructed for lawyers and accountants. Supposedly, there was a large library, but that has yet to be found. The imposing Crusader walls and moat, built by King Louis IX of France upon arriving on the 7th Crusade, are around the harbor and its vicinity and were once covered with sand.
The original harbor built under Herod was huge, but only about 20-25% remains today. The hill overlooking the area consists of four layers of ruins: First, there was a Roman temple, built to honor Rome and Augustus, followed by an octagonal church (special because the first non-Jew, a centurion, was baptized here), then a mosque and finally a large, 3-apse church.
At the Visitors’ Center at the edge of the harbor, we watched two movies about the history and development of Caesarea through the ages and compared its past with what it has become today: a very up-market city, with homes of the rich and famous.