The Jewish Traveler: Caesarea
Today a suburban enclave for the Jewish state’s elite, this seaside metropolis recalls a history of Roman splendor, Crusader warfare and Muslim refuge.
King Herod, the greatest builder of the ancient world, erected a city on the Mediterranean Sea that was as beautiful as its engineering was daring.
Now, 60 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Caesarea—halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa— incorporates the architectural and engineering feats of nearly two millennia, recreation and leisure facilities unparalleled in the country and a modern residential area fit for a king. All these are set against the bluest of waters and the crash of breakers on the glistening white beaches.
This port city dating from the fifth or fourth centuries B.C.E. was first named Strato’s Tower, probably after its founder, a Phoenician ruler. Alexander Yannai captured it soon after he became king of Judea in 103 B.C.E., and it remained part of the Hasmonean kingdom for nearly 40 years, until the Romans declared it an autonomous city.
Around 31 B.C.E., the emperor Augustus gave it to Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, who renamed the city Caesarea. Herod enlarged the city, walled it and built a deep seaport—the largest port in the ancient world and an amazing feat of engineering—using a Roman-invented cement that hardened in water. He also built an aqueduct, storerooms, markets, wide roads, baths, temples, a theater and luxurious public buildings. Half the residents were Jews, and though Herod built Caesarea as a Roman city that hosted major sports competitions, gladiator games and theatrical productions, he was cognizant of Jewish practices during construction. For example, he included mikves in the Roman bathhouses he introduced into the region.
From 6 C.E., Caesarea was the seat of Judea’s Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate, and it remained the capital of Palestine throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods. After the Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70 C.E.)—in which 20,000 of Caesarea’s Jews were killed and Jerusalem was razed—Caesarea became the most important city in the province.
During the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135), Rabbi Akiva was among the prominent Jewish leaders martyred in Caesarea. After the revolt, the Jewish community dwindled, reviving only in the third century, when Jews were farmers, textile manufacturers and traders. The Talmud mentions prominent rabbis and refers to a synagogue near the harbor where prayers were said in Greek. But following the Jewish revolt against the emperor Gallus, in 351-352, the synagogue was destroyed.
Caesarea was at its largest in the Byzantine period and was the last city of Palestine to fall to the Muslims in 640. Arabic sources say the Jews showed the Muslims the way into the fortified town. By 1170, only 20 Jews lived there.
For most of the 12th century, and again from 1218 to 1265, Crusaders held Caesarea. They built fortifications, a harbor inside Herod’s larger one and a cathedral. The Crusader remains visible today, including high walls, are from 1251-1252.
In 1265, the city was destroyed by the Mameluke conqueror Baybars, and it remained in ruins until 1884, when Muslim refugees fleeing Bosnia after that region’s fall to the Austro-Hungarian empire established a fishing village there. The Arabic-speaking residents were routed in Israel’s War of Independence. A few houses and parts of the mosque are still visible.
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Baron Edmond de Rothschild and the Jewish Colonization Association bought large tracts in the area. After 1948, the Rothschilds transferred the land to the state and established a foundation to contribute to education, arts and culture. The foundation, held in equal parts by the family and the state, is funded by the sale of land in Caesarea.
oday, Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, the great-grandson of the benefactor, is the chairman of the foundation’s operating arm, the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Development Corporation Ltd. (CDC). The corporation manages the residential area, the adjacent industrial park (which includes high technology and other enterprises as well as Rostam, sole supplier of WalMart’s private-label tampons) and the tourism area—Caesarea harbor.
Israel’s founding “aristocracy,” including architect and interior designer Dora Gad and fashion designer Lola Beer, both now deceased, were among the original residents of Caesarea’s oldest neighborhood, which faces Herod’s aqueduct and the sea. Homes there are set on large lots and hidden discreetly behind bougainvillea-covered walls; lots start at $3 million. New owners are replacing some of the older, more modest homes with larger, gaudier ones.
More recent neighborhoods are populated by well-heeled immigrants from the United States, Britain, France and Russia (including billionaire businessman and aspiring politician Arkadi Gaydamak) and by Israel’s newly affluent, among them doctors and high-tech entrepreneurs. A lot abutting the golf course (Israel’s only 18-holer) costs $1 million. Though many of the McMansions are Modernist and don’t call attention to themselves, some shout their presence with ornamentation inspired by the Alhambra or Greek temples.
A gated community with pedestrian and bike paths lined with rich greenery, Caesarea has some 1,200 households comprising about 4,000 residents, including 1,000 children. According to the local rabbi, American-born Dov Kaplan, about 3 percent of the residents attend services at one of the two synagogues, which are Orthodox but tolerate diversity in personal religious practice. The rabbi prepares boys for bar mitzva; his wife work with the girls for a collective bat mitzva held on Shavuot.
The CDC has resisted unification with Caesarea’s poorer neighbor, the development town Or Akiva, and recently built an earthen rampart to separate itself from its even less well-to-do Arab neighbor, Jisser a-Zarka.
The harbor and many of the antiquities and attractions are within Caesarea National Park to the south of the residential area and west of the golf course. From Tel Aviv, follow the coastal road (No. 2) north. Take the Caesarea exit and follow the signs. Guided tours must be arranged in advance (011-972-4-626-7080). For tourist and all other information, visit www.caesarea.org.il) or call 972-4-617-4444 (the first sentence of the message, in Hebrew, is followed by instructions in English).
Enter through the theater gate at the park’s southern end. Directly ahead is Herod’s 4,000-seat theater facing the sea. In the Byzantine period, it had a pool for water shows. In modern times, the restored theater has been the venue for ballet and opera performances and concerts by a variety of performers, including Paul Simon and Jethro Tull.
Pass a landscaped area with archaeological artifacts, notably sarcophagi, and continue toward the sea to the sandstone promontory where Herod built his palace. It had a panoramic view of the city and the harbor and was easily protected. The upper palace featured an audience hall and a central courtyard with a colonnade, surrounded by rooms. The lower palace surrounded a rock-cut pool and included a Roman sauna and hall flanked by two rooms. Both levels were richly decorated with geometric mosaics.
Retrace your steps to see the hippodrome—in Herod’s time it was open to the sea—where chariot races, athletic competitions, gladiatorial combat and hunting were held. Note the reproduced mural of wild animals.
To the east are excavations that include a Roman bathhouse and the Cardo (the main street) as well as a Byzantine mansion that had a sunken garden.
Continue north. To your right, a Roman-era arcade houses galleries and shops. Straight ahead is a grassy area where movies are screened in the summer.
Before sand filled this area, it was part of Herod’s port, where ships docked right in front of warehouses. Above the warehouses stood the temple Herod built in honor of Augustus and Roma, the patron deity of Rome. The temple, flanked by a colonnade, was coated with stucco and marble chips so that it gleamed in the sunlight and looked as though it was made of solid marble; it was even visible to mariners far out to sea.
In the Byzantine age, the temple was replaced by an octagonal cathedral, and in the Muslim period, a mosque replaced the cathedral. The remains of the Crusader city are in this part of the park: The 13th-century Crusader wall, moat and gate are just to the east.
Restaurants and cafés surround the grassy area; to the west is a newer mosque, a remnant of the Bosnian village. On the pier just west of the mosque is the multimedia Caesarea Experience, where a short film puts Caesarea’s conquerors and their cultures in historical perspective. Across the hall, Rabbi Akiva is one of several life-size holographic figures who will answer visitors’ questions about their lives and their connection to Caesarea. Ask Akiva how he became a rabbi and he will answer: “I owe this to my beloved wife, Rachel. She believed I could become a scholar. I started at the age of 40.”
In the nearby Time Tower, a computerized 3-D animation display offers a more detailed understanding of Herod’s construction.
Continue west to the Caesarea Diving Club, put on a wet suit and dive into the world’s first underwater museum. Follow the four sign-posted trails and see the ruins of a lighthouse and the cargo of a sunken ship from Herod’s time. Or, if you prefer, soak up some sun on the beach.
Next, exit the northern side of the Crusader wall, cross a wooden footbridge and walk north along the seashore to see, on your left, the remains of a fifth-century rectangular synagogue, probably built on the ruins of earlier synagogues. Farther north is Herod’s aqueduct, which brought water from the foot of Mount Carmel.
Retrace your steps and exit through the gate in the eastern side of the Crusader wall. Leave the national park, drive east a short distance to the first traffic circle and turn left onto Rothschild Boulevard to reach the two Ralli museums (www.rallimuseums.org), which will be on your right. The older museum, devoted primarily to living Latin American artists but also to European art, is one of five Ralli museums in the world founded by Harry Recanati, a retired banker, and his wife, Martine. This museum opened in 1993 and is housed in a Spanish-colonial-style building.
The large halls topped by a red-tile roof surround octagonal courtyards. Many of the works are surrealistic. Two oils by Eduardo Sarlos of Uruguay depict the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. A collection of about two dozen sculptures by Salvador Dali includes a menora. One hall contains temporary exhibitions; another is devoted to a Caesarea archaeological exhibit.
Adjacent to this building is the new Ralli Museum dedicated to the memory of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry and housing European art from the 16th through the 18th centuries depicting Hebrew Bible scenes. The courtyard is filled with marble statues of historical figures who had or might have had a Jewish connection, including Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, Christopher Columbus and Nostradamus.
In front of the museum, a marble obelisk commemorates the Jewish communities of Italy and the Italian people who saved Jews during World War II.
From the Ralli museums, proceed south on Rothschild Boulevard and pass the national park to reach Kibbutz Sdot Yam. Most of the Roman sculpture found in Caesarea and many other antiquities are in the Sdot Yam Museum of Caesarea Antiquities, built in the 1950s. The museum has the only sculpture from Caesarea with the head still attached (the figure of a woman from the third or fourth century) as well as a room of artifacts found in the sea. It also has Jewish items, including a ring-key that enabled the wearer to carry a house key on the Sabbath; a capital with a menora from the fourth or fifth century; and a mosaic inscription naming Beryllos as the donor of a synagogue’s mosaic floor. (For tours contact Rina Angert, 972-4-636-4101 or 972-52-879-5196.)
Next to the archaeological museum is Hannah Senesh House, a memorial to the poet and heroine who was born in Budapest in 1921 and joined the kibbutz in 1941. She was one of 33 men and women from Palestine who joined the British Army and parachuted into Europe between 1943 and 1944 to rescue Jews. Caught by the Nazis, Senesh was tortured and executed. She divulged no information.
In 1945, her mother asked Hungarian sculptor Andras Beck to create a relief to be placed on Senesh’s grave in Budapest. Senesh’s remains were reburied in 1950 in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery. In 2007, the family brought the relief—a figure of a woman above Senesh’s poem “Blessed Is the Match”—to Sdot Yam and dedicated it on November 7, the date of Senesh’s execution.
Visitors can view a movie about Senesh’s life (contact Adva Palgi, 972-52-879-5366).
Books, Music, Film
Hannah Senesh wrote the poem “Halikha Lekesariya,” commonly known as “Eli, Eli.” Composer David Zehavi supplied the melody. The song is included in many prayerbooks and has been performed by well-known singers.
Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition, with a foreword by Marge Piercy (Jewish Lights Publishing), includes a memoir by Senesh’s mother, Katherine, and essays by fellow soldiers.
The documentary Blessed Is the Match (Katahdin Films) focuses on the relationship between Senesh and her mother.
A significant part of Milton Steinberg’s thought-provoking novel As a Driven Leaf (Behrman House) is set in Caesarea in the first century C.E. The protagonist is Talmudic scholar Elisha ben Abuyah, who is caught between a Hellenistic and a Jewish understanding of the world.
King Herod’s Dream: Caesarea on the Sea (W.W. Norton) by Kenneth Holum and others tells the history of the city through archaeologists’ eyes.
Ezer Weizman (1914-2005), Israel’s seventh president and the nephew of Israel’s first, Chaim Weizmann, lived in Caesarea in his later years. He played a key role in establishing the Israel Air Force and forging peace with Egypt.
Artist Reuven Rubin (1893-1974), best known for his idyllic depictions of Arabs in Palestine of the 1920s, moved to Caesarea after he became successful.
Baron Benjamin de Rothschild lives in Switzerland but also owns a home in Caesarea.
The Caesarea Golf Course, scheduled to reopen in November after a redesign by architect Peter Dye, has a pro shop, a golf academy for children and a bistro, which is not kosher.
The comfortable Dan Caesarea Hotel, located near the golf course, offers a full range of sports and amenities as well as kosher restaurants. Its synagogue is open on Shabbat and, on request, during the week (www.danhotels.com).
The older of Caesarea’s two synagogues is on Rothschild Boulevard, opposite a small commercial center. The newer one, a circular beige building with an ultramodern interior, is on Shemesh Street. For information, call Rabbi Kaplan (972-57-426-5104).
Dine indoors or out at Aresto, a kosher restaurant in Caesarea harbor, where the menu includes salads, pasta and fish (972-4-636-3456).
Stop at the Draydel House nearby for an unusual souvenir: one of dozens of dreidels and other ceramic Judaica by artist Eran Grebler (www.draydelhouse.com).
And as you watch the sunset from the harbor promenade, remember Senesh’s immortal words: “I pray that these things never end,/ The sand and the sea,/ The rush of the waters,/ The crash of the heavens,/ The prayer of man.”