A closer look

Caesarea: Concerts in the ancient Roman theater, a stroll along the beach, and a glance at the aqueduct and Crusader fortifications.

VIEW OF the Caesarea harbor 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
VIEW OF the Caesarea harbor 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Concerts in the ancient Roman theater, a stroll along the beach, and a glance at the aqueduct and the Crusader fortifications. Ready to move on? Not so fast.
Caesarea was more than a spectacular pagan city. The headquarters of Roman administrators, including the infamous Pontius Pilate, it was a symbol of Imperial Rome, a center of Greek and Roman culture in the region and a thriving Jewish community. A cultural bridge between Jewish and Roman civilizations, it also played an important part in early Christian history.
As you walk along dusty paths and streets paved with marble slabs, imagine a magnificent temple to the Emperor Augustus on a hill overlooking the port, colossal statues, a race track, and market places filled with exotic wares from all over the world.
Did you notice the fancy Israeli homes as you drove in? Two millennia ago Roman aristocrats built villas there as well. How ironic that modern Israeli and ancient Roman elites should share the same place.
At the citadel built on the promontory, a short movie explains the history of Caesarea and how Herod built one of the wonders of the world; in addition, visitors can engage in dialogues with some of the city’s more famous ancient inhabitants via holograms.
Caesarea’s harbor was a triumph of ancient engineering and technology. It was the first artificial port constructed into the open sea without any natural advantages.
You will understand the problem immediately when you look toward the Hadera power station. In order for ships to unload coal, a long conveyor system was built far out into the sea. But how did Herod’s engineers figure out how to set breakwaters and foundations, underwater, 2,000 years ago? Moreover, how did the Romans devise a way to prevent the harbor from filling up with silt due to the currents that carried massive amounts of sand from Sinai? To solve the first problem, the Romans built wooden frames, pushed them into the water, packed them with boulders and added cement with a special volcanic ash, probably from Mount Vesuvius in Italy, that hardened under water. This was one of the first uses of hydraulic cement in such a building project.
You can make out the ancient artificial breakwater just across the swimming inlet to the north. The present day breakwater used by fishermen is a modern extension of the ancient wall. According to the Roman historian Josephus, who visited the port, these breakwaters were 60 to 70 meters wide with huge statues built along the walls and tall lighthouses at the end.
The solution to the second problem involved a detailed observation of the way currents changed and shifted. When the Nile overflowed, a different pattern of currents affected the entire Mediterranean coast, creating powerful flows from south to north. By cutting a sluice channel in the southern side of the breakwater and opening it to the current, the Romans created a self-cleaning process inside the harbor. The flotsam, jetsam and silt had only one way out – through the northern opening of the harbor.
JOSEPHUS TELLS us that the revolt against Rome began in Caesarea, in 66 CE, when the city’s pagans slaughtered 22,000 Jews, nearly the entire community. It was probably there, during the Bar Kochba rebellion (132- 135 CE), that the Ten Martyrs – among them Rabbi Akiva – were tortured to death.
In the third century several important talmudic academies flourished there, led by some of the most famous rabbis of the day, Abbahu and Hoshaya.
Rabbi Abbahu, a student of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, was learned in math, rhetoric and Greek, which he taught to his daughters. Respected by the Romans as a spokesman for the Jews, he was known as a peacemaker, even when others attacked him, and always looked for good qualities in others. It was Abbahu who instituted the order of shofar-blowing that is used on Rosh Hashana.
Among his more well-known quotes are: “Where a ba’al tshuva [penitent] stands, a tzaddik cannot reach” (BT Brachot, 34 b); “A man should not tyrannize his household” (BT Gittin, 7 a); “Be among the persecuted rather than the persecutors” (BT Baba Kama, 93 a); “The world endures only on account of the man who utterly humbles himself” (BT Hullin, 89 a); “May it be Thy will... to save us from the arrogance and harshness of the evil times which threaten to overtake the world” (JT Brachot, 5:1, 8d).
According to Christian tradition, St. Paul was briefly imprisoned in Caesarea. The New Testament (Acts 10) relates the story of Peter, who went to Caesarea and converted a Roman centurion called Cornelius. Several elements of the story are important in explaining where early Christians made their break with Judaism, and why.
According to the text, Peter was told (by God) to eat non-kosher meat, signifying an end to his observance of this commandment. Peter then questioned whether non-circumcised gentiles could be converted, since this was apparently still a requirement of the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem – along with acceptance of Judaism. Again, contrary to Jewish law, this was allowed and Cornelius was baptized. Circumcision was also eliminated.
Unrestricted by Jewish rituals and law, a new covenant and a new testament were introduced for a new religion; lack of obligation was essential in appealing to pagan masses.
Having failed to convert Jews, Peter’s new direction set the stage for Christianity’s missions to convert non-Jews outside of the Land of Israel, which is precisely what Paul did.
Origen, an important Christian scholar and theologian, moved from Alexandria to Caesarea in the mid-third century with his entire library, including what may have been one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He recorded discussions with rabbis in order to compile an accurate text of the Bible from among various manuscripts, reflecting an intense Jewish-Christian polemic. A century later, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, instituted a new framework for the Christian Empire and wrote the first history of the Church.
During the mid-sixth century, an octagonal church was built to replace a pagan temple from the Herodian period. According to archeologists, this church had the same dimensions as the one built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which became the foundation for the Muslim Dome of the Rock.
The temple/church at Caesarea was built above large vaulted arches that were once warehouses for suppliers of ships (located over the quay opposite the shops). The southernmost structure was turned into a shrine by followers of the cult of Mithras, a Persian sect. Apparently such cults – as well as Judaism – attracted many adherents among the army, merchants and administration.
That may explain Roman (and later, Christian) antipathy to these popular religious movements and their attempts to brutally stamp them out.
Mithraism was one of the most popular mystery cults of the Roman Empire. Information about it is difficult to obtain because the cult’s practices and teachings were secret.
It developed in the Mediterranean world at the same time as Christianity, and flourished until the fifth century, when the Christian church eliminated nearly all rivals. Some scholars have suggested an interesting link between the two religions.
Mithras was the name of a Persian god who is depicted in their temples throughout the Roman Empire, especially in places where there were large concentrations of Roman soldiers and merchants. Mithras, accompanied by a dog, snake, raven and scorpion, is shown killing a bull. David Ulansey, in his book, The Origins of Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1991) suggests that this configuration was not only mythology, but a form of astronomical map representing heavenly constellations: Taurus (the bull), Canis Minor (dog), Hydra (snake), Corvus (raven) and Scorpio (scorpion). Perhaps this scene dramatically reflects Mithras’s triumph over the forces of nature and his transcendence as part of the cosmos.
A link may be found in the Gospel of Mark (1:10) where Jesus, after being baptized by John, has a vision of “the heavens torn open and the Spirit, descending upon him like a dove,” a rupture of the heavens – perhaps representing transformation, the yearning to be embraced by the ultimate mystery of the universe.
IN THE ceiling of the Mithraic temple at Caesarea, a hole had been cut above the altar which allowed a shaft of light to enter.
Archeologists watched the beam shift until it struck the alter on June 21, the summer solstice, and December 22, the winter solstice, around the time (traditionally) that Jesus was born. Perhaps rituals there represented rebirth, the myth of the Eternal Return, which was incorporated into Christianity.
A sign at the northern entrance introducing the site mentions Louis IX of France, who conquered and rebuilt the town in the middle of the 13th century. He became “Saint Louis,” but in Jewish history he and other kings who preceded and followed him were disasters.
In 1131, under Louis VII, France’s first blood libel occurred in Blois; 31 Jewish men, women and children were burned at the stake. A decade later, his successor, Philip Augustus, expelled all wealthy Jews from his kingdom and confiscated their property. He then pursued them to neighboring provinces where they had found shelter and slaughtered whole communities. For economic reasons, however, he was eventually forced to allow the survivors to return.
During the reign of Louis IX (1226-70) Jews were again severely persecuted. In 1240, Jews were expelled from Brittany and that same year a mock trial of the Talmud took place in Paris – the verdict given in advance.
Jews were massacred, burned at the stake, expelled from other provinces and then, to top it off, (Saint) Louis IX ordered all Jewish books to be collected and burned in front of the Louvre fortress, in Paris. Because all books at the time were hand-written, they were quite precious and critical in transferring knowledge. Scholars believe that this destruction was so devastating that we have not recovered from its effects to this day.
Jews in France were massacred throughout the beginning of the 14th century, and finally expelled in 1322. They were allowed to return several decades later, but expelled again at the end of the century. In the mid- 15th century – on the eve of the expulsion of Jews from Spain – Jews were allowed to return to France.
Crusader armies at Caesarea were defeated by the Mamelukes in 1265 and again in 1291, and the town was left in ruins until the modern period.
WALKING ALONG the beaches around Caesarea one can find fragments of pottery – a wonderful souvenir of the day’s visit. And the water is enticing, but be careful! There are powerful undertows and one should only swim in designated areas and when a lifeguard is present.
If you’ve already visited the Roman aqueducts just north of the Crusader city, and the Roman Theater, you might try Kibbutz Sdot Yam, which you passed on the way in.
Established in 1940 as a fishing village, it also rescued many “illegal” immigrants who were smuggled in along the coast. It was the home of Hanna Szenes (1921-1944), a Hagana fighter who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II to help organize resistance and provide intelligence.
She was caught, tortured and executed by the Nazis. A museum in the kibbutz offers an audio-visual show in several languages about her life. There is also an archeological museum of the area.
Sdot Yam has holiday apartments, a hostel and a kosher dining hall. A variety of boating activities are available during the summer, and its protected beach is one of the nicest in the country. For further information call: (04) 636-4609.
Scuba divers who want to explore Caesarea’s underwater archeological park can make reservations and rent equipment at (04) 626-5898, or www.caesarea-diving.com.
An introductory course is available for non-licensed divers. ■
The author is a PhD historian, writer, journalist and tour guide living in Jerusalem.