Caesarea: Out of place, out of time

The last place a Jew wanted to find himself in Roman times, Caesarea is now a tourist hotspot offering much more than just rocks and remains.

byzantine wall caesarea (photo credit: )
byzantine wall caesarea
(photo credit: )
Sometimes, when traveling in far-off places like Scandinavia, Canada or anywhere west of Newark Airport, I'll get the strangest feeling. I just feel like I shouldn't be there. It's not like anyone is staring or anything. There's no one checking out the length of my nose, and no airport official flustered at that little piece of cloth on my head. But still, I know I'm not supposed to be here. That's kind of the way I feel when I go to Caesarea. Is this really a place for Jews to hang out? Well, in Roman times it was... if you wanted to get fed to the lions like the Jewish slaves! The city that Herod built on the blue Mediterranean is not to be missed. In fact, Caesarea was named one of the country's best tourist sites by international accounting firm Ernst and Young - a title befitting the legacy of the Rothschilds, whose money and efforts helped make the town - and site - what it is today. Caesarea was considered a jewel of the Roman Empire. It was certainly valuable enough to fight over, as invaders from the Romans to the Arabs to the Crusaders to the Ottoman Turks each took turns settling the city, with some attempting to restore it to its former glory. But it took the Rothschild family, who eventually purchased much of the land in the area and donated it to the state after the War of Independence, to make the town worth living in - and visiting - again. And today, in Caesarea Harbor, the chief tourist attraction in the city, that Rothschild cachet means that you'll be visiting one of Israel's most fascinating and well-kept sites. Depending on how ambitious you want to be here at the 3km-long harbor, you can experience ancient Rome and the days of the Crusaders via short walks along the park's paths, check out a concert at the partially restored amphitheater, watch a fascinating movie about Caesarea's rich history, hobnob with ancient characters, or dive underwater to visit the world's first museum beneath the sea. Along Caesarea Harbor's paths are also various ancient remains of homes, storerooms and churches, as well as a nearly complete Roman street - outside the main site - that was apparently a commercial hub of the area. Also visible are remains of Herod's ancient palace at the site, although the marble that once supposedly covered its floors was carted off to Acre in the 1700s by the local Turkish governor to decorate his home there... or so the story goes. Other buildings and excavations - including a dungeon and a Byzantine-era synagogue, as well as assorted churches and mosques - dot the area. But Caesarea is more than just rocks. If you visit during the holidays (hol hamoed and other school breaks) you'll be given the full "Caesar treatment" as a site tourist. The amphitheater (where they used to feed Jewish slaves to lions, and where thousands of Jews were massacred after the ill-fated Bar Kochba revolt) is used for concerts on holidays, and there is an annual music festival at the end of the summer. When there are enough tourists to warrant it, the amphitheater stage hosts a play with characters from the past describing various ancient intrigues, like the Jewish revolt against Rome, or the Crusaders' plot to unseat the Muslims. The actors circulate on the seaside promenade after the show, but even if you don't get to speak to them, there are interactive stations where you can ask questions of 3D "virtual" Jews, Romans, and others, including Rabbi Akiva, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Saladin (who kicked out the Crusaders), Hanna Szenes (who lived nearby in Kibbutz Sdot Yam) and old Herod himself. The ancient, separate, hippodrome has also been partially restored and now offers chariot racing during heavy tourist seasons. You'll be treated to a very sweet show, where an ancient Roman princess and prince make a connection despite family and class divisions. Of course, it's a love story we've all seen before, but what you probably haven't seen are the horse tricks: running, jumping and hoop leaping. And then there's the Time Tower - a movie experience that is more iMax than filmstrip. A very wide screen (actually, three screens) with several projectors and a 3D animation show the history of Caesarea, from the harbor's roots as the site of an ancient lighthouse, to its modern-day role as a successful Zionist enterprise. All these activities are included in the entry price (see box). If you're really into ruins and like getting wet, Caesarea has a special treat for you. Opened just last year, the underwater archeological park offers dives which tour some 30-plus "stations" spread over about 200,000 square meters of seabed. The underwater park has four different routes, including two for basic beginners and two for more advanced divers. The dives show highlights of the recently discovered ancient port, which apparently sank - reasons unknown - directly and wholly into the sea. Divers get to see jetties, a lighthouse, anchors, statues and, of course, Roman (and other) shipwrecks. The construction of the harbor was considered one of the most remarkable projects of the ancient world, with thousands of people imported from Rome, Egypt and Judea to work on it. Even a brief tour of the underwater sites will show you just how powerful the empire once was. Of course, the ancient Romans are long gone - but when you see the imprint they left on Caesarea, you still get the feeling that this is no place for a nice Jewish boy!