Caesarea: A cool tourist attraction on the Israeli coast

By Bob Schulman

Restored amphitheater now hosts rock and jazz fests. Photo by Bob Schulman.

The Judean port of Caesarea was much nicer than Jerusalem. For one thing, Caesarea was cooled by breezes from the Mediterranean, while Jerusalem – some 40 miles inland – was often hot and sticky.

Caesarea’s public baths were ringed by marble columns. Photo by Israeli Ministry of Tourism.So in the year 6 A.D., when Rome moved the administrative capital of its Judean province from Jerusalem to Caesarea, it made the Roman governor and his department staffers and their small army of guards very happy. Besides living in cooler climes, the Romans were spared the constant kvetching of all those Jews in Jerusalem. One day they griped about rising taxes, the next day about the soaring cost of shofars (ceremonial instruments made from rams’ horns), the next about getting shafted by money-changers in their temple, and so on and so on.

What’s more, Caesarea had all kinds of diversions. Like a hippodrome used for world-class chariot races and a hillside amphitheater where spectators could watch gladiators slash away at each other under a lovely view of the sea. And after a hard day at the office, Rome’s big-wigs and their staffers could wash their worries away in the soothing waters of the city’s elaborate public baths.

Before his death in 4 B.C., King Herod the Great (the Romans’ front man) had ruled the Judean province – roughly on the same lands as modern-day Israel -- from his ornate palace in Jerusalem. He was known for his mass building projects as well as for his mass slaughters of enemies, suspected enemies and real and imagined conspirators. Untrustworthy family members bit the dust, too, among them one of his wives, three sons, a mother in law and two brothers in law.

One of Herod’s biggest projects was Caesarea, which he built like a mini-Rome to dazzle the Roman emperor (Augustus Caesar, aka Octavian) at the time. Thus the hippodrome, the amphitheater, the baths, majestic promenades lined by marble columns, mosaic sidewalks, statues of Roman gods and all kinds of Romanesque shrines, sculptures, halls, gates, arches and squares.

No wonder the Roman brass only left Caesarea and went to Jerusalem when they had to, such as during Passover and other high holidays of their Jewish subjects. They also made the 30-mile trip down the coast to what’s now Tel Aviv and then the 40-mile inland trek to Jerusalem for special events, like the trial and crucifixion of a preacher believed by many to be their messiah.

Tourists check out ancient walkways and arches. Photo by Israeli Ministry of Tourism.And so Rome’s Judean governor Pontius Pilate was in Jerusalem around 30 A.D. to turn the matter of the preacher’s execution over to Herod Antipas (like his father, Herod the Great, the titular ruler of Judea) and to “wash his hands” of the affair (and scoot back to Caesarea as soon as he could).

Fast-forward to today -- after centuries of invasions by various armies, 86 years under the red cross of the Crusaders, then more years under the rule of Saladin, then under the Egyptian Mamluks, then the Ottomans, and then the Brits until the state of Israel was created in 1948 – and Caesarea is one of the country’s top tourist attractions.

The hippodrome, where 20,000 racing buffs once cheered on their favorite charioteers, is long gone, but most of the city’s signature six-mile-long aqueduct from Mount Carmel is still standing. So are many of its colonnaded lanes, temples and shrines (although most of these are faithful restorations of the original structures).

Among the city’s crown jewels is an eye-popping restoration of its hillside amphitheater, where thousands of fans once pointed their thumbs up to save the life of a vanquished gladiator who’d put up a good fight. They still flash that sign today, only now it’s because the theater’s audiences liked the performances of rock bands such as The Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Deep Purple and Israel’s top home-grown rocker Mashima.

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