IMPERIAL CAESAREA: KING HEROD’S ROMAN CITY
A Viking Star Cruise offers fascinating overviews of early Mediterranean civilizations. One excursion in Israel investigates a prominent Roman port.
Leaving Haifa’s port, our motorcoach rolls southward between modern government, business and apartment buildings, past sprawling chemical plants, a large refinery and onto the desolate coastline. A surprising plantation emerges below a parched hill. “Yes. Those Kibbutzniks were ingenious,” guide Lem notes. “They genetically engineered banana plants to resist root nematodes. Drip irrigation and that white netting cleverly prevent water loss.”
Approaching Caesarea, Lem recounts how Rome’s Senate appointed Herod ruler of Judea, the core of modern Israel. “He became King only after a victorious four-year war and marriage to the hereditary queen. Still insecure, Herod murdered potential threats…including the queen, their son and other innocent children. His subjects believed it best to be a pig. Being kosher, Herod spared pigs! And many actually admired him for building beautiful Caesarea, Jerusalem’s Second Temple and Masada fortress.”
Entering the archeological site, our group gathers in an open-air pavilion. Lem tells us about this great imperial city dedicated to Emperor Augustus. Constructed between 22 and 10 BC, Caesarea became Judea’s largest city, with an estimated 125,000 inhabitants. A 3-D map depicts Caesarea’s urban core featuring familiar Roman structures. We hear its aqueduct conveyed spring water from the foot of Haifa’s Mount Carmel. Sections of this ten-kilometer aqueduct still stretch along the coast.
A vaulted passageway next takes us inside the city’s reconstructed amphitheater. “Herod stacked tons of quarried stone to forming seats originally accommodating cosmopolitan audiences of 8,000,” Lem explains. “Of course, Rabbis forbade congregations to attend the pagan events. Following a 66 AD revolt against Rome, 2,500 Jews were forced to perform here and die battling wild animals.” Now used for evening concerts, thirty restored tiers embrace its stage.
Outside, an inscribed limestone block presents Pontius Pilate’s tribute to Emperor Tiberius. “This confirms Pilate’s existence beyond Biblical references,” Lem observes. “It’s likely Pilate dwelt here.”
On a promontory caressed by the Mediterranean’s cobalt-blue waters, sandstone foundations outline Herod’s enormous palace. In the center, lofty marble columns surround its former atrium and gardens. From a lower cliff, Herod’s pools remain carved into rock ledges, likely used for ritual Jewish baths.
Traces of a hippodrome lie below Herod’s royal residence. From restored stone bleachers, we overlook the oval of compacted sand and imagine chariot racers and roaring crowds of toga-clad spectators. Lem notes how Rabbis would allow their congregations to attend its races to cheer on charioteers…and pray for their survival.
Ahead, redbrick bathhouses expose the clay pipes that spouted water into cold and hot pools. Stone benches line dramatic black and white mosaic floors. Beyond, pointing out a public latrine trench, Lem recalls how business was conducted and concluded with communal sponge-sticks.
A former cobblestone street leads us between crumbling warehouse walls to a mosaic floor clearly identifying the taxman’s office. Herod’s professionals collected heavy taxes from Jewish subjects. However, we learn this money was often invested in popular civic projects. A sign identifies the nearby floor of a Byzantine Governor’s Palace, reflecting this Empire’s subsequent domination of Judea.
High walls enclose King Herod’s deep-sea marina. “Herod imported mega-tons of Italian volcanic ash. Mixing this with local limestone and sand, his workers produced underwater concrete,” Lem recounts. “Pouring rubble and this material into wooden boxes, they devised two immense jetties and created a harbour rivaling Cleopatra’s at Alexandria.
Inside a large courtyard, we find other Roman artifacts. Carved garlands decorate one of several marble sarcophagi. A plaque translates its inscription: no man is immortal. A sculpted torso tops one of three arched pedestals adorning a rectangular pool. At one time this fountain welcomed merchants with fresh water. On a lofty knoll, columns, blocks and platforms conjure temples of worship for the imperial citizenry.
Lem also remarks on the crusaders’ walls, which defended medieval Caesarea from 1101 to 1187. France’s Louis IX re-conquered this strategic port in 1191 and constructed new ramparts and moat. We learn forty-four years later, the Mamluk Sultanate eliminated the tenacious Crusaders…and Caesarea lay in ruins for seven centuries. A minaret and small mosque recall a Bosnian settlement there from 1884-1948.
Behind a modern bistro, a young cart vendor slices and squeezes pomegranates. “Shalom! Peace!” he says, broadly smiling. “Pomegranates are special…symbolizing abundance, fertility and Eden’s forbidden apple. And incredibly, this fruit’s 613 red seeds equal the exact number of the Torah’s commandments. Here! Try its delicious beverage!” Like our experience in Caesarea, this fresh juice proves very refreshing.
IF YOU GO:
• www.vikingcruisescanada.com Discover more about unique Mediterranean itineraries, amenities and costs.
PHOTOS by Rick Millikan:
1. Caesarea's Public Bathhouse - Cold and hot baths were enjoyed in this facility.
2. Caesarea's Public Fountain - This welcomed mariners to this thriving port city.
3. Herod's Palace Pools - His pools were likely for spiritual and bodily cleansing.
4. Hippodrome & Bathhouses from Herod's Palace - Remnants of the Crusader’s castle rise in the background.
5. Site of King Herod's Palace - His palace ideally accessed public amusements: the hippodrome and amphitheater.
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