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Touring Israel: On the Footsteps of Herod the Great

Touring Israel can be tricky. Many years after a long visit to Israel and following the great technological advancement that the country has seen in the past two decades, one thing remains unchanged: public transportation in Israel remains a challenge. In such a small country where virtually every place is close, it is still difficult to get to places when touring Israel. Perhaps the most practical way is renting a car, but driving in Israel is not for the light-hearted. Traffic, specially around Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv can be chaotic. Buses are commonplace is Israel but from the bus stations you will be left to taking a cab and having to walk from site to site. You can always take the shared taxis, mini vans, know as sherut. Perhaps the most convenient option is to join a tour.

Visiting Caesarea was such one of the cases for which I decided to join a tour leaving Tel Avid headed north including multiple sites on the coast. On that particular tour, we left behind schedule and the tour guide seemed to rush to make up time. The group was a bit too large which to me is always a turn off. Nonetheless, the dazzling ruins of this ancient city and its history can offset any of the practical downside of being on a tour.Located halfway north of Tel Aviv and south of Haifa, the ancient Phoenician settlement first known as Straton’s Tower, was rebuilt by Herod the Great, king of Judea, to honor Caesar Augustus. In 6 CE, the city became the capital of the Roman province of Judea. Subsequently, it became an important center in the history of early Christianity.

Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel
Display of headless statue of unknown figure found in Caesarea, Israel

It was in Caesarea that Paul the Apostle remained in prison for a period of two years before he was sent to Rome for trial. According to the first century historian Flavius Josephus, it was in Caesarea that the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome took place in 132-135 CE. The Jewish revolt that culminated with the torture and execution of ten of the greatest Jewish Palestinian sages, including Rabbi Akiba, is remembered in the liturgy of Yom Kippur.

Nowadays, home to the only golf club in Israel and a prime location for wealthy Israeli summer homes, the city is also known for having one of the best beaches in Israel. The Caesarea National Park is a magnificent site to be included when touring Israel. Excavations in the 1950’s uncovered a Roman temple, an amphitheater, hippodrome, aqueduct, and other ruins of later periods including that of the crusades. One of its unique treasure is the archeological evidence of Pontius Pilate’s existence that was found in Caesarea during the excavations of 1961. This archeological finding of the Roman procurator’s name inscription is the only mention that places him within his lifetime and at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion.

Remarkable for its archeological and historical value, the ancient port of Caesarea is a technological marvel accomplished by Herod the Great. Possibly it was the first of its kind built entirely in open sea, the port served as base for Herod’s navy that operated as far as the Black Sea. Another astonishing ancient architectural accomplishment is the Roman aqueduct that brought water from the foot of Mount Carmel located ten miles away.

Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch - Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman Aqueduct arch – Caesarea, Israel

Sebastos (Greek for Augustus) Harbor was built at the end of the first century BC by King Herod the Great and became an important harbor for commerce in the antiquity. Sebastos was the most impressive harbor of its time, rivalling Cleopatra’s harbor in Alexandria. Kenneth Holum in his book King Herod’s Dream: Caesarea on the Sea, quoted historian Josephus as saying that “Although the location was generally unfavorable, [Herod] contended with all the difficulties so well that the solidity of the construction could not be overcome by the sea, and its beauty seemed finished off without impediment.”

Roman public estrooms at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel
Roman public restrooms (latrines) at the Roman hippodrome ruins in Caesarea, Israel

Regretfully, by the time we arrived in Caesarea our tour guide announced that we had to move quickly as he had a lot to cover. We were first taken to the hippodrome where we delighted us with historical facts and anecdotes from the 1959 Ben-Hur film in which Charlton Heston plays a Palestinian Jew who is battling the Roman Empire. The hippodrome is where Judah Ben-Hur, falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother,  meets his rival in a chariot race and rescues his family for slavery. Standing on the site where the favorite Roman form of entertainment and competition took place is undeniably exciting. It is enticing to let one’s mind speculate on how thrilling would it be to travel 2,000 years back in time?

Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel
Ruins of Roman hippodrome excavated in Caesarea, Israel

Touring Israel is like entering the portal that allows you to travel back in time. It magically ignites your imagination and it is impossible not wonder how life was at different periods of the history of Israel? Our guide was quite good in planting the seed of imagination in our minds. After we got our lecture at the hippodrome, we were shown the ruins of the palace and of the swimming pool. That’s right! The palace had a swimming pool! Our next stop was at the antitheater.

Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel
Arch in one of the entrances to the amphitheater in Caesarea, Israel

Showtime! The antitheater, with a seating capacity of 15,000 spectators, is a reminiscence of the grandiose of ancient Roman entertainment venues.
In its glorious days, it was the largest performance venue in Palestine. Partly restored and rebuilt after its ruins were excavated, it is today used for performances in the Summer season. Modern day big Israeli stars and internationally famous artists such as Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Mashina, Deep Purple, Bjork, among others have performed at the ancient Roman theater in Caesarea. Besides its current functional entertainment venue, the view of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea is breathtaking.

It is important to note that in the vicinity of Caesarea, including the region in the southern foothills of Mount Carmel about 22 miles south of the city of Haifa, there are wineries that are open to visitors, tours, and wine tasting. Also, the Aqueduct Beach is an attraction visited by locals, Israelis vacationers, and international tourists who visit the area. A region with a diverse culinary tradition, hotels, and spas, Caesarea is a fabulous option for those touring Israel which must join your bucket list of places to see.

 

2 thoughts on “Touring Israel: On the Footsteps of Herod the Great

  1. The engineering of the Romans is magnificent! Even though I remember that the Romans were in that region, I never thought of seeing their auquaducts and coliseums in similar architecture as across Europe. Of course it makes complete sense! Thank you for bringing the history into clearer context for me.

    1. Thank you for your feedback.

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