On the Coast of Caesarea

DSC_4164-001At a table where everyone has ordered salads and hummus plates, I have ordered a huge place of sausages and deep-fried potatoes. When the food comes and the waiter gingerly places the salads and hummus bowls around the table and then thumps down a heaping portion of meat and potatoes in front of me, I’m suddenly very aware of my choice. As everyone dives in with their forks, I wonder if eating a huge helping of spicy veal sausages stuffed with cashews and walnuts atop a bed of fried potatoes sprinkled with harissa and tehina is the best idea, but then, I realize that indulging myself is exactly what I should be doing in this port-side city on the Israeli coast.

I’m at a seaside lunch spot called Port Café in Caesarea, the city that King Herod built as a kind of exploratory architectural playground for himself over two thousand years ago. It’s a small city, sandwiched nearly equally between Tel Aviv and Haifa on Israel’s western coast, but it’s a place where a man who, in 22 B.C., couldn’t spend his fortune fast enough, sparing nothing on his grand master plan and building a glittering matrix of grand palaces, temples, and areas for entertainment and commerce. During his rule, the city was known as being second only in greatness and glamour to Jerusalem; the population swelled to an impressive 100,000 citizens and the city spread out over, according to my guidebook, over 160 acres (that’s like the equivalent of 146 football fields).

Today, people come to Caesarea to stroll through thousands-year-old ruins, sit in an ancient amphitheater, explore high-end souvenir shops and classy art galleries, take dips in the sea, lay on the beach, and enjoy seaside meals.DSC_4140-001

So why shouldn’t I, two thousand years later, dance around in an empty amphitheater and look out on the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea, wander through the remains of what was once a great marketplace, stick my bare toes in the white sand, and gobble down a delectable, greasy meal that will cost me exactly 38 shekels (that’s about nine dollars and 70 cents)? After all, this was one of Herod’s playgrounds, so shouldn’t it be ours as well? (And of course, my heart has always been just a little bit fond of that Mediterranean Sea….)

But Caesarea, like all places in Israel, hasn’t been all vacation, fantasy, and rich foods. In fact, as I sit and talk with my traveling companions—a group of five other journalists and writers and our illustrious guide, Amir—as we put history into context, a more complex Caesarea starts to emerge from its ruins.

For one thing, Caesarea was an ancient Phoenician port city, yes, but it was also a Byzantine capital and a Crusader stronghold. It’s never really held peaceful status, either, since its origins: the city, originally called Stratons Towers (a spin on the name of the Sidonese god Ashtoreth), was annexed into the Hasmonean kingdom in late 90 B.C. A few decades later, in 31 B.C., Augustus Caesar won a battle—called the Battle of Actium—and gifted the town to Herod. Herod, in turn, named his new city after Augustus, calling it Caesarea.

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The city has also seen its fair share of religious turmoil over its two-thousand-year history, an all-too-common reality for this small slice of land in the Middle Eastern world. A few years after Herod’s death in A.D. 6, the burgeoning city of Caesarea fell to the hands of the one and only Pontius Pilate, Judean governor who sanctioned Jesus’ crucifixion. Because Jerusalem was primarily Jewish, the Romans began more heavily populating the seaside city, naming it their center of administration and their cultural and economic hub. The population was mixed, though, and the worlds of the Jews and the Romans seemingly incompatible. The Jews, I read, were teased, harassed, and fell victim to the increasing power of the Byzantine rule. By A.D. 66, the Jews had attempted revolt against the Romans, and in A.D. 69, the government had all but crushed the Jewish uprising. Not more than a year later, his son, a man named Titus, demolished Jerusalem in the name of silencing the continued revolts.

So, Caesarea maintained its status as Roman capital of Palestine for nearly 600 years. But then, as it always does, the world changed again, and this time, Peter converted the Roman centurion Cornelius to Christianity, forever altering the political landscape of Caesarea and its people. A few years later, in the 2nd century A.D., the harbor was demolished in a horrible earthquake, and among a number of important martyrs, a highly beloved rabbi named Rabbi Akiva, was tortured to death. In just a few hundred years, Caesarea boasted one of the most impressive libraries of Christian scholarship and theology in the world, with a collection of more than 30,000 volumes. Roman statues were hauled over from nearby Roman temples, and people lived on.

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In the 7th century A.D., the city was conquered by the Muslims. And by 1101, King Baldwin I of France and his Crusaders had conquered the city.  And by 1265, the Mamluks attacked; a siege ensued; the Crusaders gave up hope and abandoned the city. The Mamluks tore the city’s fortifications to the ground.

The city lived on in this way for a few more centuries.

In the mid-1800s, Bosnian Jews settled the area as a small fishing village. In 1948, Jews fleeing the Stern Gang, a Palestinian paramilitary organization, conquered the city. A few years later, in 1952, Jewish Caesarea was established—and the area was made into what is hopefully its final stage. It became Caesarea Maritima, a protected Israeli National Park.*

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Today, the city is calm, a peppering of limestone shops and galleries lining the sea, white sand perfect for tiptoeing in barefoot, lovely restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops. But there are also important remnants of its past—milky white marble statues, rows and rows of cavea, horseshoe-shaped slabs of limestone where audiences once watched horse and chariot races and sporting events, and remarkable beachfront aqueducts, far ahead of their ancient Roman times.

Israel is like this, I think, finishing up my sausages and our immense history lesson. Even its beach resorts are history lessons.

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Article and photographs by Kristin Winet.

And most gracious thanks to Weill and the Israel Ministry of Tourism for hosting our stay in Israel and for introducing me to some of the world’s most incredible places. If you’re interested in visiting Israel, they are a fantastic resource!

*Historical information was taken from notes taken from our history lesson by Amir Orly, our Israeli travel guide, and corroborated with my Fodor’s Travel: Israel guide, published in 2014.

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