Episode 249 – The History Trifecta

April 13, 2022 63°F/17°C


Completely unintentionally, today we completed our tour of all three of the important ancient cities of this region: Jerusalem, Akko (Acre), and Caesaria Maritima, by taking a half day excursion to the latter.

We began our bus ride with a detour to the top of Mount Carmel, where today the entrance level to the Bahai Gardens was open, allowing Ted to get a few more photos of this beautiful spot.

Then it was off to the ruins of Caesaria, detouring around a traffic accident that had the planned route totally blocked.

I was surprised to see miles and miles of netted banana plantations. The nets help keep moisture in, and birds out. The bananas are mostly used as animal feed, not for human consumption.

Viewed from above, these nets must look like desert sand, but they’re protecting acres of banana plants.

Caesarea Maritima National Park houses ongoing excavations and restoration work on the harbour and town built by King Herod between 22 and 9 BC. The project is largely funded by the Rothschild Foundation, which is creating an area that mixes history, tourism, and entertainment space located in this ancient quarter within modern Caesarea.

Our guide very entertainingly shared his version of the back story of King Herod’s city: Herod was King of Judea during the war between Octavian Augustus and Mark Antony. Knowing that if he backed the loser he would likely lose his own power, he strategically arrived late to the deciding Battle of Actium, enabling him to be the best possible apologetic supplicant and claim that he had been delayed by bad weather but would – of course – have supported the victor had he only arrived in time. As proof of his loyalty, he promised to build a great harbour and city which would be dedicated to Octavian Augustus. Quite coincidentally, it would also be his own new over-the-top (for the times) luxurious palace and playground for the rich and famous. Added to Herod’s sycophancy, and a little megalomania, was an unhealthy dose of paranoia that resulted in him ordering the deaths of his wife and sons (and many others) rather than risk them plotting to overthrow him.

Although everything he built is now in ruins, enough records and archeological evidence survive to verify what a truly grand place this must once have been.

The harbour itself was a marvel of engineering – the first known deepwater harbour to be built without the presence of any kind of natural harbour. Much of it was still useable 1000 years after its original construction, when the Crusaders arrived.

The current grass area would in Herod’s time have been harbour waters. The newly constructed stairs lead to the level of the ruins where Octavius Augustus statue would have stood.

We started our tour at the theatre (NOT an amphitheatre, since it was only a semicircle), which has been completely restored for use as a very prestigious modern music venue.

Photo credits top and lower right, generous fellow passenger Cory White. The original seats would have looked like those that survive st the hippodrome. Bottom right: the vomitirium is NOT what it sounds like – it’s the “exit”!

In 1961, archaeologists discovered the “Pilate Stone” in the theatre, the only physical evidence found to date of the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect upon whose orders Christ was crucified.

We passed by piles of toppled pillars and building materials that were moved close to the port after the site’s destruction, just waiting to be used to build other things. The nearby Crusader fortress, as well as the Crusader Citadel in Akko, show evidence of these ruins being incorporated.

Some of the toppled “junk”, reflecting how ornate the original buildings must have been.
Piles of pillars left here since the 11th century will now be used in reconstructions.
Top two photos: Pillars mark the corners where Herod’s palace stood.
Bottom: Of course, any über-rich ruler of a minor Roman territory needs a saltwater swimming pool, abutting the Mediterranean, and surrounded by ornate mosaic tiles.

Looking at Herod’s swimming pool, I couldn’t help but hear Tim Rice’s lyrics to King Herod’s Song in Jesus Christ Superstar, sung by a very camp King Herod:

So if You are the Christ
You're the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that You’re no fool
Walk across my swimming pool
If you do that for me
Then I’ll let you go free
C’mon, King of the Jews

Even after 2000 years, the ruins here speak of decadence and the owner’s sense of his own importance.

We marvelled at the massive hippodrome (below), built specifically for chariot races. Imagine building something that big for events that likely only occurred once per year.

We saw the remains of the bathhouse (below) with its 3-step pools: the caldarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium, allowing bathers to move gradually from steamy hot to invigoratingly cold water, while schmoozing and making deals.

We also saw the remains of pillars and mosaic floors in the exercise room, where naked males would have performed calisthenics – and probably continued making business deals. A sign above the entrance barred women from entering “on pain of death”.

It’s quite incredible walking on 2000 year old mosaic floors.
The “pool” (lower left) was part of the Governor’s Palace baths.

A number of the ruins would have housed administrative offices and shops.

From the top of the museum, on a level with the top of the original temple and location of the huge statue of Augustus that Herod had erected (gotta keep flattering the Emperor) we were able to get a great view of the harbour, and the entire complex.

I’ve read enough books about ancient Rome, and watched enough old movies set there, to be able to picture chariots racing around the hippodrome, orators holding forth in the theatre, and toga-clad men walking around the grounds. Sadly, there’s no getting Jesus Christ Superstar’s campy gold lamé-clad King Herod out of my head.

The city was occupied until the early 7th century, and became an important centre for early Christianity. After the Muslim destruction of Caesarea in 640 (they regularly destroyed seacoast conquests, since they had little interest in living in them), it was left in ruins until refortified by the Muslims in the 11th century, and subsequently conquered by the Crusaders. The Crusaders added further fortifications, and actively used the harbour, but were in turn ousted by the Mamluks in 1265. The Mamluks intentionally damaged the site intending to make it unusable, at least as a fortress. Nonetheless, in the late 1800s, persecuted Bosnian Muslims were given permission to settle there, and a small fishing community was established. Those houses are now shops and restaurants, but the minaret of their mosque remains.

In addition to Herod’s harbour and city, sarcophagi have been unearthed here. Check out the inscription on the bottom one!

It really was a fascinating place full of layers and layers of history.

Another wonderful day, ended with a lovely dinner in the main restaurant, a terrific performance by flautist Suzanne Godfrey in the theatre, and conversation over drinks in Torshavn.

Our sail-away after sunset gave us one more view of the top portion of the Baha’i Gardens, lit up for the night.

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