As waves lash the rocks, the Mediterranean sea seems to writhe and fume; but the ferocity pales in comparison with the magnificence of the hippodrome sprawled on its shores in Caesarea, Israel’s harbour city, which was once the administrative centre of Judaea province of the mighty Roman empire.
The structure is in ruins. The stone steps, where people once sat and watched races, are all but destroyed, but there is enough to hint at its past splendour. The classic Roman-style structure, rectangular but for one side ending in a semicircle, is notable for its sheer size. Special enclosures for dignitaries and arched doorways for the entry of horses are still intact.
Caesarea was built more than 2,000 years ago by Herod the Great, a Roman client king, between 22 and 10 BC. When land was granted to him on a little promontory jutting out to the sea, Herod first built his palace—a glorious structure. The only remnants left of it are a few broken columns. The remnants of a swimming pool carved out on the rocky slope extending to the sea, which seems like an old-fashioned infinity pool, is indicative of Herod’s good life.
There are astounding structures whose remains point to Caesarea’s position as an important, bustling city—a strong port and harbour, a fabulous theatre, Roman temples, churches, other religious structures, a Roman aqueduct, bathhouses, banks and vaults.
The Roman influence is strong. Herod fortified himself against the Romans in other places such as Masada, but on the Mediterranean coast, he was overtly grateful. So much so that he named the city after his patron Augustus Caesar.
Walking around, it becomes obvious to one that Caesarea was once an incredibly successful harbour. It even became the capital of Judaea and later, of the Byzantine empire. But it had a turbulent history with the Arabs ruling over it as well, till the Crusades. It thrived a bit during the Ottoman era too, but around 18th century, it was reduced to a nondescript fishing village and then went in oblivion completely, until it was excavated in mid-20th century.
Despite the long and tumultuous history, strangely enough, there is so much that has survived the ravages of time. Foremost among these is the theatre—semicircular, with fabulous acoustics, now used for performances and rock concerts. Elsewhere, there are beautiful mosaic patterns on the floor of vaults, though the vaults themselves are almost completely destroyed. The Governor’s baths are evocative. From their arches and passages that are still intact, one can only imagine how elaborate the ritual must have been.
To enthrall tourists, a short dramatised film, The Caesarea Experience, is screened before the visit. It traces the history and life of Caesarea and renders it in larger-than-life characters. But as you leave the city, the characters and events seem almost plausible, and you half-expect to be interrupted by thundering hooves or encounter formidable characters dressed in regalia. It is to the credit of the grandeur and scale of the ruins that such a feeling is evoked.
One of the structures in Caesarea that has remained intact despite the long and tumultous history of the land is the Roman theatre. Semicircular in shape with fabulous acoustics, it currently hosts concerts by major Israeli and international artists such as Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Mashina, Deep Purple and Björk.
Caesarea stands on the Mediterranean coast in Israel, about 55 km north of Tel Aviv How to reach: Fly
to Tel Aviv. Then take a bus or taxi to Caesarea.