Caesarea is a town in Israel located on the Mediterranean coast. It is famous for Caesarea national park. But, there are other attractions as well. And today we are going to visit the most famous ones. Let’s begin!
Caesarea National Park
Herod the Great built this city at about 25-13 BCE. And he named it in honor of “Caesar.” And the remains of that old city is today’s Caesarea national park.
By the way, Herod the Great was called “the greatest builder in Jewish history.” He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea. Including expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Masada, and Herodium.
What Is Caesarea Philippi?
Philip was Herod’s son, and after Herod’s death, he inherited area near Banias Springs. In 2 BCE Philip founded his capital there and called it Caesarea Philippi. Today it is more commonly known as Banias Nature Reserve, and it is located at the Golan Heights. These are two different national parks with 150 km separating them.
Map And How To Get There
Map of the area:
The easiest way to get to this national park is by car. And there are many free parking spaces on site. Arriving by public transport is not convenient. You can take the bus (for example Egged line #910 from Tel Aviv to Haifa) till Or Akiva interchange. And from there walk for 2.5 km, or take a taxi. Another option would be to take the train to Caesarea station. But the train station is even further away (then the bus stop), and you need to choose either a bus or a taxi.
Here is a link to Moovit where Caesarea National Park is already set as the destination. Change the origin from Jerusalem to your location and you will get the updated directions.
Sun. – Thu. And Shabbat: 8 – 18.
Fridays: 8 – 16.
Sun. – Thu. And Shabbat: 8 – 17.
Fridays: 8 – 16.
Sun. – Thu. And Shabbat: 8 – 16.
Fridays: 8 – 15.
On holidays usually 8 – 13.
Adults 39 NIS, children 24 NIS, and Students 33 NIS.
If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves post.
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated on Oct. 2018. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
Caesarea National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in Israel. I guess there are several reasons for that. First of all, is the location. Caesarea is halfway between Tel Aviv-Yafo and Haifa. That makes it is close to significant population clusters. Secondly, it is by the sea, and the breeze makes the visit more pleasant. Thirdly, there is ample space for different events (we will return to this subject later). And last but not least, there are significant remains.
How big is this national park? It is pretty big. You can spend starting from an hour up to a half day (especially if there is an event). Also, keep in mind there are free guided tours on Saturdays (for more info visit the official site). The typical introductory tour lasts an hour. You can join one of those and additionally explore by yourself.
Note: I have visited Caesarea National Park many times, and the photos are from different visits. Thus, you will see that I took some images during the day and others towards the evening.
Caesarea moved back and forth between periods of affluence and prosperity, and destruction and ruin. The city’s remains give evidence of days of pomp and glory as well as periods of regression and decline.
The city began life in the Persian period (4th century BCE) when a trading station was established on the Mediterranean seashore, containing a protective fort. This town was part of the line of settlements established by people from Tyre and Sidon along the coastline, down to Egypt. The name of this small town was “Straton” (in Hebrew – Migdal Sharshon), after the name of the person who founded it – the King of Sidon.
Roman And Byzantine Period
In the Roman period, Herod identified the potential of the place, and in 30 BCE he commenced building a port city there. He named it Caesarea, in honor of Augustus Caesar who gave the territory to Herod as a gift. Previous port cities at that time were established in the vicinity of natural bays, but Herod began building an artificial port, one of the largest in the Middle East, and the most sophisticated. The port contributed greatly to the general stability of the city.
Caesarea reached the peak of its prosperity in the Roman-Byzantine period, and its remains from that period show a flourishing city, containing a system for the supply of flowing water, planned streets, cultural and municipal public buildings (from temples to theaters), and more. In the Roman period, Caesarea was the capital of the Province of Judea, the place of residence of governors, and it also had a sizeable Jewish community. And in the Byzantine period, the city became a large metropolis and enjoyed an vital status due to the Christian community living there.
In the Roman and Byzantine periods, Caesarea was a major port city and an important crossroad. Trading ships anchored there for replenishment, rest and repairs, the port was full of life, and the city was energized by it. The port was a major source of income for the city’s coffers, and when it ceased operation the city of Caesarea also underwent a significant change.
Muslim Period And Crusaders
In the early Muslim period, Halif Omar conquered it (640 CE), and his followers ruled it for about 500 years. During this period the city lost its greatness. In 1101 the Crusaders conquered the city. The Crusader city was tiny compared with its dimensions in earlier periods, and the Crusaders built a smaller port on the ruins of the old port, that suited the city they had established. However, in 1291 Crusader Caesarea was conquered by the Mameluke Sultan Al-Malik Al-Ashraf in a move known as “scorched earth” – the Mamelukes feared the return of the Crusaders, so they methodically destroyed the coastal cities and ports, and Caesarea was lost under the ruins. In the Ottoman period the place was deserted, and only at the end of the 19th century, a small town was established by Muslims from Bosnia, that survived until 1948.
Note: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.
As you can see, there are two entrances, and next to each you can find free parking. The Northern entrance, Crusader Gate entry is marked as number #1. And the southern entrance, the Roman theater entry, is marked as number #35. These entrances lead to the two parts to Caesarea’s old city. They are Caesarea Maritima (southern part) and Caesarea port (northern part). And you can go from one part to another using the gate at #23 (you need to have a valid ticket).
Caesarea Maritima is a national park, and it can be visited only during the opening hours mentioned above. If you are coming within those hours, then you need to buy an entrance ticket to visit both the port and the Maritima. And in case, you are visiting after opening hours, then the entrance to Caesarea harbor will be free (and Caesarea Maritima is closed).
As I mentioned before, you can visit this area only during the opening hours of Caesarea National Park. And I took the following sunset photo from the harbor while the National Park was already closed.
View of the sea, Hedera power station, and Caesarea Maritima:
Before we start to explore Caesarea Maritima by foot, here is a nice view you will get from viewpoints on the wall Rampart (#36).
The multiple rooms and the Hippodrome (closest to the sea) used during events and festivals. You will see more of them at Shavuot Celebrations (further ahead).
And now let’s begin exploring Caesarea Maritima.
Time Trek Displays
If this is your first visit to Caesarea, then I suggest starting at the Roman theater entry (#35). Near the southern entry, you can find the “Caesarea Experience” display (#32). It is a 10 min movie that gives you a historical background. There is also a similar display at the port. On the map they are called “Time Trek Displays,” and the one in the harbor is marked #18.
The movie is available in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, German, and French. Here we are watching in Hebrew with subtitles in Russian.
After the movie ended, we headed to the most impressive building on site – the theater.
The Roman Theater
The Roman Theater – the theater structure, an impressive and powerful building, stands at the southern edge of the national park. People from the highest and lowest walks of life came here to enjoy dramas and comedies. The classic model of Roman theaters influenced the shape of the theater: a semi-circle, in which were built blocks of cavea (seats) separated by vomitoria (entrances and exits). The arena – an area at the foot of the seats which was often used for the performances, and the orchestra (stage area) which in Caesarea had a high and impressive scaenae frons (stage backdrop) and also underground rooms – dressing compartments for the actors.
The well-known term “bread and amusement” originates from the tradition established by Augustus Caesar. And Caesarea is named after him. Being a port city, which hosted sailors and seamen, it was necessary for the leaders of Caesarea to keep the visitors occupied, to provide them with places of entertainment and to amuse them to encourage them to return to the city and enrich its coffers. The theater was one of those means, and it serves in this capacity to this day – its stage is used for performances by the most significant artists in the country.
The theater was built by Emperor Vespasian, using Roman arch-based technology. At a later stage, King Herod added a few more blocks of seats and enlarged it.
Roman Theater Or Amphitheater?
Many refer to this structure as amphitheater instead of theater. That is a mistake. See: What Is The Difference Between Roman Theater And Amphitheater? for the full explanations. But here I will say that the word amphitheater has the prefix “Amfi” which means “on both sides” in Ancient Greek. Meaning that Amphitheaters has a round shape and people sat around the stage. While here people are only sitting on one side of the stage.
At the time of construction, there were about 4,000 places in the theater. Today the theater is active, and it is considered as a status symbol. Only the top performers perform here. Probably because selling thus many tickets can be done only by most famous artists.
Note: the theater is marked as #34 on the site map.
And this is how the theater might look back at the day.
The acoustics of the theater is excellent. No matter where you stand, even at the highest point, when somebody sings on the stage, you can hear them. Here we tested just that.
The Stone Garden
Behind the theater’s stage, you can find a collection of architectural artifacts discovered during the excavations. Here is, for example, a gable. Gable is a corner frieze.
As you can see, the signs all over the park are both in Hebrew and English.
You can also find other architectural elements, like Doric capital and even Sarcophagus.
The wealth of Roman Caesarea is reflected through the wide range of stones. They were brought from all over Mediterranean and Eastern coasts.
The Reef Palace
Behind the Roman Theater, closest to the water line, you can find the Reef Palace (AKA The Coral Palace – #31).
The Reef Palace is also called The Promontory Palace, and it consists of two central units. The lower palace is the private wing, and the upper palace housed the public wing.
In the following photo, you can see the lower palace. It had a swimming pool, and in the eastern complex, a central hall and two small rooms (all richly decorated) were found. The complex had bathing and heating facilities. And in the North-Eastern corner, there were stairs to the upper level. Mikveh and a bathhouse were located nearby.
As you can see, not much is left of the palace. But here is a possible reconstruction.
History Of The Reef Palace
The Reef Palace – when leaving the theater in the direction of the promenade, you pass through a large courtyard in the western part of which pillars are facing the sea.
That was the inner courtyard of the guest wing of Herod’s magnificent palace. The palace consisted of two stories for guests and residents. Another part of the mansion was built at the western end of the courtyard, on the marine reef – a sort of peninsula protruding out to sea. Standing at the edge of the yard, looking westward, one can see some of the remains of the palace, parts of which are submerged in the sea, and one can imagine the glory and elegance of the place.
Although Herod was never in Caesarea, some researchers attribute the palace to him, and they assume that it was one more of his splendid buildings. Others argue that the mansion may even not have been built in Herod’s day, since it is too close to the large public buildings in the city (the theater and the Hippodrome), and Herod, who was naturally suspicious, would not have built a private palace in such proximity to public buildings. It is possible that governors who came to the city after the time of Herod’s reign lived in the mansion because they preferred the dynamic life in Caesarea over the monotony (in their opinion) of Jerusalem.
The palace fell into ruin over the years, and very little is left of it. On the reef, there are the remains of a swimming pool that had been excavated in the Kurkar rock in the sea, and a layer of hydraulic plaster tells us that the pool contained fresh water. The pool was apparently in use in periods when aqueducts were bringing water to the city. The pool is one more proof of the insatiable hedonism of the aristocrats. A mosaic floor was also found alongside the pool, as well as a ritual bath (Mikveh) from the late Roman period.
Pontius Pilate Inscription
Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from 26/27 to 36/37 AD. He was the judge on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus (Gospel of Matthew chapter 27).
This inscription says:
(Po)ntius Pilatus, the prefect of Judaea, (erected) a (building dedicated) to (the emperor) Tiberius.
The content of the inscription and the use of Latin language hint at the level of Romanization throughout the province, and in Caesarea, at the beginning of the 1 century AD.
From the palace, we continued to the Hippodrome (#28).
The Hippodrome was an ancient Grecian stadium for horse racing and chariot racing. The name is derived from the Greek words hippos (ἵππος; “horse”) and dromos (δρόμος; “course”). The term is used in the modern French language and some others, with the meaning of “horse racecourse”.
On the seats of the Hippodrome:
This edifice, whose location matches Josephus Flavius’s description, was built for the inaugurations of the city in 10/9 BC. The Hippodrome was the venue for the Actian Games instituted by King Herod in honor of the Roman emperor Agustus. The games were held every four years and included horse and chariot races, athletics, gladiator combats, and hunting.
And from the Hippodrome we continued to the bathhouse.
Public Bathhouse (#30) has two areas: northern and southern. The northern area was used for pre and post bathing procedures. For example exercise, shaving, haircuts, and massages. And the southern area had cold and hot baths. Here is a scheme of the southern area.
This complex has a bright protective roof and can be easily spotted from a distance.
And our next stop on the way to the port is the Tax Archive.
Here you can see the Tax Archive with the Public Bathhouse roofed area in the back.
Today we know that was a Tax Archive by one of three inscriptions found on site.
That inscription identified this building as Byzantine government offices were clerks recorded tax revenues. And the other two inscriptions are quotations from the New Testament, parsing obedience to the authorities.
And now we will skip to the Crusader Gate at Caesarea Port.
Caesarea Port – Caesarea Harbor
The Crusader Gate
The Crusader gate – the north-eastern entrance into Caesarea is through a reconstructed monumental structure – the Crusader gate. This gate is part of an even more impressive system of fortifications built by the ruler Louis IX. The system included a moat and glacis, a high wall and sophisticated indirect access gates (twists and turns) which prevented direct entry into the city and exposed intruders to potential injury from inside the city. Standing inside the gate and looking upward, one can see a cross-shaped stone at the center of the arch.
Note: the gate is marked #1 on the site map.
Entrance to the port (the wall and moat built by Crusaders):
Inside the entrance tower:
View towards the gate from inside:
Nymphaeum – Roman Fountain
The nymphaeum (#2) was the public fountain that stood at the center of ancient Caesarea. It was situated at the intersection where the city’s main street meets Herodian port.
The nymphaeum had a decorative function, provided drinking water, and was also a place where residents and visitors could congregate.
And since we mentioned water, then you probably noticed there is no spring or lake near the city. The water was reaching the city by aqueducts. At the Aqueduct Beach (see below) you can find remains of that system.
The Old City And The Port
When you enter The Crusader Gate, to your left there are remains of the old city. There is a short round route covering this hill. Here are several photos of the old town.
Remaining arches from an ancient street:
The width of the walls is quite impressive. About 2 meters.
A “small” part of the wall that fell off:
There are several viewpoints (#36) in the old city. Some of them towards the south, showing Caesarea Maritima remains. And other views are towards the port and the sea.
In the distance, you can see the Hedera power station.
Remains of an old church on the hill of the port:
In this view from the mount toward the sea, you can see the only remaining mosque, “The Bosnian mosque.” (#15)
Note: this area currently undergoes archeological works and reconstruction. Thus there might be limited access.
And after getting down this is the view of the hill. We were lucky and had a full moon:
The Port AKA Caesarea Harbor
At the port, you can find half a dozen restaurants, several jewelry shops and galleries, and an ice cream stand.
The Port – Caesarea began with the special port built by Herod. Until then the coastal ports relied on natural marinas, but Herod built the first quay-based port of its kind in the Middle East.
The quays were submerged in the sea on wooden rafts, and a lighthouse and a breakwater were also built alongside them. Grain was traded in ships sailing along the east coast of the Mediterranean, which was known for its convenient currents. Vessels departing from Egypt to Rome needed a place for anchorage and rest, for re-stocking and repairs, as well as a safe place in stormy weather. The Romans in Caesarea provided these ships with port services and taxed them, which increased their income. The investment in constructing the port was worthwhile, and the activity therein expanded. The port city became a kind of window on distant cultures since goods from the entire Mediterranean basin entered and departed through it.
The port operated some years but, due to a lack of engineering knowledge, the quays did not last and, despite rehabilitation efforts, they collapsed towards the end of the Byzantine period and the port ceased to function.
Fishing boats and restaurants at the harbor:
Shavuot Celebrations At Caesaria National Park
Shavuot usually falls in October, and this means that it is not too hot outside. Comfortable weather together with several vacation days causes many people to look for outdoor activities. In the previous year during Shavuot celebrations, we visited several self-picking farms and a dairy farm (more about that you can find here: Shavuot 2015). This year we went to Caesarea National Park.
Caesarea National Park belongs to Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and there are two main pluses to this park: it’s relatively close to the center, and it is quite significant. Thus, many significant events take place here.
According to the official site, we were expected to see various performers, shows for children, the Roman market and much more.
When we entered the park, we saw that one of the shows just started. So we went to see it, and this is what we saw:
Either they did not expect so many people, or they did, and the planning was inadequate. As you can see when the actors were climbing up, we could see only their legs. It is good to have shade, but the tent should be higher and much longer.
I understood that the planning of the event was lacking (this is an annual event so they should have reasonable estimations of the number of people that are going to come) and thus we stopped watching the performers and went to take places in advance before the next show started.
When we entered the park, we received a timetable for Shavuot celebrations and a map telling where each show will be. The problem that on-site there were no signs at all. And if you look at the photo above, you will see drums and other musical instruments. And I thought we arrived at the drums performance. But after about 15 min when I saw them I understood that I was wrong:
Instead, we came to the “guards performance.” They were teaching the children different claps and overall it was a pleasant 20 min show.
That is the backside view of the “Roman market”:
Calling it a market is a strong word, probably several stands is more appropriate.
The King Arrives
The king and the queen:
I understood that following them to the stage would be problematic (with some people and the low tent we won’t see anything). Thus we took the back path.
The Main Show
We found a spot on one of the walls and stayed there.
The sturdiest worrier in the kingdom:
There was a warrior fight with an unexpected result, and the show was likable, but our viewing angle wasn’t the best.
Shavuot Celebrations – Final Thoughts
If I had to sum up Shavuot celebrations at Caesarea, then I would say there were things that I did not like, and I did. The organization was lacking in many different aspects (problematic parking, the tent, the lack of signs, unclear map, sitting areas, tiny Roman market and quite expensive – 25 NIS per filling a small bottle with sand of different colors). The performers and actors were very patient with kids, and overall the shows were excellent (of course aimed at children under ~10). And if I were visiting by myself, then I would pass. But, what matters is that when I asked my daughter whether she liked it, she said: “Yes!”.
Not far from the national park, also in Caesarea, you can find the Ralli Museum (official site).
Background info from the official site:
The Ralli Museums in Caesarea are part of five Ralli Museums in the world, an institution founded by Harry Recanati. The main aim of the museums is to disseminate contemporary Latin American art. When appreciating Latin American surrealism, the folkloric motifs, and the symbolic emphasis, one can grasp the importance of these great works of contemporary art. The museums were dedicated to the memory of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition and of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which was almost entirely exterminated in the Holocaust.
The Ralli Museum complex consists of two museum buildings, two monuments and a vast parking lot. The complex is located at Rothschild Blv. (Next to the water tower). The entrance to the museums and the parking are free.
Sunday and Wednesday – closed
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: 10:30 – 17:00
Friday: 10:30 – 15:00
Holiday eves: 10:30 – 12:30
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated on Oct. 2018. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
We parked next to the Ralli building #2, so we started our visit there.
The second museum commemorates the great golden age of Spanish Jewry. The architectural style is Spanish (Moorish) and in the center of the large central courtyard stands a fountain with 12 lions, as in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. According to historians, this motif originated in the palace of King David in Jerusalem. The fountain is surrounded by marble statues of Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and Spinoza. The building has four stories, and the exhibits consist of paintings with Biblical themes created by European artists in the 16th to 18th centuries.
Note: all quotes were taken from the official site.
The entrance to the Ralli 2 museum.
There are four floors in the building. During our visit, one of the levels was closed, and the other three had mainly paintings. I am not a renowned art specialist, so it is hard for me to evaluate, but I was not impressed. I loved the architecture of the building much more.
The spiral stairs inside the building:
The fountain of the twelve lions and the entrance to the museum:
Greek Style Monument
Near Ralli 2 we found this Greek-style monument that was dedicated to people whose decisions helped to create the state of Israel. That is, of course, Herzl.
In a broader view of the monument, you can see also the signs of the twelve tribes.
The first Ralli Museum in Caesarea was built in a Spanish colonial style that perfectly fits the pastoral landscape of Caesarea. The size of the museum is about 9000 square meters, and the building is located in the center of a 40-hectare sculpture garden with palm trees, carob trees, citrus and olive trees. The museum has five exhibit halls as well as several octagonal patios with a central fountain. The floor is made of red terracotta tiles and frames consisting of strips of wood and white tiles with a motif of blue clover leaves. These beautiful tiles were specially designed in Uruguay for the Ralli Museums.
The museum was conceived taking into account the light and weather conditions of the country. Natural light comes from large windows opening onto the courtyards. The upper level has one large sculpture square overlooking the sea, and through the arches, one can appreciate the arches of the Roman aqueduct on the horizon. The square features sculptures in bronze, marble, and acrylic by famous European artists such as Dali and Rodin, as well as Latin-American sculptors.
Ralli museums are famous for their Dali exhibits, and they can be found in Rally 1 building. What I did not expect to see was an archeological wing.
The archeological wing is not significant, but quite lovely. Here is a diagram of how ancient Caesarea probably looked like.
Besides the archeological wing, there are several other exhibitions, including paintings on the first floor.
Dali exhibits are located on the second floor.
There is an outside patio on the second floor with beautiful sculptures. Here are some of them.
Several more items from Dali collection:
View from the second-floor balcony:
And my last photo of that day was this statue outside Ralli 1.
Another popular attraction in Caesarea is Aqueduct Beach. It is located to the north of Caesarea National Park (see map and the beginning of this post), and as the name suggests you can find there remains of an old Roman aqueduct.
The Romans constructed aqueducts throughout their Republic and later Empire, to bring water from outside sources into cities and towns. Aqueduct water supplied public baths, latrines, fountains, and private households; it also supported mining operations, milling, farms, and gardens.
Aqueducts moved water through gravity alone, along a slight overall downward gradient within conduits of stone, brick, or concrete; the steeper the gradient, the faster the flow. Most conduits were buried beneath the ground and followed the contours of the terrain; obstructing peaks were circumvented or, less often, tunneled through. Where valleys or lowlands intervened, the conduit was carried on bridgework, or its contents fed into a high-pressure lead, ceramic, or stone pipes and siphoned across. Most aqueduct systems included sedimentation tanks, which helped reduce any water-borne debris. Sluices and castella aquae (distribution tanks) regulated the supply to individual destinations. In cities and towns, the run-off water from aqueducts scoured the drains and sewers.
The aqueduct that stands on the sandy beach makes it unique, and many people visit it just for the photo opportunities, without swimming in the sea. If you are interested in swimming, there are lifeguard services. But beyond that, there are no additional services. No cafes, no shops, and not restaurants (I am not even sure that there are restrooms).
Caesarea National Park
If you love archeology, especially Roman remains, then Caesarea National Park together with Bet Shean National Park should be on your list! But keep in mind that during most of your visit you will be under the sun. Thus, do not forget water, sunscreen, and a hat. Also, before visiting check the official site for tours. During many weekends there are free tours, and a tour will upgrade the experience.
I did not expect the museums to be that big. Covering both museums at a quite quick pace took us about two and a half hours. We loved the museum. There are beautiful architecture, paintings, and statues. Very diverse and everybody can find what he or she likes. Thus, if you are in the area, I would recommend visiting it.
Combined visit to Caesarea National Park and Ralli Museum can serve as a great half-day (to a full day) experience.
Have you ever been to Caesarea? How was your experience? Tell us in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!