Caesarea is a town in Israel located near Hedera. There are several different attractions in Caesarea and today we are going to visit the most famous ones.
On a side note, the name comes from the word “Caesar,” an ancient city that was initially built by Herod the Great about 25-13 BCE. And this old city can be seen within the national park. Let’s begin with the visit.
Map of the area:
Caesarea National Park
Today we are going to visit Caesarea National Park, which is one of the most visited National Parks in Israel. Why? I guess there are several reasons. 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 things to see.
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 guided tours (some of them are free, 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 some images that I took during the day and others towards the evening.
Northern Part – Caesarea Port
Herod the Great was called “the greatest builder in Jewish history.” He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea. Including expansion of Second Temple in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Masada, and Herodium.
There are two parts to Caesarea’s old city. The Caesarea Maritima and Caesarea port. There are also two entries (Caesarea Port is the northern entrance, and Caesarea Maritima is southern one).
Caesarea Maritima is a national park, and it can be visited only during opening hours (official site). If you are coming within those hours, the port and the Maritima have admission fees. If you are coming after visiting hours, then the entrance to Caesarea port will be free (and Caesarea Maritima is closed).
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: all quotes were taken from the official site.
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 from the old town.
There are several viewpoints in the old city. Some of them towards the south, showing Caesarea Maritima remains. And others viewpoints are towards the port and the sea.
At The Port
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.
“Caesarea Experience” Display
If you are at the port during national park’s opening hours, then do not miss the “Caesarea Experience” display at the port. What is it?
The “Caesarea Experience” display – a cinematic “time travel” through the history of Caesarea, through which visitors are introduced to various periods in the annals of the city and the cultures that ruled it.
As I mentioned before, you can visit this area only during the opening hours of Caesarea National Park. I took the following two sunset photos from the port while the National Park was already closed.
And now let’s move to the most impressive building on site:
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.
At the time of construction, there were about 4,000 places in the theater. Today the theater is active and its considered as a status symbol. Only top performers perform here. Probably because selling thus many tickets can be done only by most famous artists.
The Reef Palace
Behind the Roman Theater, closest to the water line, you can find the Reef Palace. Not much is left of the palace, but since it is an essential archeological finding, I will share general info from the official site.
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.
That is all from Caesarea Maritima and now let’s visit one of the events.
Shavuot Celebrations At Caesaria
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.
It’s 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:
The King Arrives
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.
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!”.
Summary – 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.
Not far from the national park, also in Caesarea, you can find 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 figurative 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 entrance to the museums and the parking are free.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Besides the archeological wing, there are several other exhibitions, including paintings on the first floor.
Summary – Ralli Museum
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.
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!