Caesarea National Park
The remains of Caesarea (Qesarya, in Hebrew) are spread along a 3km (1 3/4-mile) stretch of Mediterranean beach. There are two separate entrances: You’ll arrive at either the Roman theater or the Crusader city, which are in fact right next to each other, though the entrance gates are .5km ( 1/3 mile) apart. Admission to Caesarea National Park is good for both the Crusader city and the theater. You can enter the city for free after 5pm closing time to visit the restaurants that have sprung up inside the park or stroll the ruins, but special exhibits are closed at night.
At the Admission Gates, get a map showing the details of the cities that have risen at this site, both on land and in the water—the cities and harbors of Straton’s Tower (the earliest settlement at the site of Caesarea), as well as the Herodian, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader incarnations of Caesarea. There is also an excellent, inventive Audiovisual Presentation (tel. 972-2-5006261; no web info) that brings the site to life, re-creations of what Caesarea would have looked like at different times in its history. Call ahead for information, presentation schedules, and to reserve a place.
The excavations you see today are only a very small part of what’s actually here, waiting to be discovered; new finds are constantly being unearthed. In recent years, ruins of a massive temple dedicated to Roman gods were uncovered and attributed to the King Herod. Other highlights include the Roman Theater, constructed in the time of Jesus, and used today to host summer performances). Test the acoustics by sitting in the stands and listening to someone speak on stage or clap hands.
You enter the Crusader city on a bridge across the deep moat, then through a gatehouse with Gothic vaulting. Emerging, you’ll find yourself in the large fortified town, which covered a mere fraction of the great Herodian/Roman city. Especially noteworthy are the foundations of the Crusader Church of Saint Paul (1100s), down toward the sea, near the little Turkish minaret (1800s). The citadel, next to the group of shops, was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1837, as was most of the Crusader city.
The Port of Sebastos, a dockside part of the Crusader port, extends from the Crusader city into the sea, but King Herod’s harbor at Caesarea, completed in 10 b.c. and also named Sebastos, extended at least three times as far as what you see today. It curved around to the right, where a separate northern breakwater extended to meet it, roughly where the northern Crusader fortification walls meet the sea. The breakwater was also a wide platform, with room for large quantities of cargo, housing for sailors, a lighthouse, colossi (gigantic statues), and two large towers guarding the entrance gates to the harbor. The harbor could be closed off by a chain stretched between the two towers, preventing ships from entering.
Herod’s harbor was one of the largest harbors of the Roman world, mentioned by historian Flavius Josephus as an especially amazing feat of engineering because it was a total creation—built without the usual benefit of a topographical feature such as a bay or cove. Historians did not find the harbor until 1960, when a combination of aerial photography and underwater archaeological explorations revealed the ruins sunken offshore. Historians and archaeologists believe that the harbor structure probably sank vertically downward as a result of an earthquake.
The excavation of the underwater ruins is an important international project. At the Old Caesarea Diving Center in the Old City (tel. 04/626-5898; www.caesarea-diving.com), at the site of the ancient harbor, you can join a guided dive with equipment supplied starting at NIS 275 for 1 hour (you must be certified). Snorkeling tours can also be arranged. The dive explores ruins of the ancient harbor, and passes by ancient shipwrecks, classical statues, and fragments of a once-great lighthouse. Reserve ahead, although dives can’t be guaranteed if sea conditions aren’t good.
Admission (including the Roman Theater and Crusader city) is NIS 40 for adults, NIS 35 for children; save your ticket for the interactive audiovisual Time Trek tour. Hours are Saturday to Thursday 8am to 4pm (until 6pm Apr–Sept), and Friday from 8am to 3pm. Call tel. 04/636-7080 for information.
The Byzantine Street
Fifty meters (164 ft.) east of the Crusader city entrance, behind the little snack shop, is the Byzantine Street, or Street of Statues, which is actually part of a forum. The statues depict an emperor and other dignitaries.
Head east from either the Byzantine Street or the Roman Theater to reach the ruined hippodrome, in the fields between the two access roads. Measuring 72[ts]288m (236[ts]945 ft.), the hippodrome could seat some 20,000 people. Some of the monuments in the hippodrome may have been brought from Aswan in Egypt—expense was no object when Herod built for Caesar.
The New City
Largely residential, the modern city of Caesarea is notable for its very worthwhile art museum, the Ralli Museum ★, located on Rothschild Boulevard (tel. 04/626-1013. Mon-Tues and Thurs-Sat 10:30am-3pm. Free). The museum contains a large collection of works by Latin American and Spanish artists (including artists of Sephardic origin); is housed in a spacious, beautifully designed new building; and is one of Israel’s unexpected and little-publicized surprises. The gems of the collection include sculptures by Dalí and Rodin, but the works of Latin American surrealists, representing artists from Mexico to Uruguay, are also powerful and impressive.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.