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Caesarea Aqueduct and Roman Amphitheatre
Half-way between Tel Aviv and Haifa on the Mediterranean coat lays one of Israel's great historical locations. The modern day town of Caesarea has a small suburban population of around 5,000 people and there is little evidence to suggest the importance this area once held. Yet just removed to the west stands the grand ruins of Caesarea Maritima.
Two millennia ago this was one of the most significant settlements in the Mediterranean world and was spoken of in the same breaths as Alexandria, Athens, and Jerusalem.
Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judea, among other things, is famed for his grandiose building projects throughout the Judean nation. The expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the enclose surrounding the Cave of Patriarchs, and the fortresses of Herodium and Masada are a few examples of his profound and lasting impact on the region. Perhaps his most adventurous project of all though was the city and harbor of Caesarea Maritima, named in honor of Caesar Augustus.
Built between 25-13 B.C., the city's artificial harbor was the largest ever constructed in the open sea at the time, was comparable in size to Athen's own, and challenged Cleopatra's Alexandria as a commercial hub in the Mediterranean.
Caesarea Maritima's expansion continued after Herod's rule and, following Roman annexation in 6 B.C., became the headquarters of the provincial government. The city was said to have a population of around 100,000 and a splendor that was only surpassed by that of Jerusalem. It included all the classical hallmarks of Greco-Roman architecture and engineering – an amphitheatre and hippodrome, public baths, paved streets, water and sewage systems, and an aqueduct conveying water from Mount Carmel 15km away.
Caesarea continued to flourish following the division of the Roman Empire between east and west, falling under Byzantine rule. However, the conquest of the city in the 7th century by the Umayyad Caliphate signaled the decline of its importance as a commercial center and the point at which the harbor begun to decay, through imperfections in the raw materials and its positioning over a fault line.
The city then passed back and forth between Muslim and Crusader control in the 12th and 13th centuries, with a deep moat dug and defensive walls completed by Louis IX of France in 1251. Yet in 1265 it transferred rule again, this time conquered by the Mamluk Sultanate who quickly set about reducing the fortifications. From this point, through Ottoman rule, the city remained predominantly uninhabited and was gradually covered by sweeping sands, concealing the once great city.
Caesarea Today – Amphitheatre and Aqueduct
Excavations in the area begun in the 19th century, yet it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the effort begun to reveal the Roman and Crusader structures, much of which had largely been erased through warfare or the sands of time, leaving but the foundations in many instances for posterity.
The harbor and palace for example are now but remnants - the foundations of both the only evidence of their existence; yet others have survived with greater fortune.
The amphitheatre for example, rebuilt numerous times through the years, maintains its original design with much of the brickwork of Herod's day still in place. It is now a stunning setting for concerts attracting performing artists from all over the world, seating 4,500 spectators as it would have done two millennia ago. Spectators are presented with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean and upon sunset the whole vista turns a golden hue as the sun sinks into the sea.
The aqueduct, even more so, has survived in remarkably good condition to the luck of posterity. Even modern visitor to the site - well aware of the architectural achievements of our own age - are no less awestruck by the ingenuity and vision of the Roman world, perfectly exemplified by this structure.
Like Jerusalem, Cesarea is a link to Israel's the rich history and bears the hallmarks Herod's grand building scheme. Yet, to me, Casearea Maritima is even more impressive in many ways. It was partly destroyed and then abandoned – left forgotten in time. Because of this it has a majestic stillness, a solemnity, which Jerusalem lacks. There may be grander structures in Jerusalem, Rome, or Cairo; yet in all these instances the modern world has become entwined. Caesarea Maritima is different: it remains as it was once abandoned. Walking around the site today one feels as if they have just rediscovered it for the first time.