Render Unto Caesarea

Archaeological authorities are trying to repair the astonishing amount of damage to the ancient Herodian city before another storm strikes and compounds the devastation

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Tremendous waves of 10 meters or more crashed on the beach, dragging not only sand and shells - which were still scattered all over, three days after the storm had died down - but also boulders and pieces of ancient buildings. As parts of the breakwater around the ancient port began to collapse, the waves were free to do whatever they wanted along the shoreline.

The Herodian aqueduct, last week. In worse shape than it looks.Credit: Tal Cohen

The ancient port of Caesarea, built some 2,000 years ago in the time of Herod, suffered dramatic damage during last week's storm, explained Israel Antiquities Authority head Shuka Dorfman during a tour a few days later. Before the rains and gale-force winds hit, Michael Karsenti, CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation, had estimated that the area was in need of restoration and preservation that would cost some NIS 60 million. Now, after the disaster, the revised costs cannot be tallied until all the damage becomes clear.

The three agencies responsible for dealing with the site in Caesarea - the development corporation, the antiquities authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority - decided at an emergency meeting last week to act immediately to rebuild the breakwater to prevent further damage. To that end, a plan is now being drawn up, according to Zeev Margalit, head of preservation and development at the INPA, and hopefully a temporary barrier will be in place by the end of the winter.

The original breakwater, Margalit explains, was built in the 1950s. On top of the foundations of an ancient ship that had sunk into the seabed not far from the Herodian port, a thick concrete, L-shaped wall was constructed. The whole vertical part, in relation to the coast line, of this wall collapsed entirely in the storm. Indeed, the waves were so powerful that boulders, each weighing a ton, which had been laid on top of the breakwater to prevent people from walking on it, was swept away as though made of cardboard.

A major reason for the particular destructiveness of the waves during the storm, says Margalit, is the absence of sand on the sea floor here. Sand usually helps to absorb some of the impact and energy of waves, but the power station at Hadera, which was was built slightly to the south of Caesarea, has blocked the flow of sand that used to enter the port's seabed. In such a situation, explains Margalit, the force of the waves is twice as great - even on an ordinary day. And many times that during storms.

Just before the storm, Margalit and his colleagues at the antiquities authority and the development corporation warned of the danger facing the ancient port: In early November they appeared before the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee and presented a plan for its preservation, including the shoring up and extension of the now-collapsed breakwater. They warned then that if such steps were not taken, parts of the ancient Caesarea would be damaged this winter.

About 10 days after that meeting, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov came to Caesarea, where he heard from local authorities about the dangers to the most popular tourist site in Israel after Masada; Caesarea has about 1 million visitors annually. The minister promised to act - but the storm got there before him. The waves, with the help of winds of 100 kilometers per hour and more, fulfilled the darkest of predictions. At present, say Margalit and his colleagues, the ancient port is totally vulnerable to the waves, and there is no way to assess how much damage has been caused below the surface of the water. Other areas of Caesarea archaeological park, north and south of the port, did not benefit even from the protection of the breakwater, meager as it was.

For example, near the ancient synagogue south of the port, 2,000 year-old (Roman ) artifacts, 1,500-year-old (Byzantine ) treasures, and 1,000-year-old (Crusader ) relics were swept into the sea and lost forever.

Furthermore, the waves pounding the shoreline also took an irrevocable toll on the adjacent low, calcareous sandstone cliffs. This is particularly evident along the shore near Herod's famous aqueduct: On a recent, clear afternoon, the aqueduct looked as solid and stable as ever, but Karsenti of the Caesarea corporation says looks are deceiving in this case: The damage to the cliff and the sand swept in by the waves are undermining the stability of the aqueduct's foundations. In the next storm, quite possibly, it too will collapse.

In the meantime efforts are being made to repair the damage.

"We have to merge our efforts to rescue the site," says Margalit. "However, the means at our disposal are meager. The state must join the efforts. If we don't provide an immediate solution, in the next storm the site at Caesarea is liable to collapse totally, including more of the ancient port, the aqueduct, the city wall from the Byzantine period and so on. Even the Roman theater has been left defenseless. If it is hurt, [singer] Shlomo Artzi will have to find another venue for his performances."