Can Caesarea Become the Acropolis of Israeli Tourism?

In one of Israel’s most expensive restoration projects ever, the city's ancient theater will be revealed, together with about 90 percent of the old city and the port

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Part of the Caesarea Maritima from the air. After Herod’s death Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators of Judea and the capital of the Province of Judea.
Part of the Caesarea Maritima from the air. After Herod’s death Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators of Judea and the capital of the Province of Judea.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The Caesarea port is undergoing a surge of development the likes of which haven’t been seen since King Herod’s days. Those responsible are aiming high: They see the place as “the capital city of the ancient world,” comparing it to leading tourist attractions like Pompeii, Venice and Athens.

Baroness Ariane de Rothschild. A tremendous personal interest in the site.Credit: Drewcents

The person in charge, Baroness Ariane de Rothschild (the banker wife of Baron Benjamin de Rothschild), has been taking a tremendous personal interest in the site. She visits it several times a year, is involved in the details of the restoration and development and is investing huge sums to realize her vision — to make Caesarea one of the world’s leading sites for historical tourism.

About a month ago the baroness dedicated the new promenade along the walls of the ancient city. Restoration of the large arches opposite the port is presently being completed. Everyone involved in the work in Caesarea declares that “we’re doing it in a big way.” No more limited development and small excavations; no more slow restoration of an archaeological-historical monument.

In Caesarea they speak mainly of a “tourism experience,” an expression that usually arouses horror among archaeologists. But this time it seems even professionals are toeing the line, especially if it’s being done at the baron’s expense. Three organizations are working in a cooperative venture: the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation (via its executive arm, the Caesarea Development Corporation), the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Ads declare that these groups “have joined together for accelerated development that is unprecedented in scope, to expose and restore ancient Caesarea and to make it accessible, as ‘the capital of the ancient world’ and as a central attraction in the fabric of tourism in Israel.” Then comes an explanation that “the excavations are being conducted along with meticulous preservation of the archaeological, historical and natural values of the space, with access geared to a huge number of visitors from Israel and abroad.”

Circus Maximus in Israel: The oval shaped area close to the sea is the remains of an ancient Roman stadium.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan
Renovating the vaults which were used for storage.Credit: Rami Shllush

At the moment it is somewhat difficult to recall the poem by Hannah Szenes about Caesarea, which speaks of “the sand and the sea, the rustle of the water.” Nowhere in the world are there such remains. Caesarea was built in the fourth century B.C.E. as a small Phoenician marina. In 31 B.C.E., after his victory in the Battle of Actium, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar gifted it to Herod, who named the city after his benefactor.

Herod built the city between 10 and 22 B.C.E., with a large port, bathhouses and temples. Vestiges of Herod’s palace were identified on a reef that juts into the sea. After Herod’s death Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators of Judea and the capital of the Province of Judea. The population was mixed — Jews and foreigners.

Events that took place near the synagogue in Caesarea in 66 C.E. led to the beginning of the Great Revolt, when the Jews of Judea revolted against their Roman rulers. During the Byzantine period Caesarea was an important Christian center, and in the seventh century it was conquered by Muslims. Between the 10th and 12th centuries it was alternately ruled by the Crusaders and by Saladdin. In the 13th century it was conquered by the Mamluks, and the city was destroyed.

Tourists visit the ruins in Caesarea. Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS
The Caesarea Maritima national park. Herod built the city between 10 and 22 B.C.E., with a large port, bathhouses and temples.Credit: Rami Shllush

Muslims from Bosnia, fleeing from the Austrian occupation of their country in 1878, settled in Caesarea and restored it; In 1945 it was home to 930 Muslims and 30 Christians. In February 1948, shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, a unit of the Palmach Jewish commandos captured the city, and its residents fled or were expelled. Most of the village homes were destroyed, and those that remained now serve as restaurants on the coastline.

The remains of a Roman villa in Caesarea Maritima national park.Credit: gdefilip / Getty Images IL

Hail, Caesarea!

Modern-day Caesarea is not at all an ordinary place. It was built and operates on private land belonging to the Rothschild Foundation. Prior to the establishment of the state, Baron Edmond de Rothschild purchased large plots of land, and in 1948 he granted 500,000 dunams (123,500 acres) to the State of Israel, keeping 30,000 dunams for himself — on the coast. In 1962 the Rothschild-Caesarea Foundation was established, owned jointly and equally by the state and the baron’s family. At the time the foundation was granted a full exemption from taxes on its profits, an arrangement that is still in force.

Just recently a so-called “historic” agreement was achieved between the Finance Ministry and the foundation, which extends the tax exemption until 2032. The foundation promised to transfer 700 million shekels for higher education in Israel. The port, one of the most important ancient sites in Israel and a popular national park, is the only park run by the Caesarea Development Corporation and is committed to the business-financial and tourism aspects of the project.

The port and ruins in Caesarea, from the air. 'Nowhere in the world are there Herodian remains like the port.'Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

There are very few parallels in Israel to this complex formula, one of them being the City of David in Jerusalem, run by the private settler foundation Elad. Baroness de Rothschild, chair of the Caesarea foundation, has budgeted a huge sum for the development of the ancient port — 150 million shekels ($40.6 million). The three groups (the foundation, the Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority) have agreed on the development plan among themselves.

Caesarea already ranks alongside Masada as the most popular tourism site in Israel that charges an entry; both get around 700,000 visitors a year. A similar number visit Masada. The horizon envisioned by the directors of the site is far broader. Vered Sarig, director of the Caesarea Port, is convinced that there will be a million visitors to the site this year, 75 percent of them from abroad. “Our goal is to create concentrations of content on the highest international level. Next year, when we complete the present stage of work, I have no doubt that we will be able to compete with the Acropolis in Athens.”

Caesarea's Roman amphitheater from the air. Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

Sarig explains the process: The Antiquities Authority has done mapping in the 500-dunam historical space. There are 26 focal points that are worthy of restoration. Seven of them are phenomenal — such as the aqueduct, the Herodian wall, the arches in the port and the towers along the Crusader wall. The current major project is development of the huge arches, which were used as storehouses 2,000 years ago; 87 million shekels (about $23.5 million) are now being invested in this project. It’s hard to find a precedent in Israel for a similar project on an ancient site.

In 31 B.C.E., after his victory in the Battle of Actium, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar gifted the city to Herod, who named it after his benefactor.

“Nowhere in the world are there Herodian remains like the port,” says Sarig. The only possible comparison she says, is Venice. The large stone arches stand next to what once served as an internal port, and became covered with soil and grass. The external port is the one familiar to us. The receding of the sea makes it difficult for visitors to understand the structure of the ancient port, and the exhibit to be built within the arches is meant to solve that and clarify the appearance of the ancient structure.

As part of the restoration of the arches, impressive remains of the Temple of Rome and Augustus were exposed. This is part of the temple platform built by Herod in the first century CE, which overlooked the entire city. Throughout history, important religious structures were built on this platform. The present project includes the restoration and development of some of the port’s arches and the steps of the temple.

In addition to restoration of the arches, the wall promenade, a vestige from the Crusader period, is now being developed. On the wall, which is eight meters tall and three meters wide, there were 16 towers. At the northern end of the site the ancient synagogue from the period of the Great Revolt, which is mentioned in the Talmud and the writings of Josephus Flavius, is now being excavated.

The Caesarea Maritima national park from the air.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

At the marina itself an underwater archaeological park is being developed, touted as “the first of its kind in Israel and in the world.” The park reveals the construction technique of the ancient port built by Herod. About two years ago, divers found a treasure hoard containing 2,085 gold coins from the Fatimid period (10th to 11th century).

A tourism experience

In addition to all this, there are 22 places of business at the port — restaurants, bars, galleries, entertainment venues and shops. The combination of commerce and archaeology is not common in Israel, certainly not in such proximity. At Masada, for example, commerce is concentrated on the lower part of the mountain, while the archaeological site above operates without “appendices” or diversions.

The concept in Caesarea is different. Some people think it’s refreshing, while some archaeologists consider it a danger to such an important site. Others, more conservative, see it as a cheapening of an important site. And several archaeologists who asked not to be named believe that the massive restoration at the site deviates from any reasonable standard.

Architect Ze’ev Margalit, Manager of Preservation and Development in the Nature and Parks Authority, believes that the present activity is wise and correct. “Everything in archaeology is examined individually. If the find is sensitive and it original condition is important — don’t touch it. In Caesarea the situation is different. We’ve created a balance here between the original find and the restoration. True, there’s massive and even unusual intervention here, but there’s also careful differentiation between the original and the modern, and we’re completely faithful to the research information. We haven’t invented anything here.”

Margalit explains that today, there is a different attitude to archaeological sites everywhere in the world. Reviving the site is essential, and modern additions such as a café, a gallery and street performances make proper use of an archaeological site.

“A tourism experience doesn’t have to be boring. Let’s let go a bit. It won’t detract at all from the value of the site. If only we could do that at other sites. That’s the future.”

Too much investment?

Another important question is whether there is any justification for concentrating so much effort and investment on one site, when there are many other sites that are begging for preservation and tourism development.

Yisrael Hasson, director general of the Antiquities Authority, feels that the concentration on one site is fully justified. He says that for many years there was a covert and overt battle between the IAA and the Caesarea Development Corporation. When he assumed his position about four years ago, Hasson worked to promote accelerated development of the site.

“The process of erosion caused Caesarea to disintegrate before our eyes,” he says. “We reached the conclusion that we have to conduct accelerated rehabilitation and development of the site. What we see today in Caesarea is only 6 percent of its treasures. Beneath the ground lies 94 percent of the city, with which we’re unfamiliar. There’s a huge theater there with 25,000 seats, which dwarfs the familiar amphitheater with its 3,000 seats. The entire plan that was approved is being funded by the Caesarea Development Corporation, and they’re keeping their word.”

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to spread the effort to additional archaeological sites?

The Caesarea Maritima aqueduct.Credit: Israel Nature and Parks Authority

“I wish we had an overall plan for developing archaeological tourism; the country needs such a plan. In its absence we’re happy to cooperate with an organization like the Caesarea Development Corporation, and we see that when the authorities operate transparently and with joint planning — the result is good. If you give me funding and a national plan, we’d be happy to work at many other sites. The limitation of course is the funding. If only the State of Israel would decide what’s important to it — the way they decided on developing sites in Jerusalem — that’s what we’ll do.

The local Pompeii

Michael Karsenti, CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation, told Haaretz that the vision of Baroness Rothschild is to turn Caesarea into a local Pompeii. The site in southern Italy, considered one of the most popular ancient sites in the world, attracts over 3 million visitors annually, about the total number of visitors to Israel in a year.

“Our goal is to reveal the real size of ancient Caesarea,” says Karsenti. “Today we’re familiar with only a small part of the original city. The baroness understood the tremendous potential of the place and is therefore investing large sums of money in its development.

“We believe that this will bring growth and additional tourists. That would justify the construction of additional hotels in Caesarea. We’re involved here in one of the biggest archaeological projects ever conducted in Israel, and our goals, as decided by the baroness, involve both values and business. We’re only at the start, and in the end we’ll become a leading international tourist site.

The port of Caesarea.Credit: Maya Ben Nissan

“Our assumption is that the investments will bring more visitors to our area and that we’ll be able to measure the benefit in simple financial terms — did the turnover in the restaurants increase, did we sell more entrance tickets?” The site is a national park and the cost of a ticket is 39 shekels — 35 go to the Nature and Parks Authority and 4 to the Caesarea corporation.

Karsenti says the Caesarea corporation does not intend to profit from the project; it will be satisfied with the anticipated benefits from the national park, which will help enhance Caesarea’s and Israel’s international reputation. The number of tourists to Caesarea rose 27 percent last year, he says (about the same as the increase in the number of tourists to Israel). These are direct revenues, he explains. “We’re a place that is unique in the entire world. There’s a leading archaeological site here, and next to it a wonderful beach and a golf course. Countries that have turned themselves into a quality golf destination saw an increase in gross domestic product. That will happen here too.”

Karsenti is also well aware that there are many residents of Caesarea who aren’t happy about the massive development of the antiquities site. He describes the community as having an “exclusive communal” image, and the entry of millions of tourists, as in Pompeii or Athens, doesn’t necessarily accord with the exclusivity and the quiet that Caesarea residents are looking for.

“It’s true,” admits Karsenti, “some residents of Caesarea are convinced that we shouldn’t build anything here, but my promise to them is that everything is being done with transparency and a correct planning process. They understand that the development of tourism and of our land is essential. We won’t do anything that will harm their interests; we’ll find the balance between the exclusive lifestyle and a mass tourism site. We’ll preserve the character of the place along with developing tourism. One of the ways of doing so is to build separate access roads to the community and the site.”

Karsenti’s vision is optimistic. He says that every third tourist who visits Israel comes to Caesarea, while 70 percent visit Jerusalem. He estimates that Israel will have 10 million tourists in 2040, with 4 million coming to Caesarea. Four million visitors a year are not a recipe for peace and quiet.

The baroness is aware of that, says Karsenti, and of the risks involved in developing mass tourism. She has a home in one of the old neighborhoods of Caesarea, where she stays during her frequent visits to Israel. The objective, explains Karsenti, is clear — to maintain a balance between the tourism asset and living in a quiet place by the sea.

In order to see the full picture, one should go north of Caesarea. After passing the synagogue you reach the Aqueduct Beach. If you continue for about another 5 kilometers to the north you arrive at the small fishing village of Jisr a-Zarqa and the bridge over Nahal Taninim. The entire area is already a national park. All that needs to be done is to develop it as a single complete and continuous complex, where you can walk from the richest community in Israel to the poorest one, with one amazingly beautiful aqueduct built by Herod connecting the two.

As Hannah Szenes wrote in “A Walk to Caesarea”: “Eli Eli (‘my God, my God’), may it never end.”



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