Caesarea: Golf and archeology

There’s plenty to explore in this coastal city that was built up by King Herod in Roman times and today offers world-class recreation.

Where is the only 18-hole golf course in Israel? Caesarea, a Mediterranean port city halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Two years ago, a new Pete Dye-designed course ( opened here to the great delight of local and international golfers.

But Caesarea isn’t only about year-round golf and sandy beaches. The modern upscale town of some 4,200 residents — the only municipality in Israel run by private management – is known for its mix of the very old and very new. Here archeologists have uncovered significant Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Crusader structures and artworks, and here also some of Israel’s high-tech companies are turning out state-of-the-art products.

Caesarea’s ancient Roman aqueduct and amphitheatre, the oldest surviving Roman theater in the eastern Mediterranean region, provide the setting for an annual world-class Jazz Festival ( Its harbor, dedicated to Augustus Caesar more than 2,000 years ago, today is bustling with restaurants, cafes, art galleries and nightlife.

Even its waters yield important clues from the past, as University of Haifa geo-archeologist Dr. Beverly Goodman ( has been discovering in her forays among undersea shipwrecks and shattered fragments. It was in Caesarea that Goodman found evidence of an ancient tsunami that destroyed Herod the Great’s first-century harbor. She’s using the data to help predict future environmental events and to make recommendations for preserving the fragile coastline as sea levels rise.

However, you don’t have to be a PhD to experience the treasures of coastal Caesarea.

Leah Schneider of the Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Caesarea Development Corporation says that amateur and professional divers can enjoy Caesarea’s all-seasons Underwater Archeological Park (, an ambitious $4.6 million project opened in 2004 in cooperation with the University of Haifa.

The first of its kind in the world, the park offers four diving complexes (one of them for snorkelers) with 25 marked exhibits in the sunken harbor pointing out basins, breakwaters, loading piers, storage rooms, a promenade and a lighthouse. Wrecked ships and cargos, ancient anchors and an illegal immigrant ship are among artifacts discovered on the seabed.

Touring Caesarea

Schneider recommends starting a tour of Caesarea at the Time Tower (, a renovated fortress overlooking the Old City, ancient aqueduct and harbor. Here you can watch Voyage in Time, a 10-minute 3D journey on a large screen taking viewers from the Herodian period through the Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Crusader eras, through the early days of Zionist immigration.

Time Tower also houses the audience-interactive tech show Stars of Caesarea, depicting 12 prominent historical figures who were active in Caesarea, such as King Herod, Saladin, Baron Edmond Rothschild, Augusta Helena, King Louis IX and St. Paul.

There’s a lot to explore at the restored harbor, which has an artists’ complex, galleries, a souvenir shop, eateries and bars offering fare from sushi to ice cream.

Among the galleries is Draydel House (, where you can see hundreds of Hanukah spinning tops handcrafted by ceramicist Eran Grebler. He also makes and displays menorahs, mezuzah cases, Seder plates and other Judaica items. Grebler is the craftsman responsible for the world’s largest draydel, which is mounted next to Caesarea’s train station.

Art Nouveau displays unique wool pictures, and angel figures are embedded in the colorful stones at Esti Shachaf’s studio. Renowned nature sculptor Leon Bronstein ( also works here.

Outside the harbor area is the Ralli Museum of South American Art (, which has a gallery devoted to works by Salvador Dali and a Caesarea history exhibit. Among other sites worth viewing is the recently discovered sixth-century Palace of the Bird Mosaic (, a rare find from the Byzantine era.

On Aqueduct (Arches) Beach, one of Israel’s best-loved beaches, ( you can explore the raised aqueduct built by Herod and expanded 300 years later to bring running water to Caesarea from the springs of Shummi six miles away at the foot of Mount Carmel.

Every Friday during the summer months, Caesarea’s beach hosts a kite festival as a unique way to celebrate the start of the Sabbath. This isn’t to be confused with the extreme sport of kite surfing, which is also available in Caesarea. At Freegull Sea Sports (, one of Israel’s most prestigious surfing schools, Gal Fridman took courses years before winning an Olympic gold medal in wind surfing. At Beit Yannai Beach ( on the road toward Netanya there’s another surf school, Kite Away (

Emperors, kings and saints

The modern town of Caesarea was built in 1952 on the northern outskirts of the Old City. The renovated ruins, preserved as part of Caesarea National Park (, are therefore accessible for tourists to explore.

Founded as a Phoenician port called Stratons Towers, in 90 BCE the town was conquered by Alexander Jannaeus and annexed into the Hasmonean kingdom of the Greek period. Ruins of temples to Greek gods can still be seen here.

Nearly 60 years later, the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar presented the town as a gift to his puppet king, Herod, who renamed it Caesarea and constructed a major port, recreational facilities, bathhouses, temples and a palace between 22 and 10 BCE.

Herod planned Maritime Harbor as the point for bringing luxury goods across the Indian Ocean — spices, drugs, cosmetics, fine textiles, precious stones – and because of its success, Caesarea became the economic and political capital of the country. Until the sixth century, people flocked to the Caesarea Hippodrome (the original site is now a banana plantation) to see chariot races.

Hippodromes often were ornamented by giant obelisks, and there are two in the Old City of Caesarea. One of them was restored in 2001 in a $150,000 privately funded Antiquities Authority project that took nearly two years.

Following Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Jewish Roman commissioners started building residences here among foreign neighbors. Today you can see the ruins of the ancient synagogue they built. In 66 CE, tensions between the two populations of Caesarea turned violent, leading to a major national rebellion against the Romans that ultimately resulted in the great exile of Jews from the land, in 72 CE.

Caesarea, where Pontius Pilate governed during the time of Jesus, grew to be a revered Christian site. This is where the first pagan, Cornelius, converted to Christianity and during the third century Caesarea evolved a center for Christian scholarship.

In the seventh century, Moslem invaders took over the land, and between the 10th and 12th centuries Caesarea was ruled alternately by the Christian Crusaders and the Muslim Saladin. The walls of the Old City were built in 1251, during Louis IX of France’s stay in Caesarea during the Crusades. Not long afterward, Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, captured and destroyed Caesarea along with other coastal cities.

The ancient town lay in ruins till the middle of the 19th century, when Bosnian Moslems and then German Templars established a small fishing village near the site of the old Crusader castle. Visitors can tour the pier built here in the 1850s, where fishermen still cast their lines when the sea is calm. A paved path leads across from the artists complex, cafes and restaurants to the Underwater Archeological Park and the beaches.

Other archaeological finds from Caesarea are displayed at the museum ( in nearby Kibbutz Sdot Yam. The kibbutz was the adopted home of Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian immigrant who volunteered for the British army and parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II, only to be captured and executed by the Germans in 1944. Sdot Yam also has a museum depicting her heroic and tragic story.

Modern Caesarea

Caesarea has become one of the most exclusive places to live in Israel, blessed with open green areas and access to both the seashore and the main roads of Israel. It’s divided into “clusters,” and one of the newest projects is Golf Residence, situated in the Golf Cluster at the highest point in Caesarea, bordering on the newly expanded golf course.

Modern Caesarea was started by Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild (1845-1934) and other members of the affluent Rothschild family, who moved from France before the establishment of the state of Israel and founded settlements to attract early Jewish immigrants from across Europe.

The Rothschilds transferred most of their land holdings to the state after 1948, but the 8,500 acres around what is now Caesarea were leased back for 200 years to a charitable organization called The Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation, owned jointly with the state. The foundation established the Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Caesarea Development Corporation in 1952, which oversees all the town’s operations.

To this day, the foundation owns and leases the land in Caesarea, and regulates the architectural design of the houses. It uses profits from the development of Caesarea to contribute to higher education and cultural organizations across Israel.

The Caesarea Business Park houses approximately 170 companies. It is one of the largest and most cutting-edge industrial and business zones in Israel. Many environmentally friendly startups and established firms here are leading advances in biotech and clean-tech.

Because of its almost constant nice weather, Caesarea is a good spot for outdoor festivals. In addition to the yearly Jazz Festival in June, the town has also sponsored an international Opera Festival and an Autumn Festival at the Hippodrome, the harbor promenade and the Roman theater, featuring performances by street artists, magicians, clowns, musicians, jugglers and acrobats.

There are plenty of hotels in the area, but the only major one in the town itself is the luxury Dan Caesarea ( next to the golf course, which is the only Israeli hotel with a regulation-size soccer field where national and local teams practice. Vacation apartments and bed-and-breakfast accommodations are also available within the town.


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