Eve Black



Historical Background

For numerous millennia the Mediterranean coastline of Israel was the locale of intensive maritime traffic. Merchant vessels, explorers and warships joined the settlements of Egypt, Israel and Syria with Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and ancient Carthage. Throughout every historical period the number of ships sailing along these sea lanes reached into the thousands. What remains today of those voyages, conquests, and settlements? What is being done with these remnants? And how is the archaeological community coping with the conflicting demands of contemporary society - coastal development on the one hand and preservation of nature and coastal sites on the other?

The coastline of Israel is about 190 km long. It is at about the center of that shore where we find Caesarea Maritima, the ancient city alongside the submerged, 2000 year-old Herodian Harbor of Sebastos. Located by an aerial photograph taken in 1918 by the Australia Squadron of the RAF, Caesarea has, to date, been extensively excavated and well-documented over the past 40 years or so by numerous archaeologists and by now represent the largest, ongoing amphibious excavation in the world with results that attest to the brilliance of the engineering capabilities of Roman engineers, executing a totally modern harbor in every sense of the word, twenty-two years before the birth of Christ.

This harbor and the city adjacent to it were the brainchild of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 37 to 4 BCE. It was created for his own political purpose at the time to glean favor in the eyes of Rome during a period when dramatic international commercial growth was taking place throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Herod had control of the coast and overland trade routes, and needed a large port facility where a sizeable merchant fleet could winter, undergo repairs, load cargo and be guaranteed immediate departure once the sailing season began in the spring, so that goods would reach western markets weeks before cargoes were shipped from smaller, rival eastern ports, such as Piraeus.

In a building program of massive proportions, Herod initiated the most daring and sophisticated enterprise of marine engineering undertaken to that time, creating the first man-made port built on the open seas with no topographical feature to link it to - a Temple to Augustus near the water’s edge, a dramatic harbor of unprecedented size in front of it that could hold an entire Roman fleet, and an international emporium of major scale and importance. It took 12 years to complete.

Herod incorporated an enclosed fishing harbor immediately in front of the Temple Platform as an inner basin within the greater harbor complex. While the larger harbor served over 400 sailing vessels each season, the smaller basin could have accommodated local boats, small craft, and the like. And when dignitaries arrived from Rome they could easily disembark from their craft, climb the staircase leading from the quay of the inner harbor, enter the Temple and pay homage to Rome.

Shortly after its creation (in about 115 CE), Caesarea became the victim of earth tremors which undermined the structure of the outer harbor and the sluicing mechanism, causing the inner harbor basin to gradually silt over, rapidly falling into disuse as a harbor. It was built upon and continued to grow and flourish through Roman and Byzantine times for another 600 years, and ultimately saw Moslem, Crusader, Ottoman and Bosnian inhabitants. But the magnificent harbor never regained its glory.

The rest of the excavated site extends southward for a length of about 1200 meters and is a few hundred meters wide. Today, it appears to be basically two main parts of the overall ancient city; the northern, Herodian harbor area in what has become known as the Crusader City - since the later Crusader walls surround the earlier harbor site - and the southern portion of the city, containing Herodian, Roman and Byzantine ruins and extending to a theater and promontory which was Herod’s palace.


There had been some excavation in the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and were primarily discovery-based. The first systematic excavations were carried out in 1959 and from that time almost all excavation has been based on research goals set out by various academic institutions. For most of us, the ultimate knowledge gained is the reason that justifies what we do. However, there are other values attributed to these coastal resources which allow entities having nothing to do with education or archaeology, history, or the tradition that these artifacts represent, to take charge, ultimately dictating the path that we must take. It is here that decisions occur which, once taken, cannot be reversed. These values are primarily political and economic - or what has become known as cultural tourism - most often led by national interests via their respective tourist ministries or bureaus, and have their ultimate expression in national parks which once were excavation sites.

In 1991, a change occurred in the motivating force behind the excavations, brought about by the sudden necessity to employ newly arrived immigrants to Israel. It was an enterprise handed down by the Ministries of Labor, Welfare and Social Affairs, and was turned over to the Government Tourist Bureau to implement. The two stated goals became employment and the promotion of cultural tourism.

A five-year plan was budgeted and put into operation, creating a site which was being excavated in large part as a job-placement scheme, spearheaded by a non-archaeologically oriented government body, and who, in effect, ‘hired’ the archaeologists to be their excavation team. The idea here was that such a large work force would enable much more extensive and rapid excavation of the site, and by so doing, the sooner the site could be developed to attract tourists. Quite rapidly, by exploiting this unique archaeological resource, the site began to be looked upon as a potential ‘money maker’. One might ask, rhetorically; for whom and what the archaeology here? - the government, the workers, the archaeologists, the tourist agencies, the visiting public who ultimately will view the remains? Perhaps, all of the above. But what about the archaeology itself - are the historic, cultural and educational values benefiting or suffering as a result?


There is a major factor affecting development of the site - now a national park. For certain historical reasons, six different entities have legal jurisdiction - essentially a form of ownership - over different portions of the land on which the archaeology sits, each with its own political, economic and cultural agenda, and have been unable to come to consensus as to how each will participate rather than oppose any movement forward - as Caesarea should be moving ahead into the stages of interpretation and presentation. And at this particular juncture, the archaeological community seem to have less and less ability to give voice as to what is the message that should be said.

Interpretation and Presentation

Currently, presentation of the site is potentially three-fold. The first is an underwater park in the outer harbor area. Cables were put down along its length, with guiding signs marking points of historical interest at various intervals enabling divers to take up to four ‘underwater tours’, holding a waterproof card in their hands which describe the points of interest along the line, eight meters below the surface of the sea. The park saw operation for some years but recently became inoperable and fell into disrepair. This is unfortunate, for it offered a wonderful way for the diving community, at least, to enjoy an unspoiled, undersea museum, in situ.

And, the second. There has been some consolidation and restoration of certain buildings in the southern area of the city, at the southern-most end - Herod’s promontory palace - and the addition of a newly-built promenade along the edge of the sea. Initiated at the hands of the Tourist Bureau, its two stated goals were: to establish a continuous connection between the theater and the Crusader City, converting the site to a unified facility, and to create the conditions necessary for the site to become a tourist anchorage combining visits, expanding commercial activity, and extending the time spent on site – currently about 30 minutes - as tourists travel between Tel Aviv & Haifa and points north.

With the building of the promenade, the message that comes through begs addressing. Here, a recently discovered hippodrome, becomes the easily viewable main attraction in the southern part of the Herodian-Roman-Byzantine city. The notion that ‘movement through a site is not the same as movement through time’, seems to be overlooked here. The introduction of a newly built promenade at the water’s edge, running the length of the area may be a pleasant way of looking at a portion of the site with the water splashing at one’s back, but it does not say much for historic accuracy. Rather than interpret the site and help explain the past, a new past is being created.

Currently, the ancient Herodian harbor is unavailable to the general public, and the inner harbor area is presently referred to as part of the Crusader City. Once the excavation there reached the Herodian level and the technology understood, the later - subsequent 8 layers of human habitation - were bulldozed away, filled-in with dirt and grassed over (until a donor can be found who is willing to take on its development). In other words, today, the site is being approached and presented as two parts of a potentially whole picture - one in the north and one in the south, separated by Crusader period walls, rather than as an integrated site which was built originally to accommodate the harbor, developing accordingly afterward.

If we relate to the archaeological findings, as well as our historical resources, we see that first and foremost this was a harbor and remained, throughout its history, a maritime center - the very reason the city which grew around it was built in the first place. That information is currently sitting with the professional and academic community. How does it get across to the public? Aside from the sea here, the only sign that this was a fluorishing maritime site is sitting at the entrance to the Crusader City - and that is a lovely set of carefully placed ersatz amphoras and assorted anchors.

Lastly, there is an entirely new Theme Park which has been proposed but not yet built - at the southern extremity of the area. Strictly entrepreneurial in nature, it is called ‘Caesarea Maritima - the Revival of a Vision’. The idea is fairly straightforward: it is to construct a totally new facility, on available land adjacent to the southern-most end of the site. By placing it here it avoids any possible involvement into the intricacies of the jurisdictional mire mentioned before. In the plan of the ‘New Caesarea Maritima’, all the newly-built structures throughout the actual facility would be ‘telescoped’ one onto the other, as an imitation of the original, standing nearby. The sense of place, the way the city really was lived in and used, its magnitude and atmosphere would be seriously compromised by placing these structures out of context. It would become a manipulation - a sexy media interpretation but manifestly unsupportable view of history - and distort the information about past events or conditions represented by the actual resource near by.

By emphasizing attractions, the opportunity for the visitor to question or understand the site is eliminated - through sheer confusion. And any possible future educational role which the site might offer would also be seriously compromised. It would thereby render irrelevant the location of the theme park, which could just as well be placed in the desert, the hills of the Galilee, or in Lake Havasu, Arizona, alongside the ‘real’ London Bridge. What Caesarea Maritima has to say, would really not matter, and now represents a singular opportunity being missed, slipping away by the inability of addressing the real point which is: to focus on the uniqueness of the site and let the archaeology tell its story, consistant with the evidence.

First and foremost this was a harbor and remained, throughout its history, a maritime center - from it, ships left for other lands, and to it they came. Had the harbor not existed in Caesarea, the city which grew around it and was built to service it, would never have existed. This needs to be expressed.


The way we present our sites is the clearest outward expression of the value that we place on our historical resource. While ancient amphibious sites may become visually accessible to the onlooker, throughout the stages of excavation, they soon can come under threat when their interpretation and presentation come into conflict with the demands of development due to contemporary national objectives.

Interpretation of our past is not solely for the purpose of tourism. It is done to satisfy society’s demands and is expressed as its values. What we choose to display and how we choose to do it reflect the current state of our knowledge and it is that knowledge rather than spectacle that should lead any discussion. A maritime site is a dramatic example of past interaction with other cultures, proof of movement between places, cosmopolitan by nature. This needs to be expressed and in such a way that is clearly understood - made accessible, physically and spiritually - so that it will stimulate public interest and encourage public involvement. Interpretation clarifies what happened and allows us to transmit the rapport we have built up with the resource to the viewing public. Presentation, then, becomes our vehicle for achieving this.