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If you’re looking for a fascinating place to visit in Israel, consider Caesarea, an ancient seaport with a history as long as history itself. Here’s everything you need to know for a visit to Caesarea in Israel, from King Herod to the Crusades.
I’m bounding around the Crusader gates of Caesarea in Israel, an ancient seaport built by King Herod between 22 and 10 BCE, like an over-caffeinated bunny. “Can you take my photo? Can you take my photo, can you take my …”
Touring Israel with travel writers
The good thing about travelling with other travel writers and photographers is that it’s fun (usually) and rewarding (hopefully) and you have lots in common (definitely). The bad thing is that when you arrive at a spectacular destination such as Caesarea in Israel, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, just as the falling sun is pouring liquid gold through the weathered stone arches, everybody is scrambling around trying to get their shot.
And no matter how much you run around begging people to take your photo with your hands on the wall, they 1) ignore you 2) mutter something that possibly involves swear words or 3) get annoyed because you’re in their carefully orchestrated composition.
No one understands me!
Here’s the thing. I have to have a photo with my hands on the walls because these are the 800-year-old Crusader walls of Caesarea that Louis IX, King of France, helped restore with his own two hands during the 7th Crusade in 1251. And somehow, by touching the walls that were touched by a French king who didn’t mind digging in to help fortify Caesarea, I will be touching the Crusades themselves.
The Crusader City
Don’t get me wrong, It’s not the pillaging, plunder and slaughter of the Crusades I’m glorifying. It’s the idea of the Crusade as the quest, that eternal thirst for adventure and purpose that raises men and women out of their everyday existence and has fuelled everything from climbing Mount Everest to pioneers rumbling across the Wild West in wagon trains.
(And PS: Yes, life would be easier if I could master the art of the selfie, but they make me look like a rotting corpse. Besides, you can’t take a selfie with your hands on the wall. And, er, I really apologize for plaguing everyone on the trip. Please still be my friend.)
There is a lot to see at Caesarea in Israel
Rushing to catch up with our ever-patient guide, Paule, who is trying to get us through the Crusader town of Caesarea before it closes, I realize I was so busy trying to find someone to take my picture that 1) I forgot to touch the walls and therefore become part of the Crusades themselves (but only the good bits) and 2) I might have missed some essential Louis IX crusade information by falling behind, like how he was captured in Egypt and ransomed before coming to Caesarea, or how he brought his wife with him on the Crusade and she holed up at Acre, a Crusader stronghold further north.
At the moment, however, Paule is explaining how King Herod built the vast port of Caesarea Maritima to rival all the other seaports such as the Nabatean Port in Gaza. And that because Herod liked his architecture on a grand scale, he created an entire town with palaces, temples, a hippodrome, amphitheatre and elaborate baths.
Quick Crusader history of Caesarea
Caesarea was under Crusader control from 1101 to 1187, until it was conquered by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. The Crusaders wrestled it away again in 1191.
In 1251 the very devout Louis IX of France (the same king who built the glorious Sainte-Chapelle in Paris) came to Caesarea. Understanding the need for good defences (as he’d already been captured once), he added the walls and a moat. While parts of the Crusader walls still stand today, they couldn’t keep out the Mamluks and Caesarea fell in 1265, lying in ruins for centuries.
FYI about King Louis IX and the Crusades
After returning to France, Louis IX embarked on yet another Crusade, the 8th Crusade, but died of dysentery near Tunis. He’s the only French king who was ever canonized by the Catholic Church and is officially St. Louis.
I try to imagine Louis IX here. What did he think when he passed the Roman statues, walked on the Cardo (a north-south Roman street) or looked out at the sea? Was he thinking of France? Of God? Of his wife, who he’d brought on the Crusade and who was holed up in the stronghold of Acre? No matter how hard I try, I can’t get into the head of the French King – maybe because I’m not filled with Crusader zeal. (Or because I didn’t touch the walls.)
I do know this, however: What Louis IX wouldn’t have seen is Caesarea today. Now, in addition to the ancient pediments, pillars and remnants of mosaic floors, you’ll find a rebuilt ‘Crusader’ harbour, shops, multimedia attractions, restaurants and a restored amphitheatre.
We leave the ruins of Caesarea by a different exit, far from the original walls Louis IX helped restore. Determined not to leave without some kind of photo, however, I find a wall and – most importantly – someone willing (thanks, Jerry!) to take the shot. And okay, it’s not an original Crusader fortification I’m leaning against, it’s the back of the park’s toilets, but stone is stone and it makes me feel the tiniest bit connected to Crusader history after all.
Caesarea Travel Guide
Caesarea, also known as Caesarea Maritima, is about 45 km from Haifa and the same from Tel Aviv. Today the preserved ruins have been incorporated into Caesarea National Park.
Caesarea tickets: One all-inclusive entrance ticket includes the Roman Theatre and the Hippodrome as well as the multimedia and interactive displays at the Caesarea Harbour. Adults 40 NIS ($10 USD) Child 20 NIS ($5)
Hours: Summer 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. – Note: The restaurants, galleries and beaches are open during the evening.
Getting to Caesarea in Israel: It’s not very accessible by public transport, so the easiest would be to take a day tour from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. If you do want to come on your own and you’re not driving, you can take a train to Binyamina and get a taxi from there. You may want to arrange for the taxi to pick you up when you’re finished at Ceasarea. (Note: I didn’t do this myself so I can’t vouch for this way of getting here.)
How much time do you need at Caesarea? I’d recommend at least a half day.
Things to do in Caesarea, Israel
- Start with the Caesarea Harbor Experience. After the Voyage in Time, a quick and enlightening multimedia film about the history of Caesarea, visit the Time Trek where you can interact with key holograph-induced figures of Caesarea. (And if you manage to talk to Louis IX let me know because I was busy chatting to Helena, mother of Constantine.)
- Tour the ruins. You’ll be stumbling over so many centuries of history it’s mind boggling, from Roman, Arab, Crusader and Byzantine to early Zionism and a mosque built for 19th-century Muslim Bosnian refugees during the Ottoman rule.
- Photo bomb a wedding portrait. Caesarea is a popular site for weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs and as I was scurrying past a wedding shoot I couldn’t help launching myself in the air. The couple didn’t seem to mind and I wish them a long and happy marriage.
- Attend a concert in the restored Caesarea Amphitheater, where the Roman General Titus once forced 2500 Jews to battle wild animals during the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome when Caesarea was the capital of Roman Palestine.
- Feeling adventurous? Take a diving tour over the submerged ruins of Herod’s masterfully-built port with Old Caesarea Diving Centre. The Underwater Archaeological Park is unique in the world.
- Eat at the Crusader Restaurant, if only because it overlooks the Mediterranean and is called the Crusader Restaurant. FYI: Louis IX did not eat here.
- Don’t miss the massive Roman aqueduct a few km north of the site, especially at sunset. If you want to go to a Caesarea Beach, this one is highly recommended.
If you’re travelling to Israel here’s a perfect Israel Itinerary. Read more about Israel: Attitude at the Mount of Beatitudes: A trip to the Holy Land.
For more information on visiting Israel check out Go Israel, the Israel Tourism Board site.
Disclosure: My visit was subsidized by the Israeli Tourism Board, opinions and weird fascination with the Crusades is my own.