A tale of two cities

Bastion: Where Caesarea was flat and on the sea coast, the fortified city Masada was 200 km away in the middle of the Judaean desert, perched on a rocky plateau 400m high, and overlooking the Dead Sea.

Bastion: Where Caesarea was flat and on the sea coast, the fortified city Masada was 200 km away in the middle of the Judaean desert, perched on a rocky plateau 400m high, and overlooking the Dead Sea.   -  Shutterstock

When in Rome: The hippodrome at Caesarea, built by Herod the Great.

When in Rome: The hippodrome at Caesarea, built by Herod the Great.   -  Shutterstock

The gateway: Arches to the sea in Caesarea.

The gateway: Arches to the sea in Caesarea.   -  Shutterstock

At Israel’s Caesarea and Masada, built by Herod the Great, you are in the lap of two vastly different phases of history

There was much sound and fury as the waves of the Mediterraneanlashed against the rocks just a few feet away. But that was just background noise. Instead, I was transfixed by the hippodrome in front of me. It was in ruins, and the stone steps, where once people would have sat and watched the races, were all but destroyed. Yet, it was intact enough to convey the majesty of the erstwhile harbour city of Caesarea, built more than 2,000 years ago, on the Israeli coast.

Built by Herod the Great between 22 and 10 BC, the location was incredibly dramatic, to say the least. The land was granted to Herod and he first built his palace on a little promontory. It must have been a glorious structure; a few broken columns still stood here and there, pointers to its magnificence. There were also indicators of Herod’s love for the good life: adjacent to the palace, the promontory sloped towards the sea where a huge swimming pool had been carved out, right at the water’s edge. Perhaps, in this lie the beginnings of the infinity pool.

Soon after completing the palace, Herod expanded and built other things — a massive hippodrome, a fabulous theatre, a strong port and harbour, and a full-fledged city complete with a Roman aqueduct, bathhouses, banks and vaults. He named the city after his patron Augustus Caesar. In its heyday, Caesarea was a bustling and incredibly successful harbour and even became the capital of Judea, and subsequently the Byzantines’.

As I wandered around the ruined city, it was strange to find some things almost entirely intact, like the theatre, which was, in fact, getting ready for a rock concert. Elsewhere, I found beautiful mosaic patterns on the floor of the vaults, though the vaults themselves were almost completely destroyed. The Governor’s baths, with lovely arches and passages, were partly ruined. But what had me riveted was the hippodrome.

It was in classic Roman style, perfectly rectangular with one side ending in a semicircle. There were special enclosures for dignitaries and arched doorways for the horses to enter. Its sheer size and the little that remained clearly indicated its splendour and the statement it made. It was also built keeping in mind the needs of the common spectator: skirting the massive entrance was a little duct that carried running water and above it slabs were placed at regular intervals that served as toilets!

But clearly, everywhere I looked, there were overt gestures at appeasing the Romans who had conquered the region. Herod ruled under their overlordship. This was in stark contrast to Masada which I had seen earlier in the day. Where Caesarea was flat and on the coast, the fortified city of Masada was 200 km away in the middle of the Judaean desert, perched on a rocky plateau some 400 m high, and overlooked the beautiful Dead Sea. Fascinatingly, it too was built by Herod, between 37 and 31 BC as a refuge against the Romans.

On a pleasant day, trekking up the cliff to the ruined city is a moderately difficult task. But on a blazing day with temperatures crossing 40 degree Celsius, scaling the plateau was ruled out; I opted to be whisked up in a cable car which deposited me atop the cliff within minutes. The sun’s glare and heat were uncomfortably harsh, so much so that there were frequent mirages on the landscape, which was an unvarying pale ochre.

The cliff’s surface was surprisingly large, stretching 550 m long and 270 m wide, while the sides fell away more or less vertically. Almost the entire perimeter had a running fort wall, which had fallen away in places. The ruins of many structures were scattered over the tabletop. However, there was a concentration of ruins towards the North. I wandered around the sprawling bathhouses which had beautiful murals, and were equipped with a sophisticated system for heating water. Elsewhere, there were synagogues, storehouses, reservoirs, an elaborate water-carrying system with channels and siphons, a towering pigeon house where the birds were bred for food, and there were even some houses. At the height of its glory, Masada was supposed to have been home to over a 1,000 people.

However, what took my breath away was at the northernmost tip, where Herod had constructed a lavish and beautifully-designed palace complex. Almost teetering at the edge, it had magnificent views of the valley and the Dead Sea. The complex was spread over three levels, with each level separated by 30-40 feet. Some of the pillars of the palace were still intact as were some stunning murals and mosaics, and carved capitals that must have adorned pillars. Even in this ruined state, it was hauntingly beautiful.

As much as Caesarea was about pleasing the Romans, Masada was clearly about fending off a Roman attack, and having elaborate systems for sustenance under a sustained attack. For a long time, it remained impregnable. And yet, the Romans did come and Masada had to yield around 73 AD. At that point, Masada was inhabited by the Zealots who had taken refuge during the Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire. The attack strategy was devastatingly simple. The Roman army scooped up dirt from the desert and heaped it to form a ramp and rolled into Masada.

For all its magnificence, a strong cloud of melancholy hangs over Masada. According to legend, the holed up rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than be captured or killed by the Romans. While this aspect is vehemently debated and countered with lack of archaeological evidence, Masada continues to hold a significant place in the collective Jewish consciousness and is taken as a symbol of the Jewish downfall and ouster from the Holy Land. In fact, for years, the soldiers of the Israeli Armoured Corps climbed Masada at night with torches after completing their basic training and were sworn in here; the ceremony ended with the soldiers vowing that ‘Masada shall not fall again.’

While the solemnity of Masada hung around long after I had climbed down from the hilltop, the mood was much more upbeat at Caesarea. The two places, just 200 km apart, and built by the same person, were both incredibly beautiful and ruined too, yet very different. Perhaps it was just me, but Caesarea didn’t seem melancholic at all. And in the fading evening light, that bewitching hour when everything assumes a bit of romance, I thought I could hear the ghostly thumping of hooves as I stood above the hippodrome. Or it could have just been the rhythm of lashing waves. But ghosts seemed a far more dramatic option.

Travel log

Getting there

Tel Aviv, Israel’s main airport, is about 180 km north-east of Masada and about 65 km South of Caesarea. Masada and Caesarea are about 225 km apart. Fly into Tel Aviv and hire a private vehicle to visit the two places or opt for a packaged tour. There are buses which ply to the two places from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Stay

There’s no accommodation on top of Masada. The nearest ones are all located along the Dead Sea and you can get decent options from around $100 a night though ones such as Oasis Hotel (https://www.prima-hotels-israel.com/; +972-3-552-2220; $180 onwards) and David Dead Sea Spa Resort (https://www.david-deadsea.com/; +972-8-6591234; $200 onwards) offer plush facilities and a lovely view of the sea as well. Caesarea is just 65 km from Tel Aviv, which has a wide variety of stay options, so it is best to do as a day trip.

Getting around

Both Masada and Caesarea are sprawling heritage sites and walking around is the only way to see them. The more adventurous ones can hike up the plateau in Masada or opt for the cable car. Some parts of Masada are a bit rigorous, so wear the right proper footwear. Caesarea is flat and easily walkable, but the site is quite spread out.

Timings and info:

Masada: https://www.masada.org.il/en; open from 8 am to 5 pm; entry fees plus cable car charges approximately $20 per person.

Caesarea: http://www.caesarea.com/; Open 8 am to 6 pm, closed on Friday; entry fees approximately $10 per person.

Tip

Both sites are largely open and get very warm, so dress appropriately and carry water to stay hydrated.

Anita Rao Kashi is a freelance travel writer based in Bengaluru

Published on January 13, 2017

Related

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor