In a State of Decay

View of the Mediterranean, Caesarea.

I first visited the Holy Land in February and March of 2008. My wife and I were on our honeymoon. We had been married for about six months but had to delay our honeymoon due to family and work obligations. Though it was my first visit to the Land of Israel, it was not Beth’s. Previously, she had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later lived in Haifa with her former husband and their children. She spoke Hebrew and had friends and family in the country.

Before the trip, I had looked for a guidebook. I was not interested in those with hotel and restaurant information, lists of activities and places to see, museum locations, and operating hours. I wanted something different. I was going to the Holy Land, a spiritual destination; I wanted a fitting guidebook. I found the perfect one for my needs: Israel – A Spiritual Travel Guide: A companion for the Modern Jewish Pilgrim. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman wrote the book, and JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing in Woodstock, Vermont, published it. Indeed, I was going to the Holy Land as a pilgrim, not a tourist.

I liked the way Rabbi Hoffman approached his topic. The book’s first part contained readings for eighteen days of preparation before leaving. These readings reinforced the feeling that I was a pilgrim about to embark on a spiritual journey. Other sections included special prayers to recite before departure, to say upon arrival, and a guide to blessings for different occasions and locations. The book’s heart, the places Rabbi Hoffman suggested a pilgrim visit, was in Section Four, titled “This Place is Holy.”

One of the things I wanted to do was see and touch the Mediterranean, to feel its water on my hands and face. This yearning originated in my study of Latin many years ago in high school when I looked at photos and drawings of Roman ships navigating the Great Sea. Now, I would have the opportunity to fulfill this dream. On Friday, March 7, 2008, in Caesarea, I first recited the traditional blessing for seeing the Mediterranean: Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who made the Great Sea. The Hebrew for “the Great Sea” is hayam hagadol. In his book The Jewish War, Josephus says this about the location of Caesarea, a town then known as Strato’s Tower, and its initial impression on Herod the Great, the man who would turn it into a great port city:

“He noticed on the coast a town called Strato’s Tower, in a state of decay, but thanks to its admirable situation, capable of benefiting by his generosity. He rebuilt it entirely with limestone and adorned it with a splendid palace. Nowhere did he show more clearly the liveliness of his imagination.”

Josephus. The Jewish War (Classics) (p. 82). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Herod worked on the port and city for twelve years, beginning in 22 BCE. He named the town in honor of his friend and patron, Caesar Augustus. Ten years after Herod’s death, Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators, one, perhaps the most famous one, named Pontius Pilate. During our visit in 2008, it was Sabbath eve. Beth and I focussed exclusively on the ancient Roman ruins. 

Like our first one, our second visit to Caesarea was also postponed by forces outside us, in this case, a storm named Barbara. We moved our hotel reservation to a week later than initially planned. It was worth it; when we arrived, the weather was perfect. 

On this visit, we decided to concentrate on the Crusader ruins. These ruins are as impressive to me as any in the Land of Israel. With the sole exception of walking outside the walls to see the Roman aqueduct and a stroll back along the beach, we spent the entire day exploring the Crusader ruins.

The Crusaders first showed up in 1101 under the leadership of King Baldwin I, who believed that the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, was somewhere in the city. Baldwin lived from about 1058 until 1118. He arrived with the First Crusade. But most of the Crusader ruins we saw are from later, around 1254, after the French king Louis IX, also known as St. Louis, conquered Caesarea. He lived from 1214 until 1270. After the end of the 13th century, Caesarea never regained prominence and was subjected to pillaging by one group after another.

One of the things we saw that caught our attention was the dry moat surrounding the crusader fortifications. I grew up always thinking of moats as deep ditches or trenches filled with water surrounding a castle. But a dry moat surrounded the crusader fortress.

Caesarea – view of dry moat sloping down on the right of the picture.

The dry moat was almost 30 feet deep. There were also several secret entryways into the fortified city leading up from the ditch. These secret passageways are also called posterns.

View looking up from a secret entryway to the fortification entrance at top of the stairs.

Before going outside the fortifications, we stopped for coffee and enjoyed sitting in the sun. Then we headed out to see the aqueduct and walked back along the beach, stopping at the ruins of a Byzantine synagogue that looked out over the sea. There are parts of a mosaic floor with an inscription in Greek, the lingua franca of the time. A sign at the site indicates that even the prayers were recited in Greek.

We stayed until closing, then drove to Zichron Ya’akov, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Tishbi’s and spent the night in the lovely Zamarin Hotel. We returned home the next day. I was already thinking about paying another visit to Caesarea. I haven’t enjoyed swimming there yet.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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