“If I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Acts 25:11.
The apostle Paul had been arrested and was in prison for two years in Caesarea. Festus, the new Roman governor, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul if he wanted to go to Jerusalem for trial. Paul replied that he should be tried before Caesar’s tribunal. Festus replied “To Caesar you have appealed, to Caesar you shall go.”
I was standing at the site of the Roman governor’s palace on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Caesarea, Israel. I was in the ruins of the outer courtyard. This was the place where official business was carried on by Festus and the other governors. This was likely the very ground where almost 2,000 years ago Paul appeared before Festus.
Caesarea was built by Herod the Great in 25-13 BCE upon the ruins of earlier Phoenician settlements begun in 586 BCE during the Persian era. It was the administrative center for Judea in Roman times. It was a planned city with a network of crisscrossing roads, a temple, hippodrome, amphitheater, markets, and residential quarters.
Some of the villas must have been magnificent, with mighty columns and a view to the Mediterranean Sea.
Even today fancy floor mosaics are still visible among the foundations of the excavated building ruins.
Every five years the city hosted major sports competitions and gladiator games in the hippodrome, and theatrical productions in the amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
As I walked around the U-shaped hippodrome, I imagined what it must have been like back then. Twelve thousand spectators found their seats in the stands while the rich and powerful people sat on the special viewing platform at the finish line. The chariots lined up at the starting line for the race to the tight U-turn where fortunes could be won or lost in a heartbeat.
The city flourished from Roman times into the Byzantine period of 324-638 CE, but Caesarea lost its political and economic significance after the Arab conquest in 640 CE. It was conquered by the Crusaders in 1101 and fortified with massive walls and a dry moat by King Louis IX of France in 1251. Conquered again by the Mamelukes in 1265, Caesarea was destroyed and deserted. Its ruins became a source of lime and building stones for the region over the centuries.
Despite the destruction, the 4,000 seat theater is still standing. The day I visited, preparations were being made for a concert by one of Israel’s top singers. The stone ledges looked like uncomfortable seats for a long show. Do you think they had stadium cushions in Roman times?
I can’t imagine a more inhospitable place to build a palace than Masada in Israel. It is on a butte hundreds of feet above the Judean Desert. Sheer cliff walls surround the top of the butte. A narrow path called the Snake Path winds its way up the cliff’s side. There is a nice view of the Dead Sea from the top, but the heat is unbearable in summer. How did they get water up here? What were they thinking? Surely, a palace along the Mediterranean Sea would be better.
Herod the Great had the palace built in 37 B.C. as a redoubt in case of trouble in Judea. If he had to flee Jerusalem, at least he could still live in style in this palace in the sky. In fact there were four palaces on the site, so that four of his wives could live separately. Maybe the plan wasn’t so bad after all…
He never visited the place. Instead, the last remnant of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, approximately 1,200 men, women and children, fled there in 70 A.D. It was the perfect stronghold. It was easy to defend from attackers trying to scamper up the Snake Path one or two at a time. Herod had stored water in large cisterns and there was plenty of Spam and baked beans in the cellar (or whatever food could be stored in those times).
The Romans were too proud to allow the remaining rebels to stay there so they marshaled their forces and laid siege. Three Roman legions (about 48,000 men) set up camp in the valley below. They tried everything in their bag of siege tricks to capture the fortress, as shown in the 1970s movie called Masada.
The Jews held out for three years. Eventually, after a moving speech by their leader, they chose to commit suicide rather than live as Roman slaves. Each man killed his wife and children. Only two women and two children survived.
The Romans destroyed the place. Almost 2,000 years later, not much remains of Herod’s palaces except for a few walls and cisterns. Yet the dramatic story of the rebels lives on. It is passed down through the generations of Israelis with the phrase “Sheynit Masada lo tipul,” which means “Masada shall not fall again.”
Visitors no longer have to hike up the Snake Path to the top of Masada. A cable car whisks you to the top in a couple of minutes. Even so, when visiting in the summer bring sun screen and lots of water!
Our tour guide to Masada was excellent. His name is Shraga Rosensaft. If you are visiting Israel and would like a personable, interesting, and expert guide, please contact him at email@example.com or www.tiyul.weebly.com
Riding the bus from the port of Ashdod, Israel, on the Mediterranean Sea inland and up into the hills to Jerusalem was like traveling back in time. On the coast, the ship docked in a modern, busy, industrious port. Giant cranes lifted and stacked containers five stories high. Thousands of new cars sat in rows collecting dirt on their windshields before being cleaned and shipped to dealers.
The tour bus cruised down new highways in heavy traffic and then past the place where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac 4,000 years ago. Before the road climbed into the Judean Mountains, we saw the battlefield where David slew Goliath.
Despite this area being a desert, there were many fields planted with crops such as grapes, oranges, corn, and cotton. It was land irrigated using reclaimed waste water.
There was a marked difference between lands of the people groups here. The Israelis have built sophisticated irrigation systems and their land was generally green. Social communes called kibbutzim were scattered across the desert, each like a green oasis. The Palestinian areas were dry and dusty, and generally look poorer. In some areas Bedouins lived not in tents but in shacks along the side of the highway. One extended Bedouin family and their camels and goats lived in each grouping of shacks. The Bedouin areas were completely desolate.
The mountains used to be full of trees. The guide explained how the Turks of the Ottoman Empire had caused the destruction of all the trees in Israel during World War I by offering three gold pieces to anyone who brought a load of wood to the railroad stations. The wood was used to make steam for the railway. Since the creation of the new state of Israel in 1948, young Israelis have been planting trees. The mountains are now full of trees again.
After a ride of 1 ½ hours, our first stop in Jerusalem was at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. The garden looks out over the old city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The church itself was not memorable to me, and I was surprised at how small the garden is today. I don’t know if it was larger 2,000 years ago. The garden has a dozen old olive trees with very gnarled trunks.
We passed through the Jaffa Gate to get inside the old city. We saw the Tower of David, which is now the tower of a mosque, and walked to the square in front of the Western Wall. The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is revered by the Jews as part of the foundation of the Temple Mount, the sole remnant of the Second Temple, which was built by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The area in front of the Western Wall is divided into two sections, one for men and one for women to get close to the wall. Several hundred people were bobbing and praying at the wall and sticking written prayers in cracks of the wall.
The day was sunny and very hot. I stood for quite a while in the square in the sun waiting for the tour to resume. I was sweating heavily through my clothes and I wondered how the many Orthodox Jews in their black clothes and hats dealt with the heat.
The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem consists of many narrow lanes lined with shops of all kinds. There streets were mostly deserted because of Ramadan. The Muslims were fasting during the daylight hours and probably stayed at home. We walked to several stops on the Via Dolorosa (also called the Way of Sorrows). According to Roman Catholic tradition, this is the path that Jesus took through Jerusalem on his way to his crucifixion on Calvary Hill.
The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church was built in the 12th century by the crusaders and today is shared by several Christian denominations. According to tradition, this church was built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection.
The final stop of the tour was Bethlehem. This city of 35,000 people is in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. To get into Bethlehem we had to pass through a checkpoint through the border wall recently built by Israel. The border wall is made of grey concrete panels about 20 feet high. It is an ugly structure. It was “decorated” on the inside by several colorful protest murals. According to a sign I saw, Israeli citizens are not allowed in this area. Since our tour guide was an Israeli, he left us on the Israeli side, and a Palestinian Christian became our new guide on the other side of the wall.
The new guide took us to the Church of the Nativity on a hill overlooking the desert valley. This church was built in 530 A.D. Everything in there definitely looked 1,500 years old! We stood in a large upper room for almost an hour in the heat to get our turn to go down a narrow stone stairway to a small, dark lower room to see the birthplace of Jesus and the manger site. The birthplace site was denoted by a large silver star on the floor. I couldn’t get in to see the manger in a small adjoining room because of the crowd.
I had a look in the Catholic chapel where the Christmas Eve service is held every year and shown on TV. Outside the Church of the Nativity is the Manger Square, which is also shown on TV. The square is not very big and I could imagine how crowded it must get at Christmas time.
The tour was a long and exhausting, but fascinating look at ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem.