Review: A Walk to Caesarea: A Historical-Archaeological Perspective

A Walk to Caesarea: A Historical-Archaeological Perspective

By Joseph Patrich
(Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2018), xii + 174 pp., 193 ill. (maps, plans, reconstructions, photos), $34 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Joseph L. Rife

This book takes its title from the poignant words of Hannah Szenes, who lived in a kibbutz just south of the ancient coastal city of Caesarea Maritima and was executed by the Nazis during a clandestine operation in Europe to save Hungarian Jews. The haunting poem, which remains so powerful in the collective consciousness of Israel, captures the numinous beauty of the place while evoking the memory of the poet’s tragic end.

One of the wealthiest administrative, commercial, and cultural centers on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard between Alexandria and Antioch, Caesarea was also a hotbed of religious ferment and scholarship: the headquarters of the Roman prefect over Judaea; the destination of the apostles Peter and Paul; a powder keg for the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule in 66–70 C.E.; the home of Rabbi Abbahu and the place where Rabbi Akiva was executed; and the site of an ecclesiastical library where Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome conducted research. After its zenith during the Roman and Byzantine periods, the city was reborn as a booming port with opulent neighborhoods during the Islamic caliphates. Capitalizing on its location, the Crusaders rebuilt the urban core as a European castle (with a massive moat and Gothic architecture) and occupied it for one and a half centuries.

The ruins of this great city are spectacular. Since the 1950s, archaeologists have slowly uncovered the vast ancient and medieval settlement, which had been largely abandoned to the sand dunes since the late 13th century. Investigation both on land and under water by Israeli and American teams accelerated during the 1980s to early 2000s. In 2017, an ambitious new phase of research was inaugurated: the Caesarea City and Port Exploration Project, a collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority and Vanderbilt University. Visitors today can see the ancient roads and sewers, harbor works, houses and places of worship, venues for entertainment, markets and warehouses, and fortifications. Managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Caesarea is popular as both an archaeological site and a relaxing getaway—complete with a lavish new visitor center, which opened in 2019, in the ruins of the temple to Roma and Augustus.

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A Walk to Caesarea is an essential introduction to this remarkable city. A distinguished researcher, author Joseph Patrich provides an up-to-date synthesis of what we know about the site. The first half of the book is a historical survey spanning the Hellenistic port to the 19th-century Bosnian village and the creation of modern Israel, with a focus on the Roman Empire and late antiquity—between Herod’s foundation in c. 10 B.C.E. and the Muslim conquest in 640 C.E. The second half is an archaeological itinerary following two routes, one through the heart of the city and one skirting its periphery. Appendices cover small museum exhibits in the area, as well as Roman hydraulic engineering along the lines of the aqueducts northeast of Caesarea.

It is a marvelous accomplishment that Patrich has captured the complexity of Caesarea’s history and archaeology in such a lucid, authoritative, and compact book. A day of focused reading will suffice to finish it, and the traveler can easily pack it for the road. Patrich brings the city to life by examining its ingenious infrastructure, shifting neighborhoods, and stunning art that adorned its homes and byways—from sculpted sarcophagi and porphyry statuary to stashes of gold and jewelry. The text is enhanced by vivid photographs and architectural reconstructions, insets on ancient testimony or historical themes, a glossary, a timeline, and a judicious bibliography for further reading in English and Hebrew.

This book is sure to attract a wide readership. Scholarly readers may quibble with interpretive idiosyncrasies, but they will appreciate Patrich’s honesty in admitting that his own perspective is just that, a “position” open to debate. Nonspecialist readers may find too much to digest, but they will appreciate having a full guide for selective use rather than a brief overview lacking what they seek. The book achieves a rare balance between breadth and depth that should cement its place as both a scholarly and a popular classic for years to come, a current and accessible alternative to its best precursor, King Herod’s Dream (W.W. Norton, 1988).

The story of this magnificent city continues to unfold and is in many ways the story of the Holy Land itself, a place of peace and prosperity, war and destruction. As we walk to Caesarea in the footsteps of Hannah Szenes and Joseph Patrich, we witness the vicissitudes of our mortal drama. We can also draw strength and peace from the inspiration of the landscape (evolving though it is), from the joy of exploring our past (painful though it has been), and from the hope of learning more (challenging though it will be).

Joseph L. Rife is Associate Professor of Classical and Mediterranean Studies, Anthropology, and Religion at Vanderbilt University. He is a specialist in the eastern Roman provinces, and he directs excavations at Caesarea and in Greece.

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Caesarea Beneath the Sea
by: Robert L. Hohlfelder
Of all the great seaports of antiquity, Caesarea Maritima is the only one readily accessible to underwater archaeologists. Many ancient ports, like Piraeus, the port of Athens, cannot be carefully examined because they are still in use. Other harbors of antiquity have silted in over the centuries and today serve a variety of purposes that preclude archaeological investigation. Such has been the fate of Ostia, the ancient port of Rome, where modern Rome’s airport now sits.

Caesarea Maritima: The Search for Herod’s City
by: Robert J. Bull
Herod, the ancient world’s master builder, constructed a magnificent port city on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. He called it Caesarea in honor of his Roman patron Augustus Caesar. Maritima distinguished it from the many other cities that bore this much honored name, notably Caesarea Philippa, another city in Herod’s kingdom, located inland at the source of the Jordan River.

What Jesus Really Meant by “Render Unto Caesar”
by: David T. Ball

The full line of the quote is, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). It might seem like Jesus is telling us that we should cheerfully fulfill our annual financial obligation to the IRS (or at least the government) despite how onerous it sometimes feels. More generally, the passage is usually taken to mean that civil obligations exert claims on us apart from our religious responsibilities. Keep politics and religion separate. That, at least, is how the passage is often interpreted. Some have gone so far as to cite this passage as discouraging any kind of civil disobedience, even when governments are unjust.

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