The innovative Visitors’ Center established by the Caesarea Development Corporation has recently opened to the general public following the completion of the massive preservation and restoration project of the Harbor Vaults at the Caesarea National Park. The Visitors’ Center further enriches the experience of visiting the National Park and Caesarea Harbor – one of the leading tourist sites in Israel.
The structure was erected by the Great Builder King Herod on the unique harbor pier, built on the open sea, and was the first of its kind in the ancient world. With an investment of more than NIS 150 million by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, the complex and challenging engineering design of the Caesarea Development Corporation and five years of research and intensive work by the best archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority and experts from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, treasures hidden for over 2,000 years in the land of Caesarea have been revealed and the immense Harbor Vaults have been restored.
Herod built the huge vaults – standing 740 meters high and 21 meters in depth, with an average width of 5.2 meters. The vaults were part of the storage system at the port and served as a base for the temple podium dedicated to Herod’s patron, Emperor Augustus. The temple was the beating heart of the impressive city, which in antiquity was a central junction of the global economy and trade between the East and West. The Visitors’ Center, which was built within the reconstructed vaults, combines artifacts from Caesarea’s hidden treasures with innovative technology, and introduces the audience to the daring, complex and conflicted image of King Herod- as no one has dared to show him before.
The restoration of the vaults, which were in danger of collapse, was particularly complex and required more than five years of intensive, collaborative work by archaeologists, engineers and preservation architects. In addition to the archaeological excavation, engineering buttresses were required, a meticulous examination of the stability of the walls and the soil layers throughout the area of the vaults, and the careful dismantling and reassembly of the walls of the complex. During the excavation, it was revealed that Herod’s original vaults had collapsed in the past and were reconstructed in the Byzantine period. Notably, the Byzantine restorers were careful to preserve them in the original outline.
The exhibition halls within the heart of the vaults, which include a variety of exhibits and archaeological treasures uncovered during the excavations, are also safely accessible to visitors with special needs. At the center of the exhibition is a screening of an internationally produced historical epic about the very complex figure of King Herod.
The lavish production brings back to life the great vision, intrigues, desires, passions, murders and dreams that Herod experienced, right here – in the heart of Caesarea’s antiquities. The film was filmed entirely in a vertical format, corresponding to the “screen” which takes the form of an arched vault, standing at a height of 7 meters and built by the hero of the epic- King Herod himself. Hundreds of hours of filming and editing, dozens of extras and sophisticated studios in Europe were required to complete the unique experience now offered by the new Visitors’ Center, in addition to the authentic exhibits uncovered by archaeological excavations at the port, sea and in the region.
The excavation, preservation and restoration of Caesarea Harbor included the preservation and restoration of the ancient synagogue, the construction of a promenade at the Crusader walls, restoration of the Roman aqueduct and the restoration and preservation of the temple vaults, the temple platform and the staircase leading to it.
As part of the project, digs of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have recently uncovered three more exciting finds near the vaults: A mosaic floor from the Roman period, which was found in a bathhouse next to the temple’s podium and has been replicated in the entrance area to the Visitors’ Center. The colorful mosaic floor with geometrical patterns was part of a semi-dome structure that may have been used for ritual or public purposes and was probably built during the 2nd or early 3rd century CE. It was part of the embellishment of the western façade of the podium of the Temple of Augustus and Hera, the goddess of Rome in Caesarea. The walls of the building were covered with marble slabs, and in front were two pedestals originally carrying statues or other architectural decorations.
The second archaeological find uncovered during the excavation was a cache of about 500 bronze coins from the Byzantine period (6th-4th centuries CE). The treasure, identified by Dr. Donald Zvi Ariel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was probably buried in a leather bag or other material that had eroded over the years. It was discovered when one of the vaults was exposed. In the absence of a “bank”, as known to us today, the coins were hidden “under the tiles,” that is, under the floor of a magnificent church building from the Byzantine period- probably the cathedral of the city, which served as the bishops’ seat.
The third recent discovery was a mosaic from the 5th century CE bearing a Greek inscription “He who knows all is Hosea and he is blessed.” During an archaeological dig in the huge warehouse complex that was built at the port in the Byzantine period, an inscribed greeting was discovered in one of the entrances to the warehouses. It appears to have been intended for the warehouse operators and sea farers. During the Byzantine period, Caesarea was a bustling port city and one of the largest ports of the Byzantine Empire. The warehouse area, which served as transit warehouses for the entire region, extended over 2,500 square meters and included public and private goods. The excavations revealed evidence of trade with Italy, Greece, Turkey, and even the area known today as England.
Caesarea Harbor and its antiquities is one of the most popular tourist sites in Israel. The Visitors’ Center is included in the entrance fee to the National Park, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists and Israelis. They visit the beautiful Roman theater, tour the fort promenade with its fortifications and watchtowers, admire the ancient synagogue that attests to Jewish life in the city, walk among the remains of the palace and temples and marvel at the aqueduct. During holidays and breaks, horse racing performances are held in the ancient hippodrome preserved on the site. This, in addition to the artists’ square, cafes and restaurants, overlooking the open sea.
The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation is spearheading the project through the Caesarea Development Corporation. The excavation, restoration and preservation of the harbor vaults and the other hidden treasures of ancient Caesarea are managed by the archaeologists and staff of the Israel Antiquities Authority and in coordination with the Israel Nature and Park Authority.
Entrance to the center is free of charge for National Park ticket holders (NIS 39 per adult, NIS 24 per child, free of charge for Israel Nature and Parks Pass Members).