By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
Traveling north of Tel Aviv toward Haifa, our tour bus made a stop at Caesarea Maritima, originally founded in the 4th century B.C., by Phoenician merchants. Built by Herod the Great about 25 – 13 B.C., the ruins, on the Mediterranean coast, suggest how beautiful and vibrant Caesarea was in its heyday.
We carefully descended sandstone steps leading down to the theater. It was the first theater built in Rome’s eastern reaches, about 90 years before the Coliseum. In fact, there’s a story that the emperor Vespasian caused lavatories to be built all over the Roman Empire to collect money to build his Coliseum.
A 60 foot high, decorated wall protected the theater from winds off the Mediterranean. Sculpture gardens surrounded the theater, with large statues of Augustus Caesar, gods and goddesses, and a more human-sized statue of a shepherd holding a lamb across his shoulders, an image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Across a road lie the remnants of the Hippodrome or chariot race course, with the Mediterranean as its backdrop. Sections of the mosaic floors where the wealthy gathered to watch the races can still be seen.
Herod also built a harbor at Caesarea to encourage the grain trade.
The city was home to the first Christian convert following Jesus’ ascension. After Peter cured Tabitha (also called Dorcas) in Jaffa, he returned to the house where he was staying and there had a vision about leading Gentiles into the church. Peter traveled to Caesarea and brought the centurion Cornelius and his family into the church. For that reason the city is remembered as the birthplace of the Gentile Church.
The Pilate Stone, a 2’ x 2’ limestone block bearing a carved inscription attributed to Pontius Pilate was discovered during excavations in the 1960s. The stone is the only universally accepted archaeological find with an inscription mentioning the name “Pontius Pilatus.” It had apparently been used as a theater seat.
St. Paul served two years in prison at Caesarea, before appealing to Rome that he was a Roman citizen. His appeal was successful and Paul was sent to Rome to serve another two years in chains.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the early church moved its center to Caesarea. The city had a library equal to the library at Alexandria and a school of scribes that assured the spread of the words of Jesus through the Apostles.
Several other familiar names popped up in our guide Billy’s talk about Caesarea. Philip the Evangelist was one of the seven deacons chosen with St. Stephen to care for the Christian poor in Jerusalem. After St. Stephen was stoned to death, Philip traveled, preaching and baptizing many, including an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip lived in Caesarea for a time with his 4 daughters.
Eusebius, Roman historian, Biblical scholar and interpreter of scripture, was born about 265 in Caesarea. He was named Bishop of Caesarea about 314. Eusebius died in 339.
Earthquakes in the 4th century and again in the 8th century destroyed Herod’s harbor. Moslem invaders destroyed Caesarea in the 7th century and it was never rebuilt.
Threading our way through insistent vendors hawking everything from necklaces and scarves to rosaries and bottled water, we boarded the bus to travel to the Crusader-era city of Acco (St. Jean d’Acre). We passed remnants of an aqueduct built by Herod the Great and later extended by the Roman emperor Hadrian.
Near Acre rises Mount Carmel, whose name is drawn from the words Kerem El, the vineyard of God, in other words, beautiful. At its western tip lies the monastic complex of the Carmelite Order. The order was founded by a group of crusaders who lived a form of religious life around the Chapel of Our Lady on Mount Carmel. Acre fell to the Moslems in 1291, and the order migrated to Europe, but returned to Mt. Carmel in the 17th century. A church, convent, cloister and pilgrim guesthouse make up the monastic complex that graces the mountainside.
Haifa, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, is Israel’s third largest city. Olive groves are everywhere, punctuated by vineyards, date palms and pomegranate trees. Billy explained that olives are harvested in September and washed in rain water. Olive presses have been used for millennia to obtain olive oil.
As we drove on, watching the sun gleam on the olive trees, date palm trees and grape vines, Father Ernie led us in the Angelus, the noon prayer to the Blessed Mother.
Acco or Acre, which we reached soon after praying the Angelus, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in Israel, dating back more than 4,000 years. It was first a Jewish, later a Roman and Christian community, ruled by the Byzantine Empire after the permanent division of the Roman Empire in 395. Billy outlined some of its history for us.
In the first half of the 7th century, Moslem invaders defeated the Byzantine army at Acre. At about the same time Jerusalem capitulated to Caliph Umar and Acre came under the Muslim rule in 638.
During the First Crusade, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, crowned by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1100, besieged Acre until the Moslems capitulated in 1104. Baldwin ruled until his death in 1118.
The city grew and around 1170, became the principal eastern Mediterranean port.
Baldwin’s heir, Baldwin of Bourcq, ruled until Saladin took Jerusalem, Acre and several other towns, without a fight in 1187. Acre remained in Muslim hands until 1189 when Guy, king of the Latin Kingdom, reinforced by naval and ground troops from Pisa, besieged the city. Forces of the Third Crusade, led by Richard I of England and Philip II of France, came to Guy’s aid and recaptured Acre in 1191. The city became a seat of the Knights Hospitaller military order, later known as the Knights of Malta.
The Mamluks conquered the Crusader kingdom in 1291. Mamluk policy was to destroy conquered coastal cities to prevent them from being reused by the Crusaders. Acre was destroyed except for a few Muslim-favored sites.
Jezzar Pasha, named governor of Sidon and Damascus in 1775, made Acre his capital. He earned the nickname “the Butcher” for his ruthless campaign against non-Muslims — Jews and Christians. They were forced to accept Islam or faced beheading or hanging. He did however, value certain assistants, whether Muslim or not. With the help of his Jewish chief financial adviser, Haim Farhi, Jezzar Pasha began a major building program that included fortifying the city walls, refurbishing the aqueduct that supplied Acre’s drinking water, and building a large Turkish bath. He also built a massive mosque that bears his name over a Crusader church, which is still in use. He is most remembered for defending Acre against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.
Acre’s Old City was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.
Since the 1990s, large-scale archeological excavations have been undertaken and efforts are being made to preserve ancient sites.
The “Inn of the Columns,” Khan al-Omadan, built on the site of the Royal Customs house of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1784 and 1801 by Jezzar Pasha, is the largest of four Ottoman Turkish inns still standing in Acre. Arriving merchants would unload their goods on the first floor and sleep on the second floor. The granite columns, in the central courtyard, were imported from Caesarea, Tiberius and Acre itself. A pomegranate juice vendor has set up his stall near those columns.
The Inn, now under restoration, is connected to the old souk (market). Following Billy, a plastic water bottle held high above his head, we meandered through a maze of narrow alleys and tunnels of the souk, home to more than 5,000 shops. Fabrics, trinkets and souvenirs, jewelry, religious articles from Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith traditions, and foodstuffs crowd tiny shops standing side-by-side in the ancient, pitted sandstone buildings. We were offered rosaries and Jerusalem crosses everywhere we looked.
The Jerusalem or Crusader’s cross, comprised of four smaller crosses surrounding a larger cross, has been interpreted as a representation of the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross: in his hands, his feet and the larger wound in his side. The cross was part of the coat of arms of the short-lived Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1291.
The fragrances of incense, spices and perfumes battled with the smell of fish. From the congested alleyways floated voices speaking in many tongues — Arabic, Hebrew, French, German, Latin and Greek, and English, to name a few.
Climbing steep steps of worn, uneven sandstone, we wound around the ruins of the fort built by the Knights Hospitaller. From the walkway above the seawall built in the 18th century, using the remains of crusader walls as its foundation, we could look out over the Pisan Harbor, constructed by the naval forces from Pisa in the 12th century. The foundations of the last Crusader fort are still visible above the water in the harbor. Overlooking those foundations was a 2-seat pub serving wine, “kaffee,” and offering Turkish tobacco smoked through a hooka (water pipe).
In 1912 the Acre lighthouse was built on a corner of the sea wall. St. John’s Church, under the custody of the Franciscans of the Holy Land, was built over the ruins of a Crusader church. The red and white crusader flag flies above the church.
From Acre we continued our journey to Nazareth, where Jesus grew to manhood.