First off, I was taking a big risk by leaving the city on a shabbat eve, since missing the last bus back would have stranded me far from home. But I’d done a little research on the timing and decided it was well worth the risk. Besides, I could always hitch-hike back if I got stuck, eh?
I took bus 46 down to the Merkazit Hof HaCarmel bus station, which is the main intra-city transit hub in Haifa. I then hopped onto bus 921 headed south to Tel Aviv (though I’d be jumping off long before then). The ride was uneventful, but interesting given the pleasure to be had in taking in a scenic drive. My bus driver said that the best way into Caesarea was to hop out at Or Aqiva, and not having any kind of idea where the right intersection was I took his advice.
From what I understood, there was either a short bus line (the 43) that would take me from the appropriate intersection down to the main Caesarea site, or I could take a 4 km. hike and skip the bus. Well, it’s a good thing I was already inclined to the hike, because I could find no sign of a bus stop that would take me in.
As it turns out, the walk was considerably longer than 4 km. I walked all the way through Aqiva, which is some kind of suburban community built around some light industrial and commercial operations. In my broken Hebrew I got an approximate direction from a kind librarian, and headed due west towards the sea.
As I got closer in signs began to appear along the roadside. I was apparently at the extreme northern end of the site, which is exactly the opposite of my original intention. This would end up quite a beneficial mistake, but it did put me pretty far from the national park itself. Nevertheless, I decided to veer slightly further north still, in order to take in the aqueduct.
How can I summarize the experience of being in front of something like that? Honestly, despite the beach bums and holiday sunbathers, it was an utterly amazing thing to behold. Springing from a hillside was the longer stretch of a classic Roman aqueduct—actually two side-by-side aqueducts—and it went on and on before breaking near the point at which I arrived.
This being Israel there was trash all around the beach, no public authorities present, and no fences to protect the sites. All it takes is a suitably attractive historical treasure and the very faint echoes I have of my father’s daredevil persona surface. I began immediately to look for ways to climb on top of this beast and see what it was like from up close. I chose a spot some distance down where a sand dune was butting up against the western side, as this reduced the amount of scaling necessary.
Once on top I was astounded at what I could find. There were remnants in one of the channels of what might have been a ceramic pipe; and it looked as though this half of the aqueduct had carried pipes on at least two levels. On the other side you could find exposed segments of a larger channel with a smooth surface and—in places—some of the original covering stones that protected the water. I have always had immense respect for the engineering skill that had gone into these monstrous projects, and was suitably humbled at seeing and touching an artefact from an extraordinary age.
From atop it you could see that potentially vast lengths of it remained buried in the far hill, and after the break (as I would soon discover) you can find other sections of it emerging from the dunes and hills, like half-buried treasures. In the space between sections and all along the beach headed south were innumerable fragments of building material—columns, fitted stones, decorative pieces, paving stones, and so forth. Just the sight of the waves cresting over these fragments was enough to give me pause for a time.
I decided against heading back up the road, and instead followed the coast south towards the main site. This turned out to be a strenuous hike, but well worth it given the priceless experience of exploring pieces of the city still buried and half-buried in the hillsides. As noted above there were other sections of the aqueduct, but also the outlines of rooms and walls, and at one point a large section that had been exposed, and which included several buildings and a circular citadel of some kind. A homeless person with impeccable taste had hung a tarpaulin over an archway and made a suitable encampment.
The only portion of these open sections of city that had any protection was the ruins of the ancient synagogue, which had a fence encircling it. But I passed by so many areas that had still to be properly dug out and explored, I wondered that no-one had put up the cash to dig further. In fact, just a few kilometres from the beach was a modern community of Caesarea, which looked like nothing so much as an exclusive Orange County neighbourhood. I can understand the desire to live so close to such natural and historical beauty, but the proximity of modern roads and construction to the still-buried wonders was disturbing to me, almost as though a religious site were being desecrated by heathen…
Anyroad, after a long hike through neglected ruins I came upon the main site, from the outside. The first thing I could see were the outer walls of Crusader-era fortifications: a high, sloped wall surmounted by the ruin of defensive buildings and suchlike. I walked all along the outer walls, east and then south toward the park entrance. The place was huge, and with all the earlier walking I had by now exhausted my water supply and was really beat. At the entrance I bought a (rather too dear) cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, then my ticket to enter the park.
Stepping inside, I was almost able to forget how tired and thirsty I was; and, as my wonderment kept my going irrespective of exhaustion, it would be more than an hour before I finally stopped to rest and drink.
Everywhere you looked were elements of the original Roman-era work: slabs of marble, fallen columns, a well-built road. Superimposed on this was a set of Romanesque buildings put up by the Crusaders. Most of their work, however, had long since collapsed or been destroyed—the place exchanged hands several times between Christian and Muslim armies, and was finally destroyed by the Mamlukes in the thirteenth century. Since the late nineteenth century occasional digs on the site have recovered statues and other artefacts, and many of the major buildings have been revealed. More recent work by American and Israeli teams have taken some parts down to the Byzantine and Roman levels, showing the precious remnants of antiquity preserved beneath later construction.
Again, there was no restriction to what you could do or where you could wander. I started climbing around again like a clumsy ape, and was aghast at some of the places I could get into. In the ruined foundations of one house you could see remnants of the Roman plumbing system, which brought fresh water from many miles away and piped it into central fountains and directly into the houses of the wealthy. What can you say about standing inside the indoor plumbing of a 2,000 year old city except, "wow!" I mean, I literally have no words to describe what I was seeing. Most people have no sense of scale and simply cannot comprehend the vastness of time that separate this city’s first inhabitants from the day-tripping sight-seers of the modern national park.
Finally, exhausted and parched, I wandered down into the harbour. Used by several succeeding generations, this harbour hosted Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Turks, and finally the several modern occupiers of ancient Palestine. Large parts of what survive date from the partial reconstruction during the Crusader period, and many of the present harbour’s foundations are built from various secondary-use materials found on the site, like fallen columns and Roman building stones. Human beings, as a rule, have little or no respect for the past, and the remains of an ancient site meant nothing to the Crusaders, nor to the Arabs, or even the Turks, who in the nineteenth century tried to establish a colony of Bosnian refugees here.
I insisted on walking the entire harbour area before I chose a café and sat down to rest and eat. My server was very gracious and sympathetic to my stupidity-induced plight. She brought me five glasses of water in rapid succession as my order was prepared. I then enjoyed a leisurely meal and basked in the welcome shade of a patio umbrella. Enjoyed, that is, until two arseholes lit up cigars at a table two away from mine. I spent the next ten minutes coughing before I could finally get the cheque and prepare to leave.
By this time, however, I was not only going to have to skip the larger part of the national park—including the forum, two theatres, and the promontory palace—but it was doubtful I could make the long walk back to the highway in time to catch the bus to Haifa. We tried to call a cab but none were available for at least half an hour. But one of the men working there kindly offered me a ride to the highway, as he was getting off work in about twenty minutes. Turn out he’d been to the San Francisco area and loved it, and had tried—though unsuccessfully—to get into UC Berkeley that year as a sociology major. He was still hopeful about getting into a good American school in another year or two.
Then, sitting at the bus stop on the highway, I had great cause for concern as about an hour and a half elapsed with no bus in sight! I came close to jumping into one of the passing sheruts (a sherut is a shared taxi with consequently reasonable rates), but as I’d already paid for my return trip on the bus I wanted to wait it out and see if one came in time for the ride back.
One did, and the bus ride back was extremely crowded with people desperate to get back home to cities all along the way to Haifa before public transit shut down for shabbat. I ended up sitting next to a blonde teenager whose mobile ‘phone conversation mixed American curses in with the Hebrew. Just across from me was an IDF soldier (carrying, as they always seem to, an assault rifle in his lap). His facial features and startlingly blue eyes betrayed an obvious Russian ancestry, and it was doubtful he had a great deal of Jewish blood in his family. Still, here he was, kippah on his head, serving in the IDF. Have I mentioned that Israel is amazingly diverse in its ethnic make-up?
The bus got back to Haifa after the Merkazit terminal had closed and bus service ended for shabbat, which meant I had no way of getting back up Mount Carmel to the university. The bus driver drove everyone to a nearby centre where they could try to arrange for someone to get them, but I was unable to follow the negotiations and was left confused as to my options. He had no English but I was able to work out what was going on once we started talking. There were no more taxis working in the area (a lot of them stop running for the sabbath as well), so he took off like a maniac, with me the only passenger on the bus, plunging into the downtown area of Haifa (which is, incidentally, in exactly the opposite direction as I’d need to go to reach the university).
He was finally able to flag down a cab who was just letting off his last fare, and the driver was convinced to take me up the hill before calling it quits for the night. He had to clear it over the ‘phone with an angry wife, too, which was fun to follow. We then chatted about Haifa’s more appealing restaurants and bars, and about how he pays 50 shekels a month in order to watch all of the L.A. Lakers’ basketball games, as we wound our way up the hill to the university. My round-trip bus fare to Caesarea had cost me only about $12, but this taxi ride was almost $20 itself. But given how tired and sunburnt I was, it was surely better than taking that long walk up Mount Carmel!
I guess that’s enough about my little adventure. As I said, there is still quite a bit of the site left to explore, so I’ll take another run down there in a week or so. But since the buses run fairly late on normal days, I think I’ll do it on an evening when I have a light(er) homework load. And, with any luck, next time I’ll get off at the right intersection and can catch a bus into Caesarea, saving me time and energy to hit the rest of the sights before sundown. Those ruins are some of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen, so there’s no chance I’m going to skip out on the rest of it.
And now, since I have a test to-morrow that I am really stressing about, I need to get back to studying. I needed this break in order to keep from exploding, but I’m really worried about how this will turn out. The vocabulary list is huge, I need to deal with it all in two different Hebrew scripts, and I have to keep all of the grammar straight when I deploy said vocabulary… I feel vastly under prepared for a test at this point… But oh well, sink or swim, as they say…