Herod the Great - Seen as Never Before

Monumental project to restore Caesarea’s Harbor Vaults and innovative Visitors’ Center inaugurated and opened to Public

Herod the Great is renown for his monumental constructions throughout Israel, as well as his complex character. Now, as was stated in a press release, visitors to Caesarea will be able to come “face to face with the daring, complex and conflicted figure of Herod - presented as never before.” On May 29 the President of Israel, Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, and Baroness Ariane de Rothschild celebrated the monumental project to restore and preserve the Harbor Vaults at the Caesarea National Park, which were constructed by Herod the Great in the first century BCE. The President and Baroness inaugurated a new and innovative Visitors’ Center within the vaults, displaying artifacts from Caesarea's many archaeological discoveries and also using technology to bring Herod and his magnificent port city back to life 2,000 years later.

Of all Herod’s architectural achievements, Caesarea’s harbor certainly ranks as one of the most impressive, and practical. Recognizing that East to West trade was hampered by Israel’s lack of a natural harbor, Herod used underwater cement to construct an artificial harbor - the first of its kind in the ancient world. As part of the harbor complex, Herod erected a massive vaulted structure which was used for storage at the port. The vaults, about 5.2 meters wide and 21 meters deep, also served as the foundation for a temple podium dedicated to the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. The temple was doubtless at the heart of the city’s society. As a result of Herod’s man-made harbor, Caesarea became a central junction of global economy and trade in the ancient world. 

The port vaults during reconstruction.  Photo: Eldad Greenfeld, Courtesy of the IAA

The port vaults during reconstruction. Photo: Eldad Greenfeld, Courtesy of the IAA

History is not about dry facts or statistics. It is about the lives people lived, the places they loved, and their stories. The Caesarea Vaults restoration project Ensures that the story of this place, and of its connection to the Jewish people, will be told for many, many years to come. On behalf of all Israelis, I would like to thank The Baron and Baroness de Rothschild, And the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, sincerely.
— Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel

Restoring the vaults, which were in danger of collapsing, proved to be a challenge. Over the course of five years the vaults were excavated, the stability of the walls was meticulously examined, then the walls were carefully dismantled, preserved, and resembled. Throughout this process, archaeologists discovered the vaults had already collapsed at some point in the past, and were reconstructed in the Byzantine period. The Byzantines, interestingly, were careful to preserve the outline of the vaults’ original structure.

The new Visitors' Center, constructed within the heart of the vaults, was designed and created by Breeze Creative, which specializes in the planning and construction of museums and visitor centers. The center displays numerous archaeological treasures discovered during excavations and a 7 meter arched vault which serves as a screen to show an internationally produced historical film about Herod the Great in all his complexities. According to the press release, “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.” To view a clip from this film, which required hundreds of hours of filming and editing, dozens of extras and sophisticated studios in Europe, click here. The Visitors’ Center is included in the entrance fees to the National Park, and is accessible to visitors with special needs.

The Harbor Vaults restoration is only a part of an investment of over NIS 150 million by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to restore, preserve and develop ancient Caesarea. The project included restoration of an ancient synagogue, construction of a promenade at the Crusader walls, restoration of the Roman aqueduct and now the restoration and preservation of the temple vaults, the temple platform and the staircase leading to it. Caesarea is a leading tourist site in Israel, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. The restoration of the vaults is another asset to the ancient city due to the work of the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, which carries out the vision of its founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to fortify of the State of Israel through settlement, industry, science, culture and higher education.

The Caesarea we all see today holds the promise of becoming just as magnificent as the ancient city was, If not more. The Harbor Vaults Project, Which we have gathered here to commemorate, brings us one-step closer to this goal. Already, Caesarea attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. And I believe that One day soon, Caesarea will take its rightful place as one of the world’s most impressive windows, to the ancient past. 
— Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) uncovered three recent and exciting discoveries as a result of their excavations in the harbor vault area.

Mosaic Floor from the Roman Period

In a Roman bathhouse near the temple, Archaeologists discovered a mosaic floor with colorful geometric patterns. The floor was part of a semi-domed structure, probably built in the 2nd or early 3rd century CE. The structure was part of the embellishment of the temple’s western facade, and was decorated with marble slabs and statues. The mosaic has been replicated in the entrance are a of the Visitors’ Center.

Cache of Bronze, Byzantine Period coins

About 500 bronze coins from the Byzantine period (6th-4th centuries CE) were discovered in the excavation of one of the vaults. Dr. Donald Zvi of the IAA identified the treasure, and said it was probably buried in a leather bag or other material that eroded over time, leaving the coins exposed in the earth. In the ancient world, before people could deposit their money in a bank for safekeeping, treasures were often concealed beneath the floor, to be retrieved when needed. These coins were under the floor of a magnificent church building from the Byzantine Period. The structure was probably the cathedral of the Byzantine city. According to Dr. Peter Gendelman and Dr. Uzi Ad, excavation managers on behalf of the IAA, "It’s possible that the burial of the coins is related to the construction of the church complex on the temple podium, since it is known that during this period, the church also took part in the administrative functions of the city." According to Dr. Gendelman, "The owner of the treasure did not return to retrieve it, and so we found it instead. The reason for his non-return will probably remain a mystery.”

5th century mosaic with Greek inscription

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. The Greek inscription reads "He who knows all is Hosea and he is blessed,” and appears to have been intended for the warehouse operators and sea farers. The inscription, located within a mosaic circle, was deciphered by Dr. Leah Di-Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to the press release, Caesarea was a bustling port city during the Byzantine period, 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

The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation is spearheading the project through the Caesarea Development Corporation, led by the Vice Chairman of the foundation, Guy Swersky and CEO Michael Karsenti. 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, headed by Israel Hasson and in coordination with the Israel Nature and Park Authority, headed by Shaul Goldstein.

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