Caesarea opens new NIS 80 million visitor center in reconstructed vaults
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Israel's most visited national park

Caesarea opens new NIS 80 million visitor center in reconstructed vaults

Complete reconstruction of ruins can be controversial, but adapting ancient buildings to modern uses is part of a worldwide trend to breathe more life into archaeological sites

One of the rooms at the new King Herod's Vaults Visitor Center, which opened at the Caesarea National Park on May 29, 2019.  (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
One of the rooms at the new King Herod's Vaults Visitor Center, which opened at the Caesarea National Park on May 29, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

President Reuven Rivlin officially opened a new NIS 80 million ($22 million) visitor’s center at the Caesarea National Park on Wednesday night, built in the ruins of four massive reconstructed vaults that once provided the base for a pagan temple built by King Herod in the first century BCE.

“Two thousand years ago, King Herod stood here and watched the city of Caesarea spread out below,” Rivlin said, cutting the ribbon. “The Caesarea we see today holds the promise of becoming as magnificent as the old city was, if not more than that.”

Caesarea is the country’s most visited national park, with more than 900,000 visitors per year, the majority from outside of Israel. The visitor’s center is part of a NIS 150 million grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Caesarea Development Corporation, and the Nature and Parks Authority.

In addition to the Visitors Center in the King Herod’s Vault, there is also a new promenade under construction in the nearby Arab town of Jisr al Zarka and other renovation work for antiquities in the area, including an ancient synagogue.

Caesarea was the first open-water deep-sea port built in the ancient Middle East, utilizing cutting-edge technology of the time to sink platforms made of volcanic rock onto the seabed. Herod named the port and city Caesarea after Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman empire.

Aerial photo of the ancient port of Caesarea Maritima with a view of the Harbor Vaults. (Yaakov Shimdov/Israel Antiquities Authority)

It was the largest city in ancient Israel, with upwards of 100,000 residents in its heyday. The first excavations on the ruins began in 1873 with the Palestine Exploration Fund. Modern archaeologists have been working on the site continuously since 1992.

The 14 massive vaults were originally constructed as storage for the port. Four of the vaults were adapted to create the visitor’s center, featuring exhibits of the site’s most impressive finds combined with audiovisual effects to illustrate the area’s history. Archaeologists are now excavating another four vaults, though no one has decided what they will become.

On top of the vaults, Herod constructed a temple to honor Augustus Caesar. Nothing remains of the temple, but archaeologists know the columns alone were at least 27 meters (89 feet) high, the equivalent of three stories, standing tall to welcome ships from a distance. The vaults were constructed using the same engineering as another Herod project, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“This place is a reflection of human destiny,” said Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, who spoke on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation. “Through its turbulent history, Caesarea opened its doors to the world, it was always a place where thought and merchandise went out into the world. It was a harbor of thought and art, commerce and pleasure, thought and talent. Restoring Caesarea’s significance was done not only for the archaeological, economic and leisure reasons. Caesarea must be a model for pioneering inclusion for Israel and mankind.”

President Reuven Rivlin and Baronness Ariane de Rothschild, center, at the opening of the Harbor Vaults Visitor Center at Caesarea National Park on May 29, 2019. (courtesy/Yoni Rikner)

Noting that the city had hosted everyone including Jews, pagans, Samaritans, Christians, Byzantine merchants, Marmalukes, Crusaders, Ottoman politicians, Bosnian refugees, and international tourists, de Rothschild held the city up as an example of how a single place can “welcome all of its tribes,” she said.

Michael Karsenti, the CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation, said the site hopes to double tourism in the next six years, reaching up to 2 million tourists per year by 2025.

Unlike most archaeological sites in Israel, which are opened to the public without much reconstruction, the vaults were completely rebuilt and outfitted with modern amenities like air conditioning and electricity. Archaeologists and conservationists had to strike a delicate balance, reconstructing the site to give visitors the true feeling of the building’s grandeur while avoiding turning the site into a Disney version of the Crusader period.

Opera singers performed at the festive opening of the King Herod’s Vault Visitor Center at the Caesarea National Park on May 29, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“There are a lot of different opinions about this kind of reconstruction, ranging from totally leaving it alone, only renovating the minimum, or rebuilding as much as possible so the public can understand the full effect,” said Shaul Goldstein, the director of the Nature and Parks Authority. “Here, we went with full reconstruction. We want the public to really understand these buildings.”

Goldstein added that reconstruction is only possible when conservationists and archaeologists are certain of the measurements. If there is any doubt as to how the building may have looked, they do not reconstruct it. Conservationists approved the reconstruction of the vaults because there is so much scholarship and study about ancient Roman architecture, which has many standardized building practices. “When we know the size of the base of a column, we also know the exact height of the arch,” Goldstein explained, even though the arch might no longer exist.

Digging in the next four vaults should be completed by the end of the year, said Peter Gendelman, a senior research archaeologist at the Israel Antiquity Authority who has been working in Caesarea since 1992.

Gendelman said the soaring vaults were completely filled to the 8 meter (26 feet) high ceiling with dirt, requiring archaeologists to painstakingly empty the area bucket by bucket. “You can’t just take a bulldozer to empty it,” said Gendelman. “There are thousands of years of archaeology finds here.”

The new Harbor Vaults Visitor Center, which opened at the Caesarea National Park on May 29, 2019, underwent extensive reconstruction before opening to the public, which can be controversial. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Gendelman said one of the joys of working as an archaeologist at Caesarea is the site is so rich with artifacts that they find something amazing almost every day. He added that seeing the reconstructed vaults open to the public was exciting, after five years of discussions and questions and conflicts about how much of the vaults to rebuild and how much to leave as they found them. “Now, visitors today can experience the same thing that visitors to Caesarea experienced 2,000 years ago.”

Conservationists also took pains to help the public understand intuitively what parts are original and what are reconstructed in the vaults. The reconstructed stones, for example, are smooth, while the original stones are rough and pockmarked.

Zeev Margalit, a Nature and Parks Authority architect who specializes in these kinds of projects, said the NPA has similar plans to reconstruct buildings in Susita and Migdal Tzedek national parks. It is part of a worldwide trend to cautiously start incorporating commercial entities into national parks and archaeology sites, to “bring more life to these sites,” said Margalit.

General view of the Caesarea Maritima archaeological excavations. (Yaakov Shimdov, Israel Antiquities Authority)

In addition to the impressive ruins, the Caesarea port also hosts dozens of restaurants, cafes, stores, and art galleries. Visitors must pay NIS 12 ($ 3.5) to enter the port to visit the restaurants, and an additional price if they want to visit the archaeological park. Caesarea’s marriage of cappuccinos and ancient amphitheaters is unique in Israel, but it helped contribute to making the site the most popular park in Israel.

Margalit said there is a clear code of ethics for how conservationists adapt ancient buildings to modern needs, including ensuring that all of the infrastructure, such as electricity or plumbing, can be removed. Lights are freestanding, rather than recessed into the ceilings.

“There is a value when you come to see archaeology, but you can also see art in galleries and sit for a coffee,” said Margalit. “There’s not a lot of sites in Israel where you can do this.”

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