Trains, Terraces, and Theaters (Pictures)

Something funny, but not a little embarrassing, just happened, and I’m debating whether or not to relate it.

Oh, what the heck.

I may have mentioned my devastating addiction to hummus before – it’s still going strong, and probably isn’t good for me. Still, pita and hummus makes a good lunch, which was what I was eating while working on my computer. An absent-minded turn, a swipe with the elbow, and I discovered that tubs of hummus obey what I must now call Murphy’s Law of Hummus, or the Hummus Corollary to the Theorem of Buttered Bread: The container will always land open side down. In this case, its descent to the floor was intercepted by my tennis shoe. My dirty tennis shoe. My tennis shoe that has been trekking all over Haifa and Caesarea for the past two days.

Washing about a cup of hummus out of the interior of your tennis shoe, in your shower with a drain that doesn’t really work, is enough to make you seriously question the purpose of your existence. ‘Nuff said. Moving on…

25 September 2007 – 12:40

I think my lucky streak from yesterday – if that was what it was – has broken. Win some, lose some.

I’m now backtracking on the train. On the hostel hostess’ advice, I took the rain to Binyamina, meaning to change over to the train to Caesarea, or Kisariya, as it’s called. By the time that I figured out that I didn’t need to buy another ticket, the train had already arrived, so I made a dash for it – and went to the wrong platform, where a train was also pulling. I got on it – and was asked by the soldier who preceded me if I was going to Akko. Ermmm… no. But he was, and apparently this was the train to Akko.

I don’t know if the word “crap” was in his vocabulary before (the ‘s’ word, but pronounced rhyming with “meet”, is fairly common), but it certainly is now. Okay, coming up on Binyamina.

13:04

I think I’m on my way to Kisariya – if this train ever gets moving. There are only two routes that run through Binyamina, so I think it will get me there. Moral of the story: for just under five dollars, you can get yourself spectacularly lost in Israel.

Whatever. I’m not on a time table. This train will eventually end up at Ashkelon, whatever else happens.

I went to the Baha’i gardens this morning. The view from up there is absolutely spectacular. Take away the port, the city, the shrine, a few millennia of erosion, and pretty much everything else, and you’d have something resembling what Elijah may have seen when he called on God to prove Ba’al false.

Of the gardens themselves, which are beautiful (and gorgeously lit at night, see the picture in yesterday’s post), I saw two terraces. I didn’t want to wait around for the tour through the entire thing, because I wanted to see Caesarea, but I will sometime. As far as I understand it, Baha’i combines all, or most, of the major world religions, and their head honcho, the Bab, is buried at the shrine, which is the most important site in their religion. Baha’i is administered out of the House of Universal Justice, also on the grounds of the shrine, and in my opinion is extremely ambitious, for a name.

And this train has yet to actually get moving. I must remember that it’s pronounced “Ki-sar-iya”. I asked about “Kis-ar-i-ya” and was almost misunderstood.

17:33

Well… I did get to Kisariya – eventually. Of course, I first had to be completely absentminded, miss the stop, and have to go back. Then the hassle of getting a taxi. Caesarea is no bustling city – my taxi driver described it as more of a town. The ruins themselves were pretty awesome. It was actually a bunch of public buildings all jumbled together, and sometimes on tope of each other, from several different eras.

You know the places you’re looking at are really old when you scorn twelfth-century fortifications for first-century hippodromes.

A quick recap of what I saw, over the course of three hours:

A bunch of ruins from the Roman-Byzantium period (37 BC – 638 AD), most notably a private bathhouse and some pretty sweet vaults. The bath was essentially the original jacuzzi: octagonal, marble, and about the size and shape of a jacuzzi. The vaults are huge barrel-roofed structures that feel absolutely massive when you stand inside them. They served as a number of things through the years, including warehouses. Apparently, even if you’re the chief financial administrator of a city, you get a palace. By the sea. In Herod’s luxury city. Good deal.

One of the vaults was converted into a shrine to the sun god Mithras.

The hippodrome, where chariot races were held, is literally right next door. Well, they started off with chariot races. Later on, they progressed to animal fights, gladiator games, Jews, and Christians.


Standing in the middle of the hippodrome/amphitheater, looking toward the main spectator area

It’s a really long oval, with one of the sides right on the seashore, and in its prime had a seating capacity of ten or fifteen thousand. There are places for the kings and governors to sit, starting stalls for chariots, places from where the wild animals or gladiators emerged, and lots of open, open space. Standing in the middle, one feels that, even if the stands were filled with spectators, one is still utterly alone. Archeologists conjecture that this hippodrome is the same stadium mentioned by Josephus in his Jewish War, where Christians were made to face animals and each other (and of course die) for the pleasure of the masses. Just standing there , feeling the strong breeze and hearing the coarse sand crunch underfoot, was all at once frightening and sad – but not despairing.

Rubbing walls with the hippodrome is what is believed to be the Praetorium, or at least some sort of palace. If it truly was the Praetorium, then it was here, or somewhere close, that Paul was taken in Acts 23, in the middle of a bunch of trials. This site was definitely where the inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate was found, confirming his existence independently of the New Testament and Josephus’ writings. There had been those who doubted the written accounts, but the inscription put those protests away. Today the actual tablet is in a museum in Jerusalem; there’s a replica at the site.

Another event involving Pontius Pilate happened at the palace – the story goes that Pilate was planning to erect some images of Caesar on the Temple Mount, which immediately got the Jews in an uproar. They pulled off what amounted to a five-day sit-down strike/protest on Pilate’s front lawn, at the end of which Pilate announced that he was still going to put up the statues. However, he later changed his mind and didn’t. Slightly anticlimactic.

Half of the palace, the “lower” part, is now submerged, but archeological divers are still partying away. There’s some sort of swimming pool – for real! – in the middle of the lower palace.

I should also mention that the public bathhouse was nearby, with portions of the mosaic floors still intact. And yes, I walked on them. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even against the rules. I’d always imagined Roman bathhouses as large, but this one was fairly modest. Awesome sea views, though, and certainly more than a few crumbled stones.


The northern portion of the bathhouses


The southern portion

The theater is the oldest one in Israel, also from Herod’s time. You can walk in from the wings and pretend to be the object of four thousand people’s admiration – or disgust. Did they throw rotten vegetables in Roman times, or is that purely Shakespearean?

The theater was, at one point, converted into a Byzantine castle, then abandoned, and more presently restored as a theater, where concerts and performances are held. I went downstairs, under the stage, as nobody was there to stop me, and it was really odd to see modern dressing rooms smacked into the middle of two-thousand-year-old walls. There was room for a box in the middle of the tiers of seats, which I assume was for whatever king or governor was in residence.


Under the stage. The stone thing next to the sink looked like a basin.

Aside from that, there was a jumble of crusader-era ruins (pshaw! they’re only eight hundred years old), including a massive trench around fortifications. The trench itself may or may not have been filled with seawater. There were also the ruins of a synagogue, from the Byzantium era, but it’s believed that the area around it was the “Jewish quarter” throughout the existence of the city. So it’s quite possible that Christ walked here. There was a good portion that was sunken, and rows of fallen columns lay in the shallow water. I walked out, as far as I could go, along the top of a wall whose stones had long ago lost their mortar. The footing was quite treacherous, as the water has battered the stones into uneven shapes with myriad pits, but it was great.


The top of a column in the Corinthian style

There was a lot more I didn’t see, but I didn’t see, but I did have to leave at some point. I called the taxi driver who had brought me (because they don’t stop regularly at the ruins, which are in a national park) and on the way back to the train station, he showed me pictures of his wife and four young children. He himself had served in Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, in the Israeli version of the Marines.

I got back to Tel Aviv without further mishap, thank goodness. There was a woman on the train who looked really scary, although she probably didn’t mean to, with neon dark blue eye makeup – a lot of it. I may have nightmares about it.

Some stuff I’ve learned – when in doubt, follow the nearest person in uniform. They generally know where they’re going. And always ask the taxi driver to put the meter on. I always do, anyway, but this particular incident reinforced the point. He initially offered to take me for fifty, flat, but I said heck no. With the meter, it turned out to be only thirty. Shekels. And “train” in Hebrew is rekavet. And “platform” is ratzif. Which are both important to know when you want to ask from which platform the train for whatever is departing.

Well, I shall probably not post until after I get back from my bike trip, so I’d be obliged if you could pray that I’ll be safe while doing that.

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