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Our next stop was Caesarea, an ancient Phoenician port where Herod (see blog page on Masada) chose to build his residence in 30 BC. Caesarea, renamed by Herod after his patron, the emperor Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, became the largest city in Judea. Of the more than a hundred thousand inhabitants half were gentile (non-Jewish) and the other half Jewish, and there were many bitter disputes between them. The place Herod built was sumptuous with a palace, pool,  amphitheatre, hippodrome, citadel, all surrounded by walls.


But before we even saw the ruins, the beauty of the harbour took our eye. The Mediterranean was a bright blue expanse of water with white waves whipped up by a  gentle wind.  The lay of the harbour gave the feeling of being protected in an idyllic setting. Of course, this was not quite so in its heyday, the turn-of-the-first-millennium cities ruled directly by, or in association with, the Romans were extremely decadent for those in power, and cruel in an equal measure for those on the other side of the fence. Notorious Roman emperors  of the first century were Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. In Herodes' large hippodrome there were brutal chariot races held with many casualties and in the 10,000 seat amphitheatre the gladiatorial contests using prisoners and slaves against the lions and crocodiles was a bloodcurdling sport. 

From Jerusalem to Safed

We hired a small car and left Jerusalem to travel north. Distances are so tiny in Israel, especially coming from Australia! Here, it's 900 km just to go from Sydney to Melbourne, both on the east coast of the country (and 4000 from Sydney to Perth on the West coast), in Israel the longest distance north to south is 320 km, east to west 150 km.

In no time at all we were out of the city. I wanted to visit Netanya, because my parents and brother George lived there for a while when they emigrated in 1957. Even at that time no one could leave the behind-the-iron-curtain Hungary, except to go to Israel. Mum described Netanya as a charming, small village by the sea. What we saw were large housing estates, big modern buildings many stories high. Things change in 60 years… though the sea was still beautiful.

The town was easy to find but not so easy to get out of without a GPS. We circled around and around until finally, in exasperation, we asked directions from a kind Israeli trio out for a stroll, and in response they squeezed into our tiny Kia, already full with our baggage, and navigated us in the right direction. They had a long walk back.

Caesarea is in a fertile area with plenty of rain and rich soil, with a gentle climate. Citrus fruit, figs, grapes, almonds, and olives in the hills grew there. At the turn of the first millennium, Caesarea became the civilian and military capital of Judea Province and the official residence of the Roman representatives and the headquarters of the Roman legions. It was indeed a thriving place during the time of Jesus. The name of Pontius Pilatus (the Prefect of Rome) carved in stone was found in Caesarea, which is the only archaeological find testifying to his existence. The year 66 CE was the beginning of the great Jewish revolt started in Caesarea, which saw the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem, including the second Temple, and which had as its last hurrah the defence of Masada and the eventual suicide of its Jewish defenders in 70 BC.  


Caesarea then became the capital of Palestine, but was conquered and destroyed by the Muslims, first in the 7th and then in the 13th century.


Today, the excavations are over an extensive area, and even now, they are uncovering new buildings.


As Kati and I still had a long way to go, we headed straight north, hoping to get a little more than a glimpse of  the bronze age (ca. 2000 BCE) city of Akko, which has been continuously inhabited since that time. Unfortunately, we were there during Pesach, and the place was so crammed with people that there was nowhere we could even stop our car, let alone get out to have a stroll around. So we turned east and headed toward Safed.  

We drove past Nazareth, where Jesus had lived.  It is now an Arab city, as are many others in the north of Israel. We had just passed it, driving at 110 km/hr, when a car from the right hand side came straight at us.  Being the passenger I saw it first and alerted  Kati, asking her to get into the inside lane, thinking the driver misjudged the gap in front of us.  Kati moved, and then in a panicked voice said that the car was now trying to hit us from behind. I directed her to move immediatelely back to the far right lane, and being aware that there was enough of a nature strip beside the highway, to get off the road. We were lucky firstly that Kati was driving (she is an excellent driver) and that the car behind let us change lanes again. It took us quite a few minutes to calm our nerves and for our heartbeats to settle down to something close to normal.  Then I peeled off the bright yellow Hertz stickers, and we went on our way.   



Herod didn't do things by half measure, and no problem was insurmountable to him. His new city was not enough for him - he decided to create a harbour that would become one of the wonders of the ancient world, even though the bay was not a natural safe haven. His engineers devised a way to design a horseshoe-shaped breakwater with the latest technology using a hydraulic cement (ie. a cement that sets under water).* Unfortunately, the harbour didn't survive in the long term, as it was constructed over a fault line, not to mention the tsunami that hit the area within a couple of hundred years after its construction. 

*  The pace of construction was impressive considering size and complexity. The breakwaters were made of lime and pozzolana, a type of volcanic ash, set into an underwater concrete. Herod imported over 24,000 cubic metres of pozzolana from Pozzuoli, Italy, to construct the two breakwaters: the 500 meter long one on the south and the one 275 meters long on the north.


I was navigating, but at times it was challenging, finding Safed is an example: I read about the place as Safed, my map said Tzfat, the roadside sign said something else. When you're driving on a freeway, it's a bit hard to do the mental conversion from one spelling to another at high speed. Here are just a few of Safed's identities: Tzfat Zefad Tzefiya Tsfas Zefas Tzefas Tzfot Tzefat Tsefat Zefat Sefat.


Safed is a town on the top of a mountain – I was at home straight away, Kati was unhappy being away from the sea. We had excellent, though quite complicated, directions to our airbnb, which we found easily. The room was nothing like the one alluded to on the listing: it was just big enough for two single beds and a kitchen sink, so our suitcases had to be left in the car around the corner.












Safed is a truly charming town, right on top of an 850 m mountain, it is the highest city in the Galilee and in Israel. When atop a mountain, I always get a sense of both vulnerability and power, and I suppose many people would feel closer to Heaven. In fact, that's how the Safedians must feel too, as so many of their doors and gates are painted blue to remind us all of God and the sky above.

Perhaps because of its elevated position, people attracted to Kabbalism were drawn to settle here. The main text of the kabbalists is the Zohar, which was written in the 12th century in Spain, but was based on teachings from the second century. It maintains that each word, each line in the Torah (the first five books of the Jewish Bible) has a special, deeper meaning which connects a person directly with a higher being. But as with anything to do with belief, there are many different versions of this mysticism; Hasidism is a modern manifestation of it.














Legend has it that Safed was founded by a son of Noah after the Great Flood in an area that belonged to the tribe of Naphthali, one of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Much later the crusaders set foot in town, erected a citadel, and then the Muslims came, then the crusaders returned and built the largest fortress in the East, then the Mamluks (Muslims from Egypt) came who decapitated the men and sold the women into slavery, and then Safed became an important Jewish town in the 15-16th Century, when Jews began to arrive in large numbers after they were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic Queen Isabella. The town came under Ottoman rule soon after, when Jews (then about a quarter of the population) were treated well or badly depending on the then current ruler. Russian and Lithuanian (Perushim) Jews settled there in the early 19th century. Meanwhile, the population was devastated by the plague, by eathquakes, by rebellion, by the plague again, then there was more influx of Jewish people from Persia, Morocco and Algeria. Moses Montefiore, the British philanthropist, visited Safed numerous times and financed rebuilding much of the town. (My mother Erzsi lived the last seven years of her life in a Montefiore hostel in Sydney, Australia. The initial funds were provided by him). Today Safed is a Jewish town.

















In the 1950s and 1960s, Safed was known as Israel's art capital and an artists' colony was established in the Old City. It is also the Klezmer music capital of the world, hosting a yearly world-renowned festival. And Safed has a Memorial Museum Of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, a museum dedicated to the lost communities of Hungarian Jews. We were so short of time that sadly we couldn't visit the museum. However, I did send a copy of my book, Red Danube, as a donation to add to their collection.

The Mediterranean Sea at Netanya

Olive tree at a playgroun, Netanya


The Mediterranean Sea at Caesarea

Caesarea, Roman ruins


Safed, street scenes

Safed, artists' quarter

Safed, artists' quarter with blue doors

To be continued: The Sea of Galilee

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