Going underwater for tour of ancient Israeli city

Daphne Singer grew up in Clayton and attends Central Reform Congregation. She will be a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. this fall. 

By Daphne Singer, Special to the Jewish Light

CAESAREA, Israel — My family is in this beachside paradise, half an hour away from Tel Aviv. It’s warm out, the sun beating down, the water a perfect blue.

It is my first time in Israel, and this is the day I have been anticipating for months— a journey to the ancient port city of Caesarea, now an archaeological marine park.

My family has hired a tour guide, Eli. Caesarea is difficult to find if you are not from Israel, and a guide can provide additional information and context regarding your surroundings when exploring the ruins above ground.

When we arrive, we walk to the Caesarea Dive Club. My parents, Barry and Vicki Singer, sign in, while my younger brother Leo and I change into our swimsuits. We’re provided with snorkel masks and breathing tubes, as we are snorkeling and not diving.

Underneath the surface of the water, everything is green. Even when we swim away from the algae-covered stairs, and into clearer water, the sea’s color is far more green than it appears on the coastline. 

Our snorkeling guides, Ron and Ronnie, lead us through the water, pointing out artifacts like a 250-year-old anchor, and a ship that carried Syrian Jews to Israel in the 1950s. Ron tells us that his father came to Israel on a boat just like the one in Caesarea; however, it’s not the same ship, much to his disappointment. 

Long orange rocks scatter the seafloor, ancient columns that sank with much of Caesarea centuries ago.

We are told that there is not as much to see snorkeling as there is when deep underwater with scuba equipment. Scuba divers are able to get to the deeper ruins, seeing more building remnants, pottery and for a few lucky divers in 2015 — ancient gold coins. While snorkeling I see what I think is an old pot— it’s actually a plastic water bottle covered in sand.

After what feels like 10 minutes but is closer to an hour, the tour is done, and we rinse off in the Dive Club’s showers before reuniting with Eli. While we didn’t see much of the underwater ruins of the city, large portions of Caesarea are still above land.

Roman baths are scattered throughout the city. The first ones we come across have detailed pictorial mosaics. A man with a flute, a ram, a rooster, and leopard, among other figures, decorate the bath floor. Eli explains that this particular bath was constructed after King Herod’s reign, “because it has images.” Depicting foreign gods is idolatry, as stated in Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.” Following halakha (Jewish law), “Herod wouldn’t do images”, Eli says.

A long strip of deep boxes run parallel to the tide, with additional ones marking their beginning. Along the track is an abstract metal sculpture of a chariot and horses. This was once where chariot races took place. Wealthy Judeans and Romans would watch the spectacle from the stone boxes. Directly behind the boxes is a dark stone archway. It’s interior is blocked off, but Eli tells us that it once was the entrance to a pub, for spectators to go after a race for wine and socialization.

“What’s the difference between beer and piss? Five minutes,” Eli says, laughing and pointing to an open platform next to the pub. Two long indentations run along the front, where in ancient times water would flow down the two streams. The stream furthest from the edge of the platform was used as a toilet, the other a bidet. “Now we’d say oish,” Eli says, “but it’s how they lived.”

We walk along the coast to the main bathhouse. Even though signs say no swimming (as there is no lifeguard), some people splash in the water at the shoreline. In comparison to the rest of the ruins, the bathhouse is not a crumbling, sand-colored structure, but a bright white marble marvel. 

As ancient Judea under the rule of King Herod was part of the Roman Empire, the centralized bathhouse was the focal point of ancient Caesarean life. Tall marble pillars have been returned to their original upright positions, pointing towards the gorgeous sea. It’s also where our tour ends. 

There are other sights in Caesarea, notably the theater, which still hosts shows and events. Perhaps I will come back one day and see a play here. But not today. I have been in the sun too long.