hippodrome

We’re sitting on a long stone bench, looking down on the ruins of a 2,000 year old sporting arena with the waves of the Mediterranean breaking on the shore just a few feet beyond. For those among us who enjoy old movies, the setting recalls the chariot races of Ben Hur. 50 meters wide and 400 meters long, you could seat 13,000 spectators here and watch the chariots careen around Herod’s hippodrome (from the Greek: “horse-course”) at lightning speed and deafening hoofbeats. Herod, the half-Jewish Roman-appointed king, who built the impossible on Masada and who defined the word “enormous” with the creation of the Temple Mount, also built Caesarea.

Caesarea was Herod’s tribute to Roman culture, and it became the commercial capitol of Judaea. Never mind Jerusalem: That was for the priests and the sages to squabble over. Caesarea, with its ultra-modern port, its colossal Temple of Augustus, and its Roman theater (still in use today), was Herod’s baby, his masterpiece. The hippodrome was the epicenter of this Rome-away-from-Rome. Here, in 10 BCE, Herod dedicated his new city with a competitive sports festival intended to rival the Olympics.

But this was also a city of Judaea, a city that had a Jewish community and synagogues. Herod’s legacy to Judaea, a city admired by the entire civilized world, was to become a focal point of the animosity between Jews and Gentiles, and it was here in the sports stadium that those tensions often erupted. In 26 CE, Pontius Pilate (of New Testament fame) was sent to Caesarea to be prefect over Judaea. He ordered that statues of the emperor to be brought to Jerusalem. In protest, a large delegation of Jews gathered in the hippodrome of Caesarea to demand their removal. Here is how Josephus Flavius describes the event:

Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews.

Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. After threatening to cut them down if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, Pilate signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.

Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.

Forty years later, it was tensions here between Jews and Pagans that led to the outbreak of the doomed Jewish Rebellion in 66 CE. But the Jews remained, lived in a strained peace with their neighbors, and Caesarea stood for another 1,200 years.

Undoubtedly the most painful event that this stadium witnessed is the one that is retold every year during the Yom Kippur Musaf service called aseret harugei malchut (the ten who were killed for the Divine kingdom). During the 2nd century CE, the 10 greatest rabbis of the generation were publicly tortured to death by the Romans for their refusal to give up teaching Torah. This was a spectacle of entertainment for the masses, and the place for such a show was the stadium. The poem that tells of their martyrdom, Eleh Ezkerah, begins with the haunting line:

These I will remember as I pour out my soul.

Here, in the great hippodrome of Caesarea, one can feel the uneasy tension between Jew and Pagan, Rome and Jerusalem, our eyes and our souls, the greatness of the builder and the depths of his moral decay. The waves continue to lap at the shore, the waves of that same Mediterranean Sea shared by Caesarea and Rome. Two thousand years later, a young woman named Hannah Senesch from neighboring Sdót Yám walked along this very shore among these ruins and wrote a short song of praise that she called “Walking to Caesarea”:

My God, My God, let there never be an end
To the sand and the sea
The rush of the waters
The thunder of heaven
The prayer of man

Hannah Senesch returned to her native Hungary in a doomed clandestine mission and was killed by the Nazis, unwittingly forging yet another connection between the splendor and the evil of humanity. Herod and Pilate. Akiva and Hannah Senesch. So many ghosts. So much history.

I continue to sit, gazing at this amazing structure, and reflect on the human will with an unholy mixture of horror and profound admiration. The waves continue to crash with soothing regularity.