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The Birds Mosaic of Caesarea (2006)

Although the name of my of my column is “News from Jerusalem”, perhaps this report should be titled “News from Caesarea.” Caesarea Maritima was founded in 22 BCE by Herod ‘the Great”, king of the province of Judea, and was named in honor of the Emperor Augustus. Herod designated the city to be his main seaport and created a huge artificial breakwater for that purpose. He built a palace for himself on a cliff above the sea and for the public he built entertainment facilities never seen before in this province—a hippodrome and a theatre. The city thrived during the Roman and Byzantine periods (1st- 7th cent CE), and continued functioning under Arab rule (7th-10th cent CE). The city was re-fortified by the Crusaders, but was deliberately ruined by the Muslims after the final expulsion of the Crusaders from theHoly Land. Various travelers described the ruins, some reporting widespread looting of antiquities, especially of marble architectural elements.

Scientific excavations began in the 1950’s, and to this day Caesarea is still being excavated by different expeditions. Large-scale preservation projects have also been carried out in Caesarea. Now visitors can enjoy the reconstructed theatre of the city, the hippodrome near by, the city centre and part of the ancient port.

The newest attraction in the port area is a visitor’s centre that includes a computer generated dynamic model of the city. You can almost smell the dust from the chariots as they turn in front of you at the edge of the (virtual) hippodrome. To get some taste of this experience go to www.caesarea.org.il and click on “CaesareaHarbor.”

Recently I visited Caesarea to explore the less frequented parts of the city. In the Byzantine period (4th-7th cent AD) the city thrived and expanded as much as 800 minland. Most of the expanded part of the city is still waiting to be discovered, but two areas have been excavated and even restored to some extent: the palatial “bird mosaic” and the obelisk of the eastern hippodrome.

The “birds mosaic” was discovered by accident in the early 1950’s when an Israeli army unit dug trenches on the top of the hill supposedly outside the city. With no budget available for its preservation, it was covered over again for its protection, and only fifty years later, in 2004, a donation was made to reveal the mosaic again and preserve it so the public can see it.

The “birds mosaic” recently uncovered in Caesarea

The “birds mosaic” recently uncovered in Caesarea contains lifelike representations of 120 birds, each in a round medallion frame. The mosaic formed the floor of a large house built on a hill on the fringe of the city and possibly belonged to a wealthy official. © Danny Herman

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a peacock

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a peacock

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing an elephant

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing an elephant

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a leopard

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a leopard

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a pelican

Details from the Caesarea mosaic showing a pelican

During the renewed excavation of the mosaic, a few adjacent rooms were also exposed. One room contained fragments of a table originally adorned with glass mosaic stones, some containing gold leaves. The mosaic itself is beautifully preserved and is almost completely intact. The central part bears various birds in 120 “medallions.” Around the periphery various animals are depicted. The style is plain and naive, typical of the Byzantine period but appealing in its own way. The mosaic must have been the main hall of a mansion situated on the fringe of the city, on top of the only hill in Caesarea, providing a spectacular view in all directions. Although archaeologists have not found any inscription to identify the owner, I am certain it was a very high official, perhaps the governor of the province himself.

This “birds mosaic” is not in the main excavated area of Caesarea but on the way to the ancient aqueduct, north of the old city. I did not notice any sign pointing to the mosaic but I hope such a sign will be placed so visitors to Caesarea will be able to admire it.

On the other hand I am quite sure visitors will NOT be able to admire another preservation project in Caesarea—the re-erected main obelisk in the eastern hippodrome. The location of the hippodrome was revealed long ago by aerial photographs. On the right side of the photo printed below, the long, rectangular shape of the hippodrome is clearly visible.

Aerial view of Caesarea

Aerial view of Caesarea

Although its location is clear, it has not yet been excavated. Recently, again thanks to a local financial contribution, the obelisk that once adorned the spina (the middle barrier of the racecourse) was put back in place. Originally made of a single block of porphyry marble weighing 45 tons, the obelisk stood 10.5 m high.

The Phorphyr Obelisk of the Eastern Hippodrome in Caesarea before placed back. © IAA

The Phorphyr Obelisk of the Eastern Hippodrome in Caesarea before placed back. © IAA

The re-erection of the Obelisk in Caesarea. © IAA.

The re-erection of the Obelisk in Caesarea. © IAA.

Placing it back required a special pulley and careful planning. Its re-erection was well covered by the media, so reading about the obelisk and its reconstruction is easy, but seeing the real thing is much more difficult. Trying to find it, I drove in the area of the site. I knew where it should be, but there were no signs to it. I finally parked the car and followed a dirt road, which was blocked for vehicles. To my surprise along the way I saw paper signs directing to the hippodrome. Clearly these were the temporary signs, directing the media to cover the erection of the obelisk about a year ago. I finally found the obelisk, standing in solitude in the centre of the unexcavated hippodrome. The view is quite impressive, and a bit surrealistic if I may add. The majestic obelisk stands in full glory in the middle of a deserted and unexcavated hippodrome. Other stone objects, smaller but impressive as well, are still waiting to be replaced along the spina of the hippodrome. But how can others admire the raised obelisk? I don’t know. It seems like with all the goodwill, time, trouble and cost, nobody took care to ensure an access road to the site with directions. And if I am being a bit critical about the recent development of ancient Caesarea for tourism, I would like to add another comment. Behind the theatre of the city lie many marble architectural fragments. Rows of columns are stacked, while they could be relocated to adorn the main street (cardo). Worse, I found at the corner of this site fragments of larger than life size marble statues. Surely they could be placed in a better place where the visitors to the site could admire them?

Fragments of marble statues found at Caesarea piled behind the theatre. © Danny Herman

Fragments of marble statues found at Caesarea piled behind the theatre. © Danny Herman