Caesarea is on the Mediterranean coast, located between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Ancient Caesarea Maritima was built by King Herod.

In Jerusalem, Herod needed to be (somewhat) sensitive to traditional Jewish sensibilities, which is perhaps why he rebuilt the Holy Temple there.

Not so in the (largely non-Jewish) coastal area. In 22 BCE, Herod began building a new Roman port city on the ruins of a small fishing village. Within a short time, Caesarea was one of the most impressive cities in the world: With its deep-sea access, the Sebastos Harbor was the world’s largest artificial harbor. The city boasted wide roads, temples to the Roman gods, a large Roman theater, horse racing, and gladiator fights. Indeed, Herod inaugurated his new city here in 10 BCE with sports events that rivaled the Olympics. At its peak, Caesarea was the largest city in the country, with a population of approximately 125,000 people.

It was also the seat of Roman government and power. In 26 CE, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate ordered that images of the Emperor be placed in Holy Jerusalem. The Jews came to Caesarea to object. As historian Josephus describes it (Wars of the Jews 2.9.2–4)

Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the multitude…He then gave a signal to his armed soldiers to circle the Jews. Finding themselves surrounded…the Jews were in shock. After threatening to cut them down if they refused to allow the images, Pilate signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords. Then 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 images from Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, while Caesarea was often the source of our distress, it was rarely a source of comfort. The local Greek pagans were known for their anti-Semitism and regularly provoked the local Jews. In 66 CE, they deliberately insulted Judaism at the synagogue, polluting its confines with idolatry. It wasn’t long before riots occurred around the country, the Romans attacked, and the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome broke out. Sadly, the Revolt ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Almost seventy years later, among other martyrs, Rabbi Akiva was mercilessly tortured and executed in Caesarea. The Byzantines built churches and markets here, the Crusaders used it as a central fortified port city, and a few hundred families even lived among the ruins in the more recent Ottoman times — but it never regained its former glory.

Today, modern Caesarea has a beautiful beach, the only full-size golf course in the country, and is a prime residence of the wealthy and powerful. Its most famous treasure, though, is its national park. With amazing acoustics, the Roman theater still stands — and is still used for concerts. Once used for chariot races and gladiator fights, the large hippodrome stands on the beach as a stark reminder of Roman culture.

Jerusalem — literally, the City of Peace — was a holy city, mostly populated by Jews loyal to Judaism and G‑d. Caesarea fits its name: it was loyal to Rome, and motivated by money and power. No wonder the Talmud said (Tractate Megillah 6a), “If you hear that Caesarea and Jerusalem are both in ruins, don’t believe it; that both are successful, don’t believe it; that Jerusalem is in ruins and Caesarea is successful or [vice versa], believe it.”

In other words, the values and lifestyle of Caesarea (symbolizing Rome) were antithetical to Jewish values. In a sense, there is no “middle road” — each of us is on a path. That path can either lead to holiness — or its opposite.