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King Herod's capital yields treasures in Caesarea 'dig'

Half the size of Manhattan -- bigger than Tel Aviv: These are the relatively dimensions of Caesarea Maritima, built by King Herod nearly 2,000 years ago. The controversial King of Judea intended the Mediterranean port city to serve as the magnificent capital of his Roman-dominated Palestine.

Today, after nine consecutive seasons of excavation, the indefatigable Prof. Robert J. Bull still has only scratched the surface of the huge site. The Drew University-sponsored team of American archaeologists and volunteers has unearthed three of the 8,000 acres of sand, banana plantations, and scrub covering the coastal site.

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But this year produced one of the most dramatic finds so far: Christian-inspired frescoes on the walls of 6th-century church crypts. The "synopia" or initial drawings, as Professor Bull describes them, consist of 13 standing figures, possibly including "Christos" in the center.

It took courage and ingenuity to reach them.

The American scholar and a select backup crew had to crawl 280 feet through a maze of underground vaults originally built by Herod to serve as warehouses for his once-bustling seaport. They inched their way through pitch-darkness, wearing oxygen masks and scooping away vast accumulations of sand in their path.

"At first we thought we were seeing vague standing shapes," Professor Bull recalled.

He assumed that the figures were "a series of saints," but this could not yet be verified. Nor did the faint Greek inscriptions beneath them offer any immediate clues. They are yet to be deciphered and analyzed. But thanks to the Muslim Arabs who sacked Caesarean during their conquest of the Holy Land 1,300 years ago, the frescoes can be partially restored.

Evidently prompted by the Islamic prohibiton against grave images, the Arabs smeared the frescoes with plaster, an act that unintentionally, but effectively, preserved them. Professor Bull's personnel used water and glycerine to clean the fresco surfaces and bring out their dark red color.

Despite the impressive discovery of a Christian presence in pre-Crusader Caesarea Maritima, the city cannot be considered a major center of early Christianity until the 4th century.

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In its heday during Roman times, the population ranged from 125,000 to 250, 000, according to demographic deductions made by Professor Bull.

The city at that time consisted of four ethno-rengious quarters: pagan, Samaritan, Jewish, and (by the 3rd century) Christian. Few indications of a Christian community during its first three centuries of existence have yet been unearthed.

On the other hand, Professor Bull has found the seals of books stored in the city's rabbinical school (yeshiva) library -- though he cannot locate the site of the yeshiva itself.

The urban planning that preceded Herod's construction of the city testified to the genius of the Roman-appointed Judean monarch in public works and architecture. His seaside capital was one of the few planned cities of antiquity, Professor Bull observed, noting that Herod spent three years installing its infrastructure, including an ingenious "sea-flushed" sewerage system.

"Herod was really a shrewd businessman," the archaeologist went on.

"He capitalized on the convergence of the caravan trade routes of Western Asia on Palestine, making Caesarea one of the region's maritime hubs. The network of opulent cities that grew up afterwards in the Negev desert are further proof of this economic relationship."

Once the Arab conquest of the Middle East spread eastward from the Mediterranean to the frontiers of India, such centers as Shifta, Avdat, and Petra turned into ghost cities. The trade routes and their maritime link to Rome, which had fallen by then, were revised or severed.

Professor Bull quotes the ancient Judean historian Josephus as having written that the port of Caesarean Maritima was as big as Athens' port of Piraeus. The honeycomb of underground vaults penetrated by the Bull expedition was strewn not only with coins minted in Emperor Nero's day, but also with remnants of 1 st-century cargoes, among them a package still bearing a stamp on its handle translated as "fish sauce."

One of these vaults was converted into a Roman "Mithraeum," a shrine to the war god Mithra -- "the first ever found in Caesarea," Professor Bull said.

It contained a marble bas-relief of the sacred bull and scenes of Mithra thrusting his dagger into him, the professor said. These finds included 3 rd-century frescoes depicting the life of Mithra. The Mithraeum's most impressive aspect was its design, calculated to admit a shaft of light that fell on the pagan altar precisely on June 21, the summer solstice.

"But they did not turn it into a church," the professor went on. "It was destroyed in the 3rd century and was turned into a charnel house afterwards. We found lots of animal bones inside.c

Nearby, the University of Maryland's Prof. Marie Spiro was carefully brushing away sand that had been spread atop a brilliant mosaic that once served as the floor of the 6th century municipal archive building. The Greek text was from Romans 13, verse 3, which says in part: "Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same."

"In other words," Professor Bull said, "Pay your taxes."

Professor Spiro's current mosaic favorite an exquisite portrait in tiny colored stones of a Roman lady, her torso draped in a vivid green gown and her head adorned with a crown.

Capping this year's discoveries is Caesarea Maritima's Cardo Maxima or main street, a majestic promenade that extended from the northern exit of the Roman theater (still largely intact and used for orchestral, operatic, and ballet performances) to the Roman forum, now obscured by the Crusader city built over it.

The street had a colonnade of 200 columns 16 feet tall and 9 feet apart, all carved out of imported marble and granite and each bearing the name of a Roman procurator (governor) of Judea. "None are of native stone," Professor Bull commented, offering additional proof of the city's former wealth.

Caesarea Maritima's ruined harbor -- Herod's sole miscalculation was to leave it exposed to constant sea erosion by building a seawall in the wrong place, Professor Bull said -- has 1,200 columns lying about on the seabed. But many of the massive column bases are still in place and could be reused for a restored colonmade.

"I've approached Baron Rothschild," the enterprising professor said, leaning over a blueprint of a projected "Caesarea National Monument." He quoted the French philanthropist as having said: You figure out where the columns go, and I'll stand them up for you."

The professor's enthusiasm over a proposed restoration virtually bubbled over as he unrolled an aerial map showing the site of the Roman-era hippodrome that accommodated 35,000 racing fans.

He hinted that the development envisaged by Baron Edmond de Rothschild might reopen the track as a crowd-drawing asset. (This is considered unlikely, however, because of contemporary Israel's ban on gambling and its disdain for horseracing.)

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