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Zan Thompson

A Museum Renders Unto Caesarea

September 04, 1988|Zan Thompson

In about the year 1055, perhaps a young seaman from Malaga, Spain, had shore leave in Caesarea, a great port city on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Israel. Maybe he gamboled down the gangplank, thinking of the wine and the beautiful women waiting for him. In his hurry, the kid spilled some coins from his pocket and they plinked into the blue waters of the harbor.

Some time since, maybe last year, a volunteer found one of the coins, a gold dinar minted in Spain by the Muslims who in the 11th and 12th centuries ruled North Africa and most of Spain.

That gold dinar is hanging on the north wall of a room in the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of Caesarea on the Sea, King Herod's Dream City, at the county Natural History Museum.

King Herod of Judea was a powerful ruler, a good politician and a great builder. He wanted to be remembered for a mighty city that would rival Alexandria, and realizing fully where the heavy power was, he named the city after Caesar.

According to Jay Bisno, the museum's curatorial assistant in anthropology, Herod was not a nice man. Any time some unfortunate citizen or family member seemed to be gathering too much influence, Herod killed him or her in imaginative ways. He poisoned some, drowned some in what were supposed to be water games. When you played with Herod in the pool, you didn't get back for the second half.

Bisno, who told me, "I am Herod's propaganda minister," is a highly knowledgeable archeologist who worked in a kibbutz near the ancient city and spent much time at the dig that has been established there.

"Besides, there's a good beach there," he said.

Caesarea was begun in 22 BC and was taken over by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Jews, the Crusaders, the Muslims and the Egyptians.

Herod built the city on the site of an earlier port, excavating silt and rocks to make a great harbor, which he had protected and surrounded by jetties and fortified bulkheads.

There were temples, pillared and porticoed buildings, baths, theaters and an aquaduct that brought running water through mountains into the city.

Bisno told me that Herod introduced the theater to the Middle East. They played a lot of political satire, he said.

This exhibit was assembled by the Smithsonian Institution from dozens of museums in Israel and was brought here by our county Museum of Natural History, one of my absolute favorite places in Los Angeles. The old lady was founded in 1913 and 1988 is her diamond anniversary.

The Caesarea exhibit is a rich and rewarding celebration of the museum's birthday. In spite of the great, sprawling size of the museum, it has never been austere. Somehow, the men and women who have made it work for 75 years have always made people feel that they were privileged to be looking at the special treasures of an old friend. It is a personal museum and the presentation of treasures, peoples, animals and birds have always made me feel as if they knew I was going to come by for a visit. I love the museum because it is my museum and not because I should.

The director of the Natural History Museum is Dr. Craig C. Black. He was appointed in 1952.

When bad King Herod built his dream city, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote, "He conquered nature herself." The builders were working on an unstable, surf-buffeted shore. Herod pushed the workers to their outermost physical limits to build the harbor's foundation of great stones and mortar. Whenever they would falter, Herod suggested water games and they plowed on.

The beautiful city was home to familiar figures. Pontius Pilate lived there as did Saints Peter and Paul.

The present exhibit is just the second time these artifacts have been shown and will be the only time on the Pacific Coast. There are parts of wine jugs, oil jugs, immense statues, mosaics, dinnerware, glass bottles, jewelry and weapons.

One necklace, which belonged to a wealthy Muslim matron, is especially breathtaking. It is of huge gold beads, some the size of large walnuts, with magnificent filigree work. The lady thrust it into the bottom of a storage jug when the Crusaders were at the gates. The necklace made it. I hope the lady did, too.

A great deal of the work of excavating Caesarea, which goes on every day, is done by that indispensable wonder, the volunteer, under the supervision of scientists. Archeologists have known for centuries about this great city and its 1,300-year history under so many conquerors, but it was in the 1950s that excavation began in earnest. Now, as it continues to tell us so much about so many civilizations, the work is done mostly by the United States and Israel.

You must make reservations for Herod's Dream. Call the museum at (213) 744-6292.

Or, better, join the museum at $35 for a family membership, $30 for a member and a guest. And there are student and senior memberships. You can go to this treasure house any time all year and you receive two free tickets for special events like Herod's Dream.

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