A View From the Minaret

Reflecting on power, dominion, and willed blindness in Caesarea.

Linda Dittmar

Aerial view of the ruins at Caesaria

Photo by Robert Harding / Robert Harding Picture Library.

 

It was well into the summer of 2007, a time when Israel’s coastal plain is especially hot and steamy, that I suggested to Deborah that we visit Caesarea. “We might as well get out of Tel Aviv to see something new,” I said, noticing her lips purse in reluctance. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell she was thinking, Do we really have to leave this nice air-conditioned flat for the dubious pleasure of trudging past ancient, smashed columns and cracked stones baking in the hot sun?

“Yes, we really should,” I cajoled, knowing that archaeology interests Deborah. “Caesarea is one of Israel’s most outstanding archaeological sites,” I said, “perhaps the most. It’s equal to Masada, and not that far. You’ll see,” I continued, reading from the Internet. “It’s a ‘magnificent site . . . wave-lashed location . . . ancient Herodian port city . . . restored to create one of Israel’s most attractive and fascinating archaeological sites . . . amazing ancient harbor ruins, beautiful beaches. . . .’ ”

“You really can’t return to the United States without seeing Caesarea. This place was subjected to a succession of conquests,” I continued, summarizing the thumbnail history I found on the Internet: Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and several Moslem empires and caliphates, including centuries of Ottoman rule. “King Herod built his royal palace there, with a ten-thousand-seat Roman hippodrome and a huge amphitheater nearby, and then came Byzantine churches, a moated crusader fort, and more. There is also an ancient Roman aqueduct nearby, a museum, lovely beaches, and performances at the restored Roman amphitheater and hippodrome.”

“With so much to see,” I said, “you can’t say ‘no.’ It’s ‘Israeli tourism at its best,’ as the official write-up promises, the tour all tourists should take—anybody who wants to see more than just Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

In truth, despite the enervating weather, we were primed for this excursion. After several days at home, when we would venture out only once the sea breezes rose in the late afternoon, we were restless. We needed to get out into the world, but we also craved an outing that would get us away from the project that brought Deborah to Israel in the first place.

Deborah Bright, an American photographer, whose previous work included a large-format series of battlefield panoramas, was in Israel to search out and record what little remains of depopulated Palestinian villages demolished during the war of 1948. This was a joint project for us, stretching on and off between 2005 and 2008 and limited only to Israel within its pre-1967 “Green Line” border. I, an Israeli-American, was the local partner in this work, the one who speaks the language, knows the history, and understands the topography. Deborah, not Jewish, an outsider new to Israel, needed my help, though she was the one to select what to photograph, work the carefully calibrated lenses and dials, and eventually print and show these images.

Ours, then, was an unusual kind of tourism, if you can call it that at all. There was no designated parking for our convenience, no ticket booths, brochures, marked paths, signage, or park rangers. We immediately discovered that there was no historic or emotional distance for us, either, as we came across the leavings of deliberate destruction: the remnant of a wall disintegrating among a jumble of untended prickly pears, an abandoned well half-blocked with rocks, or desiccated fruit trees barely clinging to the crumbling remains of what used to be some farmer’s hillside terrace. And it was harder yet to discover such relics over and over again. These are not “antiquities” left by long-gone Romans or Crusaders. They testify to a life lived here within memory, people I may have seen as a child growing up in Israel, people whose descendants may still be living in a refugee camp—second, third, and even fourth generations may still be there. Locating and recording what Deborah and I could of this devastating exodus was for each of us an act of witnessing, a path to “Truth and Reconciliation.”

An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and somewhere between 400 and 450 villages were demolished during the war that saw the birth of Israel, in 1948. Caesarea was among them. For us Israelis, it’s the “War of Independence”; for the Palestinians it’s the “Nakba,” the catastrophe that saw the birth of the Palestinian refugee disaster.

Still, on this hot day, after weeks of searching for the scant remains of villages wiped off the map, we allowed ourselves a vacation—an expedition that would not be steeped in dismay. I was glad to see Deborah nod “yes,” however reluctantly. “This time we’ll just be ordinary tourists,” we told ourselves as we set out without the usual guidebooks and maps and heavy tripod and camera bag, without even the lunch cooler that we usually crowded into the back of our small and by now very dusty rental car. At least access to this “must-see destination” is easy, I thought. The Ministry of Tourism saw to it that the road to Caesarea is well marked and the parking lot’s phalanx of large tourist buses confirmed that we had arrived at the right place.
 

Tourists exploring the ruins at Caesaria

Photo by Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo.

 

Visitors were streaming toward the ticket booth by the time we parked our car and let ourselves be channeled alongside them, guided by a spacious, newly paved walkway lined with colorful banners, gift shops, and galleries nestled under vaulted ceilings. Tastefully selected wares beckoned from behind glass: antiqued glassware, exotic jewelry, ceramics, and textile art for local visitors, menorahs and mezuzahs for American and European Jews.

I find it hard to ignore such tempting goods, even when I know I need nothing: no potpourri container, mezuzah, or embroidered wall hanging, no hand-shaped hamsah talisman. And yet, like many others, I scanned these shops as I walked, every so often slowing down for a better look, not noticing what was ahead.

When I finally did look up, I froze: “Oh my,” I said, clutching Deborah’s arm. “Look!”

“Where?”

“Straight ahead! There!”

“So what?”

“Right here, in front of us!”

“Yes, I hear you, but so what?”

Puzzled, she scanned the row of sandstone buildings ahead, where additional gift shops and restaurants could be seen huddled on a low rise, above an umbrella-dotted sandy ribbon that edged a sparkling bay. The air trembled with heat mirages. In the distance, faintly, one could already hear the voices of children at play.

“So what?” she repeated, disengaging her arm from my insistent grip, puzzled by my urgency. After all, everything looked so ordinary, so predictably amiable.

“See that minaret?” I asked, pointing. “Right here, in front of us?”

I was rooted in place, oblivious to the tourists passing us. Deborah stopped too. The minaret, brightly lit by the morning sun, rose in front of us, towering above the stone buildings clustered below. A certain look came into Deborah’s gray eyes, intent, a gaze that told me she was beginning to see the scene differently. Like me, she was registering the incongruity of this minaret and adjacent mosque, severed from their religious use, planted there like a piece of public art.

In our eyes, the minaret loomed as a spectral witness to the Palestinian village that used to be here before the Nakba.

There was no denying its challenge, at least not for Deborah and me who had been researching the war of 1948. In our eyes, the minaret loomed as a spectral witness to the Palestinian village that used to be here before the Nakba. For me it was also a shocking reminder, quite unexpected, that shortly after that war I had seen this very village and its mosque emptied of people and lying in ruins.

Perhaps it was the sensation of the humid air depositing a thin film of salt on my arms that brought back a rush of memories. Certainly it was the minaret. The vaulted gift shops, I now realized, had been a row of derelict village buildings when I last saw them, back in 1950. The minaret had been this village’s pumping heart, the tower for the muezzin who would climb it five times a day to call the believers to prayer. Now it stood purposeless, ignored by the tourists who were mainly intent on getting to the archaeological site.

The entry to the minaret, I now noticed, had since been sealed with concrete, as was the low doorway that opened on to the balcony at the top. “Then,” I told Deborah, “when I was still a kid, shortly after the war, both the entry and the balcony were open. I climbed this minaret more than once,” I said, my voice trailing off as bits of memory returned to me.

One memory won’t let go: a small black-and-white snapshot, now long gone, taken a year or two after the war. It captured a gangly me, in shorts and a white tank top, waving from that balcony, up there at the top.

“There was this photo my dad took . . .” I told Deborah.

I see him now, yet again, and I miss him achingly, beyond words. There he is, his hair ruffled by the breeze, standing in his dark bathing trunks way below me, near the mosque, still young. My little sister, looking spindly, is standing nearby as he aims the camera up toward me yet again.

It was just an ordinary beach day, with a father amused by the feat his daughter had just accomplished. “Look at me, Dad,” I may have called out, waving.

Though none of us made much of it at the time, it was unsafe to climb this minaret back then, when my parents took us to that beach where the abandoned village houses still gaped, empty and forbidding. Like many Ottoman village minarets in Palestine, this one is chunky as it rises above the one-story mosque it touches at one end. An interior spiral staircase, windowless and narrow, opens up under a small cupola on to the narrow balcony that encircles it, where the muezzin chanted his call to prayer, reminding the believers of Allah’s greatness and merciful presence.

The spiral staircase was already crumbling when I ventured in, shortly after the war, and the opening to the muezzin’s balcony was so low that even as a 12-year-old I still had to duck as I stepped over the threshold. I would grope my way up a stone shaft in total darkness, each foot searching for the wider part of the next triangular step that clung to the central core, my palm tracing the dank inner curve of the encircling outer wall, seeking reassurance while fragments of stone crumbled under foot.

While this climb was creepy, stepping out on to the narrow muezzin’s balcony took even more courage because it had no guardrail. It was scary every time I braved those steps, but it was also exhilarating. With the sea glistening behind and salty breezes beguiling the scorching sun rays, I’d be enthralled by the vistas spread out far below. Clustered nearby was the abandoned village, looking peaceful as it lay empty at the rim of the bay, with its sandy dunes edging the sea as far as I could see to the north and to the south. Further inland was a wide ribbon of green farmland sliced by a coastal road that shimmered in the bright sunlight, and finally, demarcating the eastern horizon were the dun, carob, and oak-dotted edges of the Carmel mountain range, vaguely chunky against hazy summer skies.

I wonder whether this sweeping, bird’s-eye view might not also include, hidden in its folds, a sense of dominion—the raw power bestowed by heights—practiced in a child’s game of “King of the Mountain.”

When I look back at that young me, feeling triumphant as she steps on to the muezzin’s balcony, I wonder about her elation. Yes, I loved measuring my young body for the task and loved the burst of light that dispelled the darkness. But now that I have paused many times since to gaze at panoramas, I wonder whether this sweeping, bird’s-eye view might not also include, hidden in its folds, a sense of dominion—the raw power bestowed by heights—practiced in a child’s game of “King of the Mountain.”

What is there, in those vistas that spread below us, beyond beauty, awe, and geographic knowledge? Doesn’t their allure lie, at least in part, in a sense of possession similar to the way S. Yizhar’s Israeli soldiers survey the Arab village they are about to capture in his extraordinary novella, Khirbet Khizeh? Yizhar’s village, surveyed by these young men from above, seems miniscule, its people doll-like, its fields a distant patchwork carpet. In the gaze of the soldiers as they survey the village resting on the still-populated Palestinian village of 1948, there is admiration for the cultivated valley and its fertile availability. But there is also, in this gaze from above, a coveting, a drive to possess, and also, already, an inkling of incipient ownership. The land that stretches before us is available to be known, husbanded, and mastered.

I can’t imagine that any of this was on my mind as I felt my way up the steps of that dilapidated minaret at the cusp of adolescence. In 1950, the people I knew did not comment on abandoned villages, and still rarely do. Many years will have trickled by before I’d clutch Deborah’s elbow when faced with this phantom from my own distant past, still standing, irrevocably present.

Looking at that minaret, I could once again see my parents and sister settling into a day at the beach: a ground cloth spread out, picnic basket at hand, the smell of sunblock, a beach ball already being tossed. Now, welcoming Deborah and me, were the same lazy waves lapping the sands, the same salt-laden humidity frizzing my hair, and the same harsh sun burning its way into my skin. All of it the same and yet so different now, as the churning of tourists around us reminded me.

I wonder what became of that photo my father took. I’d have liked to show it to Deborah, and I wanted to see it myself yet again. But what would that old snapshot have accomplished? Would it be anything more than a shadowy effigy of an elusive truth? Would a small black-and-white snapshot taken at a distance convince you, my readers, that I’m telling the truth? Isn’t the standing minaret proof enough, finally, visible as it is to anyone who cares to notice it and wonder what it is doing here, so incongruously, amid the hubbub of tourism?

I need no such proof. I remember vividly, in my body, climbing that minaret. What I am less sure about and urgently want to recall is what that half-inch of a child, tiny at such a great distance, might have understood of those outings to a fishing village so recently vacated by its people. I invoke that image so that I might scrutinize that child that was and still is me, snapped by her father in an ordinary moment of parental bemusement. Scrutinize her? Yes, but also accept her into my being, because even at age 12 she already knew, or at least sensed, something of the place where she was standing.

None of us knew at the time that the people who were expelled from Arab Qaysaria (as it was called until 1948) were actually Bosnians who settled in Palestine in 1884 during one of the Ottomans’ many “transfers of population.” For us, Israeli Jews, they were just generic “Arabs”—see-through transparencies whose contours vanish when a new image gets superimposed on the old. Printed, I imagine these images already faded, already archival, a thing of the past. There may be some bitter irony in the fact that they were displaced Bosnians, not “real Arabs,” but does it, finally, make any difference?

It was not proof of the Nakba that rattled me that day in Caesarea as Deborah and I stood staring at the minaret. By then we needed no proof. We had already seen the lingering detritus of the Nakba scattered around the country, gradually swallowed by forests, sinking into the ground, and assimilated into new construction. We had studied the history and perused maps. What struck me most that summer morning was the indifference of passers-by to this relic of a disastrous past—a past that is unseen even when it is in full view. Shouldn’t at least some of them pause to wonder what a mosque is doing there, on the way to Herod’s palace?
 

Close-up of the minaret at Caesaria

Photo by Karol Kozlowski / Alamy Stock Photo.

 

Neither my father taking that photograph nor the girl that was me waving toward him from above can claim that we never noticed the minaret or the derelict buildings nearby. But what did such noticing mean? For us, like many other Israeli Jews, it was a willed blindness, a blurry image faintly outlined at the edge of our retina. The word “Nakba” has only come into Hebrew use lately, and still barely. The “Nakba Law” equates its public mourning with a rejection of Israel’s very existence and proscribes the observation of “Nakba Day.” Passers-by barely register the minarets that still stand in Israel in full view: in the park near Jaffa’s old port, for example, at the center of a busy roundabout in Safed, or at the landscaped water-front promenade of Tiberius, by the sea of Galilee. Mosques are more easily disguised—as an art gallery in Safed, for example, or as a restaurant in Ein Hod. Minarets are harder to assimilate. The challenge for passers-by is whether to see them for what they are or, for that matter, whether to notice them at all.

If anything, Caesarea’s mosque and minaret—assuming they are allowed to remain—are likely to become even less noticeable, since ambitious new excavations are now underway, supported and financed by Baroness Ariane de Rothschild. According to a Ha’aretz article (August 16, 2018), the goal is to turn Caesarea into a major “tourism experience” as “the capital of the ancient world,” on the scale of Pompeii, Venice, and Athens. The ancient port I only saw submerged is now being excavated and the ancient city walls are being restored, with a new promenade already in place near them.

It is strange to think that the derelict shamble of a village I saw shortly after the war has become a place reclaimed by the glitterati. Other than gingerly climbing the minaret, I mainly remember peering into the fire-blackened, cavernous, storage spaces—today’s boutiques—piled high with unidentifiable, slimy trash from which wafted strange smells of decay. When a turnaround in Caesarea’s fortunes occurred in the early 1950s, it was a great surprise to all of us: two imposing statues of toga-clad Roman dignitaries were discovered buried in the dunes. Suddenly the name “Caesarea” acquired a new weight. Headless and nameless, the statues were welcomed with great fanfare, linking our beleaguered fledgling country (as it seemed to us in those early years) to the grandeur that was Rome.

Renewed excavations unearthed Caesarea’s Crusader fortifications, its Roman aqueduct, King Herod’s seafront palace, and the amphitheater and hippodrome.

At a time when much of our archaeology was preoccupied with biblical discoveries that aimed to prove our ancient Jewish presence on the land (and hence our “right” to reclaim it now), a wider, cosmopolitan horizon suddenly beckoned. Renewed excavations unearthed Caesarea’s Crusader fortifications, its Roman aqueduct, King Herod’s seafront palace, and the amphitheater and hippodrome. King Herod, whom we as children were taught to dismiss as a troubled puppet of Rome, an Edomite half-Jew and a “bad man,” now seemed one of us after all.

It is especially the Herodian findings that are now billed prominently in Caesarea’s tourist literature. His sprawling beachfront summer palace in particular now stands as a fitting counterpart to his famed cliff-top winter palace in Massada. Edged by the Mediterranean, Caesarea was home to a pleasure palace, while Massada—austere, inviolable—has become a symbol of Jewish heroism, as it withstood Rome’s siege for three years and chose mass suicide over defeat. Caesarea still retains some of that lightheartedness. Its hippodrome now houses equestrian acts in period costume, its cafés and restaurants are full, its boutiques booming, and, as sunset approaches, crowds stream to the huge amphitheater to attend musical events of international standing.

I happened to attend two such events in the early 1970s: one by New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band and another by Mikis Theodorakis, a Greek composer and activist then in political exile. Thousands of mostly young people crowded the amphitheater’s stone benches, holding our breath as Preservation Hall’s aged black musicians walked onto the stage, the tiny lead singer leaning on a walker. The sound, once it came, swept us away. This happened in the Theodorakis concert, too, where a large band and a powerful lead singer inspired the audience with rousing political songs that spoke of freedom.

In both concerts, awash in euphoria, I felt at one with this audience of strangers. We had arrived at sunset, early enough to see the sky reddening behind the amphitheater’s ancient open-air stage, its pinks and mauves gradually turning velvety black behind centuries-old, spot-lit columns. As the starlit darkness closed in on us, we were all transported by the music, drawn closer to one another and to the history that was alive in this place some two millennia earlier.

It was only years later that I came to reconsider this euphoric feeling. It has something to do with the rhetoric of the occasion, I realized, and with nostalgia too. We were all under the spell of Caesarea’s ancient grandeur and endurance and we were all, or at least many of us, drawn also to the communal aspirations to which this music spoke. For all their frailty, Preservation Hall’s musicians traveled thousands of miles and played magnificently, drawing us into the vitality of the black experience in America, and Theodorakis’s music did likewise, with its powerful and uncompromising rejection of tyranny, as the program notes emphasized.

We—mostly an audience of native-born sabra Israelis, mostly of European descent and middle class—were swept away by the alchemy of identification with the indomitable spirit that came through this music. Many of us grew up on songs of freedom and justice—Soviet, Yiddish, American, Spanish, and more. We admired the American civil rights movement and knew that Theodorakis, a former communist and heir to the anti-fascist partisan spirit of World War II, had been a political prisoner and was now, even as he played in Caesarea, in political exile. His music spoke to our own history—to the fighters of the ghettos, our underground’s fight against the British, and the socialism that inspired our early pioneers.

And yet, for me at least, something changed. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point my memory of the inspiration that suffused those evenings gave way to another realization: beneath our shared elation at ideals of freedom and justice lurked the absence of the Palestinians to whose situation, by 1971, when I sat in that amphitheater, that music spoke most urgently. The Nakba was within living memory at the time; Bosnian Qaysaria’s recent ruins were still in plain view, barely reclaimed for tourism. In 1982, I learned later, Theodorakis, who had previously composed the acclaimed “Ballad of Mauthausen” in response to the Holocaust, had responded to Yasser Arafat’s invitation and composed the PLO hymn.

But something else struck me as I looked at the tourists streaming by the old village mosque: how comfortable we are with oblivion.

I don’t know why or when this sense of audience—of the ones present and the ones absent—struck me. I know that this awareness came before I ever met Deborah. By the time she and I came to Caesarea, in 2007, we had been tracking the Nakba for some time. But something else struck me as I looked at the tourists streaming by the old village mosque: how comfortable we are with oblivion. I was thinking of the child I used to be, climbing the minaret, gazing from its high balcony across lands that were becoming mine, giving no thought to the people whose home it used to be.

“A minaret?” I remember my American friend Carol saying. “Was there a minaret? No, I didn’t see any.”
 

 

Linda Dittmar grew up in Israel during its formative years, 1939–60. In the U.S. since 1961 and now professor emerita, she taught literature and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston for 40 years. Her co-edited works include From Hanoi to Hollywood and Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism and she is now writing a memoir, “Tracing Homelands: A Memoir of Israel’s Becoming,” that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948 and its aftermath.

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