Caesarea is an affluent modern city along the northern Mediterranean coast of Israel between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is also the site of extensive archaeological remains. Along the seafront are the remains of the Roman port city of Caesarea Maritima and subsequent Byzantine, Muslim and Crusader structures.
A Brief History of Caesarea
With so many great civilizations leaving their mark on Israel it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the chronology of historical events. Archaeological findings in Israel often reveal multiple layers remaining from different historical periods. When you visit Caesarea the expanse of the excavations can be overwhelming so here is a brief overview of Caesarea’s history and the evidence we can see on a visit to the Caesarea Archeological Park.
4th Century BC - Phoenician Port. The site was first settled in the 4th century BC as a Phoenician port city called Strato’s Tower. 1st Century BC - Hasmonean Kingdom. In 90 BC King Alexander Yannai captured the city for the Hasmonean Kingdom. After being under Cleopatra for a short time and an autonomous city under Pompey, Caesarea was given to Augustus Caesar.
63 BC – 640 AD Roman and Byzantine Empire. The ancient Roman history of this site is recorded by Roman historian Josephus Flavius. Rome-appointed King of Judea, Herod the Great, instigated major construction and development in the city. Most of what you can see today on a visit to Caesarea’s archaeological park came from this period.
In 25-13 BC Herod commissioned the construction of a large port. The port city of Caesarea Maritima became the administrative center of the Judaea Province. Herod had a double harbor constructed, Sebastos. The breakwaters can still be seen in aerial shots 5 meters below sea level, it was the largest port on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
Caesarea Port, Israel. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin
66 AD-70 AD - the Great Revolt occurred, when the uprising was crushed the Romans continued ruling Palestine. In 325 AD the Roman Empire was Christianized under Emperor Constantine. Caesarea was also home to Jews under Roman rule and the remains of a 5th-century synagogue were found near the harbor. During the Byzantine period, a church was built on the remains of the Roman temple.
640 AD – 1101 AD - Muslim Rule. In 640AD the city fell to the Muslims and Caesarea was left neglected. 1101 AD – 1265 AD Crusaders. 1101 AD when the Crusaders, led by Baldwin I captured the city the city’s walls were fortified and a fortress constructed. For a year (1251-52) Louis IX spent time in the city helping (with his bare hands) to reconstruct the city walls and moat.
1265 AD - Mamluks. Fearing the return of the Crusaders the Mamluks practiced a “scorched earth” strategy burning and destroying the coastal cities and ports. In 1265 the Mamluks Sultan Baybars captured and destroyed the city leaving it in disrepair for 619 years until in 1884 it was once again re-inhabited.
1884 to present and the State of Israel - This time by a group of refugee Muslims from Bosnia, who formed a small fishing village here. In 1948 the city was once again abandoned. After the establishment of the new State of Israel in 1949, the surrounding areas were gradually settled, and eventually, excavation of Caesarea was begun.
In 1884 a small group of immigrants from Bosnia settled in Caesarea and established a fishing village and in 1940 the Jewish Kibbutz Sdot Yam was founded alongside the village. In 1952 the present Jewish community established the town we know today as the city of Caesarea. The city is known for the world-class golf course; the Roman theater which hosts top performers, the annual Caesarea Jazz Festival, a beautiful beach, and the Caesarea National Park that protects the archaeological sites.
Columns in Caesarea. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin
Caesarea National Park
A walk through the archeological park will take you into the remains of Roman baths; a temple facing the harbor, warehouses, and public buildings. In the southern part of the city, Herod’s luxurious palace was constructed on a 110 X 60-meter plot. The Roman theater is now a functioning performance venue. Here a plaque was found with an inscription referring to Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. This was the first recorded mention of Pilate’s name dated within Jesus's lifetime.
Roman Theatre - This classic Roman theater is perfectly preserved. It has the typical semi-circular shape with seating on staggered stone steps facing the stage and the sea beyond. In Roman times the theatre would have been important in entertaining the many foreigners and sailors who came into port. The theatre was originally built under Emperor Vespasian and later expanded by King Herod.
Herod’s Reef Palace - Several pillars remain from the inner courtyard of King Herod’s Reef Palace. The opulent palace would have had two stories and was partly built on the marine reef jutting out onto the sea. Today parts of the palace can still be seen and parts are submerged beneath the sea. Experts differ in opinion as to whether this was Herod’s palace or a later construction. We can also see the remains of a swimming pool alongside a floor mosaic and ritual bath.
Hippodrome - Among the archaeological remains there is a large hippodrome with reconstructed frescoes. Here the Romans would hold horse and chariot races. Another surviving piece of the ancient structure is the public toilets – a row of stone seats with holes in them. The grand hippodrome could hold 20,000 spectators and horse and chariot races were held here every 5 years under Roman rule.
Roman theatre in Caesarea. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin
Throughout the park, there are large Roman columns, capitals, sculptures, gravestones, and carved architectural features attesting to the importance and opulence of this former Roman city. Also at the site, we can see where the bathhouse, temples, storerooms, and homes once stood. Structures remaining from the Byzantine era include a villa with floor mosaics and the ruins of a Byzantine church. Remains dating back to the Crusader era include the reconstructed Crusader Gate; a large moat that encircled the Crusader fortress, a high defensive wall, and arched entranceways.
Caesarea PortUp until the construction of Herod’s port at Caesarea, only natural bays were used to land on the Mediterranean shore of the Holy Land. Herod’s port was the first quay-based port along this stretch of coast. It was one of the largest and most sophisticated ports at the time. The port consisted of submerged quays on wooden rafts; a lighthouse and a breakwater stone wall.
Vessels came and went from Caesarea port to cities across the Mediterranean. The port provided services necessary to the visiting vessels including ship repair and supplies. All this did not come without a price and the ships were taxed by the Romans making the city even richer. The downfall of Herod’s port was a lack of engineering know-how. Over the course of several years, the quays collapsed and by the Byzantine era, the port no longer functioned.
Caesarea Aqueduct. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin
Multi-Media Experiences at CaesareaIn addition to the archaeological site itself, there are three multi-media displays to help visitors understand the history of Caesarea. The Caesarea Experience is a cinematic display taking you back in time through the history of Caesarea for a look at different periods and the cultures of those times. Caesarea Stars brings to life prominent figures from Caesarea’s history so that visitors can “meet” them and hear their stories.
This attraction includes a 3D view of Caesarea showing the physical changes it has undergone over the centuries. Time Tower is a computerized animated presentation in the Crusader Tower. Scenes from Caesarea’s history are shown with a focus on how the Roman port city was constructed.
Today the port area is a lively entertainment area where the ancient structures are home to galleries, cafes, stores, and restaurants. Many activities take place in Caesarea. During Passover the hippodrome hosts “Horses in the Hippodrome” where horses and their riders perform in Roman costume. The Festival of Ancient Times is held during the Succoth holiday (usually in September). This is a theatrical festival with shows that present stories of ancient times.
Visitors can take tours of the National Park and in the summer there are even candlelight tours at night. The Roman theater hosts the biggest Israeli and international stars. Divers visiting Caesarea are treated to an underwater archaeological park. They can dive among the remains of Herod’s port in an “Underwater Museum.” Visitors enjoying the beach at Caesarea will be just meters from the ancient Roman aqueduct that runs the length of the beach.
Join Caesarea day tour to explore this fantastic site!
Modern sculpture in Caesarea. Photo credit: © Dmitry Mishin