Caesarea’s Ancient Underwater Harbor

By Petal Mashraki | Published on 11/20/2018
2 min
The archaeological treasures of Caesarea have long been a popular tourist attraction. There is the ancient Roman amphitheatre and the remains of Herod’s city as well as structures from several other eras. However since 1976 sea excavations have been ongoing to uncover the ancient harbors of successive eras. The earliest was the Hellenistic town of Straton’s Tower followed by King Herod’s Sebastos port built for the city of Maritima and then the Roman, Byzantine, early Arab and Crusader harbors. Arial views of Caesarea clearly show the remains of man-made harbors beneath the translucent water. In discovering the sunken harbor the main sources of information were the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Roman architect Vitruvius.

Herod created the port as a stop on the trade route bringing precious goods to Rome. The port took about 12 years to construct (22-10BC) and was the largest and most modern artificial harbor in the Roman Empire. Maritima soon became the economic, commercial and political center of the country. Herod’s harbor offered an enclosed area of 20 hectares where boats could anchor. This area comprised three basins. The inner basin was dug inland and today the basin is silted up and mostly covered with grass. The only reminder of where the inner basin was is a circular tower which was probably from the earlier Hellenistic fortifications. The intermediate basin was built on top of the kurkar ridge, it was a natural bay and Herod’s engineers added piers which provided more docking area.

To build the open sea basin materials were imported and two large breakwaters were constructed. This was innovative at the time and the breakwaters were the first of their kind. One breakwater formed a large arc about 500 meters long and 60cm wide at its base. At regular intervals a quay on the inner rim offered space for docking ships. There was probably a promenade and warehouses along the length of this sea wall. The largest tower, Drusion, stood where the Citadel stands today and may have been used as a lighthouse. A straight, shorter breakwater formed the enclosing northern side of the harbor. Between the two breakwaters there was an opening for ships to enter and twin towers marked the entrance on either side. A platform would have once connected the two towers and been designed to carry sculptures.

So what caused the demise of this modern wonder of the 1st century? Soon after its completion the harbor foundations began to sink. It is thought that a geological fault line may have had something to do with it, or an earthquake, tsunami, the weight of the structures or the instability of the sand seabed. Many ships were wrecked due to the sunken breakwaters and several sunken anchors are testament to the development of anchors over the years. The sunken harbor provides a phenomenal diving area where four tracks have been created marking a route connecting 28 points of interest beneath the water.