The site of ancient Caesarea (preserved in its Arabic form as Qaisariyeh) is located about 30 miles north of Joppa (Jaffa) and about 70 miles northwest of Jerusalem. The city was founded by Herod the Great (37-4 BCE) on the site of the ancient anchorage known at Strato's Tower (from Abdashtart, the name of a Sidonian king).
The Persians had granted the section of coast from Dor to Joppa to the Sidonians in the 5th century BCE in gratitude for the help rendered by the Sidonian fleet in the Persian invasion of Greece. The Sidonians used the anchorage as a way station for their merchant ships trading with Egypt. Slowly, a town developed around the anchorage which, although it came under Jewish control as a result of the conquests of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus, became a non-Jewish city when the Roman general Pompey conquered it in 63 BCE.
The Roman emperor Augustus gave the site to Herod in 30 BCE In twelve years, 22 to 10 BCE, Herod constructed an entirely new city on the site which he named Caesarea in honor of Augustus. It was known more formally as Caesarea Maritima and Caesarea Palestine to distinguish it from other cities built in honor of Augustus which bore similar names.
The city featured magnificent palaces and public buildings, a large marble temple to Augustus, an amphitheater, hippodrome (seating 20,000 spectators), and a theater which was built facing the sea on the southern side of the city. King Herod also built an artificial harbor with breakwaters 200 feet wide. The southern breakwater extended out from the shore and continued northward in a graceful arc for 600 yards. The northern breakwater extended outward, perpendicular to the shore, for a distance of 250 yards to complete an enclosed harbor of 40 acres. This gave Caesarea the best harbor, after Alexandria, in the entire eastern Mediterranean. As a result of this superb harbor facility, and its location on the main caravan route from Tyre to Egypt, Caesarea attracted numerous settlers -- both Jews and Hellenized Gentiles from the Coastal Plain. The city's culture was, as a result, a mixture in which one segment of the population zealously clung to the worship of the one God while abhorring the presence of the numerous pagan idols required by the religious practices of the other segment.
Despite its many advantages, Caesarea lacked one essential element needed by all major settlements in the Levant. There were neither springs nor rivers situated close to the city's location. Passive collection of rainwater would not only have been insufficient for the personal needs of the population of a city the size of Caesarea, but would have failed to ensure the survival of the extensive fields of grain and date groves for which the city also became famous. Therefore, two aqueducts were built to bring water from springs located on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel.
When the Romans assumed direct control over Judaea in CE 6, Caesarea became not only the capital of the province (a role it played for the next 500 years), but the headquarters for the Roman legions stationed in Judaea. Although it is assumed that Caesarea also served as the official residence of the Roman governor, documentary evidence is lacking prior to the administration of Pontius Pilate (CE 26-36). It was from Caesarea that Pontius Pilate set out for Jerusalem for the Passover festival at which he sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
Caesarea was also prominent in early church history. The first Gentile (the centurion Cornelius) was baptized here by the apostle Peter (Acts 10). The apostle Paul not only passed through Caesarea on several of his journeys (Acts 9:30; 18:22; 21:8-16), but was also imprisoned here by the governors Festus and Felix before going to Rome to appeal his case before Nero (Acts 23:22-26:32).
Relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Caesarea were always acrimonious. The desecration of the synagogue and the massacre of 20,000 Jews was the primary cause of the First Jewish Revolt (CE 66-70) which ended with the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The Roman general Vespasian, who was sent to crush the Revolt, made Caesarea his headquarters until his legions declared him emperor there in CE 69. His son, Titus, who led the final assault on Jerusalem, condemned 2,500 Jews to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheater in Caesarea in celebration of his brother Domitian's birthday. Caesarea also witnessed the execution of many of the Jewish captives of the Second Jewish Revolt (CE 132-135) including Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest religious leaders of Jewish history, who was executed along with all of his disciples.
During the second century, Caesarea had enough Christian inhabitants for the city to be the seat of a bishop. In the third century, a major center of Christian scholarship was founded in Caesarea by Origen. Later in the century, Pamphilius created a library at Caesarea which was second in size only to the renowned Library of Alexandria. Eusebius (CE 260-340), who was one of his pupils, became both the first church historian and the first biblical geographer. Indeed, without the survival of his masterpiece (the Onomasticon), we would be unable to identify many biblical sites. The city continued to remain prosperous, expending to its greatest extent in the Byzantine period, until the Arab conquest of the Levant (see Historical Periods in the Levant).
With the arrival of the Arabs (ca. 640), the harbor fell into disrepair and began to silt up. Yet, the fertility of the surrounding areas maintained Caesarea as one of the most prosperous cities of the region.
The coming of the Crusaders restored a Christian presence to Caesarea, but the harbor was not restored as they relied on the smaller ports at Acco and Joppa. Control of the city was alternately in Crusader and Moslem hands throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. It was in the latter century that the impressive Crusader fortress we see today was built by the French king, Louis IX. Despite its fearsome appearance, it offered little effective resistance to the assault of the Mameluke sultan Baybars of Egypt. Following the withdrawal of the remaining Crusaders by sea to Acco, he completely destroyed the city in 1265.
For hundreds of years after the final destruction of the city, ships and boats were employed by residents of other coastal towns to remove many of the beautiful worked stones from the ruined structures. The aqueducts which had supplied the city with water for more than 1000 years were allowed to become obstructed and fall into disrepair. The springs, no longer able to flow through them turned the region north of Caesarea into a swamp; the area surrounding the city, bereft of its life giving water, became barren, gradually becoming covered by sand dunes. The site remained abandoned until the Ottoman Turks resettled Moslem refugees from Bosnia there in 1878. The only surviving remnant of their village is the mosque which can be seen near the sea.
The archaeological recovery of this important site only began recently. An Italian team excavated the theater from 1959 to 1961. They recovered an inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate (the only such inscription ever found!) on a badly eroded stone in secondary use in the theater. A copy can be seen displayed near the theater. The original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
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