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Archaeology in Israel: Caesarea

Caesarea is located on the Mediterranean coast, about midway between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Archeological excavations during the 1950s and 1960s uncovered remains from many periods, in particular, a complex of fortifications of the Crusader city and the Roman theater.

During the past 20 years, major excavations conducted by numerous expeditions from Israel and abroad have exposed impressive reminders of the forgotten grandeur of both the Roman and the Crusader cities.

The Roman City

Founded by King Herod in the first century BCE on the site of a Phoenician and Greek trade post known as Straton’s Tower, Caesarea was named for Herod’s Roman patron, Augustus Caesar. This city was described in detail by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. (Antiquities XV. 331 ff; War I, 408 ff) It was a walled city, with the largest harbor on the eastern Mediterranean coast, named Sebastos, the Greek name of the emperor Augustus.

The temple of the city, dedicated to Augustus Caesar, was built on a high podium facing the harbor. A broad flight of steps led from the pier to the temple. Public buildings and elaborate entertainment facilities in the imperial tradition were erected. King Herod’s palace was in the southern part of the city.

In the year 6 CE, Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators of Provincia Judaea and headquarters of the 10th Roman Legion. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the city expanded and became one of most important in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, classified as the "Metropolis of the Province of Syria Palaestina,"

Caesarea played an important role in early Christian history. Here the baptism of the Roman officer Cornelius took place; (Acts 10:1-5, 25-28) from here Paul set sail for his journeys in the eastern Mediterranean; and here he was taken prisoner and sent to Rome for trial. (Acts 23:23-24)

The palace was built on a rock promontory jutting out into the sea, in the southern part of the Roman city. The excavations revealed a large architectural complex, measuring 110 x 60 m., with a decorative pool, surrounded by porticoes. This elegant structure in its unique location was identified as Herod’s palace. (Antiquitites, XV, 332) The palace was in use throughout the Roman period, as attested to by two columns with Greek and Latin dedicatory inscriptions naming governors of the province of Judea.

The theater is located in the very south of the city. It was commissioned by King Herod and is the earliest of the Roman entertainment facilities built in his kingdom. The theater faces the sea and has thousands of seats resting on a semi-circular structure of vaults. The semi-circular floor of the orchestra, first paved in painted plaster, was later paved with marble.

In the excavated theater a stone was found, bearing parts of an inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, and the Tiberium (the edifice in honor of the Emperor Tiberius) which he built.

The amphitheater, on the city’s southern shore, was also mentioned by Josephus Flavius. It was north-south oriented and measured 64 x 31 m. Its eastern and rounded southern side are well preserved; the western side was largely destroyed by the sea. A 1.05 m-high wall surrounded an arena, covered with crushed, beaten chalk. When first built in the Herodian period, it seated about 8,000 spectators; in the first century CE seating areas were added, increasing its capacity to 15,000. The dimensions, shape and installations indicate that this amphitheater was used for racing horses and chariots and was, in fact, a hippodrome. An inscription found here reads Morismus [the] charioteer. During the second century, the amphitheater was rebuilt and adapted for use as a more standard type of amphitheater.

The Aqueduct, which provided an abundant supply of water, was built in the Herodian period; it was later repaired and enlarged to a double channel when the city grew. The upper aqueduct begins at the springs located some nine kilometers northeast of Caesarea, at the foot of Mt. Carmel. It was constructed with considerable engineering know-how, ensuring the flow of water, by gravity, from the springs to the city. In some portions, the aqueduct was supported by rows of arches, then it crossed the kurkar ridge along the coast via a tunnel. Entering the city from the north, the water flowed through a network of pipes to collecting pools and fountains throughout the city. Many inscriptions in the aqueduct ascribe responsibility for its maintenance to the Second and Tenth Legions.

Byzantine Caesarea

During this period, Caesarea became an important Christian center. The Church Father Origen founded a Christian academy in the city, which included a library of 30,000 manuscripts. At the beginning of the 4th century, the theologian Eusebius, who served as Bishop of Caesarea, composed here his monumental Historia Ecclesiastica on the beginnings of Christianity and the Onomasticon, a comprehensive geographical-historical study of the Holy Land.

Byzantine Caesarea was surrounded by a 2.5 km. long wall, which protected the residential quarters built outside the Roman city. It had a 3 m.-wide city gate in its southern section. Side by side with the Christian population and its numerous churches, there were Jewish and Samaritan communities that built elaborate synagogues. During this period, the Roman inner harbor was blocked and buildings were constructed on what had become dry land. A row of vaults serving as shops was built against the podium wall facing the port.

The main church was the Martyrion of the Holy Procopius, built in the 6th century upon the remains of the Roman temple on the podium. The octagonal, 39 m.-wide church stood within a square precinct measuring 50 x 50 m., surrounded by rooms along its walls. The floor was paved with marble slabs in a variety of patterns. Of the rows of columns in the building, several Corinthian capitals decorated with crosses were found.

A very large and elaborate building, which included numerous courtyards and rooms spread over the area of an entire insula (block of buildings) and surrounded by the main streets of the city, was dubbed the government building. Its entrance was from the cardo (north-south main street), its western side supported by a row of vaults, which had once served as port warehouses. One such vault facing the decumanus (east-west main street) was plastered and decorated with red and black wall paintings, including depictions of Jesus and the twelve apostles.

A large hall with an apse, located in the center of the government building, served as the hall of justice. Fragments of a Greek inscription found here refer to an imperial decree dealing with fees that clerks of the court may collect for services rendered. In the northeastern part of the building was a group of rooms with mosaic floors; one with a quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (13:3) Rectangular niches in the walls of a long hall north of the hall of justice probably served as an archive.

Remains of a 5th century synagogue were found on the seashore north of the harbor. The rectangular building faces south towards Jerusalem. Architectural details were found in its ruins, including capitals with carved menorot (candelabra), a column inscribed shalom and parts of a Hebrew inscription listing the twenty-four priestly courses in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Remains of several other large buildings were exposed, among them an elaborate 4th century renovated bathhouse. It consisted of groups of courtyards and rooms with benches along the walls, most of them paved with mosaics, and in the caldarium (hot-room) area were several rooms with a heating system (hypocaust). Some particularly elegant rooms were paved in marble and had mosaic decorations on the walls; one depicts a female with the words "pretty woman" next to it.

Inside the amphitheater, which was no longer in use, a two-level palace was built with a staircase connecting the two levels. The upper level included two courtyards and rooms paved in colored tiles or mosaics and served as the residence. The lower level had a courtyard with an apse on one side, paved in colored tiles. Along this courtyard stood two rows of columns with a marble chancel screen between them and in the northern wall was a fountain with a rectangular basin below it. This lower level served as an open garden.

Arab Caesarea

In 639, Caesarea was conquered by the Arabs and its importance, as well as its population, dwindled. Urban areas were abandoned and replaced by agricultural terraces. This Arab town was surrounded in the 10th century by a 3 m.-thick wall, remains of which were found during the excavations.

Caesarea of the Crusaders

In 1101, the Frankish army under King Baldwin I conquered Caesarea. Caesarea became the seat of an archbishop and not only Franks but also eastern Christians and Muslims settled there. The Genoese found a green-colored glass vessel in the city and declared it to be the Holy Grail, the goblet used by Jesus at the Last Supper. It was taken to Genoa and placed in the Church of San Lorenzo.

Caesarea was captured by Saladin in 1187 after only a short siege. It was retaken in 1191 by Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, who exiled the Muslim inhabitants.

Because of the growing Muslim threat, Louis IX, King of France (who was later canonized), restored and fortified Caesarea in 1251-52. A magnificent 4 m.-thick wall, some 1.6 km. long, surrounded the city, which covered an area of about 40 acres. It was also protected by a glacis, towers and a 10 m.-deep and 15 m.-wide moat.

Access to the city was via gates, the main one located in the eastern wall. Approach to the main gate, of the indirect access type, was via a bridge built on arches which were supported by piers at the bottom of the moat. The square gatehouse had a cross-vaulted ceiling supported by consoles decorated with floral motifs. The doors were closed on the inside with wooden bars and were protected on the outside by an iron grill, which was lowered through a slot from the ceiling. These most impressive fortifications were described in great detail by contemporary Crusader chroniclers.

The cathedral of the Crusader city was built on the podium raised by King Herod to serve as his city’s acropolis. The 12th century cathedral, the eastern part of which was added in the middle of the 13th century, was a modest structure measuring 55 x 2 m. The hall was divided into a central nave and two aisles that ended in the east in three apses; the floor was paved in mosaics. The vaulting was supported by rectangular piers and pilasters.

The end of Crusader Caesarea came in 1265, when the Mamluk Sultan Baybars attacked the city. After a short siege, the Crusader defenders gave up hope and evacuated the city. The conquering Mamluks, fearing a return of the Crusaders, razed the city’s fortifications to the ground.

The history of the city is encapsulated in the discovery in 2018 discovery by Israeli archaeologists of an earring and 24 coins minted by the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim Fatimid Caliphate. They were apparently hidden more than 900 years ago, just before the Crusaders conquered the city in 1101 and massacred its inhabitants.

Caesarea is a most impressive archeological site, open to the public. One can visit the Roman-period theater, King Herod’s palace, the amphitheater and much more. One can also cross the moat, enter the restored Crusader city and look towards the harbor from the top of the podium.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
Ariel David, “Hanukkah gelt 900-year-old Cache of Gold Coins Found in Ancient Israeli City of Caesarea,” Haaretz, (December 3, 2018).