Caesarea is possibly the most fascinating archaeological site in Israel. Set along the sandy coastline of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Caesarea “Maritima” (Latin for “Caesarea on the sea”) was a major city port from Roman times. The ancient site combines a wealth of finds from Roman, Byzantine and Crusaders period, preserved among fine dining restaurants and art galleries at its harbor. In recent years, Caesarea underwent a major development project. A new visitor center was added next to the port, the Crusaders’ north gate complex was restored, as well as its ancient synagogue. No wonder Travel & Leisure Magazine labeled Caesarea as “the best tourist spot in the Middle East” for 2020.
History and Archaeology of Caesarea
Caesarea was founded in 25 BCE by Herod the Great, King of Judea. Herod had an ambitious plan to create the biggest man-made port ever made in the Roman Empire. By doing so, he hoped to gain monopoly on maritime trade in the east, especially from wheat exports in Egypt. Appointed by the Romans, Herod named the city Caesarea, and placed two big sculptures representing Rome and Augustus in its main temple. Unfortunately, within a century, the port went out of use. However, the city continued to thrive in Roman, Byzantine, and Crusaders times.
After the expulsion of the Crusaders, the city was abandoned for several centuries. Sand covered its remains, protecting and preserving them from reuse. In the 19th century, a small Muslim Bosnian village developed over the ruins, and finally, in the 1920’s the whole area was purchased by Edmond the Rothschild. Today, the Rothschild Foundation maintains the site to this day.
Caesarea is a national park and open every day of the week, from 8:00 to 18:00. The restaurants and cafés in the port also remain open in the evening.
A guided tour of Caesarea can be combined with a Day tour of the north. It is also possible to include some hidden gems around Caesarea, and/or special and extreme activities in and around Caesarea.
To inquire more about touring Caesarea
Caesarea’s Main Attractions
Today, Caesarea is a national park, popular among tourists and locals alike. It has two entries and takes a minimum of 2 hours to properly explore. It’s important to highlight that the heat at the site can be quite intense in the summer months. Try to avoid touring Caesarea mid-day between June and September. Below are its main highlights:
Caesarea’s Theatre – Caesarea’s southern entry leads to a restored theatre from Roman times. Originally designed to accommodate 9,000 spectators, the theatre was partially restored and used also today for popular summer concerts. In the 1960s, an inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate was found inside the theatre.
Herod’s Palace by the Sea – Erected on a protruding cliff over the sea, Herod’s palace in Caesarea had a daring design. Mosaic floors, a pool and a heating system under its halls, attest to its grandeur 2,000 years ago. It is possible that Paul appeared here several times, questioned by the governor, Agrippa II and Berenike (Acts 23-25).
Paul’s Prison in Caesarea? – Two inscriptions found near the western entrance of Herod’s palace suggest it had a prison. Some suggest that Paul may have been imprisoned here, and perhaps wrote some of his epistles.
Caesarea’s Hippo-Stadium – Herod’s palace faces the turning point of the city’s Hippodrome – a Roman racetrack for horses. Surprisingly, the excavations indicated that hippodrome was also used as a stadium, and later as an amphitheater. As a result, it was labeled as a one-of-a-kind hippo-stadium.
Caesarea’s Public Latrine – Shortly after the hippo-stadium was no longer used, its southern entry was turned into a public latrine.
Water channel under the rows of seats cleared the waste, and sponges were used for cleaning…
Caesarea’s Bath House – After the hippo-stadium was no longer used, a Bath House was built over part of it. It had several sauna rooms (caldarium), a gymnasium, and even a laundry service. Despite its size, some suggest it was a private property belonging to a wealthy individual.
Caesarea’s Byzantine Praetorium – The regional administrative center in the Byzantine period was comprised of a Governor’s Hall, a tax archive, a public latrine, warehouses, and a private bath. Its mosaic floors included Greek inscriptions thanking lawyers and accountants, and quotes from the New Testament to encourage citizens to pay their taxes.
Herod’s Port – Here, some 2,000 years ago, Herod defied nature and made max use of Roman technology. With cement blocks sunk into predestined spots, he formed a port that could accommodate 100 Roman cargo boats. It the time, it was the biggest man-made port in the entire Roman empire at the time. Facing the harbor, Herod designed a Roman temple on an elevated hill to honor Augustus and Rome. Centuries later, the temple turned into a church, than again to a mosque, and finally into a cathedral.
Caesarea’s New Visitor Center – Opened in 2019, the new visitor center is set in one of the port’s warehouses. Various artifacts discovered in Caesarea and its vicinity are exhibited in two arched halls. The display is followed by a 15-minutes video presentation of Herod’s vision to form Caesarea and its harbor, while executing his family members.
Caesarea – Where Christianity Sailed West
Caesarea is also an important site in the history of Christianity. In a sense, Caesarea is where Christianity started spreading to the west, into the Roman Empire. The Book of Acts records two major events happening in Caesarea.
Acts 10 records Peter visiting Caesarea, and a Roman officer named Cornelius approaching him, asking to be baptized. Cornelius is the first non-Jew who wishes to join Christianity, which makes Peter and his entourage question whether if to accept him to their group of faith. Never before had a non-Jew joined them. Never before had an uncircumcised man been a member of their community, needless to say a Roman soldier. The issue is settled by a miraculous appearance of the Holy Spirit, who enabled all to understand Peters’ sermon (probably said in Aramaic). The result was that “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.“ To this Peter responds: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have…So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:45-48). Being so, Caesarea is the first place where non-Jews were baptized and joined the believers of Jesus as Christ. This event has a fundamental impact on the history of Christianity, as it enabled it to reach all humans, and not just the Jews (contra Jesus’ own statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel“, Mat. 15:24).
The second important event for the history of Christianity that took place in Caesarea was the imprisonment of Paul. It lasted for about two years in the City’s Praetorium (Acts 23:35). A third mention, in Acts 8:40, indicates that Philip, one of the disciples, settled in Caesarea. Could any of these sites be identified by archaeological means? So far, only for the prison of Paul some circumstantial evidence has been uncovered.
- See a video presentation on Caesarea and the New Testament, by ‘Danny the Digger’, here.