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 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.
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.
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.
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 is a national park and open every day of the week from 9:00 to 17:00. 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.
Danny “the Digger” Herman Presenting Caesarea on “The Watchman” Show, 2020
Hidden Gems Around Caesarea
Around the national park are quite a few more points of interest, often missed by visitors –
Caesarea’s Ancient Synagogue – Discovered in the 1960s at the beachfront, Caesarea’s ancient synagogue operated for a few centuries. Five successive layers of use were detected in the building. The most impressive was a layer bearing a mosaic floor with a dedication to a benefactor ‘Barillos’. Its earliest level dates back to the first century CE. Being so, this synagogue might relate to the conflict between the Jews and the Pagans of Caesarea in 66CE, an event that led to the Big Jewish Rebellion (66CE-70CE).
Rabbi Abbahu Tomb Mark – Not far from the synagogue, and facing Caesarea’s medieval walls, a recent Jewish tradition marks a Bosnian Muslim tomb as the Tomb Mark of Rabbi Abbahu.
Rabbi Abbahu was a significant ‘Amora’ who lived in Caesarea in the second century CE.
Caesarea’s Aqueduct – Half a mile north of the national park, impressive remains of Caesarea’s aqueduct along the coastline were exposed in the 1960s. In Roman and Byzantine times this aqueduct delivered fresh water from springs in the Carmel, about 17 miles north of Caesarea, straight into the city.
Caesarea’s Birds Mosaic Mansion – Discovered by chance in 1950, the mansion was a 5th century Villa Sub Urbana, whose main hall was decorated with a colorful mosaic floor, depicting mostly birds. When re-exposed in 2005 a rare and stunningly beautiful glass-gold panel was found in one of its rooms next to the main courtyard. After restoration and loan to the MOMA in NY, the panel is now on display at the glass pavilion in the Eretz-Israel Museum in Tel-Aviv.
Caesarea’s Byzantine Street – A section of the Byzantine Caesarea is almost hidden outside the national park, behind its parking lot. Two colossal size sculptures decorate a wide avenue, which was restored in the 6th century, according to a Greek inscription found in its mosaic floor. Although the heads of the sculptures are missing, it is quite likely that the white marble sculpture is of Zeus, and the Red Porphyry is of Emperor Hadrian.
Caesarea’s Eastern Hippodrome – East of the Byzantine street, among banana groves, Caesarea’s Eastern horse racetrack (hippodrome) was once a very popular show. Today, only the general layout of the racetrack is visible, although a stone obelisk that once decorated the hippodrome’s spina has been re-erected.
Caesarea’s Ralli Museum – An art and archaeology museum in the modern town of Caesarea. Its special Latin-American design exhibits a unique combination of Latin American and Jewish themed artwork, as well as some archaeological artifacts found in Caesarea.
Sdot-Yam Archaeological Museum – A hidden gem in a kibbutz, adjacent to Caesarea’s national park, presents various chance finds made in Caesarea before its official excavations began. The diverse exhibits, that include some big sized mosaic floors and marble sculpture, encapsulates Caesarea’s glorified past in a truly a remarkable way.
Hanna Szenes House – Hannah Szenes immigrated to Israel from Hungary in the 1930s and settled in Kibbutz Sdot-Yam, right next to Caesarea. During the Second World War, she volunteered to be parachuted into Hungary, to fight the Nazis and hopefully rescue her mother. Unfortunately, she was captured, tortured, and executed. Hanna was also a gifted poet, and some of her poems are familiar to every Israeli to this day.
Extra Adventurous Activities in Caesarea
Snorkeling – The submerged port of Caesarea can still be appreciated by snorkeling or scuba diving along the sunken harbor. Caesarea’s underwater archaeological park, the first of its kind in the world, is about 40 acres in size. It contains 25 points of interest, that includes ruins of the port, ancient anchors, and a sunken ship from the early 20th century.
Segway – A 2-hour extreme tour experience of driving in special Segways apt for sand dunes. The tour mostly explores mostly the perimeter of the Caesarea’s national park, including the Birds Mosaic Mansion, the farmer blessings mosaic, the aqueduct, The Byzantine Street, the Eastern Hippodrome, ending at Caesarea’s golf course.
Powered parachute flights – The ultimate extreme tour experience for Caesarea! The special aircraft takes off from the sites’ parking lot and flies low and slow above Caesarea’s antiquities and along the coastline. This experience guarantees an adrenalin rush and stunning views of one of the most beautiful views in Israel!