Caesarea is possibly the most fascinating archaeological site in Israel. Set along the sandy coastline at 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.
Furthermore, 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, and 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, but 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, and in a sense, Caesarea is where Christianity started spreading to the west, to the Roman Empire. The book of Acts records two major events to happen 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, and Peter and his entourage are puzzled if to accept him to their group of faith. Never before did a non-Jew join them. Never before was an uncircumcised man a member of them, needless to say a Roman soldier.
The issue is settled by a miraculous appearance of the Holy Spirit, who enabled all to understand Peters’ preach (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, 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 have been uncovered.
After the expulsion of the Crusaders, the city stopped operating. Sand covered its remains for centuries, 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 . The Rothschild Foundation maintains the site to this day.
Caesarea is a popular national park, among tourists and locals alike. It has two entries, and takes a minimum of 2 hours to properly explore. Furthermore, The heat at the site can be quite intense in the summer months. Try to avoid touring Caesarea mid-day between June and September.
Herod’s Theatre and Palace
The southern entrance of Caesarea National Park leads into a restored theatre from Roman times. It has 9,000 seats and is also used today for summer concerts. Behind it, lies the remains of Herod’s palace. Originally, it had a lavish and daring design, built on a protruding cliff over the sea. Mosaic floors, a pool and a heating system, under one of the halls, attest to its grandeur about 2,000 years ago. It is possible that Paul appeared here, twice, to be questioned by the governor. Furthermore, two inscriptions found near the western entrance of the palace hint to the possible location of a prison. Perhaps Paul was kept in this prison, and maybe some of his epistles were written here too.
A Hippo-Stadium and a Bath House
At the corner of the palace is the turning point of Hippodrome – a Roman racetrack for horses. Some of its walls were found with plaster painted on them (fresco). Surprisingly, the excavations indicated the hippodrome had other public functions as well. As a result, it was labeled as a one-of-a-kind hippo-stadium. After it went out of use, its southern end became a public latrine, and over its eastern sitting (Cavea) a bath house complex was installed. It had several sauna rooms (caldarium), a gymnasium, and a laundry service. A big regional tax office was built next to it.
A modern bridge over the medieval moat leads into the commercial heart of Caesarea – the port. Here, some 2,000 years ago, Herod defied nature and pushed Roman technology to its limits. With cement blocks sunk into predestined spots, he formed a port that could accomodate 100 Roman cargo boats. 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 to a cathedral. Recently a new visitor center was opened beneath it. Over the years, most of the breakwaters have sunk under sea level, yet the visible remains are still quite impressive. Art galleries cafes and restaurants set among them create a perfect spot for a break.
700 meters north of the park, lie impressive remains of Caesarea’s aqueduct. In Roman and Byzantine times, this aqueduct delivered precious fresh water into Caesarea from the springs in the Carmel. The re-exposed section of the aqueduct is a perfect spot for one last photo before leaving the site.
Make Your Caesarea Tour Extreme!
If a conventional walk through the antiquities does not excite you enough, how about flying above them in a powered parachute? This special aircraft can take off from the parking lot and fly low and slow above the antiquities and along the coastline. This experience guarantees an adrenalin rush and stunning views of one of the most beautiful views in Israel!
Another “extreme” option is a 2 hours Segway tour in the sand dunes and around the harbor.
Maybe you’re interested in exploring under water? Caesarea diving club offers snorkeling and scuba diving in the sunken harbor. This is a fantastic way to explore its foundation from ancient times.
Contact Us to Inquire About a Tour of Caesarea
The Hidden Gems of Caesarea
If you have been to Caesarea before, or wish to explore Caesarea’s less known attractions, book our tour devoted to the hidden gems of Caesarea.
In this tour, you will reach mosaic floors and massive marble sculptures most visitors to Caearea fail to see, combined with some of the cultural treasures spread around the National Park.