Caesarea history dates back a long time. Even before the Romans. Actually, before Caesarea itself even existed.
You see, the site where Caesarea was built was known by another name, Strato’s Tower (or Straton’s Tower). Strato’s Tower was a thriving little Phoenician and Greek trade post established during the Persian rule (586-332 BCE).
Strato’s Tower is mentioned by the famous Jewish philosopher, Josephus Flavius, in The Wars of the Jews:
“He (King Herod) chose Straton’s Tower, an ancient lost city on the sea shore, because of its beauty and because it was worthy of honor…”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with King Herod.
Strato’s Tower was conquered in 90 BCE by Alexander Jannaeus and the Hasmonean kingdom (the Jewish dynasty that successfully revolted against Greek-Persian rule and who serve as the heroes of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah).
But the Romans defeated the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom and took the area.
It was around about this time (37 BCE) that a guy called Herod entered the scene. Herod was to become the chief architect of Caesarea, and so it's fitting that we look at how he came to power.
Herod came from a politically-connected family. His father, Antipater, a wealthy and influencial Idumaean (an Arab from what would now be the southern area of Israel today), had already forged ties with Rome and allied with leaders like Pompey, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. With Roman support, Antipater ruled as chief minister of Judea.
In 47 BCE Antipater appointed his son Herod as governor of the Galilee. After Antipater was killed (43 BCE), Herod was appointed tetrach (subordinate prince) of the Galilee (41 BCE).
When civil war broke out in Judea, Herod fleed to Rome. Mark Antony nominated him as king of Judea and gave him an army. Herod returned to Judea, conquered it and began to rule (from 37 BCE).
Back in Rome, Mark Antony and Octavian were heirs competing for Caesar's throne. Originally, Herod supported Antony, but when Antony was defeated in 31 BCE, he had a problem. Herod went directly to Octavian, the new Caesar, in Rome (a bold move) and pledged his allegiance. Octavian confirmed Herod as king.
Now back to Caesarea... In 30 BCE the village of Strato's Tower was awarded to King Herod by his patron Octavian, now known as Caesar Augustus. In turn, Herod named the new city after his Caesar – thus Caesarea.
In total, King Herod reigned between 37-4 BCE. It was during this time that the city of Caesarea was born.
Herod the Great, as he was known, commissioned and built the “Sebastos” harbor (“Sebastos” is the Greek name of the emperor Augustus) with its artificial breakwaters, which was a marvel of engineering at the time.
This harbor was actually the first large-scale artifical harbor and the 3rd largest harbor in the entire world in those days. It served as a stopover and supply port between Egypt and Rome.
In the (amazing) picture above you can get an idea of how big the harbor was. The dark areas in the ocean are the reefs that have formed after the original harbor sunk to the ocean floor.
Herod also constructed a temple, theatre, amphitheatre, markets, warehouses, fountains and bathhouses (using water from miles away), residential quarters, a road network, a modern drainage system and of course a palace for himself.
The construction took 12 years in total and by the end of this period Caesarea had become a commercial center where Jews, Samaritans (people of Samaria) and Romans all enjoyed the pleasures of the Roman world. The city was impressive, comparable to Herod’s construction work in Masada and Jerusalem, and in 6 CE Caesarea became the Roman government headquarters in Palestine.
Josephus described it as follows (Jewish War):
“And he chose on the coast one forsaken town by the name of Straton’s Tower… which thanks to its favorable location was suitable for carrying out his ambitious plans. He rebuilt it entirely of white stone and adorned it with a royal palace of unique splendor, displaying… the brilliance of his mind.”
It was also here (at Caesarea’s amphitheatre and hippodrome) that Herod started the Roman sporting version of the Olympic Games with the Caesarean games every four years. He brought great athletes from around the world and even invented the bronze and silver medals we have today (previously these types of games were only “winner-take-all” gold-medal-only competitions).
As you can see, it wasn't for nothing that Herod was called “The Great.”
Caesarea had its place in early Christian history too. The Roman officer Cornelius was baptized here (Acts 10) and Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years before being sent to Rome for trial (Acts 23).
After the great Jewish revolt in 66 CE (which probably started in Caesarea too), the city served as a base for Roman legions. Caesarea was probably the site of torture and executions of Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Akiva.
After the fall and destruction of the Jewish 2nd temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), Caesarea became the most important city in the country and was the Roman provincial capital of Judea for the next few centuries.
By this time the city had become home to Jews, Christians, Samaritans and Pagans.
Caesarea was an important center of Christian scholarship and a gateway to the Holy Land for pilgrims. Notable church leaders like Auregines (or Origen) and Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea) taught and wrote in the city, while famous Jewish sages like Rabbi Abbahu did likewise.
The Romans were overrun by the Byzantine empire (around 324 CE). The city flourished during the Byzantine period (324-638 CE), growing even larger than during Herod’s time.
When emperor Anastasius was in power (491-518), there were many public buildings, shops as well as a hippodrome (a stadium for horse and chariot races in ancient Greece and Rome). Caesarea’s perimeter wall was also constructed around this time, making it the largest fortified city in the country.
The Arabs conquered Caesarea in the 7th century. Many people left the city and Caesarea shrunk to a small, forsaken village. The city was re-invigorated by sea trade in the 9th century, and the city was re-fortified.
The Crusaders took the city from the Arabs in 1101 and the Knights of the Garnier ruled. Once again, Caesarea was a Christian city. Saladin conquered the city in 1187 and destroyed its walls. Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, retook the city a few years later.
The French King Louis IX with his Sixth Crusade re-fortified the city in 1251, and those Crusader fortifications are the castle walls you can still see today at Caesarea.
But the city was soon invaded by another group – the Mamluke sultan Baybars (1265). These guys, apparently fearing that the Crusaders would return, decided to destroy the city and its fortifications. Caesarea was abandoned, and it remained that way for many centuries.
The 19th century saw the settling of Bosnian Moslem refugees at the small village by the ruling Ottoman empire (they ruled between 1561-1917). A Bosnian mosque is still visible at the site today. The Crusader fortress was renovated and new houses were built on the ruins.
The first archaeological survey was completed by the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1873. Further exploration followed Israel’s independence in 1948, especially during the years 1959-1964.
Caesarea history would not be complete without mentioning the development of the modern city of Caesarea (Kaysaria in Hebrew), which came about largely due to the patronage of Baron Edmund De Rothschild.
Further excavations in old Caesarea have continued up until this day and are still ongoing.
Today the Crusader city, the Roman and Byzantine ruins and theaters have all been excavated and restored and made available to the public as the Caesarea National Park, where people of all ages can walk through and experience Caesarea history.
If you love ancient artifacts and want to own your own genuine piece of history, then I’d also highly recommend Nissim Abbou’s “Antik” gallery, located within the Caesarea National Park.
Nissim is a registered antiquities dealer and has been trading in Israel artifacts for many years. His Antik gallery is full of ancient pottery, coins and jewelry from Roman, Greek and other periods - all one-of-a-kind artifacts. Nissim also has a great collection of antique Judaica.
The gallery is located right next to the central lawn. You can contact Nissim and the Antik gallery at +972-4-636-2950.
Thanks for checking out our Caesarea History page!
Written by Michael Celender
Have a question about this Israel topic? Or a suggestion or tip? Maybe even a personal story to share?
Great! Just fill out the fields below and send us your submission...