Caesarea, the capital of Judea for over 600 years
Caesarea made the news again, after an interesting archaeological find was reported in the press. This time it is a mother-of-pearl tablet inscribed with a "menorah", symbol of Jewish identity and revival since the times of the Maccabees and of the miracle of Hanukkah. The find is a testimonial of Jewish presence in the Roman city of the 4th century, at a time when the Empire gradually adopted Christianity.
It gives us the opportunity to review the chronicles of this very important city and large excavation site in Israel. It started as a Phoenician harbour, called Strato's Tower, during the Persian rulers who made an alliance with the able Phoenicians to help them compete against the growing Greek maritime nation. In exchange, Persia gave to both Sidon and Tyre the right to establish themselves on the coast of the Land of Israel and build for themselves harbours and a fleet. Strato's Tower was one of them.
Three centuries later, during his reign, Herod wanted to win part of the trade with the Roman Empire and thus to compete against the harbours of Alexandria in the South and of Phoenicia in the North. So he created his own harbour in this same location, that he called Sebastos which means Augustus in Greek, thus named after the emperor Augustus his protector. And the city he built there for Roman traders and travellers he called Caesarea named after the Roman Empire. The construction lasted 12 years, from 22 to 10 BCE. The main obstacle was to create an artificial alcove where to fit the inner harbour, because the coastline there has no natural protection in terms of cliffs and bays. Herod used a revolutionary technique at the time, with volcanic ash.
After Herod's death in 4 BCE, his kingdom was split between his (remaining) heirs. Judea, including Jerusalem and Caesarea, soon became a Roman province, in 6 CE, which came under the rule of a local Roman governor, and under the control of the regional Roman province of Syria. The following people were associated with Caesarea: Pontius Pilate the procurator who condemned Jesus to death, Saint Peter who converted Cornelius the Roman centurion, King Agrippa who was poisoned by the Romans, Felix the procurator who jailed Paul the Apostle in Caesarea for two years.
Then came the Great Revolt which started in 66 CE after a clash between Jews and Pagans in Caesarea and the massacre that was carried out against the Jews of the city. The revolt spread to the entire province and Vespasian was sent to Judea to stop it. He arrived with his army at the harbour of Ptolemais (present-day Acre) and swiftly re-conquered Judea. Only Jerusalem remained, with about one million refugees from the war (see Josephus' account in his famous book "The War of the Jews"). During the siege, he was informed that the Roman emperor (Nero) had died without named heir. The succession sparkled a political turmoil in the Roman empire during the so-called Year of the Four Emperors. Some say that it was in Caesarea that Vespasian was acclaimed by his troops as the next Emperor. He ultimately ended as the last contender and became the Emperor. His son Titus was left in Judea to finish the siege of Jerusalem which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the fall of Masada in 73 or 74 CE. Several Jewish prisoners were taken to Caesarea and other places for Roman games where they got killed.
The Romans made of Caesarea their administrative center in Judea, although they couldn't make much use of the harbour which, due to the marine flows, filled up with sand over time. They built aqueducts to bring drinkable water to the growing city, and also public baths, latrines, hippodrome, theatre, temples, and more. There is also one site among the ruins that proved to be used for the pagan cult of Mithra, an Eastern cult, was followed in Caesarea, and this is unique in Israel. Thus Caesarea was somehow a city where Western and Eastern cults mixed up.
Then, around 132 CE, a new revolt started in the Judean province: the Revolt of Bar-Kochba. It was mainly confined to the Jewish villages of Judea, i.e. first in the Judean Lowlands and Judean Hills, and finally in the Judean desert. But Caesarea bore witness of one dramatic event in 136 CE with the execution of Rabbi Akiva, the religious leader of this time who supported the revolt. It has been estimated by Roman historians of the time that the Roman legions burned scores of villages and killed half a million Jews, if not more. The revolt caused the Emperor Hadrian to want to erase the names of Jerusalem and Judea from the maps, and he renamed them Aelia Capitolina and Syria Paleastina respectively. From this change, the use of the name "Palestine" has started in the region, a name which was derived from the former inhabitants, the "Philistines" (a word that means "invaders"), enemies of the Israelites during the First Temple period: the Philistines people disappeared, as did 10 other Israelite Tribes, after the conquest of the region by the Assyrians who deported all local populations to the extreme parts of their empire.
Around 230 CE, one of the Early Christianity Fathers lived in Caesarea: it was the famous Origen who compiled the Hexapla, the sixfold versions of the Old Testament, in Hebrew and five Greek versions (of which the Septuagint).
Then Caesarea, like the rest of the Roman Empire, turned to Christianity. One of the most important figures was Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea. He accompanied Helena, mother of Constantine, to Jerusalem to find traces of the path of Jesus. This started the interest of the Roman Empire for what became known as "the Holy Land". Also importantly, Eusebius was entrusted by Constantine to compile fifty copies of the books that were to form the Christian Canon, excluding all other early Christian writings and gospels: so one could say that the New Testament was somehow compiled in Caesarea because of Eusebius.
In 638, the Muslims conquered the Holy Land except Jerusalem and Caesarea. The conquest was completed in 641 when the two cities fell to Muslim control. Scores of Christians left the Holy Land in these times. The ancient Roman province of Syria Paleastina became the Muslim province of Jund Filastin, thus the Arabs kept the name Paleastina/Filastin. But they moved the capital away from the Christian center: the new capital was Lydda until a new city was built, Ramle, for this purpose. Ramle is the only city that the Arabs built in the Holy Land until the 19th century. This is because the Holy Land was not of such great importance to them, as compared to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Damascus and Bagdad, before Constantinople.
Thus ended the status of Caesarea as regional capital, after holding this title for about 635 years ! The city never recovered from its abandon following the Muslim conquest and remained a vast field of Roman ruins. One exception though: during the Crusaders period, the king of France, Louis IX, remained in the Holy Land for four years around 1250. Based in Acre, which was the seat of the Crusader Kingdom after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, he fortified the harbour cities, of which Caesarea. His fortifications can be seen today in the national park.
Ultimately the Holy Land fell at the hands of the Mamelukes, starting with Caesarea in 1265 and with Acre in 1291, thus ending the presence of the Crusaders in the region. The city once again fell into ruins. When the Ottoman empire took over the region in 1517, some local leaders used Caesarea as a quarry for marble, which is non-existent in the Holy Land and was imported at the time of the Roman and Byzantine presence. Thus the visitors in Acre can find marble columns that were taken there by Djezzar at the end of the 18th century.
Visitors in Caesarea cannot miss one mosque facing the harbour, because it has a special shape not common in the region. This mosque was built by a Bosnian community who were authorized by the Sultan to establish themselves there in 1878 when they fled persecutions at the hands of Christians in these times. The Bosnian community took part of the attacks against the Jewish settlements in the conflict of 1948 and consequently fled Caesarea when the tide turned against them.
Today Caesarea is a vast archaeological park but only about 10% has been excavated. This explains why, about every year, a new major item is found during the ongoing excavations. Be assured that more is awaiting us. As a tour guide, I would say that Caesarea is a must-see place if you're staying in Tel Aviv, which takes less than one hour drive to get there. Do visit it with a tour guide otherwise you will walk along many many ruins, not knowing much of the stories behind them.
Happy visit !