Caesarea, The Great City Built by Herod the Great
Not everyone thought he was so great but that’s how he is known to the world – Herod the Great. He was definitely a great builder. Not only did he (re)build the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the palace/fort in Masada, but he also built a magnificent port city at Caesarea. As the name suggests Herod dedicated this port city to his Roman overlord – Augustus Caesar, who kept him on the throne of Judea.
Long before Herod established the city, Caesarea was a small docking station built by the Phoenicians around the 4th Century BCE. The Phoenicians called the place Strato’s Tower which was used as a supply station between the ports of Lebanon and Jaffa.
In the year 96 BCE Jewish King Alexander Jannaeus of the Hasmonean dynasty conquered area and so Jewish families settled here. The Phoenicians were given the choice to either leave or convert to Judaism, with most leaving. At this point, only Jews lived here. The Romans marched into the area in 63 BCE, kicked out the last Hasmonean king replacing him Herod. Once the Romans were here the city was populated by both Jews, Samaritans and Pagans and later also by Christians.
The port which Herod built was an engineering wonder. Inaugurated in the year 10 BCE it was the largest in the eastern Mediterranean. The harbor was accessible to Roman merchant ships, Rome being only a 10-day voyage away.
Herod built a magnificent palace here and a pagan temple along with a residential area and aqueduct. Later the Romans built a theater, hippodrome, bath houses and impressive residential buildings. They also expanded the aqueduct which is a major tourist site today. The Byzantines, successors to the Romans, expanded the city and built churches. Caesarea was the last Judean city to fall to the Moslem conquerors in the 7th Century BCE but the Crusaders took it over in the 12th Century and built huge walls to surround part of the city. These impressive walls still exist today. Once the Crusaders left the city was for the most part abandoned and became just a small village.
Many important events in both Judaism and Christianity occurred in Caesarea. In the year 66 CE the Jews rioted against the pagans in Caesarea over property rights which is considered the start of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome which led to the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expulsion of many Jews from Judea. It is estimated that 20,000 Jews were killed in the Caesarea riots! A few years later, as a birthday present to general Titus, who put down the revolt, 2,000 Jews were slaughtered for his enjoyment in the hippodrome.
The first gentile convert to Christianity, the Roman soldier Cornelius, was converted by Peter in Caesarea. Paul was imprisoned here for two years before his voyage to his trial in Rome. Also, King Agrippa I (Herod’s grandson) was struck down in Caesarea, due his idolatrous ways according to Christian tradition.
There is a lot left to see of this great city including the remains of the theater, hippodrome, palace, residential areas and a very large Roman villa and bathhouse with beautiful mosaics. Statues, columns and other architectural artifacts, some found under the sea, are on display throughout the national park. Within the Crusader walls the remnants of the port can be seen, as well as remains of a mosque and Byzantine and Crusader church. A short drive from both Tel Aviv and Haifa, it’s well worth a visit.