Caesarea is rooted in antiquity. Built by the Judean ruler, Herod the Great, between 25 BC and 13 BC., it was named after the then Caesar of Rome, Augustus.
The country is full of history. Traces of Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Roman cultures along with Christian and contemporary eras exist in layers in Israel. Excavations done through several decades and the on-going ones stand witness to how these cultures had impacted the life of the people of this country.
The city and harbour of Caesarea Maritima was built by the Judean ruler Herod the Great between 25 BC and 13 BC. It is located on the Israeli Mediterranean coastal plain forming the historic land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa. It is situated between the major cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Many people commute from here to either of the cities for work every day.
Caesarean ruins, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, which was once an active port, is a reminder of the Judean and Roman era. King Herod named the city after Augustus, Caesar of Rome to flatter him. Nearby, Herod also built a temple for Goddess Roma and Augustus. The city became the seat of the Roman prefects and governors soon after it was built. Emperor Vespasian gave it the status of a Roman colony. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, Caesarea was the provincial capital of Iudaea Province; the name got changed to Syria Palaestina in 134 CE. Caesarea was almost like the administrative capital from 6 CE.
The temple of Roma and Augustus was rebuilt as a martyrion (martyr’s church) by the Byzantian rulers, which was later converted into a mosque by the Arabs. The church, one was told was octagonal and had richly paved floors and surrounded by radiating enclosures.
The excavations of 1950s, ‘60s have revealed several important structures. The Roman theatre is one of them and a major portion of it remains intact; the damaged parts have been rebuilt with the same kind of stones without spoiling the original design. Theatre and music programmes by Israeli as well as international artistes such as Shlomo Artzi, Yehudit Ravitz, Mashina, Deep Purple, Bjork and many others are now held there regularly, of course, with modern lighting and stage decor. The voice of the actor/singer is audible, anywhere one might be seated, without a mike even now.
Not far away from the theatre there had been a huge palace for the king, which later became the residence of the Roman prefects and governors and just next to it a hippodrome where horse races were held for the entertainment of the royalty and the rich. Not much of the palace can be seen now, though the hippodrome can easily be made out as it was rebuilt in the 2nd century as a conventional theatre.
The palace had been constructed in several stages and had undergone many alterations. At the end of the Roman era, the Upper Palace was partitioned into private dwellings; it was totally abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period. Later prayer halls and public toilets were built on their remains. During the Early Islamic period, the whole campus of the Theatre was converted into a ‘ribat’ or a fortress for the purpose of Jihad (holy war). Even now externally, the theatre appears more like a fortress.
Almost in front of these and quite close to the water of the Mediterranean can be seen the remainder of a double aqueduct which came to light during the excavations; this brought water from the springs at the foot of Mount Carmel. The harbour with a protective moat was the largest artificial one on the east coast of Mediterranean. The harbour Sebastos was built by King Herod between 22 and 15 BC with two breakwaters with lime and pozzolona, a kind of volcanic ash which would settle like concrete under water; this was dedicated to Augustus (Sebastos is Greek for Augustus).
Quite a few inscriptions are found on parts of pillars, capitals and sarcophagi, which lay scattered around the excavated remains. The Tiberieum has a dedicatory inscription mentioning the name of Pontius Pilatus, which is the only inscription anywhere with his name. He was the Roman prefect of Judea between 26 CE and 36 CE; in this capacity he was the one who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ.
This city was the capital of Byzantine Palestine before it was captured by Muslim rulers. It also played an important role in the Crusaders’ time. In the late 1800s, Circassian and Bosnian refugees came and settled here though their descendants were chased away in the mid 1900s.
Now Caesarea is known for the world’s first underwater museum, where points of interest can be explored by trails through the ancient harbour, by properly equipped divers with the help of waterproof maps. It also boasts of Israel’s only full-size golf course.