Caesarea, Archaeology in Israel

    Issue Number 25, September 1999          
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Opinion & Society


By Jacqueline Schaalje

A first time visitor to Caesarea may get a surprise that so little seems left of the city's great history. Herod's harbour, once the biggest harbour in the entire old world, is now a baby-blue lagoon where noisy children bathe in the summer. Crusader warehouses turned into restaurants on the quay feed Israel's new rich. Outside the city hippie teenagers sit on the beach next to the Roman aqueduct, blowing smoke through the arches.

Apart from Caesarea's big monuments; the aqueduct, the theatre and the imposing city walls, what strikes the eye is utter wasteland. Strangely enough, the emptiness is guarded by fences. What, the innocent day-visitor will think, I hope it's not a security check again, what possible harm can a terrorist do here? Here lie some nice marble columns but the rest looks like a bomb has hit the place already. If the visitor has heard about the concerts which are held in Caesarea in the evening then he may think that the fences have something to do with it. This is correct.

Archaeologists, too, are behind lock and key. Sometimes certain areas of the site are inaccessible, when archaeologists are performing their mysterious digging. Until now only one area has been dug up rather extensively, located on a platform commanding the harbour, where Herod's temple stood; it was dedicated to the Roman emperor August. Later the stones of the temple were used to build a church. After that, Sultan Baybars used it as an observation post after he razed the town.

Since its inauguration by Herod in the first Century BCE the sea level gradually went up, and the original harbour structures collapsed through earthquakes. Today, underwater archaeology, which is executed by divers, tries to unravel the technique with which Herod's architects used to construct the completely artificial harbour.

Long history

The location that Ceaserea was built upon was originally a deserted Phoenician port called Strabo's Tower, of which some ruins exist. After King Herod acquired it, Caesarea became the capital of Judaea. After 6 BCE, when the country had become a Roman province, Roman prefects, or procurators kept the government seat here. One of these governors, the cruel Felix, kept Paul imprisoned in Caesarea for two years, upon charges of heresy, until he was sent to trial in Rome.

Herod, builder of Caesarea

Caesarea is most commonly associated with Herod. King Herod the Great (37-4 BCE) acquired the site as a present for his loyalty to the Roman Emperor August. Herod set out to build the city of Caesarea (called after Caesar) on a central strategic location. Herod set out to construct a harbour to rival the ones of Jaffa (Yafo) and Acre (Akko), in which he succeeded. Catering for the trade from the Far East to Rome and Greece, Caesarea became the largest harbour in the Mediterranean.

Revenues of the harbour were used for Herod's extensive building projects in other cities. The king, seeking consciously to associate with Rome, set out expressly to design his own capital after Greek/Roman examples. Although he was not the first to introduce the style, his aqueduct and theatre are the first in the Near East. Caesarea included several theatres, swimming pools and baths, Herod's palace and an esplanade with huge statues at the end of the piers stretching into the sea.

Even though Herod was not an observant Jew, his sensitivity for the Jewish religion is shown in the fact that he only built pagan temples dedicated to Caesar and Roman gods outside Jerusalem; the temple in Caesarea dedicated to August is an example of this. His most famous building project is the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

A description of both Caesarea's buildings and harbour is found in Josephus's The Jewish War (Book I, 408-415). Recent digs have largely confirmed his description of a splendid city in white stone (quarried from nearby hills). Josephus's knowledge that huge stone blocks were piled into the sea to lay the harbour's foundations also proved to be correct.

Modern engineering still marvels at the technique which Herod used to build the harbour. It seems certain that Herod brought Roman architects and engineers, whose methods are described in the first book on this subject, by Vetruvius, Herod's contemporary. Still some features of the harbour are unexplained; as in classical times as now, harbours are preferably built on positions where already a natural harbour or a bay exist.

Recent excavations of the underwater area have shed more light on the kind of stones that were used. The blocks which formed the basin floor were hollow, and had containers of wood. To prevent leaking through the sea bottom a special cement was used which held the inside stone rubble together. The "secret" ingredient of the cement was pozzolana, volcanic ash from Italy.

Another investigation turns around how the ocean floor could have been built. Experts think that the blocks for the floor must have been dropped from artificial islands. For this a lull in the sea movements had to be created. Walls were constructed as breakwaters; interestingly here the same technique was used as with the walls of Herod's Second Temple in Jerusalem. Large hewn or ashlar stones were piled without the aid of cement. The "Western Walls" of underwater Caesarea do not stand anymore however, as they all tumbled down.

Some scientists believe that the breakwater walls formed an intricate system of sluicing whereby the power of the sea was weakened, but how this functioned is not known yet. What seems certain is that the earthquake of 130 BCE pushed the harbour floor up, whereby the breakwaters came to lie just under the water surface. The result of this is 17 shipwrecks lying on the ocean floor, dating until the 5th Century when the harbour finally came into disuse. The shipwrecks are as yet largely unexplored.

Caesarea stayed prosperous also after the harbour had been heavily damaged through the earthquake in 130 BCE. The harbour still stayed in use, and the town made money by trading. Jews and Christians remained in the city, of which witness the erection of the church on top of the temple area, and a synagogue in another part.

Other Herodian remains in the city include parts of his palace (a pool) on a point next to the harbour, and on the platform the temple of August of which the foundations were excavated during recent digs. In the summer of 1999, excavations of stucco were found from one of the columns of the Herodian temple. It is the first find from the original temple.

Although some later additions were made, the theatre used for the Caesarea concerts is largely Herod's. In his amphitheatre horse races were held, until the bigger hippodrome was erected in the second Century BCE. In the amphitheatre recently the longest frescoes (over 100 meters) found in Israel were uncovered. They show animals and floral motives, and are not published yet.

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Part of Mural

Near the theatre an important inscription was found, of which the replica is now hanging at the entrance to the theatre. The text names "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea", and indicates that the Roman governor really existed. Other Roman remains are in the recently discovered governmental seat of Caesarea, in the South-western area near Herod's palace.

A conflict which broke out in Caesarea in 66 BCE fuelled the first Jewish War against the Romans. The population of the city was a mix of Jewish and gentile people. In the increasing tensions between them under Roman rule, fights broke out between Jews and gentiles, after which the country slid toward full-scale war.

The city became a study centre for rabbis, set up by Rabbi Bar Kappara at the beginning of the 3rd Century, and rivalled the centre of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in Sepphoris. Abbaye became Caesarea's most famous rabbi, living one century later.

After Herod

There are also some other Roman remains. Herod erected an aqueduct to the North of the city. This was necessary, because Caesarea did not possess a spring and did not have a river near. The aqueduct which stretches along the beach is a double one. The outer waterway was built by Herod, but the second was added under the Emperor Hadrian (117-38 BCE). Also a low aqueduct was built later, this may be found a bit further to the North. Hadrian also left a statue, at least it is thought to represent him, made of dark green porphyry. This is now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Caesarea, Archaeology in Israel, Caesarea, Archaeology in Israel,Caesarea, Archaeology in Israel

Arch from Crusader period


The city was destroyed in 640 by the Arabs, after they had sneaked their way inside the walls by way of the aqueduct. By the 10th Century, Caesarea had dwindled to a village. It was conquered by the Byzantines and again in 1101 by the Crusaders. The crusader buildings are among the best preserved in the current site, besides the warehouses on the quay, there is also an archway and the porch, at the entrance to the site, which was erected by them.

On several points in the city remain finds of Byzantine times. An archive building, granaries, several warehouses and baths were discovered. Outside the city, on the North side, an ancient synagogue existed, but during our visit it was closed due to excavations. Different synagogues were built on top of each other, during the 3rd-5th Centuries BCE.

The most prominent reminder of the Crusader period is in the huge bulwarks and moat surrounding the inner city. The comparatively small size indicates that the city during the Middle Ages had dwindled since antique times. The East Gate, which one enters after passing through the ticket office, has been completely restored, and leads to a Crusader street. The big restaurant on the South side of the harbour crowns what used to be the citadel.

Caesarea next fell to Saladin in 1187. He destroyed the fortifications around the city. The heavy walls with a moat which are still standing strong were rebuilt by Louis IX of France (13th Century). The Mameluke sultan Baybars conquered the city in 1265, and destroyed it; all the inhabitants fled. A reminder of the Muslim period remains in the form of a little minaret tower next to the harbour, this is from the mosque of the Bosnian village (1878-1948).

Smaller finds from the site have been brought to various Museums, among which is the Caesarea Museum in Sdot Yam. The treasures on display include coins, pottery, sculpture etc. Other objects such as marble statues have been left in the area near the parking lot.

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