The city of Caesarea was located on the Mediterranean coast. Herod the Great began construction of Caesarea in 23 BC, developing the port city and harbour to improve trade. After twelve years, work was complete.
To show his thanks to Roman patron, Caesar Augustus, Herod continued his building campaign in 10 BC. His investment paid off – by ca. 6 CE, Caesarea was the capital city of Judaea. It would remain the capital for the next 500 years. Caesarea also served as headquarters for the Roman legions posted to the area. By 26 CE, the city also served as the official residence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.
The city played a major role in early Christianity. Pilate left Caesarea to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. Peter, the apostle, baptized the centurion Cornelius here. The apostle Paul visited the city many times, and was arrested and imprisoned here before pleading his case to Nero in Rome.
The relations between Jewish and non-Jewish residents were often strained. Vespasian, the famous Roman general, crushed the First Jewish Revolt from his HQ in Caesarea. His son, Titus, commemorated his brother’s birthday by sacrificing 2500 Jews to fight wild animals in the amphitheatre. After the Second Jewish revolt, the deaths continued with the execution of Rabbi Akiva, a great religious leader, and all his disciples.
By the third century, Caesarea was a center of Christian scholarship, with enough Christians to warrant their own bishop. A mighty library was built by Pamphilius, and his pupil Eusebius recorded the history and geography of the church. Many of these documents still exist, and have helped us to find the ancient locations of various places.
When the Arabs conquered the city ca. 640, the harbour fell into disrepair. While silt was making passage difficult, the surrounding areas remained fertile and prosperous.
Over the next several centuries, control of the city passed between Christian and Muslim forces. The harbour was never fully restored, and traffic flowed into other ports like Joppa and Acco.
In the late thirteenth century, the French King Louis IX built an impressive fortress. It was meant to protect the Crusaders, but could not withstand the assault of the Mameluke Sultan Baybars. The remaining Crusaders fled to Acco by sea, and Baybars destroyed the city in 1265.
For over 1000 years, the aqueducts built by Herod had provided water to the city. After Caesarea was destroyed, these aqueducts became broken and clogged. The springs that supplied the aqueducts couldn’t flow, and swampland was formed north of the city. Meanwhile, areas that had formerly enjoyed a flow of clean water were now cut off, turned into a barren desert covered by sand dunes.
Scholars have recently begun to study this fascinating and important site. While the city seems to have been lost in the sands of time, the writings of authors like Eusebius are helping to patch together the long and interesting history of this ancient city.