When many people hear the name “Caesarea”, their minds are immediately drawn to a Roman location. The name is indeed Roman; Herod the Great dedicated the city to Caesar Augustus some 2000 years ago. However, it is an Israeli city.
Caesarea Origins: Straton’s Tower
A man by the name of Straton is believed to have been the ruler of Sidon (now part of Israel) as far back as the 4th century BC, and what is now known as Caesarea was Straton’s Tower until about 90 BCE, when it was captured by Alexander Jannaeus. Jannaeus was interested in shipbuilding and enlarging the Hasmonean kingdom, and as such, Straton’s Tower remained a Jewish settlement a number of years until the Romans came along in 63 BCE. The Romans declared it an autonomous city, and it underwent a number of significant changes during its pagan transition. Herod the Great renamed the city Caesarea after the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.
The Development of the Port City
Following the dedication of Caesarea, Herod began to truly shape the future of the city. He began to construct a massive harbor, and like many Roman cities at the time, he incorporated bathhouses, markets, storerooms, public buildings, roads, and even temples dedicated to Rome and to Caesar Augustus. At one point, the city held gladiator games and other sporting events in a theatre on the Mediterranean Sea. Caesarea was considered a cultural hub in those days. This changed in the Byzantine period when the city was used mostly for commercial trade.
A Christian Holy Place
Although Caesarea has a very long and extensive history, it is most well-known to Christians for being the place where Pontius Pilate ruled during the time of Jesus. It is the very site where a Roman by the name of Cornelius was persuaded by Simon Peter to believe in the miracles of Jesus. Paul was imprisoned for three years within the city, and it became a very important hub for Christian learning in the 3rd and 4th centuries, later becoming a huge center for the Christian Roman Empire.
The Fall of Caesarea
Of course, all good things come to an end, Caesarea became the very last city in Palestine to fall to Muslim invaders. Later, when the Muslims left Arabia and moved across the Middle East, the land of Israel was generally considered abandoned and neglected. The Crusaders captured it in 1099 but lost it to Saladin in 1187, and the Jewish community there dwindled into near nonexistence. Later, Louis IX reconstructed the city between 1251 and 1252, but it fell to Baybars, a sultan of Egypt, who destroyed it. Caesarea lay in ruins unit 1884, but it was resettled in 1884 by a group of Muslim refugees out of Bosnia, who established a fishing village there. In 1948, during the War for Independence, it was abandoned once again.
Like many cities in Israel, Caesarea has a rich past and interesting history. The Amphitheatre, built back in Roman times, hosts shows and events to this day. There are many relics around the city that remain, though many have been reclaimed and are now farms, homes, or places of worship.