Caesarea or in Arabic Qisaria, an ancient port city

Caesarea is pronounced in Arabic as Qisaria and in its most recent history it was a village established in the 19th century by refugees from Bosnia under the Ottoman Empire who built a small fishing village near the ruins of a Crusader fortress. They were not only known for fishing but also for growing citrus, bananas and cereals. In 1945 the population of Qisaria consisted of 930 Muslims and 30 Christians. In the beginning of 1948 Zionist militias attacked the village and killed and wounded several people. The villagers were then forcibly displaced and their houses have been largely demolished. Only a few of the houses remain and the only still standing mosque is now part of the renovated harbor area with restaurants and shops. On the lands of Qisaria hotels and resorts are built and it has turned into an important tourist area.

Archaeological site and National Park Caesarea

When we went to Caesarea our aim was to see the archaeological site and the remains of 2000 years of history. This archaeological site is a National Park and falls under the National Parks Authorities. In order to visit it you have to pay an entrance fee.

We drove in about 1,5 hours from Jerusalem to Caesarea, we took road number 1 and then road 2 up along the coast line. I think we would have been quicker if we had taken road 4 or the toll road 6 but we chose the more scenic route, although most of the time you are still too far away from the coast to really see the sea.

Caesarea is situated about 54 kilometers north of Jaffa, that is about 34 miles and about 35 kilometers south of Haifa which is 22 miles. And from Jerusalem it took us a good 1,5 hours to reach it by car.

Herod the Great built Caesarea in honor of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus

Caesarea’s archaeological site is directly on the coast. It was built a bit over 2000 years ago by King Herod the Great. He named it Caesarea to honor the Roman emperor Augustus. His title of honor was Caesar. And this title, Caesar, is derived from the personal name of the Julii Caesares, a branch of the clan Julia, to which Gaius Julius Caesar belonged. And he was the forebear of the Julio Claudian dynasty that comprised the first five Roman emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

And it is interesting to realize that the German word ‘Kaiser’ and also in Dutch it is Keizer, is directly related to the title of Caesar, just as the title of ‘Tsar’ in Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian is directly derived from the Roman Emperor’s title of Caesar.

Other cities by the name of Caesarea in Palestine

And this is not the only Caesarea in Palestine. The son of King Herod the Great, Philip, also built a city in honor of the Roman emperor and he built it on the north east side of the Lake of Galilee in the Roman province of Gaulanitis, we can still recognize that name in the Golan Heights. This is today occupied by Israel from Syria. In the Roman period It was called Gaulanitis and Philip built a new city at Panium, today known as Panias or Banias, and he called it Caesarea. But to differentiate between Caesarea on the coast he named it Caesarea Philippi. Caesar after the emperor and Philippi after himself, Philip. And Caesarea on the coast was called Caesarea Maritima. Although in the Byzantine time it became known as Caesarea Palestina, as it became the capital of the province Palaestina Prima.

I recently found out that there was another city that was referred to as Diocaesarea in the same time and that was Sepphoris, the city that was built in the time that Jesus was a small boy and some scholars think that his father Joseph, who was a tekton, not just a carpenter, so he worked also in stones and construction, that he may have found work in that city as he was from a tiny village, Nazareth was very small back then. And for some time it was called Diocaesarea, Dio meaning God and Caesarea as we know was the title of the Roman emperor.

But in this podcast episode we are speaking about Caesarea Maritima, the city on the coast.

The coast of Palestine has no natural promontories

And it is important to realize that Palestine’s coast does not really have good promontories. Promontories are higher lands that stick out into the sea, headlands, that create a bay, an area with less high waves, where it is easier to dock a boat.

Apart from the area between Haifa and Akka, where the Carmel mountain juts into the sea and a little bit at Jaffa, there are not really a lot of natural promontories. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any harbor cities, don’t forget about Gaza, Asqalan and Asdud, they were all important ancient harbor cities.

But what Herod the Great did here was something extraordinary for that time.

He choose a place that was known in Greek as Stratonos Pyrgos, or Strato’s Tower, which had been functioning as a small Phoenician naval station, named after Strato, the King of Sidon in the 4th Century BC. Sidon and Tyre were important Phoenician trade cities north of Akka and they used this small station as a place where they could dock their boats. But it was only a small harbor until then.

Herod the Great built a big harbor, Sebastos, in Caesarea

Herod the Great did what he was very good at and that was building massive structures, well he didn’t build it himself obviously, but he gave the order to build it and he spent his money on building it! And he decided to built a harbor with a breakwater into the sea so that boats could dock safely in an inner harbor that was not natural but created by importing 24.000 m3 of pozzolana. This was a mixture of volcanic ash and lime stone that would set into an underwater concrete, strong enough to break the waves and provide a safe harbor for the boats.

And not only did Herod call the city Caesarea to honor emperor Augustus, he also called the harbor ‘Sebastos’ which was the Greek title for the emperor and we heard that already in the episode about Nablus, the Jacob’s well church and Sebastia.

Any ship, any boat that would sail into the harbor Sebastos would first see the Temple that Herod had built on the shore on a higher platform, the Temple that honored… well you can guess who by now… Augustus.

A Temple for emperor Augustus in Caesarea

Of this Temple and its platform we can not really see anything anymore because the Temple was torn down and the stones were used in other buildings over time and on the same location a Byzantine church was built in the 6th century. And as it often goes with sacred sites in the Holy Land it became a place of worship because a mosque was built on the same location that was later replaced by a Crusader church.

And as we will see, there are many layers of civilization in Caesarea, which is very common in Palestine. In many sites the history goes back even further than the Roman time. And it is really interesting to walk around the archaeological site now and to see the remains of these different eras.

The Roman Theater in Caesarea

What else remains from the time of Herod and the following Roman era is the big Roman Theater which is actually the first thing you see upon entry into the National Park. In the whole country there are about fifteen Roman Theaters that were uncovered. In the episode I mentioned about Sebastia we visited the Roman theater there but that was small compared to this one!

The theater in Sebastia had a view of the hills of Samaria in the background, here the viewers had the view and the sound of the sea. The theater has been renovated and changed a bit over time, but it is still in good shape and it can host up to 4000 people. In the 4th century they even used to flood the theater area so that they could perform theater plays including sea battles and water games.

Caesarea in Arab Muslim time

From the 7th century on when the area became under the Arab Muslim rulers the theater stopped being used, but actually the whole city deteriorated. This can probably be explained by the fact that the new rulers came from the desert, they were used to desert life and not to live in a low swampy area and they were not used to the sea. They did not focus their attention on the cities on the coast.

The Crusaders, however, were used to water and they rebuilt most of the sea ports.

The Pilate stone found in Caesarea

But before we continue into the Byzantine and Crusader time, there is another interesting finding that was done in Caesarea. It is a piece of stone that was found at the back side of the theater and it was there in secondary use which means that it came from somewhere else and was reused as building material. The excavators saw an inscription and although the stone was broken and the inscription not complete they could read and understand that it said To the Divine Augustis [this] Tiberieum

…Pontius Pilate
…prefect of Judea
…has dedicated [this]

So it was a dedication stone that mentioned Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea.

And for those of you who are familiar with the Bible that name is very known to you because it was under Pontius Pilate that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and they brought him to Pontius Pilate to ask him to crucify Jesus. And Pontius Pilate usually did not stay in Jerusalem, he actually preferred to live on the coast, in the palace that Herod the Great had built, on a small promontory into the sea, with a swimming pool, bath house and other facilities, in a Roman city with a theater, a hippodrome, where you could enjoy yourself with entertainment, wine and games. Not in Jerusalem where the Jewish law was restrictive and there was a lot of tension and even opposition against the Roman rulers. So Pontius Pilate only came to Jerusalem when it was necessary and he had arrived to Jerusalem because of the Passover feast of the Jews, Pesach, which was a pilgrimage feast, meaning there would be a lot of Jews coming from all over the country to celebrate in Jerusalem. And he had to be there to keep order and make sure that things would not go out of hand.

And why is this Pilate stone so interesting? Because outside of the New Testament of the Bible and a few Roman historians who mention his name, they had not found any other evidence of his existence. So for historians this is important proof that the bible character of Pilate was most probably a real existing person.

The limestone block is in the Israel museum in Jerusalem but they made a replica that you can see on the site. They placed it where the palace of Herod used to be, on the promontory that reaches into the sea water.

The Roman aqueduct in Caesarea

Another very beautiful remnant from the Roman time are the aqueducts that brought fresh water to the inhabitants of Caesarea. A good part of the aqueduct system is still in tact and is literally on the beach north of the archaeological site. It is built parallel to the shore and it used to carry the water from its source, a spring north of Caesarea, to the city. Originally there was one high level aqueduct but when emperor Hadrian visited Caesarea in 130 AD he saw that the growing city needed more water and he had a second aqueduct built right next to the existing one. These twin parallel aqueducts functioned for the next 1200 years and supplied the cisterns and public fountains with water.

The nymphaeum in Caesarea

One of these fountains is nicely excavated and it is called a nymphaeum. Maybe you recognize the word ‘nymph’ in there. I am not sure if you know what nymphs were in ancient Greek folklore? A nymph is a minor female nature deity. Not like the main Greek goddesses, but more like personifications of nature. And these nymphs were typically tied to a specific place. Originally to a cave or a water spring. But later on any kind of water source including fountains would be attributed to the nymphs and beautified with depiction of beautiful maidens. The nymphaeum in Caesarea had a decorative function and it provided a place for the residents to meet and a place to get fresh drinking water from.

Bible stories that happened in Caesarea

Before we talk about Caesarea Maritima in the Byzantine time and beyond, I want to mention that Caesarea is mentioned a couple of times in Bible stories of the New Testament, for the Bible lovers among the listeners, the story of Peter going from Joppa, current day Jaffa, to Caesarea to meet the Roman Centurion Cornelius who asked about him. This pagan Roman centurion and his family become followers of Jesus Christ and they are even baptized by Peter during his visit to Caesarea.

The other apostle that spent time in Caesarea is Paul, who was a Jew with Roman citizenship who became a follower of Jesus Christ and who was accused by a group of religious Jews in Jerusalem of bringing non Jewish people to the Temple. A mob of angry men was about to kill him when a Roman officer got to the scene and found out that Paul had Roman citizenship and therefore he had privileges and was granted protection until he would be trialed by the Romans. He was then taken to Caesarea and brought to the Roman governor of Judea whose name was Felix. And Felix could not really find him guilty of anything but he kept him in prison because he was hoping that he would be able to make Paul pay a bribe to get himself out of prison, which he didn’t, so he ended up spending two years in the prison in Caesarea. Until eventually the next governor, Festus, did not really know what to do with this prisoner. Paul had requested to be brought to Rome so he could be trialed there in the court of Caesar Nero. When King Agrippa II who was the great-grandson of King Herod the Great, who built Caesarea, came to visit the new governor Festus, Festus decided to ask Agrippa what to do with Paul. And then Agrippa wanted to meet Paul. And then Paul spoke long time with Agrippa and according to the Bible Agrippa said that if he would speak longer he may turn into a Christian.

But actually it didn’t end well for Agrippa in Caesarea because he died a horrible death. According to the Bible book of Acts this is what happened to him:

“Later Herod moved from Judea and went to the city of Caesarea, where he stayed. Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, but the people of those cities all came in a group to him. After convincing Blastus, the king’s personal servant, to be on their side, they asked Herod for peace, because their country got its food from his country.

On a chosen day Herod put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not a human!” Because Herod did not give the glory to God, an angel of the Lord immediately caused him to become sick, and he was eaten by worms and died.”

Biblical scholars Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea

And I do have to mention another famous person from Caesarea. Het is not a Bible Character but he was a very important biblical scholar and he became the first bishop of Caesarea. He studied with the famous theologian Origen, who left a hug library in Caesarea with manuscripts that was the second largest after the library in Alexandria. The name of this famous man is Eusebius. And if you study the history of Palestine you will always and everywhere read the name of Eusebius. First of all because he wrote a book about the life of emperor Constantine, the one who made the Roman Empire accept and later adopt the Christian religion and whose mother Helena came to Palestine and order the construction of the Nativity Church and the Holy Sepulcher Church. And secondly because he wrote the Onomasticon. And this book is very important until today because it is a directory of names of places that are mentioned in the Bible and their geographical locations. And it is used until today to establish where the stories from the Bible took place. It seems he had access to Roman maps of the Roman Empire so that he could record precise distances. Eusebius describes his own method of working like this:

“I shall collect the entries from the whole of the divinely inspired Scriptures, and I shall set them out grouped by their initial letters so that one may easily perceive what lies scattered throughout the text,”

So he did the Onomasticon in alphabetical order and you can find the names of places from the Bible with their exact location according to Eusebius as well as names of places that are in the same area and the names that were used in Greek, rather than Hebrew by the time he wrote it down in 324 AD. By that time Jerusalem for example was called Iliya after Hadrian had renamed it Aelia Capitolina (I did an episode on all the names that Jerusalem had over time in season 1) And Amman for example, today’s capital of Jordan, was called Philadelphia in Roman time. And Akka was called Ptolemais.

Eusebius became bishop of Caesarea in 314 AD and he is always referred to as Eusebius of Caesarea.

Caesarea as capital of the province Palaestina Prima

So now let’s move on to the Byzantine time. The Byzantine time started in 330 AD when the emperor Constantine decided to relocate the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. He then renamed the city of Byzantium after himself and called it Constantinople, the city of Constantine. And it remained so until the fall of the Byzantine empire in 1453 when it was conquered by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and renaimed Istanbul.

In the Byzantine time the former province of Syriae- Palaestina, which covered the area from Egypt until today’s Syria and Lebanon, was divided by the Byzantine rulers into smaller provinces that were easier to administer. They were called Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Salutaris or Palaestina tertia.

Just for your information, because I had been wondering about this, what is the meaning of Salutaris in Palaestina Salutaris. I found three different interpretations or hypothesis but the one that sounds most likely is that it comes from the Latin word ‘salus’ which means health and this became an addition to in total five provinces that had the name Salutaris as an addition to the name of the province. And the wish of health was of course meant for the emperor. So the adjective salutaris could point out that those provinces were somehow dedicated to the emperor who was seen as the protector of the empire.

So in Byzantine time between 330 and 1453 AD there were three provinces called Palaestina Prima, Secunda and Tertia or Salutaris. And the capital of Palaestina Prima was Caesarea.

The capital of Palaestina Secunda was Bisan, also called Scythopolis in Greek and it is today’s Beit Shean. The capital of Palaestina Salutaris was Petra, in today’s Jordan.

This was the golden age for Caesarea, the city grew much bigger and they had to build new walls to extend the protected area where people lived and they added a big hippodrome for horse racing and a big amphitheater for spectacles and games.

Caesarea in Jund Filastin

And then with the Muslim conquest of Palestine it seems that Caesarea was first partially destroyed and then partially rebuilt but throughout the early Muslim era the city was in decline and the harbor silted up. Maybe this could be explained by the fact that the new Arab rulers were desert people who were not used to the sea and the swamps by the sea and had no experience in ship trading so they did not focus on the cities by the sea. Caesarea became part of the province called Jund Filastin of which Ramla became the capital.

Some kind of development happened later in the decades before the Crusaders arrived, because by that time the Persian poet and traveler Nasir I Khusraw describes Caesarea as: “a fine city, with running waters, and palm-gardens, and orange and citron trees. Its walls are strong, and it has an iron gate. There are fountains that gush out within the city” and he notes a “beautiful Friday Mosque, so situated that in its court you may sit and enjoy the view of all that is passing on the sea.” This was in the year 1047.

The Crusader fortress in Caesarea

The Crusaders besiege Caesarea and they take it in the year 1101 and the mosque that Khusraw described is then changed into a Church that is called the Saint Peter Church. The Crusader city of Caesarea is much smaller than the Byzantine city was it is actually even smaller than the original Herodian city was. But until today we can see part of its city walls and the moat that they dug around it and the entrance gate that you pass if you enter or exit from the northern part of the archaeological site.

And what makes this gate so precious is that it is from a later period than most of the Crusader remains we find in the area and therefore it is not the Romanesque style that is heavy and fortress-like but it is the gothic style with pointed arches and ribbed vaults that give more height and light and grandeur in the building style.

It is worth mentioning the name of the person who ordered the construction of this gate and the renovation of the defensive wall in Caesarea, because this is the only French King who was canonized as a Saint by the Catholic church and that was King Louis the ninth. Louis the ninth set out on a Crusade from France and he took the southern route to the Holy Land, coming via northern Africa, through Egypt where he was captured and taken hostage until a ransom was paid for him. After his release he went up to the Crusader Kingdom and he spent time in several of the Crusader cities including Jaffa and Akka and he fortified the cities. As he did with Caesarea.

Mamluk sultan Baibars destroys Caesarea

But it wasn’t long after that, in 1251, that the Mamluk Sultan Baibars managed to conquer Palestine and take over the city and as with all the other cities on the coast he destroyed Caesarea. The Mamluks were not a seafaring people and they did not need the harbor. They were afraid that the Crusaders would return over sea and that they would recapture these fortified cities on the coast to use them again as strongholds to conquer the land. So they used the tactic of burning everything on the coast and they focused on the cities in the hinterland and on the mountains.

Qisaria in the end of the Ottoman era

Caesarea never became a big city again but as I described in the beginning of this episode, during the Ottoman time there WAS a village called Qisaria and the people who lived there were forcibly displaced and their lands were taken from them. One of the town’s mosques is now part of the newly developed area in the archaeological park with shops and restaurants and there is no sign that describes the history of the mosque or what happened there in 1948. Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon, the Israeli narrative has a big blind eye for that part of their history.