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Caesarea Maritima is mentioned several times in the Book of Acts. By the early first century C.E., Caesarea was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and the location of the governor’s residence. According to Acts 10, the city was the site of the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius. The city is mentioned several times in association with Paul’s missionary journeys and is the location of an early church.
The most important reference to Caesarea Maritima, however, comes in Acts 23–26, where it is the location of Paul’s trial before the Roman governors Felix and Festus and King Herod Agrippa II. After claiming the right of a Roman citizen to be tried before the emperor, Paul began his long journey to Rome from the port at Caesarea. Archaeologically, Caesarea Maritima is also the site of the discovery of the famous “Pilate Stone,” which records a dedicatory inscription by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who presided over the trial of Jesus.
Construction of the massive city of Caesarea Maritima began in 30 B.C.E., during the reign of Herod the Great, who named the city in honor of Caesar Augustus. Like many of Herod’s construction projects, Caesarea was built to rival the grandest cities in the Roman world. Built over the small Phoenician village of Straton’s Tower, Herod’s city of Caesarea stretched across more than 150 acres. It featured a palace, civil halls, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, aqueducts, a high defense wall, and an exquisite temple dedicated to Rome and Augustus.
Situated between the ancient ports of Jaffa and Dor, Caesarea lay along a 40-mile stretch of inhospitable Mediterranean coastline without any natural harbors. This would not stop Herod, however. As stated by Lindley Vann in a 1983 article in Biblical Archaeology Review:
“The harbor at Caesarea was an engineering marvel. On a stretch of eastern Mediterranean coastline known for its dangers to mariners and lacking sheltered anchorage, Herod built a harbor as large as Piraeus, the port of Athens. Two breakwaters, one on the north and one on the south, with a 60-foot entrance between them, enclosed a protected anchorage. The breakwaters extended as much as 1,500 feet from the shore. Within the main harbor was a sheltered inner harbor.” The harbor, which utilized recently invented Roman concrete, was one of the two or three largest ports in the ancient world, and certainly one of the most advanced.
When Judea became a Roman province in 6 C.E., Caesarea Maritima replaced Jerusalem as the provincial capital. Likewise, in 135, following the Bar Kokhba Revolt, it would become the capital of the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, and later the capital of Palaestina Prima. The city flourished during the Roman and Byzantine periods (first–seventh centuries C.E.) and was larger than Jerusalem. During this time, the city greatly expanded, adding new walls, aqueducts, a second hippodrome, and more. The city was an important Christian center during this time as well.
Caesarea Maritima was conquered and partly destroyed by Muslim forces in 640 C.E. During the Early Islamic period (634–1099 C.E.), the city is thought to have experienced an economic and social decline, losing its status as a provincial capital, though new excavations aim to improve scholarly understanding of the city’s role during this period. In 1101, the Crusaders conquered Caesarea and built a small harbor in the area of the former Herodian harbor. However, in 1291, the city was once again conquered, this time by the Mamluk Sultan Al-Malik Al-Ashraf. Afterwards, the city was largely destroyed and eventually deserted until it was eventually resettled as a small fishing village in the late 19th century.
This article was first published in Bible History Daily on January 24, 2022.
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