Caesarea: A City for All Times

by Brenda Fine

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Modern-day Caesarea basks quietly in the Mediterranean sun, a silent relic of ancient glories, lying halfway between the bustle of Tel Aviv and Haifa on Israel’s west coast.

It was precisely this geographic location, as well as her superb natural coast and harbor that first visited fame and celebrity on Caesarea. From her earliest status as “new maritime colony” of the Philistines some 2200 years ago, Caesarea’s history reflects dozens of tug-of-war battles in which she was the prize. She was conquered by dizzying successions of Romans, crusading Christians, Moslems and Mamelukes.

In the third century BC Caesarea was a Phonecian port known as Straton’s Tower. But it wasn’t until the 500-year Roman occupation of Judea that this strategic port city gained prestige and prominence.

In 30 BC Caesar Augustus gave the city to Herod the Great, a gift to publicly recognize his greatness. Herod, in gratitude, named his new city “Caesarea” in honor of the donor and vowed to make of it the most glorious city in the realm.

Herod lavished his remarkable genius for architecture on Caesarea. The streets were laid out in a revolutionary new pattern, the grid system still used today. There was a sewer system, and an aqueduct to bring in fresh water for drinking from the faraway mountains. He built temples to Caesar, a palace, theaters, even a race track.

This remarkable jewel of a city became the capital of Palestine in 6 AD, with many official Romans making it their new home away from home. One can imagine how these cosmopolitan Romans delighted in this city with its modern conveniences; how comfortable they must have been living among luxuries they were accustomed to back in Rome.

The names and identities of these officials can only be imagined, however, because until the recent discovery of the “Pilate plaque” no written records had been found of their exact names. This plaque fixes forever the identity of one high ranking official who lived in Caesarea. Found near the Roman theater (where it can still be seen today) the inscription reads, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, made and dedicated the Tiberieum to the Divine Augustus.”

During this time many different races lived together in Caesarea – lived together but not always in peace. There were frequent uprisings by oppressed groups, perhaps the most memorable of which was the “Jewish War of 70 AD.” It was the conclusion of this uprising that remains etched in history: the 2,500 defeated Jews were brought to Caesarea’s amphitheater for the famous “games” in which they were fed to the lions.

As Caesarea grew in importance as a Gentile city, more and more influential Christians proselytized there. It was in Caesarea that Peter converted the Roman centurion, Cornelius, the first recorded Gentile to accept Christianity (Acts 10). Paul visited Caesarea many times during his missionary travels and was imprisoned there by Herod from 58 to 60 AD.

The church even held a crucial council in Caesarea in 195, determining for all times that the celebration of Easter be held on a Sunday. This council was presided over by Theophilus, the Bishop of Caesarea.

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Tags: Israel Historical site/city Architecture