Caesarea Maritima: Unveiling the Marvels of an Ancient City
Of the many fascinating biblical and archeological sites that welcome our year-round Sar-El Tours’ groups bringing Christian pilgrims to Israel, is the magnificent ancient city of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Coast of central Israel. Situated between the metroplex of Tel Aviv and the northern port city of Haifa, Caesarea has a rich biblical and historical significance featuring New Testament gospel events alongside impressive archaeological excavations including the restored epic Roman Amphitheater that is a very popular venue for musical concerts and art and theater performances to this very day.
1. Caesarea in the New Testament
The city was founded on a beautiful stretch of the Mediterranean Coast by Herod the Great during the First Century BC in honor of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, and served as the main commercial sea port and the imperial capital of the Province of Judea, connecting Israel to the rest of the Roman Empire. Alongside its Gentile population, the city was also home to a large Jewish community, maintaining a rich and dynamic collage of cultures, languages, temples and gods coexisting side by side.
The First Gospel Message to Gentiles
Caesarea played a pivotal role in the early days of the Jewish Messianic community in Israel, and it is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament, with possibly the most significant event being the conversion of Cornelius and his entire household to the Messianic Faith as recorded in the book of Acts and chapter ten. It was Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who honored the God of Israel and showed grace to the people of Israel, who became the very first Gentile to be born-again into the Faith community by the ministry of the Apostle Peter.
According to the Gospel account, Cornelius was visited by an angel of the Lord during his time of daily prayer, and that heavenly messenger instructed him to send for Peter, who was on a mission trip to the coastal city of Jaffa at that time, inviting him to his home to bring God’s message. Peter, who happened to be napping on the rooftop of his host’s house at the very time Cornelius’ messengers arrived, would naturally have been hesitant to go along with them and enter a Gentile Centurion's home since it was forbidden according to Jewish law.
However, Peter had his own vision on that very rooftop just before the messengers arrived; a vision in which he was shown all kinds of ceremonially unclean creatures and was told to eat them; an unthinkable proposition for a law-abiding Jewish person. Having seen the vision three times, “… a voice spoke to him … ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common…’” (Acts 10:15-16).
Peter understood the heavenly message and agreed to accompany the messengers on their 50 KM journey up the Mediterranean Coast to Caesarea. When he arrived at Cornelius' home, Peter found a crowd awaiting him, expecting to hear a message from God. Consequently, Peter declared to them God’s plan of salvation as it unfolded through Israel’s history and culminated in Jesus the Messiah.
The Scripture tells us that “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed (the Jewish disciples who accompanied Peter) were astonished, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles … for they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, ‘can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord…” (Acts 10:44-48).
Thus, in Caesarea Maritima, by divine initiative and through the obedience of two great men who dared to obey God rather than to stay within their “comfort zones,” the Good News of God’s salvation through His Messiah was introduced into the Gentile world for the very first time.
Paul is Destined for Rome
Another significant event associated with Caesarea was the extended imprisonment of the Apostle Paul before he was sent on to Rome to face Caesar’s court. It is in Rome that Paul will give the last defense of the Faith he was entrusted to impart to the Gentile world; and it was there that he will lay down his life in return for the heavenly crown of righteousness God prepares for all His servants.
According to the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul was brought to Caesarea by the Roman authorities (for his own protection) after he was arrested during his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. Paul’s arrest actually rescued him from the Jewish mob that was about to lynch him for his confession of faith in Messiah. He was imprisoned in Caesarea for two whole years awaiting trial, during which time he had several occasions to present his case and declare his faith before various Roman officials, including Governor Felix and King Herod Agrippa the Second.
Following these public hearings and his powerful witness, Paul appealed to Caesar (which was his right as a Roman citizen) and sailed to Rome for another extended imprisonment and his eventual trial as recorded in the book of Acts.
2. Archaeological Discoveries at Caesarea
During the Roman period, Caesarea became a thriving center of religion, culture and commerce with impressive public buildings, theaters, and temples. The city was also known for its deep-water man-made harbor which was used for royal delegations, trade and transportation. Our Sar-El Tours’ groups visiting Caesarea today discover its glorious past and “dive into” the city's rich history and culture by walking through and studying the impressive archaeological excavations and restoration projects along the stunning beaches and scenic views of the Mediterranean Sea.
· The Great Amphitheater
One of the most impressive sites in Caesarea is the ancient Roman Amphitheater that was constructed by Herod the Great as part of his grand design for the city that he constructed to impress the Roman authorities. Accommodating nearly 4,000 spectators in full view of the magnificent Mediterranean Sea, the grand amphitheater was used for theatrical performances, musicals, as well as cultural and educational events. The theater is believed to be the same one where the Apostle Paul took his stand to defend himself before the Roman dignitaries and officials during his Caesarea imprisonment, and where he made this famous declaration, saying, “… I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar! Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, ‘You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!’” (Acts 25).
· The Hippodrome
One more popular and impressive site in ancient Caesarea is the massive Hippodrome stretching along the stunning coastline. This large stadium could seat up to 20,000 spectators (!) and was used for chariot races and other public sporting events which were at the heart of Rome’s culture, alongside public spectacles, wrestling matches, and special ceremonies.
· The Grand Palace
As the jewel city that Herod the Great constructed to impress Caesar Augustus, Caesarea also featured a grand palace complex built for the royal family and its guests. The palace was visited by several Roman emperors during their visits to the Eastern Mediterranean, and some historians believe that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who presided over Jesus' trial and who condemned Him to death by crucifixion, most probably resided in Caesarea as well.
In addition to these impressive structures, Caesarea featured a number of other architectural marvels including the deep-water man-made commercial port; a long and brilliantly engineered water aqueduct that supplied fresh water for the large city from the nearby Carmel Mountain Range; the Crusaders’ fortifications, and much more. Today, these archeological excavations and discoveries provide our Sar-El Tours’ guests with fascinating touring opportunities which offer unique glimpses into the city's past grandeur and significance.
3. The Main Personalities Connected to Caesarea
With its dominant geo-political and commercial position, Caesarea played a significant role in the history and culture of ancient Israel. The city was originally founded by Herod the Great during the First Century BC on a beautiful stretch of the Eastern Mediterranean Coast, and served as a major port city connecting Israel to the vast Roman Empire. The city was home to a large Jewish population which coexisted peacefully alongside sizable populations of Gentiles from various nations throughout the Roman Empire, all sharing in its commercial and cultural activities. Several key personalities are associated with the city of Caesarea, including:
A. Herod the Great
Herod the Great was a prominent and controversial figure during the First Century BC. A “client king” of Rome who was never fully accepted by his own Jewish countrymen as a legitimate ruler, Herod played a significant role in the pre-Jesus history of Israel and left his mark as a master builder of several architectural marvels spanning from the Judean wilderness to the Galilee. Caesarea Maritima was the marvelous port city that he designed and constructed on the Mediterranean Coast in honor of Caesar Augustus.
Seeking Caesar’s approval and favor, Herod the Great designed Caesarea after the modern Roman architectural style, and constructed many of its magnificent structures, including the Amphitheatre, the Great Palace complex, the Hippodrome, and the Harbor, to reflect Rome’s grandeur and glory. Herod's impressive architectural projects in Caesarea which were designed to showcase his wealth, capabilities, and loyalty to the Roman Emperors, are on display today for the many guests and visitors who travel to the city with our Sar-El Tours’ groups.
B. Cornelius - The Noble Centurion
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion whose noble character and deep devotion to God are closely associated with the famous visit of the Apostle Peter to Caesarea as recorded in the Book of Acts and chapter 10. According to Scripture, Cornelius received a vision from an angel that appeared to him during his hour of prayer, instructing him to send for the Apostle Peter who was staying in the city of Jaffa at the time. Known for his devotion to God and care for the Jewish people, Cornelius obeyed the heavenly vision sent for Peter, and consequently became the very first Gentile (on record) who heard and believed the good news of God’s Salvation through Israel’s Messiah. His conversion, along with his entire household, marked a significant turning point in the development of the early Messianic/Christian movement as it began to spread beyond its original Jewish cradle, leading to the full acceptance and inclusion of Gentiles disciples into the Faith.
C. The Apostle Peter
The Apostle Peter, or Simeon Caipha as he is known in the Hebrew language, played a central role, alongside Cornelius, in the epic events that unfolded in Caesarea. Following the heavenly vision that he has received while yet in Jaffa at Simon the Tanner’s house, Peter laid aside the traditional and legalistic taboos that forbade Jews from entering Gentile homes, and arrived at Caesarea by Cornelius’ invitation to share God’s message. It was in Caesarea, as recorded in the Book of Acts, that Peter declared to Cornelius and his household God’s plan of salvation through Israel’s Messiah, resulting in the conversion and baptism of Cornelius and his entire household. This historic moment signified a turning point in the expanding outreach of the early Messianic/Christian movement toward the eventual inclusion of Gentile disciples into what has begun as an exclusive Jewish movement.
D. The Apostle Paul
Caesarea’s story also includes the dramatic and difficult time of the Apostle Paul's extended imprisonment, and his famous court hearings before Roman officials and Jewish Royalty. Following his arrest in Jerusalem (which actually rescued him from being lynched by an angry Jewish mob), Paul was brought to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for two years. During that time he had the opportunity to defend himself against his accusers and present the case of Christ before the Roman Governor Felix and King Herod Agrippa the Second. However, seeing no resolution to his case, Paul, as a Roman Citizen, appealed to be tried before Caesar’s court in Rome, and subsequently sailed to Rome to face his final trial where his apostolic ministry climaxed in his martyrdom.
E. Pontius Pilate
While not directly associated with the biblical references of Caesarea in the context of New Testament Scriptures, historians believe that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who presided over Jesus' trial and ordered His crucifixion, had a residence in Caesarea. As the regional capital city of the Province of Judea under the Roman imperial rule, Caesarea served as an administrative and residential center for Pilate while serving away from Rome. Researchers believe that Pilot would travel to Jerusalem on occasion in order to preside over public events during the High Holidays and also to judge high profile cases, one of which was the trial of Jesus of Nazareth.
These characters, each with their unique roles and contributions, are closely linked to the biblical narrative and historical events associated with Caesarea. Their stories and interactions provide valuable insights into the cultural, religious, and political dynamics of that time, and the echoes of their presence are still experienced by the many visitors who arrive on our Sar-El Tours’ groups to visit Caesarea today.
4. Modern Day Caesarea
The modern history of the city of Caesarea in Israel is anchored in the 1960’s, and is characterized by an urban transformation from an abandoned archaeological site buried under the sand dunes of the Eastern Mediterranean shoreline to a thriving modern community. The main points characterizing the modern history of Caesarea are as follows:
Rediscovery of the Site
Following its decline and eventual destruction after the Byzantine Period, Caesarea remained in ruins and forgotten for millennia. However, during the 1950’s, the Israeli archaeologist Dr. Avraham Negev started to excavate the entire area and restore the ancient city as it was emerging out of the sands of time. The archeological team was amazed by the wealth and extent of the ancient treasures of Caesarea they were discovering, leading to an extensive project of discovery and restoration that goes on till today.
Influence of Baron Edmond de Rothschild
The initial project of excavation, restoration and development of Caesarea received a significant boost in the early 20th century when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the wealthy European philanthropist who took great interest in the return of Jewish life and culture to the ancient homeland, contributed significant funds for the preservation of the site. His contributions directly facilitated the restoration of some of Caesarea’s great historical structures including the Great Amphitheater, the Hippodrome, and the Crusader’s Fortifications.
Resurrecting a Modern Community
During the 1960’s, the Israeli government initiated a plan to construct a brand-new residential community in Caesarea. The Caesarea Development Corporation was formed to oversee the development of the region, focusing on luxury residential and tourist destinations. The vision was to integrate modern amenities and infrastructure while preserving the historical and archaeological treasures of the site. And, as visitors who arrive on our Sar-El Tours’ groups can witness today, the vision has been successful.
High-End Residential and Tourist Vibe
Over the years, Caesarea has been transformed into a high-end executive residential community featuring luxurious homes, private villas, and gated neighborhoods. The wealthy city features a selection of modern amenities including a championship golf course, a boat marina, shopping centers, hotels, and restaurants. This unique environment has attracted wealthy individuals from Israel and abroad, seeking a luxurious lifestyle in a coastal setting in central Israel.
Rich Culture and Entertainment
Caesarea has become a cultural and entertainment hub, hosting many theatrical events and musical performances throughout the year. The Great Roman Amphitheater has been restored to again serve audiences of thousands arriving to enjoy concerts, plays, and various artistic performances. Caesarea also hosts an annual International Opera Festival which showcases world-class productions and artists.
The stellar development of Caesarea with its robust economical engines has had a significant impact on the surrounding region. The city's amenities and attractions draw tourists from around the world in a year-round stream of visitors which contribute to the local economy through hospitality, tourism-related services, and employment opportunities.
Today, Caesarea stands as a unique blend of ancient history and modern luxury. It serves as a reminder to the rich biblical past that typifies the entire land of Israel, and at the same time as a testament to the new life that pulsates throughout the modern State of Israel. It features successful integration of archaeological preservation alongside urban development, while providing visitors with the opportunity to experience the magnificence of the past while enjoying the comforts of a contemporary present lifestyle.