Column: A visit to Caesarea Maritima


In our continuing tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we come to the Mediterranean coast about 28 miles southwest of Megiddo to visit the ruins of the spectacular ancient city of Caesarea Maritima.

In 40 B.C., the Roman Senate named Herod, whose ancestors had converted to Judaism, the “King of the Jews,” with authority over Judea, Galilee and Peraea, an area east of the Jordan River. Herod’s little kingdom along the eastern Mediterranean lacked even a suitable harbor. Herod soon undertook a number of massive construction projects, both to gain the loyalty of Jews wary of his Nabatean ethnicity and to impress his Roman patrons.

To create a harbor, Herod’s engineers designed breakwaters extending several hundred meters from the straight Mediterranean shoreline. Divers, trained to stay underwater for five minutes, placed forms on the seabed and filled them with newly invented concrete that hardened under water. When completed in 13 B.C., the harbor was the largest on the Mediterranean. Herod constructed a 164-acre city adjacent to the harbor, named Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. Home to 100,000 people, Caesarea included 100 warehouses for products passing through the port, a temple to Augustus, a lighthouse, a hippodrome and a 4,000-seat theater. A 13-mile aqueduct, sections of which are still standing, brought water to the city, which became the Roman capital of Judea in A.D. 6. Herod’s city, which rivaled Alexandria, is now called Caesarea Maritima to distinguish it from Caesarea Philippi.

In 1961, archaeologists excavating the theater uncovered an engraved slab of limestone identifying Pontius Pilate as the “prefect of Judea,” the only contemporaneous evidence of his existence. Today, visitors attend concerts in the restored theater, dive among the ruins of the sunken breakwaters, destroyed by an earthquake in about A.D. 100, and understand why history remembers Herod as “the Great.”