The Historic Port of Caesarea

The first artificial harbor in the world, Caesarea was a monument to Herod the Great’s ingenuity. Built on the site of the coastal town, Strato’s Tower, it was one of the largest harbors in the Roman world, measuring some 200,000 squares meters. Today the remains of this major Herodian port are nearly invisible and all but forgotten. Josephus has preserved a description of the glory of this Roman-Jewish city and the method of this construction (see Appendix A).

The harbor consisted of tow major artificial breakwaters (moles). The southern mole (figure 1.A) extended out some 1,500 feet into the Mediterranean Sea and measured approximately 200 feet in width. It was built of larger stones and concrete blocks than its northern counterpart due to its function as a buffer against waves driven by the prevailing southwest winds.

 
 

The mole turned north and was joined at the northwest corner of the harbor by the northern mole (Figure 1.B), which was 150 feet wide. Between the two moles was a 60-foot wide entrance into the harbor (Figure 2). Josephus describes three colossal statues (one on the entering ship’s left (Figure 1.C) and two on its right (Figure 1.D), which adorned the entrance to the harbor. Remnants of the piers for these statues still remain on the sea floor. During times of war, a chain may have been used to close the harbor entrance.


To accomplish his purposes, Herod need to secure a ‘land bridge’ with the East. This he did by an arranged marriage between his family and the Nabatean (Arabian) royal family. Later military exercises against their regional also assisted in securing access to the East by way of Arabia.

‘The financial advantages in Herod’s strategy are obvious and lie behind the most daring sophisticated enterprise of marine engineering undertaken to that time…It was the first man-made port built on the open seas without dependence on or benefit of favorable topographic features such as a cape or bay’ (Ancient Harbours, p 21).

Following Herod’s death, Rome acquired direct political control over Judea making Caesarea its provincial capital. From this coastal city Roman procurators ruled Palestine. In the area of the amphitheatre can be found a copy of an inscription bearing the name of the procurators, that of Pontius Pilate (Figure 3). This was the first archaeological evidence attesting to Pilate’s presence in Palestine during the first century.

Underwater excavations carried out since 1975 have revealed the method by which the artificial harbor was constructed. The following is a description given by R.L. Vann in The Ancient Harbours of Caesarea Maritima.

 

'The aim of Herod’s engineers was to build an artificial anchorage where there was no natural harbour to shelter ships. They did this by laying immense concrete blocks on the sea bottom, starting at the shore and building seaward from the blocks already in place (Figure 4).

First a wooden form was constructed and placed on the sea bottom… The sides of the form consisted of a double wall of planks (Figure 5). Between the inner and outer parts of this double wall was concrete packing, poured into the double wall and allowed to set in order to strengthen the form before it was lowered into the sea… Horizontal and vertical wooden tie beams added stability to the form.

It seems likely that the concrete would have been poured through large tubes located on the upper level of breakwater where a person stands and perhaps also from barges anchored nearby. This upper level was constructed of stones and smaller concrete block placed on top of a previously poured concrete form identical to the one shown to its right.

By using each concrete block as a base from which a new form could be put in place, the breakwaters were gradually extended to their final length.’


The reason for Herod’s building Caesarea seems to have been primarily financial. After Caesar Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) had established peace in the Roman Empire (Figure 6) the needs of the growing empire increased and varied. Interest in products from the East necessitated new means of transporting the exotic goods to Arabia and Asia. Transport by sea was the likely solution. Alexandria (Egypt) with its position in the eastern Mediterranean would eventually become the primary artery for trade between Rome and the East. However, before Alexandria’s dominance was secured, Herod attempted to establish Caesarea as the primary port for the Rome-East trade route.

 

The remains of Herodian Caesarea (Temple to Augusts (11); Hippodrome (9) are overshadowed by the Byzantine in the history of the Second Temple Period is attested by the writings to the period. Josephus relates that the desecration of the synagogue at Caesarea was one of the events that precipitated the First Jewish Revolt (War II. 290).

 



The New Testament mentions Caesarea on several occasions in connection with events involving the early Church (Peter: Acts 8.40; 10.1, 24; Herod: Acts 12.19: 18.22; 23.23; 25.1, 4, 6, 13: Philip 21.8). In many ways the port city represented the meeting of the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds. As such, it was apt that it was the location for the entrance of the first Gentile into what had been an exclusively Jewish faith. The events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion (Acts 10), in Caesarea precipitated the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Here it was decided that Gentiles coming into the messianic faith need not take on an obligation to all of the Law. In effect, the decision was a recognition that God, by the bestowal of his Spirit upon the household of Cornelius, had demonstrated his acceptance of both Jew and Gentile into the messianic movement. This point of convergence of Jew and Gentile later would also be a point of departure as the Church moved into the Hellenistic world and away from its Jewish origins.


Appendix A

JOSEPHUS’ DESCRIPTION OF CAESAREA
(Jewish Wars 1.408-15)

He (Herod) noticed on the coast a town called Strato’s Tower, in a state of decay, but thanks to its admirable situation capable of benefiting by his generosity. He built it entirely with limestone and adorned it with a most splendid palace. Nowhere did he show more clearly the liveliness of his imagination. The city lies midway between Dora and Joppa, and hitherto the whole of that shore had been harborless, so that anyone sailing along the Phoenician coast towards Egypt had to ride the open sea when threatened by the south-west wind; even when this is far from strong, such huge waves are dashed against the rocks that the back-wash makes the sea boil up a long way out. But the king of lavish expenditure and unshakable determination won the battle against nature and constructed a harbor bigger than the Piraeus, with further deep roadsteads in its recesses. The site was as awkward as could be, but he wrestled with the difficulties so triumphantly that on his solid fabric the seas could make no impression, while its beauty gave no hint of the obstacles encountered. He first marked out the area of a harbor of the size mentioned, and then lowered into 20 fathoms of water blocks of stone mostly 50 feet long, 9 deep and 10 broad, but sometimes even bigger.

 
When the foundations had risen to water-level, he built above the surface a mole 300 fee wide; half this width was built out to break the force of the waves and so was called the Breakwater; the rest supported the encircling stone wall. Along this were spaced massive towers, of which the most conspicuous and most beautiful was called the Drusium, after Caesar’s step-son.There was a row of arched recesses where newly-arrived crews could land, and in front of these was a circular terrace forming a broad walk for those disembarking. The harbor-mouth faced north, as in that locality the north wind is the gentlest, and on either side rose three colossal statues standing on pillars; those on the left of the ships entering were supported by a solid tower, those on the right by two upright stones clamped together, even higher than the tower on the other side. Adjoining the harbor were houses, also of limestone, and to the harbor led the streets of the town, laid out the same distances apart. On rising ground opposite the harbor-mouth stood Caesar’s temple, of exceptional size and beauty; in it was a colossal statue of Caesar, no whit inferior to the Olympian Zeus which it was intended to resemble, and one of Rome comparable with the Hera of Argos. Herod dedicated the city to the province, the harbor to those who sailed these seas, and the honor of his new creation to Caesar: Caesarea was the name he gave it. The rest of the buildings – theatre, amphitheatre, and market-place – were on a scale worthy of that name. The king also instituted four-yearly games and called them too after Caesar, gracing the first contest – held in the 192nd Olympiad – with the personal gift of very valuable prizes, the royal bounty extending not only to the winner but to those who came second and third.

Reading List

  1. ‘Caesarea Maritima’, National Geographic, February 187. pp. 262-279.
  2. Lee I. Levine, “Roman Caesarea’, Qedem, Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, no. 2. 1975.
  3. Avner Raban, Guide to Sebastos. The Ancient Harbours of Caesarea Maritima.
 

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