Caesarea is a seaside port city in Israel built in a distinctly Roman style. Herod (yes, that Herod) ordered construction of the city shortly before the birth of Jesus and within a period of 12 years, the previously barren and empty space became one of the most important cities in Israel right alongside Jerusalem. Dedicated to Caesar Augustus, the port city was designed to replace Joppa as the new gateway into the Mediterranean. 2000 years later, we can still visit the city to witness the surprising genius of Roman port engineering, view captivating biblical artifacts and ruins, and get a feel for what life would have been like during Jesus’ life. In fact, while Caesarea may not be considered an exceptionally large city today, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel.
If you were to look at pictures from Caesarea, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at Rome or some neighbouring province, not a city in Israel. Indeed, the architecture of the city is like a very miniature Rome, designed to feel like a home away from home for Roman officials at the time. Looking at the city today we can see a Roman style aqueduct, a hippodrome, and an amphitheatre. 2000 years ago, the city was home to over 50,000 people (half Jewish, half gentile) and would have been even grander and more impressive. It’s no surprise that it became such a massive center of political and economic power in the region.
Today the "ruins” of the city are still surprisingly functional. The port’s breakwaters are still effective, and boats can still launch from the city. The hippodrome track doesn’t see chariot races anymore, but the track and spectator seats are still there, standing the test of time, the site of thousands upon thousands of races (and grimly, executions and blood sports). The seacoast theater in particular is most impressive. Not only does it feature that classic Roman design straight out of a swords and sandals film, but it works! The acoustics of the theater really do amplify the volume projected off stage, carrying voices far beyond what you’d think you’d be able to hear in an open-air theater near the water. We take it for granted today with our modern understanding of sound waves and acoustics, but think about what an incredible accomplishment that would have been 2000 years ago.
But why is Caesarea considered important among Christians? For that, we have to look to the life and sacrifice of Jesus. Remember, Caesarea was built as a tribute to the Romans and flattering Roman design and aesthetic. So, it makes sense that a man like Pontius Pilate would set up office there. This office wasn’t where the trial of Jesus took place, that was in Jerusalem, but it still provides useful context to how Roman rule impacted Israel at the time of Jesus’ gospel.
It was also a key location for the disciples with several notable events occurring in and around the city. It was in Caesarea that Peter baptized Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who converted to Christianity. This baptism is especially important in biblical study because Cornelius was the first gentile to convert and receive baptism, setting an important precedent that all could be baptized into the faith. Caesarea was also one of the places where Paul spread his gospel, using the port city to travel to many other Mediterranean cities. He would later be imprisoned for two years in the city after appealing to Caesar to hear the charges brought against him by ideological enemies hostile to his gospel. Caesarea became a major center of early Christian learning, once holding the largest Christian library in the world.
All of that history is right there to explore, and yet Caesarea is even more generous, sharing new mysteries and wonders with us to this day! In 2015, divers off the coast of the port city found the largest trove of ancient gold coins ever discovered in Israel. Like something from a dream, over 2600 coins were found in a sunken ship, still gleaming beneath the waves. Lost over a millennium ago just off the coast, the coins were stamped with the mark of the Fatimid Caliphs, minted in Egypt or North Africa. There are several theories as to why such a hoard of gold was being transported, it could have been a tax collection vessel that sank, or a treasury boat carrying the salaries of a military garrison stationed in Caesarea at the time. But those are just theories based on the time and markings of the coins, they could have just as easily come from a merchant ship that sank, or the lost haul of a pirate vessel (well, maybe that's a little more far fetched).
Caesarea is an incredible site of living history. A place where we can clearly track the lines of the politics and culture that made up the world Jesus lived in. While there are other cities that are more relevant to His life and gospel, few other locations in the world will give you a sense of what it was to be a Jew living under Roman governance as the New Testament was coming into being.