One highlight of a visit to Israel is a stop at Caesarea Maritima, on the northern coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv. It’s a picturesque and evocative place, with sprawling ruins lazing in the Mediterranean sun and sea air.
Construction began around 25 BCE at site of a Phoenician port on the orders of Herod the Great, who named his new city for the current (and first) Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. From about 6 BCE, it was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and the seat of provincial prefects (Pontius Pilate, for one) and other Roman officials.
The city gathered in a tidy Roman grid around the largest harbor in the eastern Mediterranean and boasted all the cultural institutions and infrastructure that Roman officials would have expected – a hippodrome, theaters, baths, temples, an aqueduct…
It was in Caesarea that the first gentile converted to Christianity, the Roman centurion Cornelius. Paul the apostle also spent time there, including two years in prison before being shipped to Rome for trial. During the Byzantine period, Caesarea Maritima became an important center of Christian learning, with a large library and at least two influential early church fathers (Origen and Eusebius) living and working there.
The city declined after Persian and Arab invasions in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the early 12th century, Crusaders occupied the site and, inspired in part by the legend that the Holy Grail was found there, held it as a Crusader stronghold until the middle 13th century, when it was sacked by Mamluk invaders.
Today the site is an archaeological park with extensive remains from the Roman, Byzantine and Crusade periods.