This place was initially a small Phoenician settlement in the 3rd or 4th century BC. Herod inherited the site and set about building his city in 22 BC. Dedicating it to his patron, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, Herod apparently aimed to build the most grandiose city imaginable. For several years, hundreds of builders and divers worked around the clock to complete the project. To create the two lofty breakwaters which stretched for 540m on the southern side and 270m on the north, stones of 230 cu metres were lowered into the open sea.
In the pursuit of his desire, Herod became increasingly tyrannical and those who questioned, let alone disobeyed, his orders were often executed. Following Herod’s death (sighs of relief all round, no doubt), Caesarea became the local Roman capital. Pontius Pilate resided here as prefect from AD 26 to 36, and his name appears on an inscription found in the ruins of the theatre. The Bible also records (Acts 10) that a Roman centurion serving at the garrison here was the first Gentile to be converted to Christianity, baptised by Peter.
Following the First Revolt (AD 66–70), in which the Jews rose up against – and were crushed by – the Romans (and expelled from Jerusalem), thousands of captives were executed in Caesarea’s amphitheatre. Some 65 years later, after the Romans put down the Bar Kochba Revolt, the amphitheatre again became an arena of cruelty as 10 Jewish sages were tortured to entertain the masses.
The city was seized by the Arabs in AD 640 only to fall into disrepair. In 1101 the Crusaders took Caesarea from the Muslims and discovered in the city a hexagonal, green-glass bowl that they believed to be the Holy Grail, the vessel from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. It is now kept at the Cathedral of St Lorenzo in Genoa. The Crusaders favoured Akko and Jaffa as their principal ports and therefore only a part of Herod’s Caesarea was rehabilitated.
The city was to change hands between Arabs and Crusaders four times until King Louis IX of France captured it in 1251. That same year he added most of the fortifications visible today. They proved totally inadequate under the onslaught of the Mamluk sultan Beybars, who in 1261 broke through the Crusader defences and devastated the city.
The ruins remained deserted and over time were swallowed by shifting wind-blown sands. More than 600 years later, in 1878, groups of refugees from Bosnia (soon to become part of ill-fated Yugoslavia) were installed here by the Turks but driven out again during the 1948 war, making their tenancy relatively short-lived.
It was only with the establishment of Kibbutz Sdot Yam that ancient Caesarea began to re-emerge. While tilling the land, farmers found bits and pieces of the old city and archaeologists soon followed. Children on the kibbutz were rewarded with pieces of candy if they could retrieve something valuable. More investment was made in the 1990s and today the foundations of Caesarea are largely open to the public.