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Caesarea: A City for All Times

Once the capital of Palestine, a Romanesque city on the coast of Israel is a treasure trove of Christian history.

Modern-day Caesarea basks quietly in the Mediterranean sun, a silent relic of ancient glories, lying halfway between the bustle of Tel Aviv and Haifa on Israel’s west coast.

It was precisely this geographic location, as well as her superb natural coast and harbor that first visited fame and celebrity on Caesarea. From her earliest status as “new maritime colony” of the Philistines some 2200 years ago, Caesarea’s history reflects dozens of tug-of-war battles in which she was the prize. She was conquered by dizzying successions of Romans, crusading Christians, Moslems and Mamelukes.

In the third century BC Caesarea was a Phonecian port known as Straton’s Tower. But it wasn’t until the 500-year Roman occupation of Judea that this strategic port city gained prestige and prominence.

In 30 BC Caesar Augustus gave the city to Herod the Great, a gift to publicly recognize his greatness. Herod, in gratitude, named his new city “Caesarea” in honor of the donor and vowed to make of it the most glorious city in the realm.

Herod lavished his remarkable genius for architecture on Caesarea. The streets were laid out in a revolutionary new pattern, the grid system still used today. There was a sewer system, and an aqueduct to bring in fresh water for drinking from the faraway mountains. He built temples to Caesar, a palace, theaters, even a race track.

This remarkable jewel of a city became the capital of Palestine in 6 AD, with many official Romans making it their new home away from home. One can imagine how these cosmopolitan Romans delighted in this city with its modern conveniences; how comfortable they must have been living among luxuries they were accustomed to back in Rome.

The names and identities of these officials can only be imagined, however, because until the recent discovery of the “Pilate plaque” no written records had been found of their exact names. This plaque fixes forever the identity of one high ranking official who lived in Caesarea. Found near the Roman theater (where it can still be seen today) the inscription reads, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, made and dedicated the Tiberieum to the Divine Augustus.”

During this time many different races lived together in Caesarea – lived together but not always in peace. There were frequent uprisings by oppressed groups, perhaps the most memorable of which was the “Jewish War of 70 AD.” It was the conclusion of this uprising that remains etched in history: the 2,500 defeated Jews were brought to Caesarea’s amphitheater for the famous “games” in which they were fed to the lions.

As Caesarea grew in importance as a Gentile city, more and more influential Christians proselytized there. It was in Caesarea that Peter converted the Roman centurion, Cornelius, the first recorded Gentile to accept Christianity (Acts 10). Paul visited Caesarea many times during his missionary travels and was imprisoned there by Herod from 58 to 60 AD.

The church even held a crucial council in Caesarea in 195, determining for all times that the celebration of Easter be held on a Sunday. This council was presided over by Theophilus, the Bishop of Caesarea.

Historians agree, however, that Caesarea’s single most influential Christian citizen was Origen, prodigious scholar and one of the Greek Fathers of the Church. Named Adamantius (“man of steel”) Origen was born around 185 and lived a virtuous life.

A genius with a huge capacity for work, he is credited with a body of some 800 writings. His lifelong ambition was to be the interpreter of the Scriptures, a goal realized with the completion of his monumental Hexapla. With this brilliant interpretation of the Old Testament, Origen provided valid source references for Christians to use in their discussions with non-Christians.

Origen’s genius extended into teaching, as well, and his famous school which was established in Caesarea in 231 attracted the gifted scholars of the day. St. Basil, known as the founder of monastic institutions, a Doctor of the Church and later Bishop of Caesarea (370 AD) came to study Origen’s classical curriculum.

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who went on to become the Bishop of Neocaesarea in 240 AD also studied here with Origen.

Times were not always so enlightened for the early Christians for not all Romans were tolerant of scholarship or study. The Emperor Decius, himself a religious zealot, wreaked havoc on all who refused to make public acts of worship to his Roman gods. He devised unspeakable methods of torture for those who defied him taking special delight in trying to break such leaders as St. Alexander of Jerusalem (who had personally ordained Origen), St. Gregory, and, of course, Origen himself.

Origen survived his pillorying, imprisonment and torturings, but his health was severely damaged.

It is not known whether Origen’s school was continued after his death, but his famous library did survive. This library, with its 30,000 scrolls, was so extensive as to be second only to the one in Alexandria. History is a bit fuzzy as to the true champion of Origen’s library. St. Jerome credits Pamphilius, the Christian writer and teacher, as its real founder and protector. Pamphilius, whose major work was “Apologia”, a defense of Origen, was devoted to the library, tirelessly caring for and enriching its treasures. St. Jerome noted that Pamphilius labored to replace the badly worn papyrus scrolls with parchment codices.

Sadly, this treasured collection was not to survive history’s next onslaught, the Islamic invasion of 638 in which almost all the manuscripts were destroyed.

More than the library suffered during Caesarea’s occupation by the Arabs. From 638 until the Crusades, the city fell into disrepair with many of its splendors decaying, even its famous harbor silting up.

In 1251, St. Louis, the crusader King Louis IX of France, captured Caesarea and stayed on to fortify it against future invasions. His formidable walls, moats, and fortifications remain today. The ruins of his Cathedral of St. Paul (which was built atop the ruins of Caesar’s temple) are still very much in evidence.

Even crusader fortifications are not forever and the city was to fall again – in 1291 to the Mamelukes.

This glorious city was destined never again to rise to any great degree of civilization, and it gradually faded into obscurity. But her zenith had produced periods of architectural brilliance and academic excellence. The artifacts and remains of these periods hold myriad clues to the mysteries of history.

One such tantalizing relic is the hexagonal bit of green glass discovered during King Baldwin’s crusader siege in 1101. Believed to be a piece of Holy Grail it was enshrined in the Cathedral of St. Lorenzo in Genoa, Italy.

Today, while archaeologists continue to uncover more of Caesarea’s mysteries, visitors explore the area, marveling over the thick crusader walls, the preserved mosaics, strolling along the beach where sections of remarkably well preserved aqueduct still stand, enjoying lunch high atop the original citadel overlooking the harbor.

A statue in a fifth century Byzantine church bears the original Greek inscription: “Under the Governor Flavius Entolius, the Mayor Flavius Stateguis built out of public funds the wall, the steps and the apse in the tenth indication, in a good hour.”

Caesarea’s “good hour” is long past. Today she is little more than a sleepy memory blanketed in colorful wildflowers. But her history will continue to fascinate scholars as archaeologists discover still more evidence of her past splendors. Caesarea’s history is truly universal – her past belongs to all mankind.

Brenda Fine is a travel writer based in New York.

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