Built in the 2nd century CE for chariot racing, this hippodrome was 450 m long and 90 m wide, and could seat some 30,000 spectators. Columns originally set on the wall running along the middle of the race track (spina) were unearthed in the arena, as well as a 27 m high porphyry obelisk.
Caesarea National Park is situated on the Mediterranean coast in northern Sharon, between the Crocodile and Hadera River mouths. It lies alongside bays and shallow inlets that were formed by wave erosion in the kurkar range. These bays were utilized throughout history for the anchorage of sea-going vessels. In the same area we have other places: the Theatre of Caesarea, the Roman-Aqueduct, and the Promontory Palace.
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During the Persian rule (586-332 BCE), the Phoenicians built a settlement on the shoreline of one of the bays, where the ground water level was high. The village, which was part of Dor county, flourished in the Hellenistic period (332-37 BCE), and is first mentioned in the Zenon papyri (a document from 259 BCE) under the name of Straton’s Tower.
In 103 BCE, Dor and Straton’s Tower were conquered by Alexander Jannaeus, annexed by the Hasmonean Kingdom, and torn away from it after the Roman conquest. In the year 30 BCE, the village was awarded to Herod, who ruled between the years 37-4 BCE. He built a large port city at the site, and called it Caesarea in honour of his patron Octavian Augustus Caesar. In Josephus’ Jewish War (1:21 ,5) it says: “And he chose On the coast one forsaken town by the name of Straton’s Tower … which thanks to its favourable location was suitable for carrying out his ambitious plans. He rebuilt it entirely of white stone and adorned it with II royal palace of unique splendor, displaying … the brilliance of his mind”.
Caesarea was a planned city, with a network of crisscrossing roads, a temple, theatre, amphitheatre, markets and residential quarters. It took 12 years to build, and great festivities were held to mark its completion in 10/9 BCE. The city transformed rapidly into a great commercial centre, and by the year 6 BCE became the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine.
The high-level aqueduct, which brought water from Shuni springs some 7.5 km northeast of Caesarea, served as a source of water for the prospering city. Its population included Jews and gentiles, but conflicts between them were one of the important causes of the Great Revolt that erupted in 66 BCE. Caesarea served as a base for the Roman legions who dealt with the quelling of the revolt, and it was here that their commanding general Vespasian was declared Caesar. The city received the status of ‘colony’ and after the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, became the most important city in the country. Being the centre for quelling the Bar Kochva revolt, this is probably where the Jewish leaders headed by Rabbi Akiva were tortured to death.
Pagans, Samaritans, Jews and Christians lived here in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. Among its famous citizens were Rabbi Abbahu, and the church leaders Auregines and Eusebius.
During the Byzantine period the city flourished, and extended over some 400 acres. Towards the end of the 6th century a perimeter wall was built, making Caesarea the largest fortified city in the country.
Following the Arab conquest in 640 CE, Caesarea lost its political and economic significance. Most of its citizens left the city, and it became a small forsaken village.
Only in the 9th century, with the development of sea-trade and the recovery of the coastal cities, was Caesarea refortified. It was conquered by the Crusaders on May 17th 1101, and ruled by the Knights of Garnier. In 1251, during the crusade of king Louis IX of France, Caesarea was fortified anew with impressive intensity.
In 1265 it was conquered by the Mamelukes led by Baybars, and was destroyed and deserted. Its ruins became a source of lime and building stones for the region. It remained desolate until the late 19th century, when the Ottoman authorities settled Bosnian refugees here. The destroyed Crusader fortress was renovated and became the administrative centre, with new houses built on the ruins. .
Kibbutz Sedot Yam was founded in 1940, just south of ancient Caesarea, and in recent years new residential areas were built in the vicinity.
Review of Research Explorations
In 1873, a survey of the Palestine Exploration Fund marked the beginning of the first scientific exploration of the site. They noted the Crusader city, the theatre, hippodrome and aqueducts. Archaeological finds such as columns, pillars, statues and inscriptions were uncovered and removed from the site. Since 1947 only limited digs were carried out, until extensive explorations began in 1959-1964 by an Italian expedition, revealing the theatre, parts of the city’s fortifications, and the upper aqueduct; while an Israeli team uncovered parts of the Crusader city, the Jewish quarter and sections of the aqueduct.
Following these excavations, the Crusader city and the theatre became a national park. Since then, many excavations have been carried out in the city and its harbour by teams from the USA and Israel. Since 1992, extensive excavations are being conducted by teams from the Antiquities Authority and Haifa University.
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