Sites and Insight: Caesarea’s Ancient Harbor and Palace

A new column, Dr. Wayne Stiles explores the biblical sites of Israel, the significance behind them and how to make the most of a visit.

Caesarea arch 311 (photo credit: WAYNE STILES)
Caesarea arch 311
(photo credit: WAYNE STILES)
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
The straight line of Israel’s seacoast has never lent itself to significant harbors. For centuries, only Joppa in the South and Acre in the North provided modest havens for ships.
But in 22 BC, work began on a new port—a vast harbor befitting the grand ideals of its visionary, King Herod the Great.
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Upon a visit to Caesarea today, a harbor in the same location as the ancient one can be found. The few fishing vessels and pleasure boats moored to the modern pier do little justice to the port of the first century. Herod’s harbor dwarfed the docks of today.
Built on a grand scale, the ancient harbor extended out into the sea through an ingenious use of concrete that hardened underwater. In its heyday, the enclosed harbor covered over forty acres and could accommodate three hundred vessels. It’s no wonder the site became one of the most significant seaports of the eastern Mediterranean.
Herod named the city, “Caesarea,” in honor of Caesar Augustus. To further ingratiate the Roman ruler, Herod raised a temple for Augustus on the hill above the harbor. The ruins of the temple can still be seen today. The site of the ancient harbor is today largely silted and covered with St. Augustine grass.
Herod chose to build his lavish palace in Caesarea on a natural promontory that juts out into the Mediterranean Sea. The king had a fresh water swimming pool carved out of the natural bedrock at the end of his palace; the sprawling pool was almost Olympic in size. Standing on this promontory today allows visitors to see where Herod’s pool once was and to imagine the luxury of Herod’s palace, which the Jewish historian Josephus called, “the most magnificent.”
Caesarea aquaduct
Caesarea aquaduct
To provide Caesarea with sufficient fresh water, Herod built an aqueduct that stretched ten miles north to the springs below Mount Carmel. As history unfolded, the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Crusaders would build additional channels on top of Herod’s aqueduct. A portion of this marvelous structure still stands for visitors to enjoy. Just standing beneath its arches causes one to marvel at the time, skill, and ingenuity of those who constructed it over two thousand years ago. It also speaks of the importance of water in the Land of Israel.
After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, Caesarea became the Roman seat of power in Israel for 500 years. Roman governors, or procurators, resided in Herod’s opulent palace in Caesarea. In fact, the Apostle Paul was imprisoned on the grounds of the palace (or “Praetorium”) for two full years. A sign today marks the likely spot.
When an team of Italian archaeologists excavated in Caesarea in 1961, they discovered an inscription with the words translated, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” This archaeological find is the only written source outside of the New Testament that mentions the name, “Pontius Pilate”—the procurator who lived in Caesarea and who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to death.
To Do There: Caesarea National Park enjoys about 1 million visitors annually—and for good reason. A state-of-the-art visitors center offers a historical perspective, complete with hologram tour guides such as King Herod, Rabbi Akiva, the Apostle Paul, and Saladin, just to name a few. Watch the video called, “The Caesarea Experience,” a film that traces Caesarea’s history on all periods of time—a great introduction to the site. In addition to the ancient harbor, temple to Augustus, and Herod’s Praetorium, we’ll discuss more to see in next week’s column.
How To Get There: From Tel Aviv, take Route 2 north 39 km (24 miles) to Caesarea National Park. You’ll know you’re getting close when you see the nearby smokestacks.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at