Caesarea Maritima constituted Herod the Great’s most remarkable architectural achievement not only because of the size and grandeur of the city he created on the Mediterranean shore but because of his conquest of formidable natural barriers to its construction. The Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5) mentions that ships sailing to Egypt along the coast of Phoenicia had to ride out the frequent and dangerous southwest winds at anchor because no port was available to them between Dor (in Phoenicia) and Joppa (on the southern coast of Palestine). Accordingly, Herod began his creation of an artificial harbor at the ruins of an old Hellenistic city called “Strato’s Tower” (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5) in the year 22 BCE and brought the project to completion in 10 BCE with a year-long celebration featuring games, races, shows, and feasting (Antiquities 16.5.1; War 1.21.8). Josephus tells us that the great harbor, named Sebastos, contained an area even larger than that of the great port of Athens at Piraeus (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5), and underwater archaeology has confirmed that Herod’s port covered some 100,000 square meters.
How did Herod build an artificial harbor at such a difficult location?
Herod’s artificial harbor represented an engineering marvel that consisted of two massive underwater barriers (moles), one that extended west from the shore more than 200 meters and then hooked north and another that began about 300 meters north along the shoreline and extended west to a point about 40 meters from the first to form a northern entrance channel. Six giant statues welcomed ships into the harbor, and a great lighthouse, named for Emperor Augustus’s heir apparent, Drusus, stood atop the wall on the western side of the entrance.
The two moles that formed the harbor rested upon massive cement blocks created by pouring hydraulic cement from Italy into gigantic forms made from wood imported from Syria. The builders laid these enormous blocks end on end upon a foundation of rubble and in some places, upon cobbles of imported stones. The southern mole was augmented by a line of underwater cement blocks that provided it additional protection against the waves surging toward the harbor from the south and west. The two breakwaters were finished on top with a walkway some 60 meters wide.
What kind of city did Herod build to serve his mighty harbor?
Across the quay from the harbor an artificial platform rose some 13 meters and extended more than 100 meters north, built on a series of twelve great vaults that served as warehouses for goods transported in and out of Caesarea Maritima. The southernmost vault contains remains from the Hellenistic period and so may represent remains of Strato’s Tower.
The vaults also functioned to form a large platform, on which stood a temple to Roma and Augustus as deities similar to the temple Herod had built earlier to Augustus at Samaria. The temple to Roma and Augustus at Caesarea Maritima contained, Josephus writes, a “colossal statue of the emperor” comparable to the enormous statue of Zeus at Olympia and a statue of Roma, equal in splendor to the statue of Hera at Argos (War 1.21.7). Ships seeking a safe harbor, Josephus claims, could see the temple from a great distance (Antiquities 15.9.6).
A monumental east-west staircase led from the dockside up to the platform. Stairs from this platform descended to the south and led into the business and administrative center of the city toward the southern wall. Inside the southern wall was an Italian-style theater and Herod’s palace, built on a promontory, complete with a fresh-water swimming pool surrounded by decorative stoa. The sea has swept away the east portion of the nearby amphitheater in which Herod held his games and races, but its location near the theater and palace make clear how convenient those celebrating the founding of the city in 10 BCE would find it to attend the associated games, performances, and feasts.
The book of Acts in the New Testament mentions Caesarea Maritima fifteen times as a harbor, as home to a small organization of Christians, as the residence of the procurator, and as the place where Paul made his demand to stand trial before the emperor.