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Caesarea Maritima: 2002 Land Excavations

By Jennifer A. Stabler
February 2003

    Caesarea Maritima is located on the coast of Israel about 30 km north of Tel Aviv (Fig. 1). Founded by King Herod between 22 and 10 B.C.E., it served as the main port and administrative capital of his kingdom. Headquarters then of the Roman administration of Judaea, later Palestine, it was the place where Pontius Pilate governed, where the Apostle Paul was imprisoned, and where the great Jewish revolts began in 66 and 132 C.E. Eventually, in the fourth century, the site converted from paganism to Christianity and became a major center of the Christian Roman Empire. The Islamic conquest of the Holy Land in the seventh century brought Muslim rule. Much reduced in size and population, the city remained a prosperous agricultural town. The Crusaders conquered this town in 1101 and occupied it, with some interruptions, until 1265, when the Muslims captured Caesarea. Shortly thereafter, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt ordered Caesarea demolished to prevent it from ever again becoming an entry point for Western invaders. Caesarea thus embodies the great transitions that marked the history of the Old World during and just after the first millennium C.E. and that set the stage for the modern world: the diaspora of the Jewish people, the birth of Christianity and the transition from paganism to Christianity, the evolution of Islam in the Middle East, the attempt by European Christianity to restore European domination there, and the response of Islam to the Christian incursions.

Temple Platform Excavations

    Since 1989, the Combined Caesarea Expeditions has investigated the Temple Platform, a high point at the center of the city. Professor Kenneth G. Holum of the University of Maryland identified the remains of an octagonal structure on the Temple Platform in 1987 (Fig. 2). Initial excavations focused on establishing a section through the center of this structure to clarify its form and function and also to delineate any earlier or later building phases on the Temple Platform. The excavations revealed remains of the foundations of King Herod’s temple to Roma and Augustus set on the natural kurkar bedrock, as well as numerous fragments from the building’s superstructure buried in later fills (Fig. 3). The temple was dismantled down to its foundations in the 5th century C.E. and the platform was covered with a thick fill (Fig. 4).

    Shortly after the area was filled, a second building or building complex was erected on the Temple Platform (Fig. 5). Only portions of the foundations of this building phase remain, consisting of 60-80 cm-wide poured mortar set on a red clay hamra and cobble leveling layer (Fig. 6). The function of this building complex remains obscure. It appears that a portion of this “intermediate” building was destroyed by fire, after which the entire complex was demolished. Another filling phase followed the destruction of the “intermediate” building.

    In the late 5th century, an octagonal church, 39 m in diameter, was built on the site of the former Herodian temple (Fig. 7). This building probably functioned as a martyr shrine, possibly built in commemoration of Cornelius, a Roman centurion who converted to Christianity and was later martyred in the city. A raised bema was built in the eastern end of the church at a later date (Fig. 8). Many of the churches’ architectural fragments were found across the Temple Platform and buried in trenches cut through its floor after the building was destroyed, including capitals, columns, and portions of the ambo (Fig. 9).

    Caesarea was captured by the Muslim army in 641 C.E. after a three-year siege. Apparently a number of Caesarea’s Christian residents remained in the city and continued to worship in the octagonal church. Archaeological evidence suggests that the octagonal church continued in use up until the mid 8th century C.E., when it was likely destroyed in the earthquake of 749 C.E. Fragments of the church’s marble floor that have survived show evidence of the building’s violent collapse (Fig. 10). The Christians were probably not permitted to rebuild the church. After the debris from the building’s collapse was cleared, a number of residences were built across the Temple Platform (Fig. 11). Many of the walls of these residences were dismantled in later phases and all that remains are subterranean features such as cesspits (Fig. 12), wells (Fig. 13), cisterns (Fig. 14), and storage bins (Fig. 15). The excavations have revealed that Caesarea continued to grow and prosper under Muslim rule.

    The Crusaders captured Caesarea in 1101 and probably reused many of the buildings deserted by former Muslim inhabitants. The city fell to Saladin in 1187 and many of its buildings were destroyed. A new building phase from the 13th century was evident on the Temple Platform and was characterized by broad foundations that supported vaulted structures (Fig. 16).

    From June 2-June 27, 2002, senior staff members and two students from the University of Maryland conducted limited investigations to answer several questions that arose in the course of discussions concerning the publication of the Temple Platform excavations. Four Arab workers also participated in the excavations for several days. The 2002 excavations were supported by a generous grant from the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Foundation. The primary objective of this brief season was to clarify the date of destruction of the Herodian temple to Roma and Augustus. Excavations were concentrated in the southeastern sector of the Temple Platform because this area appeared to be the least disturbed by subsequent occupation phases.

    Small probes were opened in TP31 and TP32 to search for large pieces of stucco from the dismantling of the temple. Several large stucco fragments were found on the northern side of the temple in previous seasons. Trench TP17 on the east side of the Temple Platform was reopened to establish the stratigraphic sequence in that trench, as well as to identify layers associated with the temple’s destruction. A small project was carried out in trench TP4 in the center of the site to determine if the lower portions of the inner octagonal wall of the martyr church were set on a Herodian wall that possibly belonged to the temple. An area was cleared next to the foundation by the Arab workers and project staff. The foundation was determined not to be Herodian. The large stones in the foundation may have been reused from the temple.

    A second small project was conducted in TP8 to clear the junction of the outer octagon wall of the late 5th century church, with a wall forming an outer room of the building. A layer of plaster was identified on the walls that may be contemporary with the church building. This will provide evidence for the function of some of the triangular rooms surrounding the church building.

    A small probe was opened in the northwestern portion of the Temple Platform to determine if a large wall in that area belonged to the Herodian or Byzantine phase of construction. This new trench was designated TP33. Only a few loci were excavated due to limited space. It was soon evident that the wall was Byzantine and no further excavation was necessary.

    The final area examined was located in TP6 where a drain cut through the outer wall of the octagonal church complex and fed into a large cistern to the east. Some stones and soil were cleared to establish the phasing of the drain, clearly establishing that it post-dates the church.

Trench TP17

    Excavations in TP17 in the summer of 2002 concentrated on a 2 m north-south by 3.5 m east-west probe to the north of a probe excavated in 1995 (Fig. 17). The major objectives of the 2002 season were to identify strata associated with the dismantling of the temple and the construction of the “intermediate building” to provide a tighter date range for when those activities occurred. Previous excavations on the Temple Platform provided a general date range for these phases.

    Portions of the foundations of the Herodian temple to Roma and Augustus were exposed on the west side of the probe, as well as its foundation trench and construction fill (Figs. 18 & 19). Strata related to the dismantling of the temple were also identified and provided a tighter date for this activity in the second quarter of the 5th century C.E. Evidence for the construction of an “intermediate building” on the Temple Platform was also noted and consisted of construction fill layers containing a high concentration of pottery (Fig. 20). No features related to this building were identified in TP17 in 2002. The “intermediate building” appears to have been built within a decade of the temple’s destruction. The “intermediate building” was probably destroyed by fire in the late 5th century. Evidence of this destruction has been found elsewhere on TP, but not specifically in TP17.

    Portions of the subfoundation of a kurkar stone pavement on the outside of the octagonal church were identified in TP17 in 2002. The upper portions of the floor were robbed either in the Islamic or Crusader periods. After the octagonal church was destroyed, possibly in the earthquake of 748/749 C.E., a residential neighborhood occupied the Temple Platform, as indicated by the many wells, grain bins, and cisterns that have been excavated in other trenches. A portion of a 10th century subterranean feature was found in the northeast corner of the TP17 probe in 2002. Not enough of the wall was exposed to determine its function. The upper portions of the wall were robbed in the late 11th or, more likely, in the early 12th century, when the Crusaders captured Caesarea. A series of monumental buildings were erected on the Temple Platform by the Crusaders that obliterated many of the Islamic structures.

Trench TP31

    Four probes were opened in TP31 in the summer of 2002 to attempt to locate strata related to the destruction of the Herodian temple and the construction of the “intermediate” building (Figs. 21 & 22). Numerous layers from these phases were identified, providing a firmer date of destruction for the temple in the second quarter of the 5th century C.E. Fragments of kurkar and plaster from the dismantling of the temple were found in the northeast, northwest, and southwest probes, but no large fragments were encountered.

    Various features from an Early Fatimid house were identified in all of the probes. The southeast probe lay entirely inside of a storage bin that was later robbed in the Crusader period for its stones. A possible alley ran along the west side of wall 31106 to access several houses on either side. Numerous subterranean storage bins were located in the southeast portion of the Temple Platform, indicating that the city was very prosperous in this period.

    Many of the Islamic houses appear to have been dismantled in the Crusader period to provide building materials for their own projects. The voids left from the robbing operations were filled and new structures built on top. The Crusader structures were probably abandoned after 1265 C.E., although there is evidence of continued habitation of the Temple Platform in the Mamluk period.

Trench TP32

    Two probes were opened in the southern portion of TP32 in the summer of 2002 in an area thought to be free from Islamic and Crusader intrusions. However, it became evident that both probes were located inside of Early Fatimid storage bins that had been dismantled in the Crusader period. Further excavation of these probes would not provide the information sought and were abandoned before they reached bedrock.


    Evidence was found in trenches TP17 and TP31 for the destruction of the temple and the construction of the “intermediate” building. These layers provided a date of destruction for the temple in the second quarter of the 5th century C.E. The “intermediate” building was erected about a decade after the destruction of the temple and was destroyed in a fire in the late 5th century C.E. Future field work will concentrate on identifying, inventorying, and photographing architectural fragments associated with the octagonal church.