A coastal city in central Palestine, Caesarea (mod. Har Qesari, Israel) was the seat of a lordship and an archbishopric in the kingdom of Jerusalem.
After the arrival of the Franks in the course of the First Crusade (1096-1099), the Muslim emir of Caesarea obtained tributary status from Godfrey of Bouillon, the ruler of Jerusalem. In May 1101, however, with Genoese naval assistance, Godfrey’s brother and successor, King Baldwin I, took the city amid scenes of plunder and carnage. An archbishop was subsequently installed in the cathedral of St. Peter, formerly the great mosque, and a royal garrison was left to defend the town. In the twelfth century the population mostly consisted of Franks, with some Eastern Christians and a small number of Jews and Samaritans. Although the Genoese later claimed to have been granted a third of the city by Baldwin I, there is no evidence to suggest that their claim was ever fully realized.
Between 1105 and 1110, the lordship of Caesarea was granted to Eustace Granarius (Grenier), a knight from the bishopric of Thérouanne. It passed to his son Walter in 1123, but the precise succession to the lordship thereafter is unclear. Its territory extended over the coastal plain from Le Destroit (near ‘Atlit) in the north to the borders of the lordship of Arsuf in the south. According to John of Jaffa, the lord owed the king the service of twenty-five knights, and the city and archbishop, fifty sergeants each.
Caesarea fell to Saladin’s emirs after the battle of Hattin in mid-July 1187. The Muslims systematically dismantled its towers and walls before it was occupied by King Richard I of England on 31 August 1191. Although it was confirmed as a Frankish possession in August 1192, Juliana, lady of Caesarea, seems not to have taken up residence there. In December 1217, John of Brienne began refortifying the town with the assistance of Duke Leopold VI of Austria and the Hospitallers, and on 2 February 1218 the patriarch of Jerusalem celebrated Mass in the cathedral. During the winter of 1219-1220, however, Caesarea was attacked by al- Mu‘azzam ‘īsā, Ayyûbid ruler of Damascus, while its lord, Walter, was absent with the king at Damietta in Egypt. The city’s defense had been entrusted to the Genoese, but they abandoned it after four days, leaving al-Mu‘azzam to destroy its defenses once more. Refortification was put in hand between May and September 1228 by Duke Henry of Limburg and German crusaders awaiting the arrival of Emperor Frederick II. It was brought to completion by King Louis IX of France between March 1251 and May 1252.
Caesarea’s territory was raided in summer 1264 by the Mamlûk sultan Baybars I, who returned in February 1265 to lay siege to the city. When the walls were breached, the defenders retired to the castle on the south harbor mole. For six days Baybars directed the attack from a vantage point on the cathedral roof, and on 5 March the garrison surrendered and was evacuated by sea to Acre. Over the next two weeks, the Mamlûks dismantled the defenses for the last time.
Caesarea has been the subject of archaeological excavations since 1960 and of underwater research since 1980. The Frankish town walls followed the course of the earlier Muslim defenses, enclosing an area some 450 meters (148 ft.) north to south by 240 meters (787 ft.) east to west. This was about 10 hectares, representing less than a twen first floor carried over the street on series of arches. Elsewhere there survives the vaulted undercroft of what may be a merchant’s house. Pottery found in the excavations includes wares imported from Cyprus, North Africa, Italy, Greece, and Muslim Syria.
The moat and fortifications of Caesarea in Palestine. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)