1. Aerial view of the archaeologists' work in the harbour at Caesarea, which is expected to yield many more treasures.

Caesarea will rise again

Archaeology in Caesarea – King Herod's city, Roman and Byzantine provincial capital, Crusader stronghold and Ottoman village – has been slow in getting off the ground. But now a £47-million renewal project, one of the largest of its kind in Israel, is set to put the ancient city and its treasures firmly on the tourist map.

'For the first time the three relevant authorities – the Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Caesaria Development Corporation – are working together to implement a plan that will ensure the meticulous preservation of the historical, archaeological and nature values of Caesarea throughout all of the periods,' says Michael Karsenti, CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation, which aims to turn the ancient port-city, 120km north of the capital, into 'the main tourist sight in Israel, together with Jerusalem'.

The new project has been funded by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation. In 1952, the French banker gifted the land he owned here to the fledgling Israeli state. This was then leased to a charitable organisation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, which is still half owned by the family, and half by the government, making Caesarea, uniquely, a privately administered town. The Israeli Antiquities Authorities (IAA) did not begin work at Caesarea Maritime, the ancient harbourside site, until the 1990s. 'To date, only about six percent of Caesarea's treasures have been discovered,' says the IAA's director, Israel Hasson. 'Magnificent finds on a global scale are buried beneath its sand dunes.'

2. Public fountain (nymphaeum) from the Roman period.

Emphasising the project's aim – to provide a place for the public to enjoy – Hasson also sees it as an opportunity to foster educational activities, and he has been encouraging the public to come and work as volunteers: 'to be partners in this creative effort'.

Originally a Phoenician settlement, the city, itself, was founded in 22–9 BC and named after Caesar Augustus by Rome's vassal, King Herod (r 37–4 BC). He erected a hilltop temple dedicated to the emperor and to Dea Roma, who personified the city of Rome. The statues are lost but the foundations of an altar used for sacrifices to Augustus have recently come to light. Meanwhile the vaults beneath the Roman temple are being turned into a visitor centre.

The royal palace, public baths, a nymphaeum and circus are discernible and the theatre, which seated 4500, still hosts concerts: Morrissey played there last year. The site also includes an impressive Roman aqueduct that extends north along the beach to the town of Jisr az-Zarqa.

3. A mother-of-pearl inlay engraved with the image of a seven-branched menorah.

In the Byzantine period an octagonal martyrium was built on the temple podium. Further north the mosaic floors of a Late Roman or Early Byzantine synagogue with menorah motifs on its capitals has been found. A small, mother-of-pearl inlay engraved with a menorah has been unearthed on the temple hill.

The city fell to the Arabs in the 7th century, and in the 11th century to the Crusaders, who built a fortress on the hill and established a market. A bowl, taken from an Arab mosque when it was converted into the church of St Peter, was described by William of Tyre, writing circa AD 1170, as 'a vase of brilliant green shaped like a bowl'. Genoese Crusaders decided it must be the Holy Grail; it is now in the cathedral in Genoa. The extant Ottoman mosque dates from the late 19th century.

Some of the Roman harbour lies underwater, and in May 2016, as reported in Minerva, Israel's biggest treasure haul in 30 years was discovered in a sunken merchant ship. It was dated by its coins to be from the time of Constantine (AD 306–37), nearby was a cache of around 2000 gold coins from the 11th-century Fatimid caliphate.

Both at sea and on land are many more treasures waiting to be revealed. 'This is a project that I very much hope the state will participate in,' says Hasson, 'so that in 10 years we will ask ourselves, "How is it we did not start it 50 years ago?"'

• For further details see www.antiquities.org.il/modules_eng
Roger Williams