Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri) has been the main city of Cappadocia from Greco-Roman times until today.
The ancient city of Mazaca was established on modern Beştepeler, just 1.5 km southwest of the current city center. Mazaca became a new settlement in the eighth century BC, when the nearby trading colony, Kanesh Kültepe, collapsed. The city became prominent in the sixth century BC when the Persian Empire made Mazaca its capital for ruling over the empire’s new territories in Cappadocia. The Zoroastrian Persians were drawn to the volcanic mountain and natural flames.
Hellenization and Jews
Mazaca, with all of Anatolia, became Hellenized after Alexander the Great in 334 BC. Alexander only passed through Cappadocia but his general, Perdiccas, later brought it under Greek rule. After Alexander’s death, Cappadocia was briefly part of the Seleucid Empire. Unlike Persian rule, Macedonian rule suppressed the local people and rulers. A revolt ensued and the previous family of rulers resumed the throne.
Independent Cappadocian kings, usually with the royal name Ariarathes, ruled the city of Mazaca for the next three centuries (301 BC–AD 17). Around 150 BC, the Greek-loving King Ariarathes V renamed the city Eusebia in honor of his father. He made Mazaca and Tyana the main Greek cities of Cappadocia, as he hoped to Hellenize the unsophisticated region.
During this time, diasporic Jewish communities settled in the region. In 139 BC, the Roman Senate wrote a circular letter to instruct rulers to protect Jews in their region (1 Maccabees 15). A copy was sent to Ariarathes V, king of Cappadocia. The Jews may have been resettled into the region by Seleucid rulers, or they may have come for commercial reasons, as Mazaca was an important trade center.
The Roman geographer Strabo (63 BC–AD 24) visited Mazaca, though he was not impressed. Strabo said the city “is not adapted in other respects by nature for the settlement of a city, for it is without water, and unfortified” (12.2.9). The land was barren and uncultivated because it was too sandy. Yet, kings preferred the “destitute territory” as a place of residence because, Strabo says, “it was nearest the center of those districts which supplied timber, stone for building, and fodder, of which a very large quantity was required for the subsistence of their cattle” (12.2.9). Strabo also mentions that around the mountains were “hidden fire pits” that cattle would fall into.
In 77 BC, the Armenian King Tigranes I sacked and deported the residents. A few decades later, the Romans entered Cappadocia. They liberated and reconstructed the city, so residents returned. The Romans administered Cappadocia through a series of client-kings based in Mazaca. Archelaus (36 BC–17 AD), who was the last independent Cappadocian king, renamed the city Caesarea to honor his patron in Rome, Caesar Augustus. The region minted many coins, which, from 10 BC, bore the name “Caesarea.” When Archelaus died in AD 17, Tiberius eliminated the client-king arrangement and made Caesarea a Roman province. Rome appointed the ruling assembly (konion) and governor.
Successive Roman kings expanded the borders of Cappadocia, thus increasing the importance of its capital city, Caesarea. Augustus granted his loyal client, Archelaus, rule over eastern Cappadocia (Malatya) and Seleucia (Adana/Mersin). Vespasian combined Cappadocia with Galatia in AD 72. Then Hadrian added Pontus to the region. Caesarea had become the major city of eastern Anatolia. Temples, military posts, and a bath complex were constructed in Caesarea during the Roman imperial period. The city was an important transportation hub where five major Roman roads converged.
Christianity entered Cappadocia in the first century, likely due to the apostle Peter’s ministry in the region (1 Peter 1:1). By AD 250, Caesarea was a metropolitan see with multiple bishops. Caesarea ranked alongside Antioch and Jerusalem in terms of ecclesiastical importance. The influential bishops Alexander (AD 200–15) and Firmilian (AD 230–265) led prominent church councils and hosted an influential training center.
The people of Caesarea suffered several calamities in the third century. A powerful earthquake destroyed the region in AD 232. The Roman governor blamed Christians for the natural disaster, alleging that their refusal to present sacrifices had angered the gods. As the Roman Empire weakened, raids by the Goths (254) and Persians (260) left Caesarea in ruins.
Basil and the New City
In 370, St. Basil the Great became bishop of Caesarea. The next year, a severe famine struck the region. Then, crafty businessmen hoarded grain to further inflate the price. Basil said the city “had fallen into an incredible condition … and no one visiting Caesarea, not even those most familiar with her, would recognize her as she is; to such complete abandonment has she been suddenly transformed … the city like a desert, a piteous spectacle to all who love it” (Letter74). Basil’s summons for help, perhaps exaggerated to invoke pity, describes a dire situation.
The magistrates fled to Podandus (Pozantı) and the citizens continued to starve.
In response, Basil used his family fortune to construct the “Basiliad”—a massive humanitarian complex to feed the poor and heal the sick. The area in the open plain below the ancient city became so popular that Gregory of Nazianzus said it was another city. At that point, the city center of Caesarea transitioned from the hilltop (the now-abandoned Beştepeler) to its current location, as Basil’s humanitarian center attracted so many people.
In the early 500s, the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the black basalt citadel about the Basiliad. St. Basil’s Church attracted many pilgrims in the medieval age, as Caesarea lay near the famous Pilgrim’s Road from Constantinople to Jerusalem. As the Byzantine Empire weakened in the 600s and 700s, the Persian and Umayyad Empires repeatedly attacked Caesarea. The Byzantine Empire rebounded and the native Cappadocian military leader, Nikephoros Phokas, declared himself the Byzantine emperor in Caesarea in 963. Then, in 1067, Seljuk Turks captured the city, which then became known as Kayseri.