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During the antiquity the name of the city was Neapolis, while during the Middle Ages Christoupolis. The etymology of the modern name of the city is disputed. There are some explanations, either from the Italian cavallo(=horse), or from the Hebrew Kabbalah due to the large Jewish population of the city.

The city was founded by settlers from Thassos about at the end of the 7th century BC, who called it Neapolis (Νεάπολις; "new city" in Greek). It was one of the colonies that the Thassians founded in the coastline, in order to take advantage of the rich gold and silver mines of the territory, especially the ones that were located to the nearby Pangaion mountain (which were eventually exploited by Phillip the Second of Macedonia).

The worship of "Parthenos", a female deity of Greek - Ionian origin is archaeologically attested in the archaic period. At the end of the 6th century BC Neapolis claimed its independence from Thassos and cut its own silver coins with the head of Gorgo at the one side as a symbol. At the beginning of the 5th century BC a large ionic temple from thassian marble replaced the archaic one. Parts of it can now be seen in the archaeological museum of Kavala.

In 411 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, Neapolis was sieged by the allied armies of the Spartans and the Thassians, but remained faithful to Athens. Two athenian honorary decrees in 410 and 407 BC rewarded Neapolis for its loyalty.

Neapolis was a town of Macedonia, and the harbor of Philippi, from which it was distant 14 km (9 mi). Neapolis was a member of the Athenian League, as a pillar found in Athens mentions a contribution of Neapolis to the alliance.

Exists also the middle age bulgarian name of Kavala - Morunetz in the time when it was within the Bulgarian empire borders.

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