Tiberias

Another trip northwards, but this time to the east of the country, by the shores of the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee, to the city of Tiberias. This was a catch up trip with a course from the Jerusalem branch; my course sensibly visited Tiberias in February – visiting it in the last week of July when the heat and humidity are at their peak is not particularly wise, but still it is good practise for the future!

Our day actually began north of Tiberias, at the Sapir Station of the national water carrier. It is an extremely secure site (Israel is worried about possible attacks on the water supply) so I’m afraid there are no pictures to show you. The visit was actually extremely interesting – water is a big issue in Israel and through the presentation we received we were able to understand how the country has historically dealt, and continues to deal, with a shortage of rain fall and natural water sources.

We also learned about the construction of the national water carrier back in the 1960s, a daring and pioneering engineering project to bring water from the Kinneret to the centre and south of the country to help the farming industry. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting too much from the visit but was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was (perhaps it was also because our guide there was particularly animated!). To visit, you need to be in a group, but they will let you join existing bookings if you are too few in number – contact them to arrange.

Ottoman period fortress, Tiberias
Ottoman period fortress, Tiberias

It was now time to head to Tiberias, together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed (Tzefat), one of the four holy cities of Israel. We began in the centre of the modern city, learning about its second lease of life, under the Bedouin ruler Daher el-Omar. Our guide regaled us with the story of this powerful man who gradually conquered huge chunks of Israel in the 18th century, making himself very popular with the locals but unfortunately less popular with the Ottomans. He made the deserted Tiberias his capital but eventually relocated in the face of numerous attacks from the nearby ruler of Damascus.

Al-Amari Mosque, Tiberias
Al-Amari Mosque, Tiberias

We explored some of the ruins from the Ottoman period, a fortress; government buildings, a beautiful mosque sadly in disrepair – built by Daher el Omar, this was once the main mosque of the city. We also learned about the Jewish community brought here from Turkey by Daher el-Omar under the leadership of Rabbi Haim Abulafia. Relations were good between the Jews and the Muslims during this period; the Jews of Tiberias were even able to help warn about an impending attack because of letters from Jews based in Damascus.

Roman city gate, Tiberias
Roman city gate, Tiberias

We continued south to the area of Roman & Byzantine Tiberias. This was really the city at its most grand. Most scholars agree that it was founded in the 1st century by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) as his capital (he ruled the area of the Galilee). Although much has been excavated and prepared for visitors, for some reason the area of the digs is not yet open for tourists. Still, as students on the tour guide course there are certain perks afforded, so the gates were opened for us to explore the city gate, the theatre and bathhouse; even the possible site of the famous Jasmin mosque built many centuries later by the Ummayid rulers of Israel.

Slightly further south and we arrived at Hammat Tiberias. The town of Hammat is actually mentioned in the bible and after Tiberias was founded the Jews in the area continued to live there; Tiberias was built on their burial site and so was impure. Fortunately, in the 2nd century the famous mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, passed through, and purified Tiberias (we’re not sure how). So the Jews began to move in and eventually the two towns effectively joined.

Mosaic at Hammat Tiberias Synagogue
Mosaic at Hammat Tiberias Synagogue

At Hammat Tiberias are the hot springs which give it its name (ham is Hebrew for ‘hot’), and in the national park it is possible to cautiously dip a finger into the water (it is rather too hot for submersion!). More importantly, the site contains an ancient synagogue, or rather three ancient synagogues built on top of each other following the destruction of the previous building from earthquakes. Thus, it is possible to stand in one place and see remnants of a synagogue from the 3rd, 5th and 6th centuries!

As with many synagogues from the period there are beautiful mosaics on the floor. Our guide explained the imagery and also regaled us with the tale of Tiberias as a centre of Judaism; indeed the centre of Judaism for 750 years. Here was written the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud (confusingly); here the Masoretes finalised the punctuation and vowels of the Torah which we still use today. As we gazed into the synagogue we imagined that perhaps here came some of the great scholars whose names we still recall and whose opinions we still cite in matters of Jewish law. A remarkable thought with which to conclude the day.

What do you think?