Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee

Tiberias was founded by Herod Antipas in 17 AD. Originally south of the modern city, it was built over a Necropolis named "Hammat". Finished in the year 22 AD, it was given the name "Tiberias" by Herod to honor the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The greatest number of houses in Old Tiberias were built of basalt stone, set closely together. The streets, with the exception of a few paved with asphalt, were covered with small basalt gravel. The twists and turns were reminiscent of the ancient medieval town.

With fertile soil, due to the proximity of the lake and the presence of the public baths with their hot springs, it became a place quite suitable for relaxation and restful cures. Faithful Jews, however, refused to live there because it was built over a burial site. For this reason, Herod settled Gentiles and low-class Jews to whom he gave considerable privileges. Thus Tiberias, was initially inhabited by pagans. Tiberias had a forum, a stadium, and public baths. For the Jews he had convinced to live there, Herod built a synagogue. For himself, he built a grand palace adorned with representations of animals (contrary to Jewish custom). Soon after, around 61 AD, Tiberias became the Capital of Galilee, usurping the place Sepphoris once held.

During the Jewish War that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, Tiberias found itself divided into two camps: one favored the revolt, the other was ready to collaborate with the Romans. The latter view prevailed, and the Roman armies took over Tiberias without striking a single blow. They gave it back to their faithful ally Agrippa. In 100 AD, after Agrippa’s death, Tiberias came under the administration of the Roman procurator of Judea.

In the immediate centuries following, the Jews, now expelled from Jerusalem, flocked to Tiberias in great numbers. It even became the home of the Rabbinical school. It became the religious, intellectual, and administrative center for the scattered Jewish nation. The famous Rabbi Judah I, called "The Holy" (Ha Kodesh), composed the Mishnah at the beginning of the 3rd century. Later on, Jochanan completed Judah’s work by establishing a definitive text of the Holy Books of the Bible in the Massorah.

Christianity appeared in Tiberias in the 4th century. It spread rapidly through the efforts of a certain Joseph, a prominent Jewish resident of the city who converted to Christianity. Constantine raised Joseph to the title of the Count of Galilee. Joseph, however, soon encountered hostility from his former Jewish associates when he attempted to create a Christian church out of an unfinished pagan temple called the Hadrianum. Under Constantine’s protection, Tiberias became a Christian community where a bishop resided. We do not know the name of the first Bishop of Tiberias. However, subsequent bishops were known. For example: the second bishop was named John. He attended the Council of Ephesus in 449.

From the 7th century onward, there were successive takeovers. In 614 AD, the Persians entered Palestine. They marched through Tiberias without hindrance. A strong group of Jews, living in Tiberias, opened the gates for them and allowed them swift passage toward Jerusalem. The city was again retaken by the Byzantines only 14 years later. Finally, in 637 AD, the Arabs under the leadership of Caliph Omar took Tiberias. They made it their Capital of Jordan (which included Galilee and the region of the Jordan River). Until the Crusaders finally came, the city remained under Moslem control.

In the 12 century AD, the Crusaders conquered Tiberias and made it the Capital of a new principality of Galilee, with Tancred governing it. During this period, it became an impregnable stronghold. Its approaches were defended by a surrounding wall, and its most vulnerable points by rugged circular towers. Through Tancred’s efforts, Tiberias became a Christian Capital in the truest sense. They built a Cathedral for the episcopal see, as suffragan to the Bishop of Nazareth. Crusader rule in Tiberias, however, lasted less than a century.

Around 1776, Jews again began to migrate to Tiberias. Tiberias, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed, were considered their "holy cities". A Rabbinical legend held that the Messiah would come forth from the lake, would land in Tiberias, and make his way to Safed, finally establishing his throne on one of the highest mountain peaks in Galilee. Following a violent earthquake in 1837, Tiberias was almost totally destroyed. Reduced to a pile of ruins, most of the outer defensive walls were destroyed, leaving only a few remnants from the Crusader times to be seen. There are four towers to the North of the city. Bastions that faced the sea from the North and South of the city still stand. Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed some pillars of the ancient Crusader Cathedral. You can find them in the courtyard of the Jordan River Hotel. They are near the swimming pool. Unfortunately, the hotel has put children’s playground equipment right in the midst of this archaeological site.

In 1946, the city had a population of some 12,000 inhabitants: mostly Jewish and Moslem, with a small group of Latin and Greek Catholics. Today, except for a few Christians and of course the Church of St. Peter, Tiberias is almost entirely Jewish. Situated some 210 meters below sea-level, Tiberias thrives as an ideal winter haven with its balmy climate. Needless to say, the summer months can be very warm...