A new hotel in Tiberias has a rich historical past
The newly-renovated and recently opened Scots Hotel marks the transformation from a small Scottish hospital built in 1884 to a magnificent hotel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The festive opening, organized jointly by the management of the hotel and the Tiberias Tourist Board, included breakfast in the magnificent dining-room, a tour of the archeological sites of the town, lunch at the Decks restaurant, a cruise on the Kinneret and finally afternoon tea, Scottish style and a press conference in the hotel. Present, apart from Israeli and overseas journalists were the mayor of Tiberias, tourism promoters and representatives from the Church of Scotland.
THE Sea of Galilee resembles a Scottish loch in its beauty and tranquility, if not in its climate.
Tiberias, at the end of the 19th century, had a population of about 3,500 Jews, 1,500 Muslims and a few hundred Christians. Within 20 years, the Galilee and the Jordan Valley started to grow as the first pioneer Jewish agricultural villages were established.
It was to this diverse and rather barren terrain that Dr David Watt Torrance, a young Scottish doctor, came to heal the people of the Holy Land, inspired greatly by the New Testament biblical account of Jesus in the Galilee.
In 1894, after working from rented accommodation, the hospital was officially opened. Sadly the Torrance's first wife died in childbirth and he returned to Scotland with his children for a long leave. However, he found that he couldn't abandon the hospital and his work and he returned a year later.
Up to WWI, the hospital grew, serving the rapidly expanding population. Many patients even brought their tents and camped outside the building, traveling for days just to have a consultation with the famous doctor.
In 1902, the population was devastated by a cholera epidemic. Torrance and his second wife and the hospital staff worked day and night, not only to try to heal their patients, but to find ways of providing clean water and teaching basic hygiene. Again he faced tragedy. The small graveyard on the lakeshore is a memorial to his second wife and the hospital workers who succumbed to the disease.
THE history of the hospital parallels that of the Lower Galilee in many respects.
In 1902, the first railway reached the south point of the Sea of Galilee and opened up the hot baths of Tiberias to commerce and tourism. Jewish settlement expanded, but the Scottish hospital was still the only medical center in the region.
In 1911, exhausted from overwork, the poor health of his third wife and the death of an infant son, Torrance took another long leave from his work, only to return with renewed energy and the dream of extending the hospital to include a maternity unit.
He died in 1923 but lived long enough to see one of his sons become a doctor and join him in running the hospital. Herbert Torrance continued to work there until his retirement in 1953..
In the late '50s, the hospital closed and the Church of Scotland converted the beautiful lakeside buildings into the St Andrews guesthouse, similar to that adjacent to the Jerusalem St Andrews church built in 1917 to celebrate Gen. Allenby's victorious march to Jerusalem.
In spite of the closure of the hospital, the bonds with the people of Tiberias continued. Many local residents, including the current mayor himself, were born at the Scottish maternity hospital.
AS we toured the luxurious 150-room newly-converted hotel, Fred Hibber, the man behind the vision, who has run the guest house for many years, pointed out the former hospital labor wards on the site of the present elegant dining room.
"There were no elevators here until l957," he said. "After each birth, the porters would carry each woman up to the first floor for recuperation."
Circumcisions were performed where the reception lobby now stands and families would spill out into the gardens to celebrate or await the news of a new arrival.
The renovations have provided modern amenities such as luxurious bathrooms, gleaming marble floors, comfortable bedrooms with ample storage space and antique furniture, without sacrificing the ambience and the original architectural style. The stone exteriors, high ceilings, enormous arched windows and wide staircases, the gardens and terraces overlooking the lake have not been spoiled and the hotel has the peaceful atmosphere of a Galilee retreat.
ONE modern touch, which will be welcome to all swimmers, is the bridge built to link the terrace with the beach. Formerly, guests were given a key to a green door in the wall of the garden leading to the private beach. This was all very romantic, but access from the guest house meant crossing the busy lake-side road. Now this new bridge spans the road, and an elevator eases the descent on to the beach for those who can't cope with the steps.
Another addition is a lake-side pool. Since the Tiberias climate is moderate even in the winter, and the hot springs around the lake are popular in all seasons, the Scots Hotel staff hope to host visitors throughout the year.
When the Church of Scotland agreed to invest millions in this project, it was the late '90s and Israel was expecting a millenium tourist boom. Unfortunately, the intifada and world-wide economic problems have harmed those dreams, and the success of the hotel is not quite as certain as it seemed back them.
But the Right Reverend Alan Main, who is responsible for development in the Church of Scotland, is optimistic. He is sure that primarily the hotel will be popular with Israelis, who look for a different kind of vacation, and he also believes that the current situation will not really affect the sort of overseas tourism that the hotel hopes to attract.
"We've been here for 150 years and we intend to stay," he said. "Our type of visitors from abroad are not put off by the intifada or international influences. Many people who want to visit the Holy Land are getting older and they won't keep postponing their visit for quieter times."
There will, however, be a delay in the implementation of the second phase of expansion, explains Reverend Main. Apart from the need to see how the new hotel succeeds, some graves have been found on the adjacent site which had been planned for an extension.
Asked about evangelism, Reverend Alan Greig, Convener of the Church of Scotland, said, "Our church is Presbyterian (Protestant) with 600,000 members in Scotland. When the church started its activities in the Holy Land 150 years ago, there was a desire to influence the local people. Today, the church and the world have moved on. We want to share, not impose. In the same way as the original hospital, patients and staff were multi-racial and multi-national, so our presence here will continue in that tradition."
A strong supporter of the new Scots Hotel is Tiberias Mayor Zohar Oved. Very aware that Tiberias has been criticized in recent years for its scruffy appearance and lack of tourist-friendly infrastructure, Oved, who has been mayor for only year, is determined to put Tiberias back on the map.
"Since 1987, not one new hotel has been built in Tiberias. The opening of the Scots Hotel is to me a sign of the awakening of the town," he said.
He added that he plans to make a priority of cleaning up the streets and tourist sites.
"Litter is not just a Tiberias problem; it's a national problem, but we aim to beautify the town and make it more attractive to visitors."
The Scots Hotel St Andrews Galilee
Tiberias has a rich history, founded in 18 CE by Herod Antipas. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the town became one of the centers of the Jewish world. It was here that the Jerusalem Talmud was written and compiled. It was settled by Jewish exiles from Spain in the 16th century, but it was only in the 18th century that a local Beduin Sheik, Dahar al Omer rebelled again the Ottoman rulers of Palestine and rebuilt Tiberias, as a fortress and walled city.
In tune with the mayor's vision of increasing tourism, the municipality is looking forward to 2005 as International Rambam year, which will mark 800 years since the death of the great sage.
There will be music and dance festivals and a web-site: Tiberias-gate to Ha'Rambam" will be opened in Hebrew, English, Spanish, French and classic Arabic, the languages used by Ha'Rambam to write his books.
And indeed, with its temperate climate, the hot springs, archeological sites and proximity to the exquisite shores of the Sea of Galilee, as well as being a short drive from Hamat Gader, the Golan and the Upper Galilee, the mayor of Tiberias may well be optimistic that the town will wake up out of its apathy and pick up its litter.
Tiberias Municipality Tourism Department,
Co-ordinator of the Rambam Year events:
Tami Atia. 04-673-9581