Ancient Tiberias reveals all her glory

Judaism's fourth holiest city also served the Romans, who fell in love with the hot springs

October 18, 2007 12:31
tiberias feat 88 224

tiberias feat 88 224. (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)


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In 1920, when the road between Tiberias and Zemach was being paved, the workers came across some startling finds which made them stop in their tracks - they had unearthed the ancient town of Hamat Tiberias, including a seven-branched candelabra that is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

This town, the ancient forerunner of today's Tiberias, was already famous for its curative hot springs in Biblical times. A little way south of today's Tiberias, it was the source of 17 hot mineral springs with a temperature of over 60 degrees Celsius (hence the name Hamat - hot). Many years later, the Romans, always quick to take advantage of such a sought-after commodity, erected beautiful spas and turned the town into a popular resort.

Even today, in the southern corner of the National Park the hot water bubbles out of the ground and you can still carefully put your hand in the water and feel its heat. In the time of the Mishna (when the oral law was written), the temperature of the springs was used in the Rabbinical discussion in the Talmud concerning heating water and food on Shabbat when the term used is "yad soledet bo," i.e. hot enough that you automatically pull your hand away when you touch it.

Hamat was also mentioned on other occasions in the Talmud in connection with the laws of Shabbat. One subject was the distance one can walk out of town on Shabbat (the residents were permitted to walk between Hamat and Tiberias) and the fact that because of its curative properties they were also allowed to bathe in the hot springs on Shabbat.

The remains of the hot springs are now part of a beautiful National Park which was built around these archaeological discoveries. The main focus of the park is a synagogue which was unearthed, probably from the 2nd century BCE. It is thought that this is the remains of the Severus Synagogue which was in use at the time when the ecclesiastical Sanhedrin court was situated in Tiberias. A remarkable mosaic was discovered, one of the most impressive in the country, featuring a zodiac motif with images representing the four seasons in its corners. This was quite common in ancient synagogues, but less common was the figure of the pagan god Helios riding in his chariot in the center. If you look closely at the mosaic you can see that some of the Hebrew letters are written backward or upside down, which gives the impression that they were not the work of Jewish artists but possibly pagans who were simply trying to copy the letters they were instructed to write, without too much success.

Subsequently, at least two other synagogues were built on top of this one and one had a wall built straight across the panels, partially obliterating some of the motifs. There are three aisles in the synagogue, leading some archaeologists to believe that this may have been one of the first shuls to have an ezrat nashim (a separate section where the women sat). Outside there is a courtyard which was partially covered, probably a Beit Midrash (study hall) and/or a hall for kiddushim (sanctifications).

Just behind this National Park is the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNess ("the miracle worker"). The large dome that can be seen is the Sephardi shul on one side of the tomb, but if you walk around you will see a much smaller Ashkenazi shul on the other side. Because of his reputation as a miracle worker, it has long been the custom among many people that when searching for a lost object/praying for good health/looking for a spouse, they donate money to the poor in Israel in Rabbi Meir's memory, and recite the phrase Eloka deRebbe Meir, aneini ("G-d of Rabbi Meir answer me").

But this is not all that has been unearthed of ancient Tiberias. Slightly further north, just opposite the beach closer to modern Tiberias, archaeologists are still uncovering the main area of the ancient town. Digs have been ongoing for the last six years, and a grand archaeological park is in the planning stages - but there is still a lot of work to do to uncover all the treasures that lie beneath the overgrown wilderness. It is believed that this area was also where Hadrian tried to build a pagan temple in an attempt to totally root out any sign of Judaism. Once he realized, however, that his actions were likely to be the final straw for the Jews who lived there, and would cause another Jewish Revolt which had recently caused more than enough trouble to the Roman Empire, he cancelled his plans and left.

One of the more exciting discoveries is a basilica-like structure which historians believe could have been the seat of the Sanhedrin when it was in Tiberias, as it greatly resembles other buildings in Beit She'arim that were used by the ecclesiastical court. Tiberias is one of the four holiest towns in Israel, and was the final seat of the Sanhedrin after it left Zippori. Mosaics were also discovered but unfortunately, as the area was not sealed off or protected in any way, souvenir hunters arrived and removed most of the mosaics.

A bathhouse that was also excavated is thought by its size to have been the main bathhouse in Tiberias, another place that was mentioned quite frequently in the Talmud. You can see the baths themselves and the dressing rooms. This area has been covered by a roof in an attempt to protect what is left of the mosaics from the sun.

A colonnaded cardo and market area and other public buildings have also been unearthed, and are in the process of being properly excavated.

Another intriguing discovery was the use of tomb entrances as paving stones. To understand the possible significance of these unusual paving stones, we need to go back to the founding of Tiberias.

Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's son, first built Tiberias in 20 CE. Somewhat jealous of his father's prowess and fame as a builder, he wanted to show his own power and ability. However, he went a bit too far. Showing his contempt of Jewish custom, he had the audacity and stupidity to build the town on top of the site of a Jewish cemetery. Of course no self-respecting Jew, especially no religious Jew, would live there - not to mention the fact that no Kohen (priest) would go near the town, as for him the whole area was off limits because he was not allowed to enter a cemetery.

So Herod did what all despots resort to - he coerced a group of people to populate the town that he had so proudly built. But the town was still despised by most Jews.

All this changed when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son came out of their cave after 13 years of hiding from the Romans, who had condemned him to death for making disparaging remarks about them. During those years in hiding, he had spent most of his time buried up to his neck in sand to save wear and tear on his clothes, and not surprisingly his skin wasn't in great condition. Rabbi Bar Yochai and his son went to bathe in the hot springs of Hamat Tiberias. In gratitude for the waters curing his skin problem, he asked the people of Tiberias what he could do for them, and they begged him to remove the stigma from their town so that Jews would want to come and live there. According to tradition, the rabbi then performed an esoteric kabalistic ritual which identified the graves beneath the foundations of the town, and the dead arose and were re-buried outside the town.

Regarding the tomb entrances among the paving stones, historians speculate that if these tombs were no longer needed because the bodies had been reburied at a different site, the entrance stones could have been recycled as paving stones.

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