Today a resort town on the shores of Lake Kinneret, Tiberias was built byKing Herod Antipas in 20 CE. Streets in the splendid, well-planned Romancity were laid out in typical grid patterns, and Tiberias boasted handsomeavenues lined with shops, impressive statues, a luxurious bathhouse and agrandiose palace. Unfortunately for the Jews in the area, who would havedelighted in the free land, housing and tax exemptions that Herod wasoffering new residents, the king had unwittingly located Tiberias directlyover an ancient Jewish cemetery and fear of contamination kept most of themaway.
Some 130 years later, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai emerged from the Galilee cavein which he had been hiding ever since the Romans sentenced him to death forstudying Torah. Tradition holds that in order to make his clothes last forthe duration, he had removed them whenever he was not at prayer and hadcovered his nakedness with sand. As a result, when the decree was finallylifted over a decade later, the sage was feeling pretty grimy. Once outsidethe cave, he couldn’t wait to cleanse himself in the hot springs ofTiberias.
But first he had to purify the city, says guide Katrina Halperin, directorof the Tiberias information center. She relates that the sage scoured thearea looking for lupine and sea squill — two flowering plants that flourishin soft, turned-over soil. Identifying graves by the blossoms growingnearby, he dug up the bodies and relocated them elsewhere with appropriateceremony.
The timing was fortuitous, for the ill-fated Bar- Kochba Revolt had ended afew years earlier and Jews banished from Jerusalem were flocking north. Nowthat Tiberias was purged, it became a favorite destination. Indeed, by thethird century, Tiberias had become the center of Jewish life in the HolyLand.
MOST HISTORICAL tours of Tiberias take you to the graves of the righteous -among them Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides and Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness. Thisslightly different but no less interesting route leads you throughOttoman-era, Crusader and Byzantine remains.
Begin at the bottom of Dona Gracia Lane for a good view of the MeyuhasHostel, located along the main drag and originally called the TiberiasHotel. When built in 1896, it was the largest and most modern hotel inGalilee and today offers a superb example of Tiberias’s architecture. Thebuilding was constructed of basalt stones, and its windows and corners aretrimmed with pale limestone for a dazzling contrast. During restoration, thelime was painted white, giving it an even more unusual look.
Positioned above the main byways leading north, west and south, the hotelhad immense strategic importance. Indeed, it was only after taking it duringthe War of Independence that the Jews gained control of Tiberias.
Ascend Dona Gracia to reach the Turkish seraya — the district administrativecenter during the Ottoman era. The fortress next door was erroneously named’Crusades Palace’ by someone who knew that the Crusaders generally builttheir citadels on hilltops. Actually, however, its characteristic style andsecondary use of stone make it clear that this was a Turkish citadel. Justpast the tower, study the wall to discover a Byzantine-era menora carvedinto one of the stones.
Return to the bottom of Dona Gracia to walk through the Scots Hotel (seebox), then head for the lakeshore promenade. Until 1934, stores, dwellingsand even a mosque lined the banks of the Kinneret. That year, however, amassive black cloud burst over the city and caused tremendous floods. Waterpoured down from the mountains above Tiberias, bringing with it tons ofboulders and earth. Dozens of people were killed, and down at the lake,where an easterly wind was blowing, the city was transformed into onegigantic pool.
At the time, the British ruled Palestine and, practical as always, they tookconcrete steps to avert future disaster. Banning construction on thelakeshore, they planted trees above the town (today’s Swiss Forest) to holddown the soil. And in 1937, the British constructed a dam to prevent theeasterly winds from propelling huge waves into the city. It is that damwhich is now the promenade, with a marina, restaurants and shops.
St. Peter’s Parish is on your right. Built by the Crusaders at the start ofthe 12th century, St. Peter’s outer wall is faced with a symbolicallyoverturned boat — representing Peter’s transformation from fisherman toapostle. Behind the altar inside are two splendid works of art whoseglittering crushed stucco gives them a mosaic look. The church, lost toSaladin in 1187, was used by a Muslim family as a stable for nearly sevencenturies and thus preserved.
St. Peter’s has a history of hospitality. When Poland was invaded in 1939,and its army taken over by the Germans, many Polish soldiers serving inRussia and the Ukraine fled to Palestine. They found temporary quarters atthe church’s Casa Nova hostel, and eventually joined the British fightagainst the Nazi army. In 1946, soldiers erected a striking monument in thecourtyard in gratitude for the hospitality they had received. These days,the church is frequented by pilgrims, passersby, and Maronites who served inthe South Lebanese Army.
BACK ON the promenade, you will come to the Galilee Experience, animaginative audio-visual show which relates biblical prophecies to theJewish return to Zion. Stop on your right at the boarded-up Sea Mosque. Thisunusual structure was built in the 19th century, when the Kinneret’s waterslapped at its doorstep. Peek through the window to see the large canalinside: fishermen once sailed right into the sanctuary for worship.
Turn right at the end of the promenade to view remains of 12th-centuryCrusader walls, built on Byzantine foundations. They were restored in 1740by Daher el-Omar, a Beduin sheikh who settled in Tiberias. Starting out as atax collector for the Turks, Omar decided to keep the money he hadaccumulated for himself and soon became ruler of Galilee. He rebuilt thewalls to keep out the Turks, but an earthquake demolished them some timelater.
Aware that he needed a financial structure if the city was to prosper, Omarinvited eminent Rabbi Haim Abulafia to move to Tiberias from Turkey. Offeredhousing and a synagogue, the 80-year-old sage was happy to accept. Hebrought along his family and 10 students, and within a few decades they werejoined by large numbers of Polish Jews.
According to Halperin, the Jewish presence in Tiberias was crucial to thecity’s security. For each time that Turks in nearby areas thought aboutattacking Tiberias, the Jewish network gave Rabbi Abulafia advance notice -and he warned Omar.
On one occasion, it is said, when the Turks actually launched an assault,the Jews became frightened. Nevertheless they lent Omar their support andtheir prayers were so successful that the Turkish cannonballs missed thecity and fell into the Kinneret.
Walk through the parking lot to reach the Archeological Park, a collectionof ruins dating from the Byzantine era and ending with the Crusaders. Afifth- century synagogue uncovered on the site provides a tantalizingglimpse into the Jews’ religious life, for they used Greek inscriptions andHellenist designs to decorate their house of prayer. From the Greekinscription alone it would be impossible to ascertain that the building wasonce a Jewish house of worship. However, the lulav and etrog (palm frond andcitron used on the holiday of Succot) flanking the inscription, and itsorientation towards Jerusalem, clearly identify the edifice as a synagogue.
Follow a path behind the Jordan River Hotel to reach Hatzar Hayehudim — acomplex of old synagogues. Look for the Etz Haim synagogue, built byAbulafia, then walk inside to peer down at its 18th-century mikve (ritualbath).
There is one more site on your tour, a mosque situated in a small shoppingcenter on the other side of the pedestrian mall. Meant to glorify Daherel-Omer, it was constructed at the beginning of his rule and bears a strongresemblance to the famous Hagia Sophia Mosque in Turkey.
A new-old hotel
When Dr. David Torrance got his first look at Tiberias in 1884 as part of aScottish fact-finding delegation to the Holy Land, he was appalled to findthe town falling apart. Israel’s spiritual and intellectual center forhundreds of years and one of her four holy cities, Tiberias in the 19thcentury was awash with sewage and disease. Soon afterwards, the young doctorreturned as head of the Scottish Church’s Mission to the Jews: he wouldpreach the Gospel, of course, but he would also heal the townspeople.
Dr. Torrance immediately began treating patients with the tools he hadavailable: Epsom salts, cod liver oil and his magically healing hands. Tenyears later, he erected the town’s first medical facility, where hecontinued to care tenderly for everyone in need, regardless of his or herfaith.After Torrance’s death in 1923, the hospital continued to operate under thedirection of his son Herbert, and eventually became the only maternityfacility in the area. Tour guide Katrina Halperin doesn’t remember theevent, but her mother recalls being carried on a stretcher up the stairs tothe second floor after labor, her newborn baby in her arms. After thehospital closed, one of the buildings became a simple pilgrims’ hostel.
Recently, the Scottish Hospital was renovated and has just re-opened as theelegant Scots Hotel. The maternity wards are now stunning public rooms, thedelivery room a charming, European-looking dining hall. A completely newfive-story building holds the hotel’s standard, modern rooms, while suitesin the restored Old Manse and the Doctor’s House — dating back to 1891 -have retained their original stone interiors. Gardens surround the complex,which includes a private lake entrance and an enormous pool that will openin the spring. Everything in the hotel is wheelchair-accessible, includingseveral of the rooms.