On the banks of the Kinneret

The final resting place of Jewish sages and a lure for Christian pilgrims, Tiberias isn't your average resort town.

Lake Kinneret (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
Lake Kinneret
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
Today a resort town on the shores of Lake Kinneret, Tiberias was built by King Herod Antipas in 20 CE. Streets in the splendid, well-planned Roman city were laid out in typical grid patterns, and Tiberias boasted handsome avenues lined with shops, impressive statues, a luxurious bathhouse and a grandiose palace. Unfortunately for the Jews in the area, who would have delighted in the free land, housing and tax exemptions that Herod was offering new residents, the king had unwittingly located Tiberias directly over an ancient Jewish cemetery and fear of contamination kept most of them away.
Some 130 years later, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai emerged from the Galilee cave in which he had been hiding ever since the Romans sentenced him to death for studying Torah. Tradition holds that in order to make his clothes last for the duration, he had removed them whenever he was not at prayer and had covered his nakedness with sand. As a result, when the decree was finally lifted over a decade later, the sage was feeling pretty grimy. Once outside the cave, he couldn’t wait to cleanse himself in the hot springs of Tiberias.

But first he had to purify the city, says guide Katrina Halperin, director of the Tiberias information center. She relates that the sage scoured the area looking for lupine and sea squill — two flowering plants that flourish in soft, turned-over soil. Identifying graves by the blossoms growing nearby, he dug up the bodies and relocated them elsewhere with appropriate ceremony.

The timing was fortuitous, for the ill-fated Bar- Kochba Revolt had ended a few years earlier and Jews banished from Jerusalem were flocking north. Now that Tiberias was purged, it became a favorite destination. Indeed, by the third century, Tiberias had become the center of Jewish life in the Holy Land.

MOST HISTORICAL tours of Tiberias take you to the graves of the righteous - among them Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides and Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness. This slightly different but no less interesting route leads you through Ottoman-era, Crusader and Byzantine remains.

Begin at the bottom of Dona Gracia Lane for a good view of the Meyuhas Hostel, located along the main drag and originally called the Tiberias Hotel. When built in 1896, it was the largest and most modern hotel in Galilee and today offers a superb example of Tiberias’s architecture. The building was constructed of basalt stones, and its windows and corners are trimmed with pale limestone for a dazzling contrast. During restoration, the lime was painted white, giving it an even more unusual look.

Positioned above the main byways leading north, west and south, the hotel had immense strategic importance. Indeed, it was only after taking it during the War of Independence that the Jews gained control of Tiberias.

Ascend Dona Gracia to reach the Turkish seraya — the district administrative center during the Ottoman era. The fortress next door was erroneously named ’Crusades Palace’ by someone who knew that the Crusaders generally built their citadels on hilltops. Actually, however, its characteristic style and secondary use of stone make it clear that this was a Turkish citadel. Just past the tower, study the wall to discover a Byzantine-era menora carved into one of the stones.

Return to the bottom of Dona Gracia to walk through the Scots Hotel (see box), then head for the lakeshore promenade. Until 1934, stores, dwellings and even a mosque lined the banks of the Kinneret. That year, however, a massive black cloud burst over the city and caused tremendous floods. Water poured down from the mountains above Tiberias, bringing with it tons of boulders and earth. Dozens of people were killed, and down at the lake, where an easterly wind was blowing, the city was transformed into one gigantic pool.

At the time, the British ruled Palestine and, practical as always, they took concrete steps to avert future disaster. Banning construction on the lakeshore, they planted trees above the town (today’s Swiss Forest) to hold down the soil. And in 1937, the British constructed a dam to prevent the easterly winds from propelling huge waves into the city. It is that dam which 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 of the 12th century, St. Peter’s outer wall is faced with a symbolically overturned boat — representing Peter’s transformation from fisherman to apostle. Behind the altar inside are two splendid works of art whose glittering crushed stucco gives them a mosaic look. The church, lost to Saladin in 1187, was used by a Muslim family as a stable for nearly seven centuries 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 in Russia and the Ukraine fled to Palestine. They found temporary quarters at the church’s Casa Nova hostel, and eventually joined the British fight against the Nazi army. In 1946, soldiers erected a striking monument in the courtyard in gratitude for the hospitality they had received. These days, the church is frequented by pilgrims, passersby, and Maronites who served in the South Lebanese Army.

BACK ON the promenade, you will come to the Galilee Experience, an imaginative audio-visual show which relates biblical prophecies to the Jewish return to Zion. Stop on your right at the boarded-up Sea Mosque. This unusual structure was built in the 19th century, when the Kinneret’s waters lapped at its doorstep. Peek through the window to see the large canal inside: fishermen once sailed right into the sanctuary for worship.

Turn right at the end of the promenade to view remains of 12th-century Crusader walls, built on Byzantine foundations. They were restored in 1740 by Daher el-Omar, a Beduin sheikh who settled in Tiberias. Starting out as a tax collector for the Turks, Omar decided to keep the money he had accumulated for himself and soon became ruler of Galilee. He rebuilt the walls to keep out the Turks, but an earthquake demolished them some time later.

Aware that he needed a financial structure if the city was to prosper, Omar invited eminent Rabbi Haim Abulafia to move to Tiberias from Turkey. Offered housing and a synagogue, the 80-year-old sage was happy to accept. He brought along his family and 10 students, and within a few decades they were joined by large numbers of Polish Jews.

According to Halperin, the Jewish presence in Tiberias was crucial to the city’s security. For each time that Turks in nearby areas thought about attacking 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 and their prayers were so successful that the Turkish cannonballs missed the city and fell into the Kinneret.

Walk through the parking lot to reach the Archeological Park, a collection of ruins dating from the Byzantine era and ending with the Crusaders. A fifth- century synagogue uncovered on the site provides a tantalizing glimpse into the Jews’ religious life, for they used Greek inscriptions and Hellenist designs to decorate their house of prayer. From the Greek inscription alone it would be impossible to ascertain that the building was once a Jewish house of worship. However, the lulav and etrog (palm frond and citron used on the holiday of Succot) flanking the inscription, and its orientation towards Jerusalem, clearly identify the edifice as a synagogue.

Follow a path behind the Jordan River Hotel to reach Hatzar Hayehudim — a complex of old synagogues. Look for the Etz Haim synagogue, built by Abulafia, then walk inside to peer down at its 18th-century mikve (ritual bath).

There is one more site on your tour, a mosque situated in a small shopping center on the other side of the pedestrian mall. Meant to glorify Daher el-Omer, it was constructed at the beginning of his rule and bears a strong resemblance 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 a Scottish fact-finding delegation to the Holy Land, he was appalled to find the town falling apart. Israel’s spiritual and intellectual center for hundreds of years and one of her four holy cities, Tiberias in the 19th century was awash with sewage and disease. Soon afterwards, the young doctor returned as head of the Scottish Church’s Mission to the Jews: he would preach the Gospel, of course, but he would also heal the townspeople.

Dr. Torrance immediately began treating patients with the tools he had available: Epsom salts, cod liver oil and his magically healing hands. Ten years later, he erected the town’s first medical facility, where he continued to care tenderly for everyone in need, regardless of his or her faith.

After Torrance’s death in 1923, the hospital continued to operate under the direction of his son Herbert, and eventually became the only maternity facility in the area. Tour guide Katrina Halperin doesn’t remember the event, but her mother recalls being carried on a stretcher up the stairs to the second floor after labor, her newborn baby in her arms. After the hospital closed, one of the buildings became a simple pilgrims’ hostel.

Recently, the Scottish Hospital was renovated and has just re-opened as the elegant Scots Hotel. The maternity wards are now stunning public rooms, the delivery room a charming, European-looking dining hall. A completely new five-story building holds the hotel’s standard, modern rooms, while suites in 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 open in the spring. Everything in the hotel is wheelchair-accessible, including several of the rooms.