Say "Tiberias," and you may be surprised at the different associations people have. Hot springs. One of the "Four Holy Cities." Vacation! The codification of Jewish law. Seaside resorts. The beginnings of Christianity.
Tiberias - Teverya in Hebrew - is a town rich in history. No tour to the Holy Land would be complete without visiting one of its most popular resort cities, whether you're seeking to engage your mind, relax your body, reinvigorate your soul - or do all three.
Flourishing After Destruction
The city Tiberias was named after the Roman emperor Tiberius. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, much of the Jewish population migrated to Tiberias, which became the center of Torah study. Since the inhabitants had surrendered to Rome, Tiberias was spared the destruction meted out to other cities. The Sanhedrin - the Jewish Supreme Court - relocated to Tiberias as well. Under the direction of Rabbi Judah HaNasi ("the Prince"), the Mishna (Oral Law) was completed, as well as the Jerusalem Talmud.
The centrality of Tiberias waxed and waned over the years, due to the constant wars fought in the area. A Samaritan center existed in the 4th century, and the Crusaders later made Tiberias the capital of the Galilee, but it was then recaptured by Muslims. Tiberias declined again until the Ottoman Empire. During the Middle Ages, the city revitalized, and received an influx of Jewish Masoretic scholars. These scholars put the finishing touches on the Aleppo Codex, which today is the oldest existing manuscript of Hebrew Scriptures. (Today, the Aleppo codex can be seen at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, located in Jerusalem.)
Tiberias lies on the Syrian-African rift, known as the Great Rift, and has been the victim of dozens of earthquakes over the centuries. An earthquake in 1837 essentially wiped out the city, and what was left after that was nearly destroyed in the great flood in 1934. Therefore, few original structures from ancient or medieval Tiberias remain, except what has been preserved in the archaeological sites.
The Birthplace of Christianity
In and around Tiberias are many sites of interest to the visitor on a Christian tour to the Holy Land. A few steps away from the city's busy promenade rests St. Peter's Church. The modern church is built over a Crusader-era church, whose structure resembles a boat, reminding worshippers of the importance of the fishing life to Peter and the early Apostles.
Nearby, climb Mount Bernice. Enjoy the beautiful views and examine the remains of the Anchor Church. Built during the Byzantine era, excavators found a very heavy, anchor-shaped stone underneath the center of the church. It is shaped similarly to anchors used by the fishing boats in the time of Jesus, and most likely constructed as way to venerate Jesus' miracles on the Sea of Galilee.
Also nearby is the town of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. Although the ancient city is in ruins, including the church built on the site of Mary's home, the nearby town of Migdal flourishes, and is home to the Galilee Service Center. Christians from all over the world are drawn to the center to study and pray at the site where Jesus ministered and where His most famous disciple lived. In addition, a monastery and shrine have been built on the side of the road, commemorating the meeting of Jesus and Mary.
There are many holy Christian sites a few miles outside of Tiberias, which are worthwhile detours during your Christian Holy Land tour.
Capernaum, known as "Jesus' City," is where Jesus lived for an extended time and performed much of His ministry; now, it is mainly an archaeological site. The House of St. Peter can be found there, as well as one of the oldest synagogues in the world, which was possibly the synagogue mentioned in the Gospels.
Cana, also nearby, is the site of Jesus' first miracle, where He turned water into wine at a wedding. Tourists can visit the Franciscan Wedding Church, which contains the jars believed to be the ones used for the miracle. Hike around the ruins of ancient Cana, and shop at the local souvenir shop for a bottle of "wedding wine."
In the town of Tabgha, visitors can tour the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, where the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitudes occurred. One of the intricate mosaics in the church depicts a bread basket flanked by two fish. Visit the Church of the Primacy of Peter, which houses a slab of rock venerated as the table where Jesus fed fish and bread to His disciples following His resurrection.
Near Tabgha lies Mount of Beatitudes, ("Mount Nahum" or "Mount Osher" in Hebrew), where Jesus delivered His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Visit the Byzantine-style Church of the Beatitudes, or just take a moment to walk around, immersing yourself in the scenery and the history surrounding you.
Nazareth is only a thirty minute drive from Tiberias. There, visit the Church of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to a child. Jesus spent much of His young life here; make sure to visit Mary's Well, where, according to tradition, Mary often fetched water; the Church of St. Joseph, built over what was believed to have been Joseph and Mary's home; and St. Gabriel's Church, built on the site where, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Annunciation took place.
While in Nazareth, hike up Mt. Precipice. Here, an angry mob who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah pushed Him off the cliff, but He miraculously leapt into the valley, unharmed. The peak of Mt. Precipice offers sweeping views of the Jezreel Valley. From the top, one can see Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the transfiguration of Jesus. Many churches and monasteries sprung up on the mountain; the most well-known is the Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration.
An Ancient Synagogue and Great Thinkers
An ancient synagogue in Tiberias is a huge draw for tourists, whether they're Jewish, Christian, or just fascinated by history. The 4th century synagogue is called the Severus Synagogue, or Hammat Tiberias Synagogue. "Hammat" is the Hebrew word for "hot springs" and indicates its proximity to the famous springs; "Severus" is a Greek name inscribed on the synagogue floor. The elaborate mosaic floor is the highlight of the synagogue, and much of it is surprisingly intact. The center depicts the sun god, Helios, driving his chariot, an indication of the influence of Hellenism on the architect. Other depictions include a seven-branch menorah, as well as nine of the twelve zodiac signs.
Tiberias is the final resting place of many prominent Jewish rabbis and thinkers, including the grave of Maimonides, a renowned physician and philosopher in the Middle Ages. Nearby lies the grave of Rabbi Akiva, the Mishnaic sage who only began studying the Torah at age forty and went on to become one of the greatest Jewish teachers. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tiberias received an influx of rabbis and kabbalists, who once again revitalized the city. One of those most well-known kabbalists, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, is buried close to Rabbi Akiva's grave. Due to the convergence of so many prominent scholars, Tiberias became one of the "Four Holy Cities," along with Jerusalem, Safed, and Hebron.
The First Kibbutz
The first kibbutzim - collective communities - in Israel were started near Tiberias. Visitors to Kibbutz Degania can visit a small museum, which recounts the story of Israel's pioneers, as well Beit Gordon, a nature museum. During the War of Independence, a Syrian tank advanced on the kibbutz, but was destroyed by the residents. The shell of the tank remains today, to commemorate the bravery of the kibbutz fighters.
The Muslims, too, have a rich history in Tiberias. Visit the El Bahri Sea Mosque, which today houses the Municipal Museum. The mosque earned the "sea" appellation because it was built on the water, in order to accommodate Muslim worshippers coming in on their boats. The El Omri Mosque, in the center of town, was a major house of worship when it was built in the 18th
Israel's cities have a unique mix of historical sites and first-class entertainment. Tiberias is no exception. Tiberias is the most popular holiday resort in the north, and there are plenty of activities here to back up that claim! First, visiting Tiberias without relaxing in one of its celebrated hot springs would be like a trip to New York without visiting the Statue of Liberty, or Arizona without the Grand Canyon. Hamat Tiberias National Park offers seventeen hot springs whose therapeutic powers have been renowned for centuries. Sign up for a spa or health treatment! Relax at Hamat Gader during a therapeutic water treatment and enjoy other water attractions, suitable even for the littlest tourists (ages three and up). Visit the zoo at Hamat Gader featuring exotic animals, including crocodiles! Many of the hotels in the region, like the Holiday Inn, offer access to the hot springs as well. The Gai Beach Water Park is a luxury resort complete with its own water park; of course, tourists not staying at the hotel can also visit the water park.
In the evening, take a sunset boat ride on the Kinneret or a stroll down the lakeside promenade, filled with bars and restaurants. The Galilee Experience offers visitors the chance to catch up on centuries of Galilee history in a mere thirty-five minutes, all within an air-conditioned theater. Take an afternoon to visit the Dona Gracia Museum. Dona Gracia was a wealthy "secret Jew" in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, who helped Jews escape Spain. She donated money to build up Tiberias as a refuge for the exiled Jews.
Marathon Man (or Woman)
And if you are going to be in Tiberias in January time - when the weather is pleasant and mild - take part in the annual Tiberias International Marathon. Participate in the race or come by to cheer on the competitors! Touted as the "lowest marathon in the world" - at 200 meters below sea level - it attracts over 1,000 athletes from twenty different countries.
Don't miss out on a "tiyul" (Hebrew for "trip") to Tiberias! What associations will you make when someone mentions "Tiberias?" Spend some time here and find out!