Tiberias has been a popular destination for tourists for more than 2,000 years.
As early as Roman times, this thriving recreation spa, built around 17 natural mineral hot springs more than 600 feet below sea level, welcomed visitors from every part of the ancient world. Built by Herod Antipas (one of Herod the Great's three sons who divided up Palestine after their father's death), the city was named Tiberias in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Tiberias plays an important role in Jewish history. It was part of the land bequeathed to Naphtali (Joshua 19:35). The Sanhedrin (the High Court of Israel during the period of the Second Temple) relocated to Tiberias from Sepphoris. In the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, Tiberias was an important spiritual center. The Mishna was completed in Tiberias in 200 C.E. under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi ("Judah the Prince"). The Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in 400 C.E.
After his death in 1204, the great Jewish sage Maimonides was buried in Tiberias. His tomb is on Ben Zakkai Street, a short distance from the town center. The street's namesake, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, is also believed to be buried nearby. Yet another shrine is the Tomb of Rabbi Akiva.
A Samaritan center existed in Tiberias in the middle of the 4th century. The Crusaders later captured the city and made it the capital of the Galilee, but Saladin retook the city for the Muslim Empire in 1187. The city suffered a decline until it was revived by the Ottoman Turks. After the city was built up over a period of about a century, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1837.
The early Zionist pioneers established some of Israel's first kibbutzim at the turn of the century in this area. After the establishment of the state, newcomers flocked to the city and the population quadrupled. Today, it is home to about 30,000 people.
Tiberias sits along the 32-mile shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea lies roughly 650 feet below sea level and is 14 miles long and 7 1/2 miles wide at its widest point. The Sea is the major source of fresh water for the entire country. The Sea, really a lake, lies on the ancient "Via Maris," a route that linked Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The New Testament contains several references to the lake, which is known alternatively as the Sea of Galilee, Sea of Tiberias and the Sea of Gennesaret. This is where Jesus calmed the stormy sea (Mathew 8) and walked on the water (Mathew 14).
Israelis call the Sea by the biblical name Kinneret. This was the name of a city on the northwestern edge of the lake during the Canaanite and Israelite periods. The reference to the Sea of Tiberias is attributable to the newer riparian city.
Just outside of Tiberias is the ancient town of Hammat, which boasts the hottest (140º) mineral springs in Israel and has, not surprisingly, become a popular spa. The town also has a synagogue built in 341, that has a magnificent mosaic floor. It is unusual, in part, because it contains human figures that are nude. This is rare because synagogues rarely have human representations in them and, when they do, they are fully clothed.
On the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, you'll find the ancient fishing village of Bethsaida, the traditional home of Jesus' apostles Peter and Andrew. In this area, the Jordan River and several streams from the Golan Heights form a marshy delta that is home to a large variety of animals and birds, especially water-fowl.
About six miles north of Tiberias, you can visit Kibbutz Ginosar, the former home of one of Israel's great statesmen, Yigal Allon. The kibbutz has a museum devoted to Allon's life and the history of the Galilee region. It also houses the so-called “Jesus boat,” a 2,000-year-old boat excavated from the Kinneret in 1985 that was probably used at the time of Jesus.
At the southern tip of the sea is Degania Aleph, Israel's oldest kibbutz, founded in 1909, and its nearby twin Degania Bet (built in 1920). Degania Aleph was named after its spiritual father, A.D. Gordon, and later was the birthplace of Moshe Dayan. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol came from Degania Bet.
When the Arab armies invaded Israel from the north in 1948, they ran over the settlements farther north in the Golan, but were stopped by the defenders of Degania Aleph. A French-made Syrian tank was left at the gate as a memorial to the battle.
At the opposite bank of the sea, is the country's second agricultural commune, Kibbutz Kinneret, which was established in 1911. Nearby is a cemetery, Ohalo, which not only is the final resting place for many of the people from the kibbutz, but also some of Israel's most famous personalities, including Rahel Bluwstein (known simply as Rachel to most Israelis), Ber Borochov and Moses Hess.
Two miles north of Tiberias is the agricultural settlement of Migdal. This is near the ancient town where Mary Magdalene was born. Further north is the town of Tabgha, one of many sites in the Galilee where Christians of the early Byzantine period built monasteries, churches and shrines to commemorate the ministry of Jesus and the miracles ascribed to him. Tabgha is the traditional site of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. (Matt. 14: 13-21). Nearby is the Mount of the Beatitudes. An Italian convent now stands on the hill. This is where Jesus is thought to have preached the Sermon on the Mount, which begins:
Standing on the church porch overlooking the Sea and the surrounding hills makes for a powerful setting to recall the sermon.
About two miles south is Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), the lakeside town where Jesus preached, and his disciples, Peter and Andrew lived. This is where Jesus told his followers, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." He spent three years based here and performed many miracles, but was rejected by the townspeople, provoking Jesus to curse them, "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto Heaven, shall be brought down to hell!"
The synagogue may be on the site where Jesus preached, but was built two or three centuries later. We know it is a synagogue because of the Jewish symbols -- a menorah and a shofar -- inscribed on one of the columns.
The Jordan River also passes near Kibbutz Kinneret. Perhaps you have an image of the Jordan as a mighty body of water like the Mississippi, an understandable expectation given its role in history and scripture. In fact, it is more like a muddy stream that is only a few feet wide in places. Since Jesus was baptized by John in the river (near Jericho), it has become traditional for Christian pilgrims to come to a special park along the river established as a baptism site.