The hot springs played a significant role in the development of Tiberias. The location of the springs was a factor in Herod Antipas choice of Tiberias as his capital. The original 3 600 square meter bath house which Herod built was destroyed in an earthquake in 749 CE but was subsequently rebuilt. The baths were an important economic resource and provided the local government with and importance income during Turkish rule.
Ibrahim Pecha built a bath house when Egypt conquered Israel in 1830. When the Turks regained control, they gave exclusive rights to an entrepreneur to redeveloped the site as a luxury spa. Unfortunately, due to exorbitant prices bathers were driven away and he went bankrupt.
The British gave the rights to the baths to the city of Tiberias. In 1926 the British tried to take over the baths but lost a legal battle with the city. Since 1932 the springs have been managed by a company setup by the city. The museum building was originally part of the Turkish bath house. A photograph of a coin on display was minted by the city in the second century no doubt promoted awareness of the baths’ healing properties. It portrays Hygieia (the Greek goddess of health) feeding a snake from a plate.
The mural at the museum’s entrance shows a section from the Talmud (tractate Shabbat 33b). Shimeon Bar Yochai, a second century rabbi who vehemently opposed Roman rule, was condemned to death for sedition. He and his son hid in a cave for thirteen years. During their seclusion sores erupted on their bodies.
When the sentence was lifted Bar Yochai came out of hiding and went to Tiberias to bath in its healing waters. The waters of Tiberias miraculously restored his health. He returned the favour by purifying the city. The Roman city had been built over a cemetery and was thus ritually unclean. Bar Yochai determined the location of the graves by planting lupine and marking the spots where the plant thrived, then relocated many of the graves outside the city. His purification of Tiberias enabled rabbis to live there and paved the way for the rise of Tiberias as one of Judaism’s holy cities.
In ancient times the seven-branched menorah was the symbol of Judaism. A menorah was found in the synagogue excavated at Hamat dating from the Roman period. The menorah on display is a copy. The original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Romans often named the baths in honour of their gods and decorated them with idols. This did not stop Jews from going to the baths. Rabbi Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin, was once relaxing in the bath of Aphrodite when a Roman asked what he was doing in a place of idol worship. Gamliel replied that the idol was only a decoration; had it been holy, Romans would not stand in front of it naked and urinate. (Mishna, Avoda Zara 3:5).
The Healing properties of the Springs
The Syrian-African rift, a geological fault stretches from Turkey down the Jordan valley and the Red Sea to Lake Victoria in Africa. At Hamat Tiberias the hot spring water which is around 60°C gushes up two kilometres to the surface. The seventeen springs in and around Tiberias are all tapped by the spas nearby. The water’s chemical and medicinal properties have been well documented. Today the springs attract visitors from all over the world seeking relief from their ailments. Unfortunately this rift has caused the earthquakes that have devastated Tiberias at intervals throughout its history.
Legends of the Springs
According to tradition King Solomon created the hot springs by ordering demons to carry water up from underground. After he gave the order, he made the demons deaf. They never heard the news that Solomon died, so they are still at work bringing up the waters.
The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi wrote that after the Flood, G-d purposely left the springs open to benefit mankind (Rashi’s commentary Genesis 8:2).
According to Arab tradition each pool cures a different ailment. The waters are so effective that doctors feared for their livelihood, and Aristotle asked the king to close the baths.
The most impressive feature at this site is the Zodiac Mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue. This was the third synagogue built here over the years.one on top of the other. The first was around 230 CE.
A second synagogue was built after the destruction of the first synagogue in the 3rd century with a zodiac mosaic. The floor mosaics consist of three panels. The northern panel shows two lions with inscriptions in Greek dedicated to the donors. At the centre is Zodiac wheel. The depiction of Helios the Greek sun god and other images have raise many unanswered questions. Similar images are depicted at Bet Alpha synagogue.
The second synagogue known as the Severan synagogue was destroyed by earthquakes at the beginning of the fifth century. A third was built upon the ruins. This was more extensive with a large central hall. One of key features was the ark at the front closest to Jerusalem. The synagogue lasted until the 8th century.
The Jerusalem Talmud tells that this is the first mosaic floor ever installed in a synagogue, and that Rabbi Abun, head of the synagogue, did not prevent it installation. (Jerusalem Talmud, Avoda Zara 3:1) When Rabbi Abun bragged about his synagogue to Rabbi Mani of Tzippori (Sepphoris) the latter turned on him in quoting from Hosea 8:14: “Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palace…” You could have supported scholars studying Torah with all the money you spent on those gates. (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim ch 5)
The longest Greek inscription, flanked by lions, list eight donors who fulfilled a vow. The vows were presumably in gratitude for being healed in the bath; the inscription for each donors ends with the words, ‘May he live,’ not a common blessing at that time.
The first Greek inscription commemorates the offering of a stoa (covered colonnade). The text translates the word amen into Greek (AMHN), and the word shalom appears in Hebrew.
Another Greek inscription praises ‘Severus the pupil of the illustrious nesiim and Julius who finished the work. May they be blessed.’ The nasi (singular of nesiim) was the head of Israel’s Jewish community in the 4th century and resided in Tiberias.