History of Tiberias

The establishment of Tiberias

Tiberias is regarded by Jews as one of the four Holy cities in Israel. Picture8547The city has a rich history dating back to biblical times. It is believed that it is the site of Rakkat mentioned in the book of Joshua. Tiberias was strategically important located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee along a major trade route between Syria and Egypt. The hot springs near Tiberias have played a major role in its development. The springs have drawn visitors, both for recreation and therapeutic purposes, to their healing waters since at least Roman times, and throughout the centuries.

King Herod’s son Herod Antipas constructed the city around 20 CE and named it ‘Tiberias’ in honour of the Roman Emperor Caesar Tiberius. Tiberias replaced Sepphoris (Tzippori) as the capital of Galilee. He also established it as a Roman spa town with 17 hot springs in the vicinity. Josephus Flavius calls the town with hot springs Emmaus.

Herod Agrippa II annexed the city 61 CE. During the First Jewish Roman War Josephus Flavius took control of the city and destroyed Herod’s palace. He later surrendered the city to the Roman emperor Vespasian. Most of the cities in the surrounding provinces were destroyed but Tiberias spared because it was loyal to Rome.

Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and with the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem in 135 CE the lives of the Jews of in the south became increasing perilous. After the Bar Kokhba Revolt around 132-136 CE Jewish life in Judaea was virtually wiped out. Hence the Jewish people were forced to relocate. The remnants of the southern Jewish population migrated to the Galilee. Many exiled Jews involved with commerce and politics were attracted to Tiberias and its neighbour Sepphoris.

However Tiberius had been a burial city and was considered ritually impure for many Jews. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai purified the city and Tiberias became the main centre of Jewish learning. The Great Court of the Sanhedrin, whose rulings affected the entire Jewish diaspora, met in Tiberias from around 150 CE. The Mishna and Talmud were compiled amongst others by Rabbi Judah HaNasi in around 200 CE. Despite the fact that the Jews faced intense Byzantine persecution the city continued to be an important centre for Jewish scholars.

Due to the Byzantine oppression the Jews of Israel supported the Persians in their attempt to conquer Israel. However the Byzantines were defeated by the Persians. The Byzantines were later defeated by the Arabs. Under Arab rule Jewish learning flourished from the beginning of the 8th to the end of the 10th century. The nikud the Hebrew vowel notation was invented in Tiberias in the seventh century.

Tiberias served as the regional capital from 636 CE. However following the Rashidun conquest Bet Shean became the capital of the region. Tiberias was revitalized in 749, after Bet Shean was destroyed in an earthquake and its importance was re-established. The eighth century is seen as Tiberias’ golden age. The city was one of the most tolerant of the Middle East.

During the first crusade in the 11th century after the capture of Jerusalem Tiberias was occupied by the Franks. Tancred made it the capital of his Galilee principality. Around this time the Jewish community numbered about 50 families. Saint Peter’s Church, originally built by the Crusaders, is still standing today.

On July 4, 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders and took control of Tiberias. However, during the Third Crusade, the Crusaders drove the Muslims out of the city and reoccupied it. The Crusaders were driven from the city by the Mamluks In 1265, who ruled Tiberias until the Ottoman conquest in 1516.

Throughout the Middle Ages, many Jews in Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism secretly. Some Marannos succeeded in fleeing from Spain and once free returned to their Jewish roots. Between 1391 and the fifteenth century, many of these Sephardic Jews fled to Israel to escape a waves of persecutions in Spain. Encouraged by Dona Gracia Nasi, a Sephardic Jewish woman many of these migrants settled in Tiberias. She arranged with the Ottaman ruler the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent for Tiberias to become a Jewish province serving as a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The community thrived for about one hundred years until but after a period of unrest and fighting with the Bedouins the Jews abandoned the town.

In 1624, the Sultan recognized the Druze leader Fakhr-al-Din II as Lord of Arabistan. His kingdom stretched from Aleppo to the borders of Egypt. He made Tiberias his capital and Jews returned to the city. In 1660 Tiberias was raised to the ground by the Druze. Once again this resulted in abandonment of the city by Jews. Meanwhile Safed grew and became an important Jewish centre in the Galilee.

In the 1720s, the Bedouin ruler Dhaher al-Omar, fortified the city of Tiberias and signed an agreement with the nearby Bedouin tribes. There was great admiration for Dhaher, especially his war against the bandits on the roads.

In the 1740s Jewish families were encouraged to settle in Tiberias under the rule of Dhaher. Chaim Abulafia of Smyrna was invited to rebuild the Jewish community. The synagogue he built is still standing.

Under instructions from the Ottoman Porte, Suleyman Pasha of Damascus laid siege to Tiberias in 1742, with the intention of eliminating Dhaher. However, the siege was unsuccessful. In the following year, Suleyman set out to repeat the attempt with even greater reinforcements, but he died en route.

In 1775, Ahmed el-Jazzar ‘the Butcher’, brought peace to the region and in 1780, many Polish Jews settled in the town. There was an influx of scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries who re-established it as a centre for Jewish learning.

The town was devastated by the 1837 by the great Galilee earthquake. Six hundred people, including nearly 500 Jews, died. An American expedition found Tiberias still in a state of disrepair in ten years later. In 1842 the population was about 4,000 around a third of whom were Jews, the rest being Turks and a few Christians.

In 1850 there were three synagogues in Tiberias. There was vibrant Sephardi community, which consisted of 80 families, Ashkenazim, Poles and Russians, numbering about 100 families. It was reported that the Jewish inhabitants of Tiberias enjoyed more peace and security than those of Safed.

In 1863 Christian and Muslims made up three-quarters of the population which was around 3000. In 1901 there were around 2000 Jews in Tiberias out of a population of 3 600. By 1912 the population had risen to 6,500. This included 4,500 Jews, 1,600 Muslims and the rest were Christian.

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In the late 1880s Jewish settlement throughout Israel increased and the Jewish population of Tiberias began to expand. Tiberias became known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities. According to Kabbalah, each one of these cities is connected to an element of nature – Jerusalem is Earth, Hebron is Fire, Tzfat is Air, and Tiberias is Water.

Despite Arab riots notably in 1929 and 1936 the Jews continued to build and settle in Tiberias. Since 1948, after Tiberias was captured by the new Israeli army, the city has grown into a major tourist centre. The tranquillity of the lake, the hot springs and pilgrim sites and history give the town a unique quality.