Doña Gracia Nasi (c. 1510–1569) a Portuguese-born marrano became one of the most formidable figures of the Sephardi world in the sixteenth century. She was born into a Jewish family whose members had recently been forcibly baptized. It ended in Constantinople after a career that brought her renown as a shrewd and resourceful businesswoman, a leader of the Sephardi diaspora and a generous benefactor of Jewish enterprises. She became known among her contemporaries simply as “La Señora.”
The Ottoman Empire expanded along the southern Mediterranean under sultan Selim I and the Reyes Católicos Catholic Monarchs began establishing Inquisition commissions. Many Marranos and Moriscos and Sephardi Jews fled in fear to the Ottoman provinces, settling at first in Constantinople, Salonika, Sarajevo, Sofia and Anatolia. The Sultan encouraged them to settle in Palestine.
In 1558, Doña Gracia was granted tax collecting rights in Tiberias and its surrounding villages by the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. She envisaged the town becoming a refuge for Jews and obtained a permit to establish Jewish autonomy there.
In 1561 her nephew Joseph Nasi, Lord of Tiberias, encouraged Jews to settle in Tiberias. He and Joseph ben Adruth rebuilt the city walls and lay the groundwork for a textile (silk) industry, planting mulberry trees and urging craftsmen to move there.
Plans were made for Jews to move from the Papal States, but the Ottomans and the Republic of Venice went to war and the plan was abandoned. No Christians or Jews were mentioned in the Ottoman registers of 1525, 1533, 1548, 1553 and 1572. The registers in 1596 recorded the population to consist of 50 Muslim families and 4 bachelors.
In 1624, when the Sultan recognized Fakhr-al-Din II as Lord of Arabistan (from Aleppo to the borders of Egypt),the Druze leader made Tiberias his capital.The 1660 destruction of Tiberias by the Druze resulted in abandonment of the city by its Jewish community,Unlike Tiberias, the nearby city of Safed recovered its destruction in 1660, and wasn’t entirely abandoned, remaining an important Jewish centre in the Galilee.
Tiberias is home to the unique Doña Gracia Hotel where you can immerse yourself in costume and the amazing story. Truly one of the first Zionists a remarkable lady.