Tiberias is not usually thought of as a glamorous and exciting tourist center, even though it has that potential. Despite its dowdy appearance, however, it has many quality hotels, there are nice beaches in the area, its location as a base for exploring the Galilee and Golan is excellent, and there are numerous interesting things to do and see in and around the city.
Sites to visit in downtown Tiberias
Tiberias Promenade (Yigal Alon Promenade).
This is a popular walkway along the waterfront, especially at night. It is part of a former dam constructed during the British mandate to prevent easterly winds blowing waves into the city. It has stores, stalls, restaurants, cafes, and docks for boats and is a fun place to be. Prior to Covid, a music and light show was shown at its southern end, although this is not currently operating. Access to the middle of the promenade is via HaYarkon.
At the northern-most entrance/exit from the promenade are exhibits in stone and illustrated tiles on the walkway demonstrating the work of the Masoretes in the 8th to 10th centuries CE in devising a system of vowels for the Hebrew language. Written Hebrew uses only consonants, and how to pronounce the vowels of words was known only by tradition. There are public WC’s at the far end of this path.
The Etz Haim Abulafia Synagogue.
This synagogue in the Court of Jews and close to the main hotels and waterfront dates from the early 1700’s, although it has been renovated several times because of earthquakes and flooding. It has a very elaborately decorated domed ceiling with a floral pattern of six overlapping circles. It is an active Sephardi synagogue and offers regular services. It was established by the aged Rabbi Chaim Abulafia from Smyrna who was invited by the Muslim ruler of Tiberias to reestablish the desolated community on the site of previous synagogues. Subsequently, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities flourished to the extent that the city expanded to the hills in the north.
There are also other synagogues in this square, including the Karlin-Stolin Synagogue and Beit Midrash formed by Karlin-Stolin Hassidim who immigrated here in the mid-19th century, and the Old Synagogue now used by Habad. The latter was formerly the Boyan Synagogue and dates from when Boyan Hasidim came to Tiberius in the early 19th century.
Tiberias Tourist Information.
This is located in the archeological park in front of the Sheraton Moriah Hotel not far from the lake. It is open from 9.00 AM-4.00 PM Sunday to Thursday and Friday 8.30 AM-12.30 PM. There may be extended hours during July and August. There are free tours of the city at specific times, although these are not currently being offered because of Covid.
The Dona Gracia Museum in the Dona Gracia Hotel
This is not as well-known a tourist site as it should be. The entire Donna Gracia Hotel is set up to commemorate the life of this remarkable lady, Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569). The décor of all the hotel guest rooms reflects the period in which she lived. There is also a museum on the first two floors of the hotel dedicated to her life, consisting of written displays, models from periods in her life, period rooms, and a room for dressing up.
This inspiring lady was a very successful business woman in a predominantly man’s world, and she became one of the wealthiest individuals in Renaissance Europe. She used her wealth and business resources to rescue hundreds of Marrano Jews from the Inquisition and subsequently attended to their Judaism by supporting synagogues and yeshivot, publications, and even a printing press. Her story of evading the inquisition in Europe, the intrigues related to those attempting to take over or inherit her wealth, and the family disputes related to her wealth are obvious material for a novel – and in fact several have been written. (See also below for more fascinating details about Donna Gracia).
Directions: Enter “Dona Gracia” into Waze and click on “Hotel Casa Dona Gracia.” The address of the hotel is 16-22 HaPrakhim St. Parking is on the street.
Admission: Admission is 45 nis for adults and reduced price for children. Tours are available, including in English, but this needs to be booked in advance. Their phone number is 04 672-8900. This is their website.
Time: A few hours to do full justice to the exhibit.
If you are viewing this exhibition on your own and outside the framework of a tour, the implications of what you are seeing may pass you by, since this is not a period that most people are familiar with. So do read the essay below for some background information. Note, also, that there is a tendency for everyone but Israelis to begin looking at an exhibition from close to the door and then to move along to the right. However, Israelis start far away from the door and move to the left. If you do not do this, you may find yourself going back in time historically rather than forward!
The Spanish Ferrara Bible that Dona Gracia sponsored being presented to her.
As distinct from other tombs in and around Tiberias, there is little doubt that Maimonides is truly buried here, since his son mentions that he was interred in Tiberius after being briefly buried in Fustat in Egypt. He died in 1204. Why would he wish to be buried here? Maimonides was never happy that he was living in Egypt since he recognized that he was transgressing the Biblical command of not returning to Egypt. He was also well aware that Tiberias had been a place of Jewish scholarship. In his Mishna Torah he would write: “It is our tradition that the Sanhedrin will reconvene in Tiberias prior to returning to the Temple Mount.” (Mishna Torah, Sanhedrin 14:12). Because of the conflict between the Crusaders and Muslims, his being buried in Jerusalem was out of the question. Also in this location are the tombs of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and the Shla Hakodesh.
Directions: Enter “Maimonides Tomb” into Waze. It is on Yochanan ben Zakai St. There is a parking lot on this street. The site is well maintained and is open 24 hours a day. There is an adjoining synagogue with regular minyanim. Also WC’s.
A visit to the nearby Maimonides Heritage Center is also well worthwhile. The aims of this non-profit organization are to disseminate the teachings and world view of Maimonides, to explain their relevance, to engage in social welfare programs in Tiberias, and provide studying opportunities. There is a museum on the ground floor relating to Maimonides’ teachings that has colorful multi-media exhibits and collections of his writings, including a handwritten diagram of the Second Temple. A short video about Maimonides’ life is shown. The address is 8 Khakham Abulafya St. There is no admission charge but a donation is appreciated. Their phone number is 04 672 5280. The building is not always open and it is worth calling beforehand. This is their website.
Maimonides can be considered a modern Orthodox Jew. His book "The Guide to the Perplexed" became highly controversial.
Other tombs in Tiberias
The tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes
A number of tombs of well-known sages are located in Tiberias. The tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes is just above the Hamat Tevera National Park and is the most frequently visited and largest tomb complex in Tiberias. It has separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues and separate male and female prayer areas. The tomb complex also contains several stores, attesting to the popularity of this site.
A series of miracles performed by Rabbi Meir is described in the Talmud (TB Avoda Zarah 18a-18b), and this gave him the reputation of being a miracle man. Hence his name Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes (the miracle worker). An established tradition is to give charity in his memory, especially to the poor of Israel, and to say “God of Meir – answer me!” as Rabbi Meir is recorded as doing in the Talmud. The hope is that this declaration will lead to miraculous events.
Rabbi Meir lived at the time of the Mishna and is considered to be one of the greatest fourth generation Tannaim. He was a pupil of Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Akiva’s teachings were transmitted through him and became part of the Mishna. However, his own halachic opinions were not accepted by the other sages as he seemed to be functioning on a loftier spiritual plane (TB Eruvim 13b). He lived outside Israel during the Hadrianic persecutions and did not participate in the Bar Kochba Revolt. However, he returned to Israel after this and took a prominent part in the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin in Usha. He also had academies near Tiberias. He died in Asia Minor but was brought to Tiberias to be buried.
Access to the tomb complex is from roads on either side of Hamat Teverya National Park, but not through the park itself. There is parking by the tomb on both sides. It is only a short distance from route 90 and can also be easily reached on foot. Enter into Waze “Tomb of Rabbi Meir.”
The tomb complex of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes
The tomb of Rabbi Akiva
This tomb is in Upper Tiberias at the end of Hagvura St. Adjacent to his tomb is that of Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzato (known as the Ramchal) a rabbi and kabbalist who lived in the 18th century.
The contribution of Rabbi Akiva to Jewish tradition is inestimable, as he was the one who collated all of Jewish tradition after the destruction the Temple. The notes recorded by his students but approved by him formed the earliest version of the Mishna. His traditions were also disseminated by his star student Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. According to a Midrash, he began learning Torah at age 40 when he began learning the Hebrew alphabet together with his children. He supported the Bar Kochba Revolt (about 132 CE) and crowned Shimon ben Kosiba the Messiah by naming him Bar Kochba (the son of a star). As the most influential rabbi of the time, this was a significant step in furthering the revolt. The failure of this revolt and destruction of Judea led to Jewish migration to the Galilee and then to the Golan. He was executed by the Romans in Caesarea for continuing to teach Torah. His tomb complex does not have the grandeur of that of his pupil Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, probably because Rabbi Akiva is never credited with having miraculous capabilities. Directions: Enter “Tomb of Rabbi Akiva” into Waze. Waze will lead you to a nearby parking lot, but it is also possible to park right outside the tomb. There are prayer areas for men and women. The view over Tiberias is quite impressive.
The tomb of Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel is also in Tiberias, not far from that of Rabbi Meir Bal HaNes. Rachel is regarded as being the paragon of a virtuous wife. She married Rabbi Akiva against the wishes of her rich father who disowned her and went to live in poverty with her husband. She persuaded her husband to begin Torah learning at great personal sacrifice. That anyone would accomplish what Rabbi Akiva mentioned to achieve with no previous background in Jewish learning is quite remarkable. The Talmud says the following about virtuous women: “Rav said to Rabbi Hiyyah: Whereby do women gain this merit [of Torah study]? By taking their sons to the synagogue to learn and waiting for their husbands to return from the study hall where they had been studying Torah” (TB Berachot 17a). Directions: Enter into Waze “Tomb of Rachel” and click on “Tomb of Rachel Wife of Rabbi Akiva.”
At the tomb of Rabbi Akiva
The tomb of Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel is also in Tiberias, not far from that of Rabbi Meir Bal HaNes. Rachel is regarded as being the paragon of a virtuous wife. She married Rabbi Akiva against the wishes of her rich father who disowned her and went to live in poverty with her husband. She persuaded her husband to begin Torah learning at great personal sacrifice to herself - with no previous background in Jewish learning he became the foremost sage in the country. The Talmud says the following about virtuous women: “Rav said to Rabbi Hiyyah: "Whereby do women gain this merit [of Torah study]? By taking their sons to the synagogue to learn and waiting for their husbands to return from the study hall where they had been studying Torah” (TB Berachot 17a).
Directions: Enter into Waze “Tomb of Rachel” and click on “Tomb of Rachel Wife of Rabbi Akiva.”
The ruins of Roman Tiberias
Some ruins of Roman Tiberias have been exposed by archeological excavations. It would have been nice if the city displayed these ruins in a park with helpful signs showing the development of ancient Tiberias. But this is not the case. Nevertheless, what one does see is of interest. One first comes upon the ruins of the royal palace. Of interest are giant cisterns beneath the ruins. There is a ladder on which one can descend. You then come upon the original Cardo and a Roman bathhouse. It was Important for a Roman city to have running water and this was brought from springs in the hills by an aqueduct. But there is drinking water in the lake! Not flowing water though. Finally, one comes to the ruins of the Roman theater. This is one of the biggest Roman theaters in Israel, although it has not been reconstructed.
An aqueduct provided water for subterranean water storage beneath the palace.
Interior of public baths from the Roman city.
The Roman theater.
Berko Archeological Park
This is to the south of the city on Sderot Eliezer Kaplan and is a combined children’s’ entertainment and archeological park. The former consists of rope pyramids, omega, climbing wall, carousels and of course swings. In the archeological park is the southern gate of the Roman city with its round towers at each side., the original Roman cardo, a bathhouse, and Roman theater. Hours of the park are 4.00 pm to 8.45 pm and on Saturday from 12.00 pm to 9.00 pm, but check on these times. It is closed on Friday and holiday eves. Their phone number is 04-671 2950. There is an admission charge.
Directions: Enter into Waze “Berko Archeological Park.”
The southern city gate with towers
The history of Tiberias
After the death of Herod the Great, the Romans gave control of the Galilee to his son Herod Antipas, and in 20 CE he founded the new city of Tiberias, named after his friend and patron the Roman emperor Tiberius. Herod Antipas intended that this would be the capital of the Galilee and a rival to the Jewish center of Tzippori.
It was built as a typical Roman city, with a bathhouse and a theater, the ruins of which can still be seen. It was built adjoining the residential area of the hot springs (see below) and inadvertently over an ancient Jewish cemetery. This prevented orthodox Jews from settling in this city, despite inducements; it was therefore initially a pagan city. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai purified it by locating the graves and relocating them elsewhere. This allowed Tiberias to eventually became the chief center for Jews in the Galilee after the Bar Kochba Revolt. The Sanhedrin made Tiberius its final destination in about 150 CE after leaving Tzippori, and it became the main center of Jewish life and learning in the country for hundreds of years. At one time there were 13 synagogues in the city. The Mishna was probably completed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi in Tiberias in about 200 CE. The Jerusalem Talmud was composed here between about 230-270 CE.
In 614 CE there was a Jewish revolt against the Byzantine empire in support of Persian invaders. The Byzantines eventually returned to Tiberias after the Persian occupation was defeated. A year later there was a wide-scale massacre of Jews, leading temporarily to the end of Jewish life in the Galilee.
Jewish scholarship again flourished in Tiberius from the beginning of the 8th century to the end of the 10th century. Tiberias was the main center for Jewish scribes and scholars, the Masoretes, who standardized the pronunciation and cantillation of the Bible.
Tiberias became a Crusader center after the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade and was centered within the boundaries of the Old City. There was also a small Jewish community that resided here. The end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem came about almost a hundred years later when Saladin besieged Tiberias. The Crusaders fell for the bait and attempted to relieve the siege by leaving their stronghold of Tzippori, but this left the entire Crusader army exposed and they were defeated at the Battle of Hittin about 10 Km outside Tiberias (see the hike on Karnei Hittim). This defeat led to the end of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of Muslim rule throughout the former Christian kingdom.
In the early 1700’s during the Ottoman period, the Arab ruler Zahir-al-Umar fortified the town and encouraged Jewish families to settle here. The aged Rabbi Chaim Abulafia of Smyrna was invited to rebuilt the Jewish community. His synagogue Etz Chaim Abulafia Synagogue is still located in the Court of Jews close to the lakefront, although it has been renovated several times following earthquakes in 1759 and 1837 and a severe flood in 1934. It is still an active Sephardi synagogue. Polish Jews settled in the town in 1780, and a further influx of rabbis in the 18th and 19th centuries reestablished the city as a center for Jewish learning.
Who was Dona Gracia Nasi?
In the late 14th century, thousands of Jews immigrated from the Iberian Peninsula rather than convert to Christianity, especially after the order for the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal. However, as many as 100,000 Jews converted to Christianity under the pressure of the Church, although many continued to practice their faith secretly. They were called disparagingly Marranos. Many conversos were very successful and achieved high positions in the state. Nevertheless, the Church realized that many of them were insincere in their conversion to Christianity and in 1478 they initiated the Inquisition, the aim of which was to ferret out Jews still practicing their faith, and they were subjected to torture and death.
Gracia Mendes Nasi was from a converso family. Gracia is Portuguese for Grace (Hannah in Hebrew) and Nasi was her family name, although the Christian name she used was Beatrice de Luna. Her family was originally from Spain but fled to Portugal when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Five years later, and while still in Portugal, her family was forced to convert to Catholicism.
She married her uncle Francisco Mendes who was also a converso and who had a very successful import business in spices and other commodities from the West Indies, particular black pepper. He was in business together with his brother Diogo Mendes who lived in Antwerp, then the financial center of Europe. The couple were married in a church, but also had a secret Jewish wedding. Ten years later her husband died, and Gracia found herself at the age of 28 the inheritor of half of Francisco’s large fortune, the other half being inherited by his brother.
Their business had bribed the Pope to delay the Inquisition in Portugal, but they were unable to hold it back forever. Before it began, she fled with her daughter to Antwerp where she became involved in her brother-in-law’s business. This had many agents and a fleet and she was very successful as a business woman.
Her younger sister Brianda came with her to Antwerp and married her uncle Diogo Mendes (also Gracia’s brother-in-law and now business partner). However, 5 years after moving to Antwerp, Diogo also died. In his will, he put control of the Mendes commercial empire into Gracia’s hands on behalf of his widow and daughter, presumably in recognition of Gracia’ commercial ability. This made her one of the richest people in Renaissance Europe. It would also lead to a dispute with her sister regarding the inheritance of Diogo’s money that would entwine governments.
While in Antwerp, Gracia developed an “underground railroad” using her agents and spice ships to bring escaping conversos from Portugal to Antwerp and from there overland to Venice and then to Greece and Turkey. The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (the sultan that built the walls around the Old City of Jerusalem) welcomed Jews to his empire.
Antwerp was also part of the Spanish Empire, and her next move was to the Republic of Venice, which was a safe place for Jews and conversos. She then moved to Ferrrara, also in Italy, where she was able to openly practice her Judaism. Her final destination was Constantinople (now Istanbul). In this city she assumed a leadership role for Sephardi Jewry by supporting synagogues throughout the Ottoman Empire, yeshivot, rabbinic scholars, hospitals, Jewish captives and Jews in distress, and even ran her own Jewish press.
And the Tiberias connection? One of her projects was to arrange with the Sultan to set up a partially autonomous Jewish enclave in Tiberias in which to settle conversos fleeing from Spain and Portugal. Why Tiberias? Possibly because of a Talmudic statement that the Sanhedrin will reconvene in Tiberias before the Temple Mount is established. It was also desolate and in ruins and could be developed as a completely Jewish enclave. Her business partner at that time was her nephew and son-in-law Joseph Nasi. This was, of course, exactly what Herzl attempted to do (unsuccessfully) almost 200 years later. Nevertheless, this first attempt at Zionism fell apart after her death. There is no report that she ever visited Tiberius.
The story of Dona Gracia has been largely unrecognized. However, this is changing. This story of intrigue among the powers of Europe and Turkey, her efforts to save Marrano Jews from the Inquisition, her concern for their subsequent lives as proud Jews, and the first attempt at Zionism after the exile is one that needs to be told.