Tiberias is not a glamorous and exciting tourist center, although the potential is there. Unfortunately, no one seems to be realizing that potential. Nevertheless, despite its somewhat dowdy appearance, there are many interesting things to do and see in and around the city. It also has many quality hotels, nice beaches in the area, and it is an excellent base for exploring the Galilee and Golan.
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 and named it after his friend and patron the Roman emperor Tiberius. Herod intended for it to become the capital of the Galilee and a rival to the Jewish center of Tzipori.
Tiberias 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 around the hot springs, and inadvertently over an ancient Jewish cemetery, which prevented orthodox Jews from settling here. Initially, therefore, it was a predominantly pagan city. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai purified Tiberias by locating the graves and relocating the remains, and this enabled it to become the chief center for Jews in the Galilee and it remained the main center of Jewish life and learning in the country for hundreds of years. The Sanhedrin made Tiberius its final destination in about 150 CE after leaving Tzipori. At one time there were 13 synagogues in the city. The Jerusalem Talmud was written 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 became 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. A small Jewish community also 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 left their stronghold of Tzipori in an attempt to relieve the siege. This left the entire Crusader army exposed in an unfortified position as Saladin intended and they were defeated at the Battle of Hattin 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 1700s during the Ottoman period, a Bedouin sheik, Zahir-al-Umar (also spelt Daher al-Omar), took control of the Galilee, and he fortified the city to keep out the Turks. Hearing that the aged Rabbi Chaim Abulafia, the Chief Rabbi of Izmir in Turkey, was leaving for Israel and he invited him to Tiberias to rebuilt the Jewish community. Rabbi Abulafia came with his family and 10 students. Polish Jews settled in the city in 1780, and a further influx of rabbis in the 18th and 19th centuries reestablished the city as a center for Jewish learning.
The Etz Chaim Abulafia Synagogue is 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.
Sites to visit in downtown Tiberias
Tiberias Promenade (Yigal Alon Promenade).
The promenade is by the waterfront, and is a popular walkway, especially in the evening. It is on a former dam constructed during the British mandate to prevent easterly winds blowing waves into the city. In 1934 there was tremendous flooding in the city from water pouring down the mountainside and from waves from the lake and many people were killed. The Promenade is a fun place with stores, stalls, restaurants, cafes, and docks for boats. Prior to Covid, a music and light show was shown at its southern end, although this may not currently be operating. Access to the middle of the promenade is via the continuation of HaYarkon St.
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 finalizing a system for the vowels of the Hebrew language. Written Hebrew uses only consonants, and how to pronounce its vowels was known only by tradition. (There are public WC’s at the far end of this path and on the access path at the other end of the promenade).
Court of the Jews and the Etz Haim Abulafia Synagogue
While making your way to the promenade via HaYarkon St., turn off into the adjoining Jewish Courtyard. It is on the right, close to the promenade and is indicated by a sign. As discussed above, this area within the Old City was donated to Rabbi Chaim Abulafia by the ruler Zahir-al-Umar to encourage Jews to settle in Tiberias. You will first notice a section of the Crusader wall. In its time this would have been surrounded by a moat. The Abulafia Synagogue is on the left and was built in the 1740s by Rabbi Chaim Abulafia on the site of previous synagogues. This is not his original synagogue as it has been renovated several times because of earthquakes and flooding. When first built it was one of the most beautiful in the country. This present synagogue is from 1950 and is also quite beautiful. It has an elaborately decorated domed ceiling consisting of a floral pattern of six overlapping circles. It is a Sephardi synagogue and there are services only on Shabbat and chol hamoed.
There are also Hasidic synagogues in this square. The Karlin-Stolin Synagogue and Beit Midrash was originally built in 1786 by Hasidism who immigrated from Lithuania, but was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837. A new synagogue and study hall was built on the site by Karlin-Stolin Hasidim who immigrated here in the mid-19th century. It is now used by Breslov, also as their study hall, and is a busy place.
The Old Synagogue on the right is used by Habad. It was formerly the Boyan Synagogue, and dates from when Boyan Hasidim came to Tiberias in the early 19th century. It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837 and restored by Habad.
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). It is decorated like a 16th century Spanish palace, and even the décor of the guest rooms reflects this period. There is a museum on the first two floors of the hotel dedicated to her life with 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 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 religious lives by supporting synagogues and yeshivot, publications, and a printing press. The inspiring story of her evasion of the inquisition in Europe, the intrigues related to those attempting to take over or inherit her wealth, and the family disputes related to money are obvious material for a novel – in fact several have been written.
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 20 nis per person. The museum is open from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm. The phone number of the hotel is 04-671 7176. Tours are available, including in English, but this needs to be booked in advance. The price of this is 45 nis for an adult and 30 nis for a child from 6 to 18 years. The phone number is 04 672-8900. This is their website. Time: Leave 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 away from the door and move towards the left. If you do not do this, you will find yourself going back in time historically rather than forward!
The Spanish Ferrara Bible that Dona Gracia sponsored being presented to her.
A commemoration of the work of the Masoretes on the Promenade.
This present Etz Chaim Abulafia Synagogue dates from 1950, although its origins are much earlier from the 1740s.
The Karlin-Stolin Synagogue in the Court of the Jews is now used by Breslov hasidim. It was built in the mid-1800s.
Maimonides' tomb and Museum
As distinct from other tombs in and around Tiberias, there is little doubt that Maimonides is buried here, as 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 same 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 close by Maimonides Heritage Center is 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, so call beforehand. This is their website.
Maimonides was a modern Orthodox Jew! His book "The Guide to the Perplexed" became highly controversial.
The ruins of Roman Tiberias
It would have been nice if the city displayed its Roman ruins in a park with helpful signs illustrating the development of ancient Tiberias. But that's not the case. You almost have to have prior to knowledge to even know they are there. Of most interest, particularly because it is set up for visiting with a covered wooden platform and wooden steps, is a nearly intact Roman theater set against the cliffs. The steps lead into the theater itself. It was built in the 1st century CE contemporaneously with the building of the city. This is one of the biggest Roman theaters in Israel.
Directions: Enter "Roman Theater in Tiberias" into Waze, and this leads directly to the theater. Although you are driving initially on a paved road, this soon becomes a gravel road. To protect your car's suspension, park it in a broad parking area by a decrepit concrete building with a white sign גן ארכאילוגי טבריה הקדומה and walk up to the theater. It takes about 7 to 8 minutes to get to the top where there are two Schvil Sanhedrin stones. On the way up is a turning to the left to Roman baths. Nevertheless, this is not recognizable to a non-expert as a bath house and can be missed. Every Roman city had running water and this was brought from springs in the hills by an aqueduct. But there is drinking water in the lake! However, this is not flowing water.
Lower down at the end of a gravel path from the point of intersection of the two pathed roads close to Route 90 is the site of a royal palace. The paved stones are original. The ruins are not readily recognizable as a palace. Of interest, though, are giant cisterns beneath the ruins. There is a ladder on which one can descend to see them.
Not that far from Route 90 is the Roman theater. It's impressive and worth visiting.
An aqueduct provided water for subterranean water storage beneath the palace. It can be reached by a ladder that is conveniently placed.
The tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes
A number of tombs of well-known Jewish 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 worker. Hence his name Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes (Rabbi Meir 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!” just 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 did not participate in the Bar Kochba Revolt and lived outside Israel during the Hadrianic persecutions. 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 this park, and there is parking by the tomb on both sides. Enter into Waze “Tomb of Rabbi Meir.” However, it is only a short distance from route 90 and can also be easily reached on foot.
The tomb complex of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes
The tomb of Rabbi Akiva
The tomb of Rabbi Akiva is in Upper Tiberias at the end of Hagvura St. Adjacent to it 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 considerable, as he and his students 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, Akiva began Torah study 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.
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 preeminent 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.”
Berko Archeological Park
This is to the south of the city on Sderot Eliezer Kaplan and has children’s’ entertainment and archeological ruins. The former consists of rope pyramids, omega, climbing wall, carousels and of course swings. It also contans the southern gate of the Roman city with round towers at each side. 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 exceptional Dona Gracia Nasi
After the order for the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 14th century, thousands of Jews emigrated from the Iberian Peninsula. However, as many as 100,000 Jews converted to Christianity under the pressure of the Church. Many conversos were very successful and achieved high positions in the state. However, many continued to practice their faith secretly. They were called disparagingly Marranos or pigs. The Church was aware that many conversos were insincere in their conversion to Christianity and in 1478 they initiated the Inquisition, the aim of which was to ferret out conversos still practicing Judaism, 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. 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 converted to Catholicism.
Gracia 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. Their business 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 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’s 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 Antwerp 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 safer 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, as well as yeshivot, rabbinic scholars, hospitals, Jewish captives and Jews in distress, and she even ran her own Jewish press.
And the Tiberias connection? One of her projects was an arrangement with the Ottoman Sultan to set up a partially autonomous Jewish enclave in Tiberias where conversos fleeing from Spain and Portugal could settle. 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. 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 over a thousand years of exile deserves to be told.