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View of modern Tiberias (and as it appeared at the beginning of the XXth century in the image used as background for this page). You may wish to see the town and its lake from Umm Qays in Jordan
The town of Tiberias, is situated on
the sea of that name (aka Sea of Galilee), at the north end of a narrow plain, that runs
along by the sea of Tiberias, and extends farther south by the river Jordan, being about half a mile broad. (..) Excepting that it is encompassed with a wall, this town is like a village; the few houses in it being not built contiguous.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
June 23d. 1812 - The ancient Tiberias, stands close to the lake, upon a small plain, surrounded by mountains. Its situation is extremely hot and unhealthy, as the mountain impedes the free course of the westerly winds which prevail throughout Syria during the summer. Hence intermittent fevers, especially those of the quartan form, are very common in the town in that season.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt - Travels in Syria and the Holy Land - 1822
Descending the mountain by a very steep rocky road we reached the foot of it and entered Tiberias at half past four. It is a small wretched city of which the houses, or rather hovels, are built of stones, for the most part heaped on one another without mortar.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820. Turner made an excursion to Tiberias and its environs from Nazareth.
We are camped in this place, now, just within the city walls of Tiberias. We went into the town before nightfall and looked at its people - we cared nothing about its houses. Its people are best examined at a distance. They are particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes.
Mark Twain - The Innocents Abroad - 1869. Twain reached Tiberias from Syria, after having visited Banias and Capernaum.
As to the old city, said to be built by Herod, and named in
honour of Tiberias, it is not known, whether there was any town here
before that time, or if there was, what name it bore; (..) it is said by some to have been
built by Tiberius himself. The town extended about half a mile further
to the south, than the present enclosure; where there are a great number of confused ruins, and I observed, that the suburbs extended still further south. Near the present town there are (..) some signs of a large square building, about which there lie several pillars, which might be the house of the government; this having been
the head city of Galilee, till that dignity was afterwards conferred on Sepporeh. Pococke
In the morning early we walked to a mineral bath half an hour south of the city along the sea shore. About a quarter of an hour from the walls we passed some remains of the wall of the ancient city of which also there are ruins close to the northern wall and there are marks of antiquity on the mountain to the west. Turner
From various authorities I have culled information concerning Tiberias. It was built by Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist, and named after the Emperor Tiberius. It is believed that it stands upon the site of what must have been, ages ago, a city of considerable architectural pretensions, judging by the fine porphyry pillars that are scattered through Tiberias and down the lake shore southward. Twain
At the north east corner
of the town there is an oblong square church, arched over, and dedicated to St. Peter; it is mentioned by antient authors, and said by some
to be on the spot where the house of St. Peter was. The Latin fathers
come to it from Nazareth every year, to celebrate on the day of his festival. Pococke
We rode immediately through narrow dirty dusty streets to the Catholick church belonging to the Catholick convent at Nazareth, but lent by them to the Greek Catholicks. It is a ruined building with bare unplastered walls said to have been the house inhabited by St. Peter. Micheli, our guide, went immediately for the keys to the Greek Catholick priest who sent with them two mattresses for us. (..) While the Frenchman and I were looking dolefully at each other commenting on the wretched accommodation which the church would afford us, there entered a Neapolitan physician Signor Adam who has been summoned here from Acre where he resides in the service of the Pasha to attend the wife of a rich Jew. He very civilly led us to the house of a Jew where he lodged, in which we were tolerably comfortable and supped on fish from the neighbouring sea. Turner
When I was at Tiberias they were very busy in making a fort
on the height to the north of the town, and in strengthening the old
walls with buttresses on the inside, the sheik having a dispute with the
pasha of Damascus; who after this took his brother in a skirmish, and
caused him to be publickly hanged in that city; but the pasha being
soon after removed, they were freed from their apprehensions on that account. Pococke
Tabaria, with its district of ten or twelve villages, forms a part of the Pashalik of Akka. Being considered one of the principal points of defence of the Pashalik, a garrison of two or three hundred men is constantly kept here, the greater part of whom are married, and settled. (..) Little rain falls in winter, snow is almost unknown on the borders of the lake; the temperature, on the whole, appears to be very nearly the same as that of the Dead sea. Burckhardt
In the XIIth century Tiberias was the capital of a county of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1187 Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, laid siege to Tiberias, in response to Crusader attacks to Muslim caravans en route to Damascus. The King of Jerusalem marched on Tiberias with a large army and the support of the Knights Templars and Hospitallers, two military orders. They arrived near Tiberias at the beginning of July when the heat was extreme (Tiberias is 200m/650 ft below sea level). Saladin prevented them from accessing water wells and in the battle which was fought at Hattin, a few miles northwest of Tiberias, he defeated the tired and thirsty Christian army. The king and the chief knights managed to reach Tiberias, but on the following day they surrendered. Eventually Saladin conquered the main towns of the Kingdom of Jerusalem including its capital.
XVIIIth century towers
The town is surrounded towards the land by a thick and well built wall, about
twenty feet in height, with a high parapet and loop-holes. It surrounds the city on three sides, and touches the water at its two
extremities. (..) The town wall is flanked by twenty
round towers standing at unequal distances. Both towers and
walls are built with black stones of moderate size, and seem to be
the work of not very remote times; the whole being in a good state
of repair, the place may be considered as almost impregnable to
Syrian soldiers. Burckhardt
Turner was not much interested in the Crusader period, Twain instead described the battle: We came at last to the battle-field of Hattin. It is a grand, irregular plateau, and looks as if it might have been created for a battle-field. Here the peerless Saladin met the Christian host some seven hundred years ago, and broke their power in Palestine for all time to come. Both armies prepared for war. Under the weak King of Jerusalem was the very flower of the Christian chivalry. He foolishly compelled them to undergo a long, exhausting march, in the scorching sun, and then, without water or other refreshment, ordered them to encamp in this open plain. The splendidly mounted masses of Moslem soldiers swept round the north end of Genessaret, burning and destroying as they came, and pitched their camp in front of the opposing lines. At dawn the terrific fight began. Surrounded on all sides by the Sultan's swarming battalions, the Christian Knights fought on without a hope for their lives. They fought with desperate valor, but to no purpose; the odds of heat and numbers, and consuming thirst, were too great against them. (..) Sunset found Saladin Lord of Palestine, the Christian chivalry strewn in heaps upon the field, and the King of Jerusalem and the Grand Master of the Templars captives in the Sultan's tent.
There are hot baths a quarter of a mile south of the walls of old
Tiberias; the waters are very
hot, and are used for bathing, being esteemed good for all sorts of pains
and tumors, and, they say, even for the gout. (..) It is now called by the Arabian name of Hamam. There is a building over the spring, and some conveniency for bathing. I took a bottle of these waters, and had them assayed; and it was found, that they
had in them a considerable quantity of gross fixed vitriol, some alum, and a mineral salt. Pococke
People from all parts of Syria resort to these baths, which are reckoned most efficacious in July; they are recommended principally for rheumatic complaints, and cases of premature debility. Two patients only were present when I visited them. Some public women of Damascus, who were kept by the garrison of Tabaria, had established themselves in the ruined vaults and caverns near the baths. Burckhardt
The baths formed from six natural springs of boiling heat are inclosed in a mean Turkish building and resorted to by those afflicted with scorbutick disorders very common here and with leprosy. Turner
We did not go to the ancient warm baths two miles below Tiberias. I had no desire in the world to go there. This seemed a little strange, and prompted me to try to discover what the cause of this unreasonable indifference was. It turned out to be simply because Pliny mentions them. I have conceived a sort of unwarrantable unfriendliness toward Pliny and St. Paul, because it seems as if I can never ferret out a place that I can have to myself. It always and eternally transpires that St. Paul has been to that place, and Pliny has "mentioned" it. Twain
Today the springs are still utilized in modern facilities by the lake; the old hammam houses a small museum about the positive effects of hot baths. An ancient synagogue with interesting mosaics has been excavated very near the hammam.
(left) Modern Monument at the Tomb of Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher (1135-1204) from Cordoba; (right) Meyouhas Hostel, one of the first modern buildings of Tiberias (1896)
The Jews of Tiberias occupy a quarter on the shore of the lake in
the middle of the town, which has lately been considerably enlarged by the purchase of several streets: it is separated from the
rest of the town by a high wall, and has only one gate of entrance,
which is regularly shut at sunset, after which no person is allowed
to pass. There are one hundred and sixty, or two hundred families,
of which forty or fifty are of Polish origin, the rest are Jews from
Spain, Barbary, and other parts of Syria. Tiberias is one of the
four holy cities of the Talmud; the other three being Szaffad, Jerusalem, and Hebron. It is esteemed holy ground, because Jacob is
supposed to have resided here, and because it is situated on the lake
Genasereth, from which, according to the most generally received opinion of the Talmud, the Messiah is to rise. The greater
part of the Jews who reside in these holy places do not engage in
mercantile pursuits; but are a society of religious persons occupied
solely with their sacred duties. There are among them only two who
are merchants, and men of property, and these are styled Kafers
or unbelievers by the others, who do nothing but read and pray. (..) The libraries of the two
schools at Tiberias are moderately stocked with Hebrew books,
most of which have been printed at Vienna and Venice. Except
some copies of the Old Testament and the Talmud, they have no
manuscripts. (..) The cemetery of the Jews of
Tiberias is on the declivity of the mountain, about half an hour from
the town; where the tombs of their most renowed persons are
visited much in the same manner as are the sepulchres of Mussulman saints. I was informed that a great Rabbin lay buried there,
with fourteen thousand of his scholars around him. Burckhardt
The Sanhedrim met here last, and for three hundred years Tiberias was the metropolis of the Jews in Palestine. It is one of the four holy cities of the Israelites, and is to them what Mecca is to the Mohammedan and Jerusalem to the Christian. It has been the abiding place of many learned and famous Jewish rabbis. They lie buried here, and near them lie also twenty-five thousand of their faith who traveled far to be near them while they lived and lie with them when they died. The great Rabbi Ben Israel spent three years here in the early part of the third century. He is dead, now. Twain
Mosques: (left) el-Omri (1743); (right) el-Bahri (1880)
They have often had disputes with the pashas of Damascus, who
have come and placed their cannon against their city, and sometimes
have beat down part of their walls, but were never able to take it. Pococke
In the XVIIIth century Tiberias became the capital of a semi-autonomous territory ruled by Daher el-Omar, the son of a tax collector who expanded his father's activity to become a local chief. In 1743 the Ottoman governor of Damascus briefly sieged Tiberias, but altogether the authority of Daher el-Omar was tolerated as he paid the due portion of tax to the central government. He gradually expanded his authority over Nazareth and Acre and he founded Kaifah, today's Haifa.