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Tiberias: Preview of Coming Attractions, Yizhar Hirschfeld, BAR 17:02, Mar-Apr 1991.

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This is the story mostly of what will be rather than what has been. It is a report on what we hope to do more than what we have already done. It tells of the tantalizing clues that keep us awake nights wondering what we will find. It is the story of a dream—of how we intend to bring ancient Tiberias back to life.

Tiberias is intriguing for a number of reasons. It was the capital of the Jewish people for nearly 700 years. Here the Palestinian Talmud was created. It holds a special place because, although a Jewish city, it continued to flourish after the Arab conquest in the seventhcentury C.E.a Indeed, it is the only city in the Land of Israel that remained an urban Jewish center continuously from before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. to the Middle Ages—a period of over a thousand years.
Located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), Tiberias was founded by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E., his kingdom was divided among his four children. To Antipas (known as Herod Antipas) fell Galilee. Here, in 20 C.E., he founded the city of Tiberias, named for the Roman emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in 14 C.E. The new city was built to be Antipas’ new capital, replacing Sepphoris (Tzippori) 16 miles to the northwest. As the capital of Galilee, Tiberias met the need of Antipas to create a new city away from powerful Sepphoris, a city full of political opposition to his rule.

The importance of Tiberias is reflected in the New Testament’s reference to the Sea of Galilee as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6-1, 21-1). John also refers to the fishing boats from Tiberias (John 6-23). Nowhere in the New Testament, however, is there any indication that Jesus visited the city, although it is quite likely that he did. It is only eight-and-a-half miles from Capernaum, where Jesus called his first disciples (Matthew 4-18–22) and where he cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4-38–39).
Another special feature of Tiberias is the hot springs just south of the city; its therapeutic and rejuvenative qualities attracted tourists and vacationers even in ancient times. The city’s warm winter climate is still another attraction.

The coastal strip on which the ancient city is located is only about 1,000 feet wide. It is quite level, however, making it eminently suitable for an orderly, planned city with parallel streets and adjacent public buildings, as was required in every proper Roman city. West of this narrow coastal plain is a hill named Mt. Berenice that rises nearly 650 feet above the lake. This hill served as the acropolis of the city. Its peak, or slope, was the site of Antipas’ royal palace. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Antipas’ palace was decorated with statues of animals. Josephus also mentions the city’s stadium and synagogue.1 Later, a citadel was built on Mt. Berenice, which was incorporated into the wall that surrounded Tiberias. Whether we will find any vestiges of these ancient structures must remain, for the moment, a question.

There has never been any systematic large-scale archaeological excavation of Tiberias—which is what we are planning. Nevertheless, a great deal is already known about the city archaeologically. Most of the city wall has been traced; much of it is extant. In 1973–1974 an expedition headed by Gideon Foerster excavated the area of the impressive southern city gate with its two huge round towers. This gate led directly to the Cardo, the central colonnaded street that bisected the city from north to south. The Cardo, as usual in a Roman city, was a broad thoroughfare, lined with shops. The street was paved with slabs of basalt. Between the street and the shops, a colonnaded portico provided shelter from the sun and rain. A section of the eastern row of shops and the portico in front of them was excavated by Bezalel Rabbani in 1954–1956.

We hope to excavate about 1,250 feet of the Cardo, from the southern gate north to a magnificent bathhouse in the center of town, also discovered by Rabbani. The bathhouse was decorated with colorful stone mosaics. One was composed of medallions depicting various species of fish, some of which were part of the daily fare of the city’s residents, caught in the Sea of Galilee. Near the bathhouse, Rabbani also found a large building with columns; this was apparently a roofed market, where much of the city’s commercial activity took place. Further east, on the lake shore, was a typical Roman basilica with a semicircular apse on its eastern end. It probably served as the city’s juridical and administrative center.

Of the 13 synagogues in Tiberias mentioned in Jewish sources, only one has been found so far. Excavated by Ariel Berman in 1978, it was paved with a mosaic decorated with a dedicatory inscription in Greek flanked with two Jewish symbols—the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), both used in the festival of Succot (The Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles) and commonly found in synagogue mosaics. Two synagogues were also excavated at Hammath Tiberias (“Hot Tiberias,” where the hot springs were located), one excavated by N. Slouschz in 1921 and the other by Moshe Dothan in 1961–1963.b The first was a basilica-like building containing an enclosed area behind four columns for the Ark of the Law and the “seat of Moses” (cathedra). The second was even more magnificent, its nave and aisles were paved with colorful mosaics depicting the Ark of the Law, menorahs and other Jewish symbols.

One major hope for the excavation we are planning is to find additional synagogues, since so many others are referred to in the literary sources.

We also know about the city’s water supply. Spring water was conveyed from a distance of about ten miles by an aqueduct that culminated in a large reservoir, the remains of which border on houses in modern Tiberias.

Our excavations began in earnest in the fall of 1990. But even before that we were called in to undertake a salvage excavation. The modern city of Tiberias wanted to construct two new waste-water ponds adjacent to its waste-water treatment plant, at the foot of Mt. Berenice, about 800 feet west of the lake shore. The Antiquities Authority was called in to make sure the new ponds would not destroy anything of archaeological value. This required what is called a salvage dig, which I was asked to direct.

The excavation site was thus chosen by the city fathers who determined where they wanted to put the new waste-water ponds, not by scientific archaeological considerations. Moreover, the excavation site was quite small—only 2,500 square feet. The material we uncovered, however, was so extensive, so well preserved and so significant that, in the end, it was decided to undertake a major excavation that will lead, eventually, to the creation of a large archaeological park all the way from our salvage excavation south to the southern gate of the city.

The first stratum we hit below ground level dated to the early Arab period (ninth to eleventh centuries C.E.). The buildings we came upon were the homes of affluent families. Although from the archaeological remains we could not determine the religion of the inhabitants, we assume from literary sources that they were Jewish.

We know they were affluent because of what we found. We excavated (in our Area A) a completely intact water cistern beneath the foundation of a poorly preserved house. The cistern was almost 6 feet deep and about 8 by 12 feet in size. It was divided in two by a retaining wall, and was originally roofed by the floor of the house over it. In the course of excavating the cistern, we found several ceramic oil lamps and a rich assemblage of bronze jewelry and cosmetic paraphernalia—a bracelet, a mirror handle, tweezers and various cosmetic containers. All of these items were probably used by the lady of the house at the time of its destruction. The building was probably destroyed in the earthquake of 1033 C.E., after which the city was abandoned. When Tiberias was reestablished, it was built farther north, where the modern city lies today.

Another house from this period (in our Area B) was better preserved. Its walls, built of basalt stones, were standing in places to a height of over 6 feet. Accordingly we could easily recover its plan. The courtyard—in front of the house rather than inside—was surrounded by a protective wall. The house itself was rectangular, about 30 feet by 13 feet. A staircase leading to the upper floor of the house was found opposite the courtyard entrance. The ground floor consisted of two service rooms for storing food and various implements. The rooms on the upper floor served as living quarters. We know this because these rooms were more handsome, and had stone mosaic floors. We didn’t find the upper-story floor (it had been destroyed), but we did find segments of mosaic pavement in the rubble. This is the first time a mosaic pavement from a private house has been discovered from this period. We knew that the mosaic industry, which flourished in the country during the Byzantine period, continued into the early Arabic period as well. Mosaic pavements had been found in churches and synagogues. Now we know that mosaics were also used in private homes at this time.

Underneath the houses from the ninth to eleventh centuries was an earlier stratum. Beneath the house I just described with the mosaic upper floor, we found the remains of a large public building. It was built in about 200 C.E. and continued in use with some modifications until the mid-eighth century. This was the period when Tiberias reached its zenith, according to literary sources.

Only a small section of this public building has been exposed so far, but we suspect it may be a building of great historic importance—the Beth Midrash (house of study) of Rabbi Yohanan, where the Palestinian Talmud was created. The Palestinian Talmud (also called the Jerusalem Talmud, or Yerushalmi) was compiled and completed in Tiberias; all scholars agree on this. This work probably occurred in the Beth Midrash of Rabbi Yohanan, the greatest sage of Tiberias during the third century C.E. Rabbi Yohanan, the son of a blacksmith, moved from Sepphoris (Tzippori) to Tiberias during the first half of the third century. There he founded what is referred to as the Great Study House (sometimes referred to in the sources as Sidra Rabba). The Palestinian Talmud was completed at the end of the fourth century, mainly on the basis of the teachings of Rabbi Yohanan and probably in his Beth Midrash. The Palestinian Talmud frequently refers to the Great Study House of Tiberias. The sages spent much of their time there and were very familiar with it and its surroundings.

About this time, you may be asking why we think the building we discovered may be the Great Study House of Rabbi Yohanan. There are two rather specific clues in the Palestinian Talmud itself. During the so-called Gallus Revolt against the Romans in the fourth century, one of the great sages, Rav Huna, hid with his companions for days and nights on end in some caves. These caves, we are told, were the caves of the Great Study House.2 Caves of Mt. Berenice are just above and adjacent to our public building.

Another clue involves a ruling concerning when new shoes or sandals may be worn on the Sabbath. They may be worn on the Sabbath only when they were also worn while walking during the previous day. The question then arises as to how far the wearer must have walked on the previous day in order to constitute “walking.” The minimum distance was the distance between the Great Study House and the shop of Rabbi Hoshaya.3 The shop of Rabbi Hoshaya was probably a major store somewhere in the town center, well known to all. The distance between this shop and the Great Study House was several hundred feet at least. In fact, our excavation site at the foot of Mt. Berenice is about 1,000 feet from the city center, where the municipal market and bathhouse of Tiberias were discovered.

From these references we conclude that the Great Study House of Tiberias should be located at the foot of Mt. Berenice, below the large caves in its cliffs. This is just where we have found our large public building.

How do we know it is a public building? Its walls are 2 feet thick. We have already uncovered one of its walls for a length of over 35 feet, much larger than we would expect to find in a private home. Moreover, the wall is built of well-worked ashlarsc and cement.

The wall, which is preserved to a height of nearly 7 feet, was part of a large hall with a well-made white stone mosaic pavement. The center of the pavement is decorated with three black squares containing a pattern of contiguous red triangles. A stone foundation (called a stylobate) supported a row of columns that in turn supported the ceiling. We recovered several column drums in secondary use (reused in another building).
Picture
On the corner of the pavement, we found a well-preserved 10-by-12-foot rectangular bath. The bath was entered by three stairs leading down. The floor of the bath was also paved with a stone mosaic. This bath may have served as a miqveh, a Jewish ritual bath.

When we lifted the mosaic pavement, we uncovered a still earlier stratum, from the first and second centuries C.E., not long after the city had been founded. The rich assemblage of datable potsherds from this stratum helped us to fix the construction of the public building on top of it to the late second century C.E., or the early third century, at the latest—the golden age of Tiberias, when it became the center of Jewish leadership, a fact that further teases us into thinking the building may be Rabbi Yohanan’s Beth Midrash.

In addition to the potsherds from the first and second centuries, we discovered two objects of unusual importance from this period. One is a fragment of a large stone jar. It is a type well known from the excavations in the Upper City of Jerusalem, where it was found by the hundreds. Stone vessels like these were especially favored by Jews because, according to halakhah (religious law), stone vessels, unlike vessels of wood, pottery or glass, could not become ritually impure.4
In the miracle at the marriage at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine for the wedding feast, Jesus used stone jars-undoubtedly like the one we found- “Now six stone jars were standing there for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2-6). Jesus tells them to fill the jars with water and they miraculously drew out wine. This was the first sign that manifested Jesus’ glory (John 2-11).

The second unusual find from this period is a small figurine about 8 inches high. It is made of carved bone and depicts a woman of aristocratic appearance, dressed in a cloak. She has a grave look in her eyes. A high, garlandlike headdress circles her head. The holes on either side of her shoulders indicate that arms were once attached to her body. The figurine apparently reflects the appearance of a Tiberian noblewoman in the second century C.E. Figurines of this period are extremely rare, and, from a distinctly Jewish context, rarer still.

This is just a hint of what is to come. The results of our excavations at the foot of Mt. Berenice reflect the great archaeological potential of ancient Tiberias. For about a thousand years it was a flourishing city, a center of scholarship and wisdom on the one hand, and of leisure-time activities and therapeutic baths on the other. We hope that the continuation of these excavations will revive the beauty of ancient Tiberias and restore it to a central position in the history and culture of the Jewish people. BAR readers are all welcome to come and dig with us.

a. C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) are the scholarly alternate designations corresponding to A.D. and B.C.

b. See Hershel Shanks, “Synagogue Excavation Reveals Stunning Mosaic of Zodiac and Torah Ark,” BAR 10-03.

c. Ashlars are rectangular, cut building stones with smoothly rounded sides that allow for a tight fit against adjacent stones.

1. For Josephus’ description of the royal palace, the stadium, and the synagogue, see Vita 12(65–7); The Jewish War 2, 211, 6(618); Vita 54(277), respectively. For a summary of the city’s history during its first century, see Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135), vol. 2, ed., Geza Vetmes and F. Miller (Edinburgh, rev. ed. 1979), pp. 178–182.

2. Palestinian Talmud, Pesahim 1, 27a.

3. Palestinian Talmud, Shabbat VI, 8a.

4. See Mishnah, Kelim 10-1; Parah 3-2.

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