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From the vestiges of an old quarry, piles of rock, weeds, and a sewage treatment plant, a whole city will rise over the next 10 to 15 years. The theater will host performances, couples will stroll the main street, and the magnificent mosaics will be a sight for the sore eyes of visitors from afar.

The city is ancient Tiberias - the renewal of which, it is hoped, will lift modern Tiberias out of its socioeconomic doldrums. Mayor Zohar Oved speaks of a "new chapter" in the city's history; those involved with the project call it "a national vision."

Meanwhile, the vision remains somewhat distant. Ancient Tiberias, some 250 dunams close to the Kinneret beach south of the city, is home to a sewage treatment plant, with mounds of garbage scattered among the ancient remains. Some of the finds have already been reburied due to neglect.

But this doesn't bother Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld of Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, director of the excavation due to start in two weeks. No significant damage has been caused, Hirschfeld said. The scrap metal and garbage may have even protected the antiquities, he added.

"This is one of the most beautiful sites in the world, of the greatest significance for Jewish history," Hirschfeld told participants at a conference yesterday on saving the cultural and material heritage of Tiberias. "Few other sites in the Roman Empire were more important," he added.

Hirschfeld spoke of the markets and the bathhouse, which figured prominently in the sayings of the ancient Jewish sages, where "wise men would sit and spin tales." He showed the location of the basilica in which the Sanhedrin had its headquarters; the city's walls and its theater; the study house and the beautiful mosaics of the synagogues.

Tiberias was founded in 20 C.E. and its Jewish community continued in existence until the 11th century. At its height, from the 3rd to the 8th century, some 25,000-30,000 people lived there. According to Hirschfeld, "the city was full of life, with crowded streets, a busy fishing port and a market for the entire Galilee." Tiberias served as a spiritual and political hub for the Jewish people, as well as a center for halakha (Jewish religious law).

By the end of the 4th century, Tiberias also became a center of Christian pilgrimage. In terms of the finds he hopes will be unearthed, Hirschfeld believes the excavation will produce "signs and wonders."

"We have to succeed," said Oved, "because we are beginning from zero."

City officials look forward to the day when Tiberias' past begins to attract visitors. City council member Eitan Oved believes "we will no longer be presented as a needy and miserable city. Tiberias will be restored to its natural place as an important historical city."