All they wanted was to build a sports center in Tiberias. But then as a salvage exploration cleared away mountains of garbage, between the rats, beer bottles and junked cars they found archaeological remains, and a stone tomb seal that tells the story of religion in the Middle East.
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The stone is a basalt rock entombed with a seven-branched menorah, that had sealed a Jewish tomb in Tiberias almost 2,000 years ago. It then spent several centuries as the foundation for a pillar in a mosque, and then found itself serving as a stone stair in a Crusader-era sugar factory, archaeologists say.
As it was repurposed over the ages, in a way the rock tells the story of religion in the Middle East, as one supplanted another, vying for control over hearts, minds and, it seems, big entombed rocks.
The tomb seal itself, a hefty 60 centimeters by 80 centimeters, was found in 2009.
Though the stone was obviously a Jewish artifact, we cannot know whether it had been made by Tiberias’ first Jews or by later ones, says Dr. Katya Cytryn-Silverman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has been digging up the ancient city for years.
She can say that such stone doors were typical of the few Jewish tombs found in Tiberias, and the many found in Beit She’arim. “But this door is unique,” Cytryn-Silverman says. “No others found in Tiberias or in Beit Shearim had a menorah with a base as the central motif.”
Why did the ancient Jews seal tombs with stone doors? Silverman points out that nobody was expected to go in or out of the tombs once the deceased was in place.
Thirteen such doors were found at the same site where they found the menorah-embossed one, in the ruins of the Islamic-era mosque on which the Christian sugar factory had been built. This however was the only one decorated with the seven-branched menorah identified with the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Courtesy of Herod Agrippas
The city of Tiberias was founded in 19 or 20 C.E. by Herod Agrippas, son of the Roman vassal king Herod. His people the Jews snubbed the brand-new city en masse, not least because it featured tombs. The city was peopled by pagans.
Purification rites were necessary before Jews would move in, Cytryn-Silverman tells Haaretz.
But eventually, they did and by the second century the true Jewish settlement of Tiberias had begun. Even the Sanhedrin court of judges moved there, from Zippori.
Early Christians also began to move in during the fourth century, the start of the Byzantine age, perhaps in 312 or a bit later. Meanwhile, Tiberias became a central city for Jews, notably during the Mishnaic and Talmudic times. While the main Jewish burial ground was Beit Shearim, there were interments in Tiberias and this door came from one such.
At some point the stone door was taken from the Jewish tomb. Whether it went straight to construction of the mosque, or served in yet another building in the interim, is not known.
What can be said is that while conquering the Levant from the Holy Roman Empire, the Islamic forces overran Tiberias in 635. They made Tiberias their local capital and built a mosque in the city, albeit quite a modest one, says Silverman: They allowed the local church to continue to dominate the ancient cityscape. Monumental Islamic construction in Tiberias would take another century to begin.
Could helping themselves to the tomb door have been deliberate desecration? Not necessarily. Cytryn-Silverman points out that it was the norm of the time to use “spolia” — to repurpose carved stones in new buildings. A lot of investment had been put into these stone bricks, doors and so on and the ancients did not cavil at simply plucking treasures from older buildings to create newer ones. Plus there may have been the added frisson of showing the ostensible helplessness of the supplanted religion.
If anything, the aesthetics of the time encouraged such repurposing. The Christian aesthetic tended to homogeneity but the conquering Islamic aesthetic was heterogeneous, Cytryn-Silverman says. They brought different things and displayed them together, showing different places of origin, symbolic victories over others and what not. A building might have different stone in each pillar, each of which would be capped by a differently colored and shaped capital.
The Tiberias mosque was destroyed by earthquake in 1068, as we know from coins found at the site, Silverman explains.
In 1099, Christians regained the upper hand in the Holy Land. The Crusaders would establish the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Tiberias was an integral part of that kingdom and members of the Hospitalers sect built a sugar factory on the city outskirts, on the site of the mosque’s ruins.
It was the Crusaders who moved the center of Tiberias to where the modern city is, a bit north of the original spot, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
A cathedral is found
It bears mentioning that under Byzantine rule, Judaism continued to flourish in the city, which even featured an archbishop.
Jews had been thought to have congregated in the lower city, with the Christians in other neighborhoods. But in 2008, ahead of groundwork for pipelines, the Israel Antiquities Authority unearthed an enormous church — “a cathedral!” Cytryn-Silverman enthuses, in the lower city. “It was very large, 30 meters wide at least and 32 meters long, not including the courtyards in front that led to the main street. It was big enough to justify an archbishop,” she says.
This church was built by the early Christians around the fifth century, and continued to function for some 600 years, including well after the Muslims arrived in 605, Silverman says. She surmises that the Muslims did not convert the city, based on the modesty of the mosque and the persisting grandeur of this cathedral.
But all things come to an end. Tiberias would be among the first parts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to fall to Saladdin, in 1187. And after vast effort and travail, after some 200 years since the movement’s establishment, the Crusaders would be vanquished.
Though control of the Holy Land was lost to Islamic forces, the sugar factory remained operational, at least for a while, into the 13th century. “We don’t know if it was in Christian hands or not,” says Cytryn-Silverman. But after that, the place was abandoned forever. And that sports center never did go up.