Celebrating 2,000 Years, Tiberias' History Is Buried Under Garbage

Ancient bathhouse under weeds, beer bottles covering a mosaic. Archaeological sites around the city could have been tourist attractions, but many are abandoned and neglected

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The old City in  Tiberias.
The old City in Tiberias.Credit: Yuval Gesser
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

A trip down a short dirt road at the southern end of Tiberias reveals an ancient Roman theater. A wooden lookout post perched above the ruins has a commanding view of the Sea of Galilee and beyond. The spot could be a tourist magnet, but the theater was never restored and isn’t open to visitors. Not to mention that the access road remains unpaved and features mainly trash containers.

Next year the Jewish-Roman city of Tiberias marks its 2,000th anniversary from its foundation by the Jewish royal Herod Antipas of the Herodian dynasty in about 20 C.E. He established it as a wholly new polis (city-state), not just another town, says Prof. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University.

“The basics of a Roman polis were kept: orthogonal town planning, theater, bathhouse, two gates, street furniture and so on – with a Jewish twist. There was no need for temples unless there were a lot of pagans around,” says Eisenberg. “The famous Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court, moved to Tiberias from Sepphoris (Tzipori),” he adds, noting that the two cities did not get along, but kept wrangling over the dominance of the Jewish elders’ place.

Two thousand years later, the festivities marking Antipas’ feat are slated to last for three years. Yet although the city, perched on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is home to major historical sites, it has singularly failed to preserve, let alone restore them.

The theater, for instance, was built around the same time the Romans founded Tiberias. It is one of only about 10 of its kind in Israel, says Dr. Mordechai Aviam of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College. But unlike, say, the amphitheater in Caesarea, it was never restored for use.

But at least it isn’t buried under piles of garbage anymore. Until the 1980s, the city used the site as a dump. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, during which the city was hit by rockets, Tiberias also got money to restore archaeological sites, as compensation of sorts. Some work has been done since.

Archaeological and soccer park

The Berko Archaeological Park was established in 2008 from postwar compensation funds, but from the beginning the park was controversial.

Although billed as an archaeological park, and while there are antiquities on display there, the remnants of a Roman gate and a Roman street, much of the ancient past at the site has been buried under earth and grass so sports facilities could be installed there. On a recent afternoon visit to the park, it was essentially deserted.

It’s just about a kilometer from here to Hamat Tiberias National Park, run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, an archaeological site where the remains of ancient bathhouses and a synagogue with magnificent mosaics are properly maintained.

The old City in Tiberias. Credit: Yuval Gesser

The Sanhedrin route, a 70-km hiking trail crossing the Galilee from Tiberias to Beit She’arim, is a project of the Israel Antiquities Authority, initiated in advance of Israel’s 70th anniversary next year. It is supposed to be dotted with points of interest.

Dr. Mordechai Aviam.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Aviad said the plans remind him of a similar trail from Nazareth to Capernaum developed in advance of the year 2000 and the expected upsurge in tourism. In the end, that trail became a private project that, Aviam says, has been neglected.

Mount Berenice

Tiberias has signs to Mount Berenice and the Jewish National Fund website also makes reference to a passable dirt road to the remains of a monastery there, but efforts by this reporter to get there failed.

The site promises to include a Byzantine-era church. According to Tiberias resident Haim Hatzav, the site was excavated in the 1990s, but shortly afterwards, a hiker fell into a hole there and died. “Anyone going there now will find it abandoned, neglected and dangerous. It’s not a tourist [site] and not open,” he said.

Like others, Hatzav laments the condition of his city and cites with irony the prediction of Theodor Herzl, who envisioned Tiberias as a modern Garden of Eden and a site comparable to the French Riviera, even though he never visited the city.

The bathhouse and basilica

Another unpaved road leads to the ruins of a basilica, excavated years ago, which recently got a large marker on a stop along the Sanhedrin trail. Close by, under the weeds, is an ancient bathhouse excavated in the 1960s.

Aviam recounts how after the site was excavated, enthusiasm over the site brimmed and a roof was even installed to protect it. Not very effectively: The site’s fence and even some mosaic tiles were stolen.

Proceeding on to another relatively orderly archaeological park with the remnants of a synagogue and a replica of a mosaic, inside the city, near hotels, Aviam remarks wryly, “Just as well they removed the original and put a copy in its place.”

The site is strewn with soda cans and beer bottles. On one basalt stone wall is an electric switchbox that is apparently not connected. There is also a sign welcoming visitors to Tiberias; it is barely legible.

Tiberias Mayor Yossi Ben-David says the rubbish had apparently accumulated there after the school summer vacation began, and will be cleaned up. More importantly, there are plans to restore 1,200 of the 6,000 seats in the ancient Roman theater, which he hopes will become a site for performances.

Scottish Hospital and El Senor

Other plans include improvements to the Sea of Galilee shoreline and the ancient Tiberias port. Eight months ago, he said, he was able to “free up” 6 million shekels ($1.7 million) for the city’s archaeological sites.

Actually, most of the well-maintained sites in Tiberias are Christian, says Prof. Haim Goren, a historical geographer of the Land of Israel, at Tel Hai College.

He mentions as an example the Scottish Hospital, which was dedicated in 1894 and is owned by the Church of Scotland to this day. “It’s a bit of a problem visiting, because it’s a hotel, but they’ve taken the building and made it a proper visitors’ center,” Goren says.

“From the perspective of the history of preservation in Israel, Tiberias is perhaps the most blatant and saddest case of destruction of historic urban fabric,” says Uri Ben-Tzioni, the Galilee district director of the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. “Huge destruction was caused to the city in the [1948] War of Independence and for a great many years – actually almost to this day – the city was marked by erasing the past, as well as harmful new construction.”

In fact, it was only in 2014 that a master city plan addressed conservation. To the credit of the current city administration, however, Ben-Tzioni says it initiated and funded a wide-ranging preservation survey and efforts such as fighting to preserve the façade of a hotel and preservation work at the El Senor synagogue as part of a government initiative.

In several city locations are remnants of walls built in the 18th century on the foundations of Crusader-era walls. The walls provided protection in 1742 and 1743 when Tiberias was under siege.

Now the walls not only fail to provide protection, it doesn’t appear that anyone is taking the trouble to protect them.

Yet if the visitor takes a look at the wonderfully preserved Scots Hotel and even down the street at the Saraya – a government building from the Ottoman period – one does get the impression that the phrase “wasted potential” is not just a cliché.

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