Tourist Tip #249 / The Mysterious Mount Berenice

Above the Galilee lies a pile of ruins with a stunning view and a scandalous past... or so the locals will tell you.

The jagged cliff jutting 200 meters skyward near the Sea of Galilee shoreline north of the Tiberias hot springs apparently just begged for a brilliant story to go with its dramatic lines. The fact that a pile of ruins lay atop it only added to the mystery.

Generations of locals provided the story – the ruins, they said were the palace of the scandalous first-century Queen Berenice. According to ancient historians she was the great-granddaughter of Herod the Great and sister of King Herod Agrippa II, and during one hiatus in her rich romantic career, committed incest with her royal brother. Who knows what she got up to on that mountaintop, generations of Tiberians would wonder, looking up at the ruins.

But the ruins you find when you get up there (after a somewhat strenuous walk; see below) are not those of the palace of an infamous Herodian royal but the remains of a magnificent Byzantine church with a spectacular view. The historical corrections comes compliments of archaeological excavations in the 1990s by the late Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld.

You’ll understand right away why the early sixth-century Christians chose this spot to build their church. It’s not just any spectacular view – it takes in every important point in Jesus’ Galilee ministry from Bethsaida, Capernaum, Tabgha and Magdala and – especially on a clear day – Mount Hermon and the mountains of Gilead. Consider a late afternoon visit, when the rays of the setting sun bathe the water and the mountains in red-gold hues.

You’ll find yourself in the ruins of a colonnaded basalt-stone basilica – almost 50 meters long and 28 meters wide, ending in a semicircular apse in the east with floors featuring colorful mosaics and marble tiles. In front of the building’s three entrances is a courtyard with a huge cistern.

When you wander around the ruins of the church, you’ll see a huge crack in an ancient wall. That’s a remnant of a particularly disastrous earthquake that took place in 749 C.E. that left its mark throughout the country; you’ll also see it, for example in the massive fallen pillars at nearby Beit Shean. The earthquake happened after the Muslims supplanted the Christians in ruling the country; as a result, most felled churches were not rebuilt.

But the Mount Berenice church was an exception: archaeologists say they see clear evidence that the Christians of Tiberias rebuilt their house of prayer in the second half of that same century and continued to worship there until the 13th century.

The mysteries of the church continued to unfold with the discovery of what ancient pilgrims would have considered its most important attraction: Underneath the central apse, a smoothed stone block was unearthed, about one meter long and weighing almost half a ton. In its center was a small hole. It looks exactly like the stone anchors that fishermen used in those days, but weighed 10 times more – much too heavy to have been used by the ancient fishermen in the lake below. Instead, scholars tell us it was an object of adoration as an early Christian symbol of hope. No wonder these tenacious believers stayed anchored to this spot.

To reach the church in your car via Tiberias, drive to the Aleph neighborhood of Tiberias, just south and opposite the Gai Beach Hotel. Drive up Shiloah Street turn onto Toledano Street and follow the signs. You’ll reach the beginning of the unpaved 1.5 km-long road, blazed by the Jewish National Fund, which has seen better days, that leads to the church. If you decide not to chance it with your car, you can park and walk up – the walk is a steep one so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to admire the unfolding view as you stop to catch your breath.

Thanks to tour guide Dovev Pe’er for assistance with the preparation of this article.

Dovev Pe'er
Dovev Pe'er