One of the finest ancient mosaic floors in Israel is what the under-visited site of Hammat Tiberias is all about. Little has survived of the town that lived in the shadow of Tiberias, its far larger and more important neighbor up the lake shore, but remains of three superimposed synagogues from the 3rd to the 8th centuries CE provide evidence of a flourishing and durable community.
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The extraordinary mosaic floor of a 4th-century synagogue, which bears the name of the town as a whole, is a colorful stone carpet of wonderful workmanship and – for a synagogue – startling themes.
Greek and Aramaic inscriptions honor benefactors (including donors to the building fund), while two lions exude power and recall the royal insignia of the Davidic dynasty; fine geometric designs edge the floor. The upper panel of the mosaic contains the quintessential Jewish symbols. A curtained “ark” in the center, probably the cupboard-like structure that contains Torah scrolls in a synagogue, is flanked on either side by a seven-branched menorah (candelabra), a shofar (ram’s horn), the incense pan used in the bygone Temple, and a lulav and etrog (palm frond and citron) used during the Sukkot festival.
While these motifs are beautiful and conventional, the large square central panel is what raises eyebrows. Each corner is inhabited by a female figure, captioned with a Hebrew month representing one of the four seasons of the year. The rest of the panel is covered by a colorful Zodiac wheel (itself a pagan theme), with several supposedly forbidden human forms, two of which are naked, and one – Libra – visibly uncircumcised. In the middle of it all is a depiction of Helios, the Greek sun god, with his radiant aura, whip, and discernible vestiges of a chariot and horses’ hooves.
The images are not only disconnected from Jewish tradition, they appear blatantly to violate it: naked human forms, a Greek mythological theme, and a pagan deity as the centerpiece of a synagogue?! Theories abound. Perhaps they were the product of a regional aberration (though similar zodiacs have surfaced far away to the south), or of a deviant fringe group (though this mosaic was made at the time when nearby Tiberias was the center of mainstream Judaism). Maybe the themes were merely allegorical, the seasons representing the cycle of the year, the zodiac the orderly succession of the months, and Helios the divine daily blessing of daylight and sunshine so essential to life. All is in God’s hands, the congregants would have affirmed, but since depicting Him was absolutely forbidden, the community borrowed conventional motifs from another culture to convey the idea. That, too, is just a theory.
The other face of Hammat Tiberias is its cluster of mineral-rich thermal springs, which made it a popular health spa and gave it its name (loosely, “Tiberias Hot Springs”) in the Roman period. Geologically, the site is located in the heart of the so-called Great Syrian Rift, a 6,000-km (3,700-mile) complex of tectonic faults that runs from northern Syria to Mozambique. The springs (sometimes dry in summer) were formed when heated water from deep underground bubbled to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. The water of the hottest spring emerges at 60 deg. C, or 140 deg. F. (Field studies this writer has conducted with teenage tourists revealed that no one could keep their hand immersed for more than 4 or 5 seconds.) The hot springs are trapped, tapped and purified, to supply the needs of the modern therapeutic and recreational spas just a few steps away.
Mythology has a different explanation for the phenomenon. King Solomon was so powerful, legend relates, that he was able to drive the minions of the devil underground and set them to work heating the water. When he saw how the springs brought relief to his afflicted subjects, he fretted over what might happen when he died and the demons ceased their labor. Consequently, he made them deaf so they would not hear of his demise -- and, in awe of the great king, they continue to stoke the fires to this day.
Route 90, 2 kms south of Tiberias (park next to the spa on the lake-side of the highway)
The site is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Entrance fee required (Adults NIS 15, child NIS 7)
Open April-October, 8am-5pm; November-March, 8am-4pm (check exact date of beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time if relevant). Closes one hour earlier on Friday and eve of Jewish religious holidays.