Tiberias lies on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is the only major city on the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias was established in 20 CE and served as the second capital for Herod Antipas after Sephora, which served as his first capital during the early years of his reign. Herod Antipas was the 1st century ruler for Galilee and Perea, and bore the title of tetrarch (ruler of the quarter). He was referred to as King Herod as well as Herod the tetrarch and he was well known for his role in the beheading of John the Baptist in the New Testament after the later condemned his marriage to Herodias, who was married to his Half-brother Herod II.
King Herod named Tiberias after the great Roman Emperor Tiberius. Tiberias became the seat of the Roman Sanhedrin and rabbinical schools after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in CE 70.
Since the 16th century Tiberias was considered one of the four holiest cities in Judaism, along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed. The largest Jewish city In the Galilee, the political and religious hub of the Jews. The city of Tiberias was built in immediate proximity of 17 natural hot mineral Springs, which in ancient times were called (Emmaus) according to the Roman -Jewish historian Josephus, nowadays it is called (Hammat Tiberias).
Throughout the centuries Tiberias was occupied by the Romans in 20 CE, Byzantine Empire 628-634 Muslim Period 634-1099, Crusaders Period 1096-1265, Egyptian Mamluk Period 1265 -1516, Ottoman Empire 1516-1917, British Mandate 1917-1948, Israel 1948 until today.
Tiberias is mentioned in the new testament, as the location from which boats sailed to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee where the crowds seeking Jesus after the feeding of the 5000 used the boats to travel back to Capernaum on the north- western part of the Sea.
Overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the West are two large cliffs, facing each other’s across the Valley of the Doves which is sometimes called the Valley of the Pigeons, the larger of the two cliffs which lies on the south-eastern side of the Valley of Doves is the Arbel, from where you can see the northern shores, the scene of much of Jesus Galilean ministry.
The best view from the Arbel cliff is to the north, where you can see the Plain of Gennesaret, in which the historian Josephus referred to as the fertile Sea of Gennesaret, where after feeding the 5000 Jesus and the disciples crossed the sea to the land of Gennesaret. At the opposite side of the plain is a museum there is a boat from the new testament times which was recovered from beneath the Sea of Galilee.
Capernaum played an important role in Jesus Galilean ministry. Jesus lived for some time there, and some of his disciples, including Simon Peter, were fishermen from Capernaum as well as Mathew, who was the tax collector at that time.
Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel soon after the beheading of John the Baptist. On his way He collected four of his disciples and went to Capernaum and started teaching and performing the miracles of healing at the Capernaum Synagogue, where he healed a man with an unclean spirit. The second healing occurred at Simon Peter’s home, where Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a very severe fever. Among the many healings and miracles that Jesus performed was on a paralytic man who was let down through the roof of the house and was healed.
During the late fourth century, the first disciple Simon Peter’s house was converted into a house-church, the walls of which stand until today as they once were.
Franciscan archaeologists excavated the site of the ancient Capernaum and discovered the remains of an old Synagogue dating from the fifth century A.D. This was not the same synagogue Jesus preached and healed at, but one built on top of it. Nearby, between the synagogue and the sea, the Franciscans archaeologists uncovered as well a first century house that was modified during the fourth century to serve as a house-church, which was then rebuilt during the fifth century as an octagonal church. If this interpretation is correct, then the first house may be Simon Peter House, converted during the fourth century into the house-church and the octagonal church would have been roughly contemporary with the synagogue. Above the house/house-church/octagonal church, a modern church was constructed in a fashion as not to ruin and disturb them.
A paved driveway takes you to an entrance of an enclosure that surrounds the Franciscans excavations and modern church. East to the Franciscan grounds is a second enclosed area, where you will find a Rose-coloured Domed Small Church belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church.
Upon entering the Franciscan grounds, you are faced with a building resembling a flying saucer hovering above the ground; actually, it is hovering above the remains of the of the house/house-church/octagonal church, thus protecting the remains below. To the left of the modern church built over the remains, you are faced with a walkway between the modern church and the synagogue, where lies the remains of the first century A.D. fishing village that Jesus and the disciples walked through. Among the remains are the Roman milestones from the time of Emperor Hadrian. Its reconstructed inscription reads (Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Trajan the conqueror of the Parthians, Grandson of the divine Nerva, Trajan Hadrian Augustus). Placed along side of the open area, there are decorative elements from the synagogue and other ancient buildings, the Ark which is a small shrine for storing and displaying the Torah scroll depicted as a miniature colonnaded temple on wheels.
Mount of Beatitude:
At the enclosed portion of this peaceful hill that overlooks the Sea of Galilee from the northwest side lies a small hospice for pilgrims, a church that was built in 1937 and beautifully kept grounds and gardens with semi-private places where pilgrims and small groups can mediate and worship. All are maintained by the Franciscan sisters. The balcony that lies at the back of the church gives a memorable view of the Sea of Galilee, the lush Gennesaret plain, and the Arbel Cliff. Visible on the horizon beyond the two cliffs is (Hattin) which is a flat-topped mountain slightly raised on either end, thus the reference to ‘the horns of Hattin’. It is where in 1187 Saladin overwhelmingly defeated a Crusader army.
At the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is the site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The site is maintained by the German Benedictines order. Tabgha is the Arabic name of the site, which is derived from the Greek word Heptapegon, meaning the seven springs. Nearby lies a church in a beautiful garden, where Jesus is said to have fed five thousand people with the five loaves of bread and two fishes. The stone upon which the master placed the bread and fish became an altar, which many pilgrims broke off pieces to use as a cure for all their ailments. The church that was built in the same place of the miracle and which was mentioned by many pilgrims who visited the area of the springs in the fourth, fifth, sixth and the seventh centuries, was found in ruins.
During the fourth century when Christianity emerged as the religion of the Roman Empire, a small church was erected at the place the miracle of the Loaves of bread and fishes occurred. This small church was replaced in the fifth century by a larger basilica-style church and monastery complex that included courtyards surrounded by rooms used as workshops and lodging for monks and pilgrims. Both fourth and fifth century churches featured a stone upon which Jesus performed the miracle. Probably during the sixth century a beautiful mosaic was added, which depicts a basket of loaves of bread with two fishes.
The basilica church was destroyed during the seventh century, possibly by the Persians (Sassanians) who raided Palestine in 614 A.D. or by Arab Muslims who expanded in Palestine soon thereafter, thus Arculf found it in ruins towards the end of the seventh century.
The church that stands on the spot today was erected by the Benedictines in 1981 and incorporates some of the walls and mosaics from the fifth century basilica. An opening in the floor to the left of the altar there is a view of the foundation walls of the original fourth century church. Inside the church there is a ’nilometer’ portraying a tower marked with bands bearing Greek letters for measuring the water level of the Sea of Galilee.
Church of Primacy of Peter:
East to Tabgha, along the Seashore, is the Church of Primacy of Peter, which can be reached only by the main road. The church was built over a rock known as Mensa Domini, which means The Lord’s Table. It is said that at this same spot Jesus had breakfast with his disciples after their miraculous catch of fish. The grounds are shaded with trees and provide an access to the Sea of Galilee.
In 1969 a Byzantine site was discovered near the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee, three miles north of kibbutz Ein Gev, and was excavated in 1970-74 revealing remains of an impressive basilica and monastery dating from the fifth century. It was considered one of the largest monastic churches in Palestine at that time and must have marked an important spot for early Christians. It is supposed to be associated with the miracle of the swine. The remains of a small chapel built into a natural cave were discovered on a slope above and south east of the monastery. Attached to the chapel was a square tower built around a natural rock pillar. This cave/rock was believed by early Christians to be the place where Jesus encountered the man whom he cast out the demons from, and allowed them to enter into a herd of swine, which rushed headlong into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.
At the time of Jesus, Lower Galilee was predominantly Jewish. Jews were not natives to Galilee, but many moved into this region hundred years earlier when The Jewish dynasty (Hasmonean) was strong in Jerusalem thus controlling Galilee as well. Lower Galilee was dotted with small farming Villages such as Nazareth, Cana, Nain etc. With the exception of Tiberias and Sepphoris, which were modest sized cities with more affluent residents both Jews and Gentiles, the two cities were more Roman in character.
During the first and second centuries B.C. the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean was part of the Roman Empire after the defeat of the Selecids in Syria by Pompeii in 67-63 B.C., thus creating the Roman province of Syria with Antioch as its capital. Judea remained under the Jewish rule for a little while, but under Roman authority. So Pompeii detached certain cities, which were largely inhabited by non-Jewish population, from under the rule of the Hasonmean Jews and made them answerable to Rome through Damascus, Syria. These cities and their surrounding region, which were ten in number, came to be known as the (Decapolis) meaning the ten cities. At that time much of Galilee fell under the Damascus administration for a short time and in 55 B.C. Sepphoris became the administrative capital designated by the Proconsul in Damascus for Galilee.
During the winter of 39-38 B.C., when Herod the great captured Sepphoris where he established his throne, Sepphoris served as the northern headquarters to his kingdom. When Caesar Augustus died in 14 A.D., Herods built Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and named it his capital instead of Sepphoris.
When Herod died in 4 B.C. his kingdom was divided among his three children and Galilee fell into the hands of his son Herod Antipas who rebuilt Sepphoris, which served as his capital and the city he resided at. This is the same Herod Antipas who refused to sentence Jesus and sent him back to Pilate.
It is said that Joseph, the fiancé of the Blessed Virgin Mary, worked in carpentry in Sepphoris, where Jesus spent time when he was a child with friends from his boyhood time. Also, it is the birth place of the Blessed Virgin Mary and where her family lived, as was mentioned by a pilgrim who visited Sepphoris in the late sixteenth century, where he visited a small church that was the home of the Blessed Virgin before.
The Arabic name for Sepphoris is Saffuriyyah, which is derived from the Greek name Sepphoris. The Hebrew form of Sepporis is Zippori, which means bird, because the city was perched on the top of a mountain like a bird, surrounded by fertile countryside.
The region underwent several archaeological excavations in 1931. The many archaeological, historical sites and ruins that were discovered in this region are the Roman theatre, two early Christian churches, and a Crusaders fort, which was renovated by Zahir al-Umar in the 18th century as well as over 60 different mosaics dating from the third to the sixth century.
The Roman Theatre:
The theatre was built towards the end of the first century, and seated around 3000 people. The architectural design was derived after the Greek influence, which the Romans copied in the building of all their theatres. After the first Jewish revolt that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Masada (70-73 A.D.), most of the New Testament was written about the same time with the exception of the letters of Paul.
Jesus like the people at that time, must have been a spectator at the Theatre because it was there and for the first time He used the word hypocrites to describe and criticize the religious leaders for their exaggerated public piety. The word hypocrites, which is a Greek word for actors who wore masks having two faces was mentioned seventeen times in the Gospel, and three times Jesus used in His sermon on the mountain.
Palatial villa with the Dionysus mosaic:
The villa was built during the third century A.D. and used for entertaining because of the breath-taking treasures of Dionysus mosaics on the ceilings and elaborate floors, depicting beautiful scenes from nature, of birds, flowers and geometrical shapes. The mosaics depicted also scenes from the life of Bacchus and images of his followers feasting, scenes of Gods, Goddesses, mythical creatures and revellers celebrating the cult of Bacchus. There are also images of men smashing grapes by foot to make wine. Yet, the most beautiful of the mosaics was that of the Roman Goddess Venus, known also as the Mona Lisa of galilee for her beauty and enigmatic smile. It was destroyed during the 363 A.D. earthquake, by the time the Roman Empire began its decline and Christianity was spreading rapidly.
Roman Streets and buildings:
Excavations at Sepphoris revealed the typical planning for all Roman cities. Each city should have a main street, named cardo, and several cross and side streets called decumani. The excavations revealed a long section of the cardo and only one decumani that was believed to have been built during the early second century, and used during the life of the Roman -Byzantine city exactly like the Roman Theatres. Alongside the main streets were shops and other structures, relating to the Roman period, whihcb eventually were replaced with structures from the Byzantine time, early Christian period.
The Orpheus House /Western Church:
The Orpheus house lies approximately mid-way along the northern side of the cardo (main street), which was built at the end of the third century A.D. The house was built nearly at the same time as the Dionysus villa, though not much of it remains except fragments of the mosaic floor depicting Orpheus playing a stringed instrument to calm the wild animals and birds surrounding him. Towards the end of the fifth and early sixth century, a church was built to replace it during the Byzantine period, when Christianity was established as the official religion of the land and the religious leaders were embroiled with theological controversies.
The Nile River Building:
The Nile Building is the largest structure excavated along the cardo. Actually it is the largest structure in Sepphoris dating to the early fifth century. By its size and richness of its mosaic floors, the Nile Building must have been a public building of some sorts. An eight – line inscription, near the cardo entrance, refers to Roman artists who had done the colourful mosaic all over the rooms. But the most interesting one is in the room that is called the festival room. This room is in the centre of the building and has the most elaborate mosaic river scene, teaming with life. The image shows the annual flooding of the Nile River overseen by the River God himself and the fertility Goddess. The banks are crowded with fishermen, fowl, wild beasts and flowers. The entire floor is alive with activity called Nile festival room.
Sepphoris had several synagogues, eighteen according to the Talmud. But so far this is the only one that was discovered in the north side of the city dating to the fifth century, approximately the same time as the Nile House. It was destroyed during the Byzantine Period. The floor plan is somewhat unusual for an early synagogue, with the main hall having only one isle on its northern side. The mosaic floor is rich with symbols and biblical scenes. The zodiac mosaic floor conveys the message that God is the centre of the creation. The image of the zodiac on a synagogue floor may seem quite strange to us today, because zodiac is usually associated with astrology. But during the fifth century, the zodiac was part of the commonly accepted understanding of the heavens. There are also twenty inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek inside on the floor.