Israel travels

Berko Park, aka ancient Tiberias

King Herod Antipas unwittingly built Tiberias directly over a Jewish cemetery. Luckily, some 130 years later, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai decided to purify the place

Round Roman tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Round Roman tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, the Romans who ruled the Land of Israel granted the Galilee to his son Antipas. In the middle of his reign, around 20 CE, Herod Antipas decided to erect a Roman-style capital city to rival the spectacular but hostile Jewish center at Tzippori. He built it on the western shores of Lake Kinneret and named it Tiberias after the ruling Roman emperor. Besides the glistening lake, which was to provide a handsome living for the city’s fishermen, the locale featured fertile farmland and hot springs that were famous for their miraculous healing properties.

Lain out in typical Roman grid patterns, Tiberias boasted handsome avenues lined with shops, impressive statues, a luxurious bathhouse, and a grandiose palace. Unfortunately for the Jews of Israel, who would have delighted in the free land, housing, and tax exemptions that Herod was offering new residents, the king had unwittingly located Tiberias directly over an ancient Jewish cemetery, and fear of contamination kept most of them away.

Some 130 years later, or so, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai emerged from the minuscule Galilee cave in which he had been hiding ever since the Romans sentenced him to death for studying Torah. In order to make his clothes last for the duration, he had removed them whenever he was not at prayer and had covered his nakedness with sand.  As a result, when the decree was finally lifted over a decade later, the sage was feeling pretty grimy. Once outside the cave, he couldn’t wait to cleanse himself in the hot springs of Tiberias.

But first he had to purify the city. He identified the graves by the blossoms growing nearby: lupine and sea squill, flowering plants that flourish in soft, turned-over soil. Finally, the rabbi dug up the bodies and relocated them elsewhere with appropriate ceremony.

The timing was fortuitous, for the ill-fated Bar Kochba Revolt had ended a few years earlier and Jews banished from Jerusalem were flocking north. Now that Tiberias was purged, it became a favorite destination. Indeed, by the 3rd century, Tiberias was the center of Jewish life in the Holy Land, and remained predominantly Jewish for hundreds of years.

Unlike the circular or oval Roman amphitheater — where men were often pit against animals and soldiers — the Roman theater was semicircular, and designed to ensure the excellent acoustics necessary for plays, and speaking events

During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, modern Tiberias was repeatedly bombarded by Hezbollah rockets. The onslaught found the quiet Galilee town, which was relatively far from the Lebanese border and hadn’t been attacked in decades, completely unprepared. Damage to the town’s residential areas and businesses was severe.

At the time, Tiberias couldn’t boast a single park worthy of the name. So after the war, when the Israeli government presented the shell-shocked city with a large sum of money as part of its Program to Reinforce the North, that’s what Mayor Zohar Oved decided to develop. And not just any park, but a fantastic complex which incorporated the ruins of the once glorious Roman town of Tiberias.

Prepared by the Israel Antiquities Authority for the Tiberias Municipality, the park is dedicated to the memory of Ozer (Berko) Berkowitz, a former Finance Ministry official from Tiberias who had recently passed away. Berko Park is located at the southern entrance to modern Tiberias. In addition to exciting and well-preserved remains from ancient Tiberias, it features a beautifully landscaped park with playgrounds, challenging apparatus for older children, and an area for outdoor performances.

Roman pillar  (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Roman pillar (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Tiberias has endured more than its share of major disasters. In addition to the plagues and earthquakes common in the Holy Land, the city suffers fairly frequently from flash floods that sweep tons of boulders and debris down the mountain behind it and into the lake.

The latest occurred in 1934, during the British Mandate in Palestine. At the time, stores, dwellings and even a mosque lined the banks of the Kinneret. That year, however, a massive black cloud burst over the city and caused tremendous floods. Water poured down from the mountains above Tiberias, dozens of people were killed, and down at the lake where an easterly wind was blowing, the city was transformed into one gigantic pool.

Practical as always, the British took concrete steps to avert future disaster. Banning construction on the lakeshore, they planted trees above the town (today’s Swiss Forest) to hold down the soil. And, in 1937, the British constructed a dam to prevent the easterly winds from propelling huge waves into the city. It is that dam which is now the promenade, with a marina, restaurants, and shops.

Once in the archaeological area of the park, visitors find that balconies offer overall views of the ancient city. The first of these overlooks the southern entrance and, still standing from those long-ago times is the original gate, lined on both sides by twin round towers. The original cardo is easy to spot, as well, for it was paved with diagonally laid basalt stones that made it possible for Roman carriages to maneuver.

A balcony overlooking the southern entrance to the city (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A balcony overlooking the southern entrance to the city (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

From the beginning, Tiberias was surrounded by walls. This we know because when Tiberias surrendered to Rome during the Great Revolt, the gates were too narrow for the thousands of Roman troops trying to enter. As a result, General Vespasian ordered the southern wall broken down, to make a “broad passage for their entrance.” (Josephus Flavius, Wars of the Jews Book III).

However, the walls seen at the site today were constructed by Byzantine emperor Justinian in 530. And just about every other structure built atop the Roman ruins dates back to the Abbasid era, a period of Muslim rule which began in the year 750 and lasted for hundreds of years. Interestingly, one day in the 10th or 11th century  residents blocked up their windows and doors, hid coins in the walls for recovery some day in the future – and abandoned the city.

Visitors can walk around the edge of the ruins, or into the city itself, for a good look at the drainage canal, and the bridge on top that were built by the Abbasids on Roman remains. A favorite site is a level patch at the northwestern corner of the site, once one of many gardens in the Abbasid city.

Along a path leading up the slopes of Mount Bereniki, behind the ancient city, are both natural caves and pieces of the Roman aqueduct that brought fresh water to Tiberias from springs further east. At the end of the short ascent, you enter a wonderful Roman theater which is covered, in some spots, by Abbasid additions.

Entrance to Roman theater (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Entrance to Roman theater (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Unlike the circular or oval Roman amphitheater — where men were often pit against animals and soldiers — the Roman theater was semicircular, and designed to ensure the excellent acoustics necessary for plays, and speaking events. The base of the theater’s stage is almost intact, as are several rows of benches whose dark basalt bottoms are topped with light limestone seats.

Strange basalt slabs sitting in a row further east are doors — of plots from the ancient cemetery. Hundreds of years later, the Abbasids used them as bases for a large mosque. Nearby, columns line part of the ancient cardo, which served as the main street of both the Roman and the Abbasid cities.

A rickety roof covers a portion of the city’s main bathhouse, whose underground pipes connected to the hot springs of Tiberias. Thus, instead of being heated by fire, this bathhouse was heated by hot water.

Excavations are ongoing at Berko Park, where archaeologists are still trying to locate Antipas’s opulent palace. Some years ago, experts thought it might be located on Mount Bereniki, with its superb view of Lake Kinneret. But when archaeologists excavated on the mountain they discovered a rare, 8th century church instead.

Hours: The park is open Sunday -Thursday, 16:00-20:00; Saturday from 11:00-20:00. During these hours there is access only a small portion of the excavations. There is an entrance fee. Most of the park is wheelchair accessible.

To visit the excavations in depth or at hours and days when the park is closed, you must contact the site director in advance.

For further information, contact us through our website:

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