The Roman city of Tiberias, long beloved of archaeologists but overshadowed in the public eye by Israel’s more famous or politically combustible ancient sites, is finally emerging from underneath soil, rubble and the remains of an old garbage dump along the Sea of Galilee.
Fueled by a recent infusion of government money, diggers have uncovered a striking Roman theater and other vivid pieces of the 2,000-year-old metropolis — a cosmopolitan center and the single most important Jewish city in the land of Israel for centuries after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Today Tiberias, with 45,000 residents, is known as a rather drab place where thoughtless construction has squandered the city’s picturesque location on the slopes overlooking one of the world’s most famous bodies of water. Nonetheless, more tourists — many of them Christians drawn by nearby holy sites along the Sea of Galilee — are frequenting the city’s growing number of hotels, according to City Hall. Archaeologists and the city’s mayor see the digs as a way to rebrand the city, where the official municipal slogan is now “The Past Makes the Future Grow” and schoolchildren are brought to see the newly exposed ruins as a way of instilling them with civic pride.
Archaeologists have been working in Tiberias for most of the 20th century, and in 1921 the city was the site of the first Jewish-led excavation in the Holy Land. But the pace of excavations has dramatically increased in recent years thanks to a large allocation of government money to the city. The cash — $7.5 million, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority — was meant to offset the effects of the 2006 Lebanon war, in which Tiberias was hit by several Hezbollah rockets. The mayor, Oved Zohar, allocated much of the money to the excavations.
Zohar plans to hold anniversary celebrations in 2018 — 2,000 years, more or less, after Tiberias was founded by the Judean ruler Herod Antipas and named for a Roman Caesar, Tiberius.
Five decades after its first residents moved in, the city was engulfed in the Jewish revolt against Rome. Josephus Flavius, the commander of Jewish rebel forces in Galilee, who later expediently changed sides and survived to write a famous history of the war, recounted how he had the city fortified against the Roman legions, and described a naval battle on the Sea of Galilee opposite the city between centurions and rebels on small boats.
The Jews threw rocks and tried to get close enough to fight the Romans, he wrote. “But in both these maneuvers they got the worst of it: their shower of stones merely rattled on the armor which protected the Romans, while they themselves were exposed to the latter’s arrows; on the other hand, when they ventured to approach, they had no time to do anything before disaster overtook them and they were sent to the bottom, boats and all.” Afterwards, he wrote, “One could see the whole lake stained with blood and crammed with corpses.”
The Roman commander later had rebels from the area herded into the stadium at Tiberias. “He then gave orders to execute the old and useless, twelve hundred in number,” Josephus recounted. The rest were sent into slavery.
The ruins of that stadium currently lie under a white-walled hotel along the shoreline. Archaeologists have found the main street of Roman Tiberias nearby and plan to excavate much of its length, opening it to pedestrians. The remains of what was thought to be a marketplace have been re-identified as the foundations of an enormous mosque from the time of Islamic rule; its support pillars rested on stone slabs that had previously been the decorated doors of Roman mausoleums. Antipas’ monumental, double-towered southern gate, first excavated in the 1940s, has been uncovered again.
In the mid-1980s, archaeologist Yossi Stepansky, who participated in and later led excavations around the city for nearly three decades, noticed four or five cut basalt stones sticking out of a garbage dump not far from the road into town.
Stepansky theorized that they belonged to a large public building, but the find was kept secret to prevent damage to the ruins. Excavations got under way in 1989, but stopped shortly thereafter. Only last year was the excavation finally completed and the building exposed: a Roman theater set overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It had once seated an estimated 7,000 people. Theater companies staged plays there in the first centuries of its existence, after which the building’s bottom level was sealed and filled with water so it could serve as a venue for reenactments of sea battles, a popular entertainment of the time.
The theater, which is not yet open to visitors, has received almost no public attention so far, but it is one of the biggest and best-preserved buildings of its kind ever found in Israel. Plans, still tentative, are currently being drawn up for the reopening of the theater for concerts, according to Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist who oversees the Tiberias digs.
The theater was abandoned sometime in the eighth century. The city itself thrived under Muslim rule before it also was largely abandoned in the 11th century and replaced by a smaller settlement to the north.
Other impressive Roman cities exist in Israel, notably at Caesarea and Beit She’an, but Tiberias is unique for having been an important Jewish center. The nassi, the Jewish leader in the land of Israel, lived here, as did some of the leading rabbis of the Talmud. One of them, Rabbi Yochanan, even predicted somewhat cryptically that “redemption would be from Tiberias.” The Talmud mentions the arrival of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic council of sages, in the city, having moved among Jewish communities in the north. Later on, the scholars who pioneered the use of vowels and perfected the text of the Hebrew Bible worked here under Islamic rule, eventually creating the Aleppo Codex, the manuscript considered the most accurate copy of the divine text. Maimonides, the great 12th-century Cairene philosopher and rabbi, is buried here.
But the mosque, several churches and other grand buildings, and the distinctly pagan theater show that Tiberias was always home to a heterogeneous mix of ethnic groups and religions, said Stepansky, the archaeologist.
“This city was always much more cosmopolitan than you would think if you read only Jewish sources,” he said.
Follow Matti Friedman on Twitter: mattifriedman
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