The City by the Lake
Although the area around the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, seems to have been one of the first settled areas in the Land of Israel (the earliest human remains were found there, dating to the Early Bronze Age) the area which is today known as the city of Tiberias was only settled in the first century C.E.
King Herod's son established the city in 18 C.E. and named it "Tiberias" in honor of the Roman Emperor. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, many exiled Jews came to Tiberias to settle, and Tiberias became an important center of Jewish learning. The Mishna, an extensive commentary on the Torah, is believed to have been compiled in Tiberias by the great rabbis of the times, and the Sanhedrin, the Great Rabbinical Court was located in Tiberias.
The hot springs near Tiberias played a major role in the development of the city. These springs have drawn visitors, both for recreation and therapeutic purposes, to their healing waters since at least Roman times, and throughout the centuries, their presence near Tiberias was a key factor in bringing people to the area. Even today, people come from throughout the world to sit in the springs of Hamat Gader and relax and heal. Jews, Christians and Moslems lived together in the city through the Byzantine and Umayyad periods. Many of the biggest battles of the Crusader era were fought near Tiberias.
Tiberias also played a central role in revitalizing Jewish communities which had been uprooted by the Spanish Inquisition. Throughout the Middle Ages, many Jews in Spain and Portugal had been forced to convert to Christianity, yet they continued to practice Judaism secretly. These Jews, called "Marannos", took a huge risk in clinging to their Jewish heritage because if caught, they were subjected to torture and oftentimes burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Many Marannos succeeded in fleeing Spain after formally converting to Christianity, and once free, longed to return to their Jewish roots. Tiberias offered refuge to many of these Jews, and quite a few Maranno families settled in Tiberias.
The Jewish community of Tiberias decreased throughout the Middle Ages, but by the late 1880s, as Jewish settlement throughout Israel increased, the Jewish population of Tiberias also began to rebuild. Tiberias became known as one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities. According to Kabbalah, each one of these cities is connected to an element of nature - Jerusalem is Earth, Hebron is Fire, Tzfat is Air, and Tiberias is Water. Tiberias was the scene of Arab riots in 1929 and 1936, but the Jews continued to build and settle, and in 1948, after Tiberias was captured by the new Israeli army, the city began to flourish as a major center of Northern Israel.
Tiberias's past, however, is always apparent. Several years ago, a group of rabbis decided to attempt to revive the ancient Jewish Court, the Sanhedrin. They chose Tiberias as their seat, and they meet there periodically to discuss and try to resolve some of Judaism's modern conflicts and questions. Tiberias may be a modern city of Israel, but its history is never far away.