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23. Tiberias: The Ancient Capital of the Sea of Galilee

“Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” (John 6:23)

Tiberias was founded by Herod Antipas around 20 CE, about a decade before Jesus started his public ministry. It was named “Tiberias” in honor of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD). Although mentioned in the New Testament only twice, the centrality of Tiberias is evident. In the Gospel of John the Sea of Galilee is called the “Sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1). It seems Tiberias was so important, that sometimes the Sea of Galilee was named after it. And yet the Gospels do not record Jesus visiting Tiberias even once.

A view over Tiberias taken at some time before 1946, prior to the war of Israeli Independence in 1948.

A view over Tiberias taken at some time before 1946, prior to the war of Israeli Independence in 1948.

It appears to be that Jesus deliberately avoided going to Tiberias, perhaps wishing to abstain from confrontation with local administration representatives such as police and army. He was, after all, trying to spread the message of the kingdom of Heaven in a culture that allowed only one kingdom, the Roman kingdom.

What did Tiberias look like in the days of Jesus? It is hard to answer this question because Tiberias has been inhabited continuously to this very day, and it maintained an important position throughout the centuries. In the Byzantine period it was a major Jewish Center, and the “Sanhedrin” resided in Tiberias. During the Crusaders period, Tiberias was the capital of the principality of Galilee, and in the 18th Century Tiberias became a self-governed city by an Arab Beduin named Daher el-Omar.

An aerial view of the excavated areas in ancient Tiberias

An aerial view of the excavated areas in ancient Tiberias from 2007. Currently these areas are being developed to be part of an archaeological and cultural park. Photo © Tiberias archaeological expedition. www.tiberiasexcavation.com

When the Israeli Independence war broke out in 1948, nine Jews were murdered by Arabs in Tiberias. As a result the “Haganah” launched a counter-attack, which ended with the evacuation of all the Arab residents from Tiberias. Today Tiberias is known mostly for its hotels and fish restaurants in the city center. For many years archaeological excavations in Tiberias were very limited, but in the last decade a large section of the ancient city has been exposed in vacant areas south of the city’s cemetery. The new excavations managed to reveal the setting of the ancient city center, and its connection to an ancient southern gate, which was exposed already in the 1970’s. Last year (2008) the state also approved the development of the exposed sections into a cultural and archaeological park. When completed, visitors will be able to enter through Tibeias’ 1st century gate, and walk on its main street (Cardo) to the market area and the large Basilica complex. The park will also illustrate the shape and feeling of Tiberias in the days of Jesus.

The development plan for the exposition of the southern gate of Tiberias

The development plan for the exposition of the southern gate of Tiberias. Photo © Yaara Shaltiel, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Visiting Tiberias during the construction work for the creation of an archaeological park

Visiting Tiberias during the construction work for the creation of an archaeological park. The tractor is actually driving through the gate that was created in the days of Jesus, and it is 2000 years old. Photo © Danny Herman