When winter is returning and the days are getting colder, I remember fondly the warmth of summer. I like it hot and I’m not alone. Throughout time, people have sought out hot water to cure their ails, and hot springs have always been a place of congregation, relaxation and healing. Last Spring, I took my kids to one of these hot springs on the banks of the Sea of Galilee – Hamat Tiberias National Park.
Hamat Tiberias was the southern suburb of Tiberias. It is mentioned in the bible as “Hamat” only once, in the context of one of the cities of the tribe of Naftali. A Hamat is a hot spring, which fits well with the Hamat Tiberias we know today. According to archaeology, the first finds here are from over a thousand years after the tribes of Israel entered and settled in our land and are related to Hamat’s northern neighbor, Tiberias.
Tiberias was founded by Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas who ruled from 4 BCE – 39 CE, and is mentioned in the writings of Josephus.
“And now Herod the tetrarch [Herod Antipas], who was in great favor with Tiberius, built a city of the same name with him, and called it Tiberias. He built it in the best part of Galilee, at the lake of Gennesareth. There are warm baths at a little distance from it, in a village named Emmaus [Hamat].”Josephus, Antiquities, 18:2:3
The exact date for the establishment of the city has been proven from a coin found in the excavations there, including the name of the city, and the date of the 24th year of Herod Antipas’s reign or 19/20 CE. (This means that this year is Tiberius’s 2000th birthday!) The city was built as a typical Roman polis and recent archaeological excavations have uncovered a monumental city gate, sewage channel, cardo main street, theater, and of course, the palace of Herod Antipas himself. The palace floors were covered with opus sectili tiles similar to other buildings of Herod the Great (Antipas’s father). In the northern part of the city along the shore were found remnants of a rounded structure, perhaps from a hippodrome similar to one in Caesarea along the waterfront.
Because it was only founded in the year 19/20 CE, Tiberias is not mentioned in the Bible. It was not occupied in the time of the mighty kings of Israel or in the time of Jesus’s early life in the Galilee. Hamat Tiberias, too, does not have any remains until the 2nd century CE. The boon of both the big city and its smaller suburb came in 135 CE. The failure of the Bar Cochva revolt and the decrees which ensued drove the Jewish community north, into the Galilee. In time, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, would move east from Usha and Shfaram through Tzippori to Tiberias. Important Rabbis would seek out the metropolis and its suburb. Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, the rabbinic sage from the Mishna, would settle in Hamat Tiberias and subsequently be buried there. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai would come and identify earlier graves under the polis, paving the way for large-scale Jewish settlement in the city of Tiberias.
The hot springs were certainly a draw for the southern suburb of Tiberias. The hot springs of Hamat Tiberias emerge from 17 highly saline underground springs, and erupt from the ground at a temperature of 60 degrees celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Legend has it that these waters come straight from the burning furnace of hell, stoked by demons sent there by none other than King Solomon himself.
These healing waters and the beautiful location on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, made Hamat Tiberias a welcome home for Jews through the ages. There are remains of 3 beautiful synagogues, one on top of the next, within the confines of today’s National Park which attest to the strength of the Jewish community during the late Roman and the Byzantine periods. The mosaic floor preserved is that of the second synagogue from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE and includes a zodiac wheel with Helios in the center as well as many dedications from donors. The National Park has also developed a series of pools for the waters of the hot springs, if you dare to enter the 35, 40 or even 45 degree water.
Right about now, that sounds really lovely to me. Happy 2000th birthday, Tiberias! Hope to see you soon!