Tag Archives: ancient synagogue

Tiberias from 1st Century to Ottoman Conquest

Map after HerodThe city of Tiberias is on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. it was Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who inherited the areas of Galilee and Perea and ruled as tetrarch. The boys took after their father, Antipas built the city of Tiberias as his capital in 18 CE on an existing settlement, which he named after his patron the Roman emperor Tiberius and built an impressive palace there. His half-brother Philip built his capital at Banias In 3 BCE and made improvements in 14 CE after which Agrippa II also carried out urban improvements. During the First Jewish–Roman War, Vespasian rested his troops at Caesarea Philippi in July 67 CE before advancing on Tiberias to crush the Jewish resistance in Galilee. Today you can visit the archaeological site at Banias but although archaeologists have excavated Tiberias since 1934 (Makhouli, Guy and Rabani, Druks, Foerster, Berman, Hirschfeld, also with Gutfeld) only recently has it been possible to visit the site.

The site and its surroundings boast an array of archaeological finds from almost every period from its establishment during the first century to the Crusader period and you’ll need a knowledgeable guide to make sense of it.

Tiberias excavations

map by Leticia Barda of the Israel Antiquities Authority

At the southern edge of the city are the remains of a decorative gate built by Antipas, the entrance flanked by two cylindrical towers. This gate and the Cardo leading from it continued to be used through the Early Islamic period, more than 700 years. South of the gate is a drainage system channeling the water from the winter floods into the lake – a bridge enables access to the gate and the Cardo. During the Byzantine period, the gate was connected to a wall encompassing the city and the eastern slopes of Mt. Berenice.

City Gate, Tiberias

Foerster Area C

 

The other monumental structure uncovered is a Roman theater built by Antipas, with 7,000 seats, more than the theater at Caesarea built by Herod.

Roman Theater, Tiberias

Over the years, archaeological expeditions have uncovered, a large Late Roman-Byzantine bathhouse, a broad pillared building built over what has been identified as an unfinished Roman temple (Hadrianeum), and a basilical building to the east, lying between the Cardo and the Sea of Galilee.

Hirschfeld excavations Tiberias

Excavation Plans Tiberias (2005). (Dov Porotsky, courtesy of Hirschfeld Expedition team)

The following are excerpts from Israel Antiquities Authority article by Hirschfeld and Meir from 2006 at http://www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.aspx?id=337&mag_id=111.

In excavating down to Stratum VII (first century CE), they reached the Herodian level on which the basilica was erected. Parts of a floor that consisted of divided marble slabs in opus sectile pattern and a long wall with traces of a red fresco below the basilica’s foundations were found. It is presumed that this was the remains of Herod Antipas’ magnificent palace, which Josephus Flavius described in his writings. Further exposed remains of this building included pieces of frescos painted in red, ochre, as well as blue and green, which were scattered in abundance throughout the excavation area.

At Stratum VI dated to the Roman period (second–third centuries CE) remains in Area A included the bathhouse and Area C consisted of the “covered marketplace”. Remains of the Hadrianeum––a temple dedicated to Hadrian whose construction was never completed––were discovered to the north of Area C. The Cardo was also paved during this period.

Hirschfeld excavated, among others, a large building from the late Roman period (Area B, stratum IV), which he identified as the Great Academy (Beth Midrash) of Tiberias.

Among the recovered coins from Stratum II (10th-11th Century) were 4–5 anonymous folles (‘Jesus coins’), dating to the middle of the eleventh century CE. The image of Jesus was depicted on one side of the coin and an inscription in Greek: “Jesus the messiah, king of the kings” was on the other side.

Cytryn-Silverman, who now heads the Tiberias excavation, claims that the “covered marketplace” is a mosque, in fact, it resembles the plan of the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

A church that predates the mosque has also been uncovered at the site. Unlike at other sites, however, the mosque was built not over the church, but nearby.

The mosque, which symbolized the power of Muslim Tiberias, stood for 330 years, until an earthquake toppled it in 1068. In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Tiberias and used the mosque’s building stones for another structure. That, too, has been uncovered by the dig, and by the type of clay vessel found there, has been shown to be a sugar cane production plant, part of one of the country’s most important export industries at the time.

South of ancient Tiberias is a suburb by the name of Hammat Tiberias built around 17 hot springs. Within the small archaeological park are some of the remains of the ancient town of Hammat, including a synagogue from the Late Roman–Byzantine period, boasting a spectacular mosaic floor. In addition to the synagogue are the remains of an Ottoman Hammam (bathhouse complex) and the springs themselves. You can experience these hot springs at the modern spa across the road.

The remains of a Byzantine monastery and church were discovered on the summit of Mt. Berenice from which there is a spectacular view of the Galilee, the lake and across to the Golan Heights.

1st C Synagogue planIn the center of the present city of Tiberias a small, open-air archaeological park can be found. Within it are the remains of a synagogue dated to the Byzantine period, with a small section of mosaic floor with an inscription in Greek, Proclos son of Krispos framed by images of a palm branch and citron. In addition there is a display of architectural elements found in archaeological sites around Tiberias.

To the north of Tiberias the Umayyad caliphs built a winter palace at Khirbat al-Minya which can be visited.

Khirbat al-Minya

The eighth century was Tiberias’ golden age, as shown by both excavations and historical writings. A large Jewish community also flourished in the lakeside city, and that community produced the copy of the Bible that became known as the Aleppo Codex.

In 1187 Saladin’s force left Caesarea Philippi to engage the fighting force of the Knights Templar in which the Crusader force was destroyed. Saladin then besieged Tiberias which fell after six days. On July 4, 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders coming to relieve Tiberias at the Battle of Hattin, 10 kilometres (6 miles) outside the city making the Islamic forces the eminent military power in the Holy Land. During the Third Crusade, the Crusaders drove the Muslims out of the city and reoccupied it. In 1265 the Crusaders were driven from the city by the Mamluks, who ruled Tiberias until the Ottoman conquest in 1516.

 

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Golan Heights Tour

The Golan Heights, Israel’s mountainous north-eastern region, is one of the most beautiful areas of the country. In the Golan, rather than desert, we have streams and waterfalls. There are also numerous archeological sites and ancient synagogues dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods, evidence of flourishing Jewish communities in the area going back 2000 years. The remains of 25 synagogues from the period between the Great Revolt in 66 and the Islamic conquest in 636, when organized Jewish settlement on the Golan came to an end, have been discovered – 6 have been excavated.

The Golan was settled in the modern period beginning in 1886 when Jews from Tzfat and Tiberias settled there. The Bnei Yehuda society of Tzfat purchased a plot of land in the village of Ramataniya in central Golan (4 km north-west of the present day religious moshav of Keshet) and named their settlement “Golan BeBashan” and settled there for about a year.

In 1887, they purchased lands between the modern day Bnei Yehuda and Kibbutz Ein Gev. This community survived until 1920, when two of its last members were murdered in the anti-Jewish riots which erupted in the spring of that year. In 1891, Baron Rothschild purchased approximately 18,000 acres of land about 15 km east of Ramat Hamagshimim, in what is now Syria. First Aliyah (1881-1903) immigrants established five small communities on this land, but were forced to leave by the Turks in 1898. The lands continued to be farmed until 1947 by the Palestine Colonization Association and the Israel Colonization Association, when they were seized by the Syrian army. Most of the Golan Heights were included within Mandatory Palestine when the Mandate was formally granted in 1922, but Britain ceded the area to France in the Franco-British Agreement of 7 March 1923. Consequently, the Golan Heights became part of Syria after the termination of the French mandate in 1944.

During the 1948-49 War of Independence  the Syrians army attacked the adjacent Jewish areas and managed to advance beyond the international border. After the war, the Syrians built extensive fortifications on the Heights, which were used for shelling of civilian targets in Israel. 140 Israelis were killed and many more were injured in these attacks between 1949 and 1967, and particularly in the spring of 1957. Because of this pounding, Israel Defense Forces captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day war.

Gamla view

On a recent tour of the Golan I took clients to the archaeological park with ruins of the ancient Jewish city of Gamla to see the Second Temple period synagogue, hiked through dolmens to a 50 meter waterfall and from a panoramic lookout with a view of the Sea of Galilee watched the Griffon vultures soar through the canyon.

Griffon vulture, Gamla

From there we visited Um el-Kanatir (Arabic for Mother of the Arches) an impressive set of standing ruins of a Jewish village from the Byzantine era to see the ongoing reconstruction of the synagogue there. The ruins of a very large synagogue of local basalt stone were found, destroyed by the earthquake of 749 CE. I hadn’t visited in a year and there has been a lot of progress in the reconstruction of the synagogue, the walls extend to ceiling height now and the bima has been set in place (the work has now been completed).

Um el Kanatir synagogue

Um el Kanatir synagogue interior

Katzrin is also well worth a visit. The Talmudic Village lets us explore the 4th century CE village of Katzrin which includes a 6th century synagogue (built on an earlier more modest one) similar to the one at Um el Kanatir. The nearby Archaeological Museum displays artifacts uncovered on the Golan. One fascinating find is an 1,800-year-old door lintel carved of basalt with a Hebrew inscription “this is the beit midrash (study house) of Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar” that was  discovered in the village of Daburiye, situated near a steep ravine with a pair of spectacular waterfalls. We know of the tanna (70-200 CE) Eliezer HaKapar, whose name refers to his work, making wine from the fruit of the caper. There is a discussion in the Talmud about wearing new shoes on the Sabbath: What are new shoes? Shoes that have not “walked” a certain distance, the distance between the synagogue at Katzrin and the beit midrash of Rabbi Eliezer KaKapar.

The Golan Heights Winery which changed the world’s impression of Israeli wines and placed Israel firmly on the international wine map or one of a number of smaller wineries is definitely worth a visit if you are into wine. One of my favorites is the Pelter winery on Kibbutz Ein Zivan where you can have a tour and learn how Tal Pelter produces a sparkling white wine in the traditional way, as well as an unwooded Chardonnay and a Gewurztraminer described as “Sweet peach, liche, melon, citrus on a lively acidic background” and taste the wine along with the artisan goat cheeses that Tal’s spouse/partner makes.

Hamat Gader is the site of natural hot mineral springs with temperatures reaching 50 °C (122 °F) and includes a 2000 seat Roman theatre built in the 3rd century CE and a large synagogue from the 5th century CE.

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.

Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi-waterfalls and pools

Ein Gedi (literally Spring of the Goats, refers to Nubian Ibex that come to the spring to drink) is an oasis in the Judean desert along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here are two hikes (each about 5 km) in the Ein Gedi reserve that are perfect for families, Nahal David and Nahal Arugot.
On entering the reserve follow the marked the path and after about 15 minutes of easy walking we’ll reach the first waterfall, Mapal Shulamit that cascades 30 meters down the rock to a pool below. After a refreshing dip we’ll continue to a fork in the trail, we’ll take the steeper one on the right (the other path would take us back to the entrance) to the Shulamit spring and from there above the wadi to the Dudim cave. Retracing our steps we’ll continue to the Ein Gedi spring and beside it the flour mill. From there we can walk to the ruins of the Chalcolithic temple (3500 BCE), one of the oldest remains of human settlement in the Judean desert. We’ll descend through a cranny along a dry canyon to discover a 50 meter high waterfall and a great view of Nahal David and the Dead Sea beyond.

Ein Gedi-Nahal DavidAccording to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder the area of Ein Gedi was settled during the Second Temple period by a Jewish ascetic sect called the Essenes. The archaeological evidence uncovered by Hirschfeld suggests that they lived   near the spring where he found more than 20 tiny stone cells and two pools, one for irrigation and one a miqve or ritual bath. Pottery shards date it to the first century BCE.

The second hike starts from Tel Goren along the Nahal Arugot river bed past acacia trees and salvadora to a large pool used for irrigation of crops like balsam; the pool was filled by a channel that brought runoff from the wadi. Continuing we will pass reeds, maidenhead ferns, willow and poplar; we may see a rare orchid called Ben Horesh. A little farther the wadi narrows to a steep walled canyon at whose end is a waterfall and pool.
Excavations at Tel Goren by Mazar of the Hebrew University in  the 1960s show that the site was settled in the Israelite period and functioned as a royal estate for growing dates of the now extinct Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera, considered uniquely medicinal. Balsam was grown for the production of perfume (in Hebrew, afarsimon).
The Romans were interested in the production of balsam perfume; Mark Anthony confiscated the groves from Herod and gave them to Cleopatra. After their deaths, Herod was able to lease them back. During the Great Revolt, the Jews uprooted the groves so they would not fall into the hands of the Romans.
Excavations have revealed a small Jewish village and a synagogue from the 4th century with a beautiful mosaic floor. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic,  inscriptions list the signs of the zodaic and months of the year (later displayed graphically in mosaic floors in synagogues in Bet Alpha and Tiberius) and the expression “Peace unto Israel” (also found in the ancient synagogue in Jericho) and a dire warning at the end: “whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles – He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hiddens things, He will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.” The secret seems to be the production of perfume from balsam.

En Feshka pondThe other natural source of fresh water in the Judean desert is Ein Feshka 30 km to the north of Ein Gedi. The lowest nature reserve in the world consists of 3 parts of which one is closed to visitors except research scientists who are studying the desert. The public part includes a small archaeological site from the Second Temple period and pools of fresh water, picnic tables and facilities for the enjoyment of visitors. The closed reserve is 1500 dunams (370 acres) that can only be visited with an authorized guide like me. It’s incredible to find a large freshwater pond with fish, shaded by trees in the middle of the desert next to the Dead Sea.