Ashdod - Israel's fastest growing city


Like so many cities in Israel, Ashdod is young and vibrant, yet steeped in ancient history and surrounded by nature.


A Mediterranean port city, Ashdod has undergone dynamic growth in the past decade as it has welcomed more new immigrants than any other city in Israel. Nearly 70,000 newcomers, mainly from the former Soviet Union, have swelled the city's population to 190,000, making Ashdod Israel's fastest growing and fifth largest city.


But Ashdod is no stranger to new residents. Its strategic location on the country's southern coastal plain has been inhabited for almost four millennia. Archeological excavations have uncovered remains from no fewer than 23 cities since the Bronze Age. While it is best known as the capital of the Philistines in Biblical times, Ashdod was also a major port of the Greek and Roman Empires, and home to a thriving Jewish community until the seventh century. Unlike the modern city, which encompasses the port, the ancient city was situated on the via maris, the trade route near, but not directly on, the sea. A separate port city on the coast was known as Ashdod Yam ("Ashdod-on-the-Sea"). By the Middle Ages all that was left of this once great port was a small crumbling village.


Modern Ashdod was founded in 1956 (and received municipal status some 12 years later), as Israel's second deep-water seaport, after Haifa. Ideally placed to serve Jerusalem 66 kilometers to the east, and Tel Aviv 40 kilometers to the north, the port is now on the verge of overtaking Haifa Port in size. Ashdod Port handles 46% of the country's sea freight and the Jubilee Port, currently under construction and due for completion in 2004, is expected to double its capacity.


"Despite intensive development," stresses Mayor Zvi Zilker, "we have made every effort to build an attractive city which offers residents a high quality of life." Indeed, its broad boulevards, spacious and aesthetic public areas and facilities have not only attracted new immigrants but many young couples from Greater Tel Aviv, drawn by the city's less expensive housing. Moreover, employment opportunities are not lacking: the city is home to major companies in the electronics, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, metals, paper, wood and furniture sectors.


New industrial zones and high-tech parks are planned. In contrast to its pace of development, Ashdod is surrounded by natural reserves, carefully preserved by the city's planners. On the southern bank of the Lachish River near the sea is an attractive park inhabited by moorhens and turtles. The Mevo Ashdod reserve, north of the city, has an East African savannah landscape with herds of gazelles living among huge eucalyptus, fig, pomegranate and almond trees. The Ashdod Sand Park near the port is comprised of huge sand dunes of granite and Nubian stone from the Ethiopian mountains, which reached Israel's southern coast via the Nile River and the Mediterranean currents and winds during millions of years of evolution. The dunes have a Saharan eco-system including rare gerbils and reptiles.


"In the next phase of development we intend tapping our tourist potential," explains Mayor Zilker. "With our sea-front promenade, historical sites and natural reserves, we can become a premiere tourist location." Ashdod has more beaches - 10 kilometers of coast - than any other city in Israel. The recent completion of a 550-berth marina and the city's first major hotel is only the first stage in an ambitious plan to make the city a major Mediterranean tourist destination.





Israel has one of the world's most beautiful coastlines, with white sandy beaches and spectacular Mediterranean views. The coast stretches to the northern border with Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra and south to the Gaza Strip. Just north of Gaza and 36 miles south of Tel Aviv is the southernmost stop for most tourists, the city of Ashkelon.


Israel Fact

Archaeologists have unearthed a large cemetery for dogs in Ashkelon. They do not know the significance of this cemetery or why dogs would have merited this treatment.


Like so many other places in Israel, Ashkelon is built upon the ruins of past civilizations. This was one of five Philistine city-states (along with Gath, Gaza, Ekron and Ashdod). The city also plays a role in biblical history as the place where Delilah cut Samson's hair to sap his strength (Judges XIV-XVI). Ashkelon was also a great trading center because it lay along the Via Maris, the route linking Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia.


The city was first settled at the end of the third millennium B.C.E.  It was conquered by the Philistines in the second half of the 12th century. After the Israelite conquest of the rest of the area, the two peoples engaged in several hundred years of conflict. After King Saul was slain by the Philistines, David lamented:


Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised  triumph. (II Samuel 1:20)


Even after David defeated the Philistines in much of the rest of the country, he could not dislodge them from Ashkelon. This was finally accomplished by the Assyrian conqueror Tiglath-Pileser III in 734 B.C.E. After roughly 600 years in the region, the Philistines disappeared forever.


 The city passed through the hands of the region's subsequent invaders before enjoying a renaissance under the Greeks and Romans. It is believed that Ashkelon was the birthplace of Herod (in 37 B.C.E.), who enlarged and beautified the city, constructing a summer house, palaces and an aqueduct. Under the Romans, Ashkelon was also granted the rare privilege of being exempt from taxes. It became a flourishing trade center and, in particular, a major wine producer.


The city became a Christian city in the Byzantine period and was captured by the Muslims in 638 C.E. The Crusaders came next in 1153, but were defeated by Saladin. Richard the Lion Heart led the Crusaders back, but they were eventually driven out in 1280 by Sultan Baybars. The city was then abandoned until 1948 when the Jews of the new State of Israel began to rebuild it.


Today, Ashkelon is enjoying a growth spurt, fueled in part by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The population is now roughly 90,000. This is primarily a place to hit the beach, though some interesting archaeological ruins are continuing to be unearthed. These include a Byzantine church, a Roman tomb and one of the oldest arched gateways in the world. One of the most notable recent finds is a bronze and silver calf that is more than 3,500 years old and may be distantly related to the biblical tale of the golden calf.




In 1947 and 1948, when the boundaries of the Jewish and Arab states were being debated by diplomats, David Ben-Gurion made it clear the Negev must be part of the Jewish state. Though it was virtually uninhabited and thought by many to be uncultivable, Ben-Gurion knew this region was needed if the state was to grow. He also had faith that the desert could be tamed and turned into a place where Jews could settle and prosper. More than 50 years later, his vision has been realized.


Still, the desert remains largely untamed. This is the wilderness where man met God. Here Abraham communed with God, and, centuries later, the prophet Elijah came to the Mountain of God for a momentous encounter with the Creator. This, in fact, is the region that gave birth to civilization on the banks of the great rivers that surround the desert, and in the oases on the fringes of the wilderness. The desert trails of the Negev were the conduits for knowledge, culture and development.


The Negev is still virtually unknown to most travelers. Its hidden canyons, vast expanses, clear blue skies, and stark promontories are still off the beaten track & provide a worthy challenge to those seeking adventure & thrills.


When Ben-Gurion spoke of the future of the Negev, he was not doing so for mere rhetorical flourish. He believed what he said and made his home there, joining Kibbutz Sde Boker in 1953. Today, the hut where he lived is a small museum devoted to Ben-Gurion's  legacy.


The gateway to the Negev is a place that once was little more than a watering hole for Abraham's sheep. Today, Beersheba is a modern city of 130,000 and home to the Ben-Gurion University. It is also a place where you can still buy sheep and camels at the Bedouin market (open Thursdays 6 a.m.-1 p.m.). Roughly 27,000 Bedouin still live their nomadic lifestyle in the Negev.


A Bedouin woman making pita (Ministry of Tourism) 

The name Beersheba comes from "The Well of the Oath" that Abraham made to Abimelech (Gen. 21:27 and 31). A stone-enclosed well said to be the one used by Abraham is at the corner of Derekh Hebron and Rehov Keren. Isaac and Jacob also lived in this area, which later was given to the Tribe of Simeon.


Though the city has remnants from the Roman and Byzantine periods, it was really little more than a collection of wells where Bedouin watered their flocks until the early 20th century when the Turks built a small town. The city was held by the Egyptians at the time of Israel's War of Independence, and was conquered in "Operation Ten Plagues on October 21, 1948.




Jewish Hebron

Hebron, located 32 km. south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills, is the site of the oldest Jewish community in the world, which dates back to Biblical times. The Book of Genesis relates that Abraham purchased the field where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located as a burial place for his wife Sarah. According to Jewish tradition, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are buried in the Tomb.


Hebron has a long and rich Jewish history. It was one of the first places where the Patriarch Abraham resided after his arrival in Canaan. King David was anointed in Hebron, where he reigned for seven years. One thousand years later, during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, the city was the scene of extensive fighting. Jews lived in Hebron almost continuously throughout the Byzantine, Arab, Mameluke, and Ottoman periods. It was only in 1929 - as a result of a murderous Arab pogrom in which 67 Jews were murdered and the remainder were forced to flee - that the city became temporarily "free" of Jews. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Jewish community of Hebron was re-established. It has grown to include a range of religious and educational institutions.


Hebron contains many sites of Jewish religious and historical significance, in addition to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. These include the Tombs of Othniel Ben Kenaz, the first Judge of Israel (Judges 3:9-11); Avner Ben Ner, general and confidante to Kings Saul and David; and Ruth and Jesse, great-grandmother and father of King David. Victims of the 1929 pogrom, as well as prominent rabbinical sages and community figures, are buried in Hebron's ancient Jewish cemetery. The site of the Terebinths of Mamre ("Alonei Mamre") (Genesis 18:1), and King David's Pool, also known as the Sultan's Pool (II Samuel 4:12), are also located in Hebron.



The Cave of Machpelah

Tomb of the Patriarchs

The Cave of Machpelah is the world's most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, after Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The cave and the adjoining field were purchased, at full market price, by Abraham some 3700 years ago. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are all later buried in the same Cave of Machpelah. These are considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish People. The only one who is missing is Rachel, who was buried near Bethlehem where she died in childbirth.

The double cave, a mystery of thousands of years, was uncovered several years ago beneath the massive building, revealing artifacts from the Early Israelite Period (some 30 centuries ago). The structure was built during the Second Temple Period (about two thousand years ago) by Herod, King of Judea, providing a place for gatherings and Jewish prayers at the graves of the Patriarchs.


This uniquely impressive building is the only one that stands intact and still fulfills its original function after thousands of years. Foreign conquerors and invaders used the site for their own purposes, depending on their religious orientation: the Byzantines and Crusaders transformed it into a church and the Muslims rendered it a mosque. About 700 years ago, the Muslim Mamelukes conquered Hebron, declared the structure a mosque and forbade entry to Jews, who were not allowed past the seventh step on a staircase outside the building.


Upon the liberation of Hebron in 1967, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, the late Major-General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, was the first Jew to enter the Cave of Machpelah. Since then, Jews have been struggling to regain their prayer rights at the site, still run by the Muslim Waqf (Religious Trust) that took control during the Arab conquest. Many restrictions are imposed on Jewish prayers and customs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs despite the site's significance, primacy and sanctity in Jewish heritage and history.


Over 300,000 people visit Ma'arat HaMachpelah annually. The structure is divided into three rooms: Ohel Avraham, Ohel Yitzhak, and Ohel Ya'akov. Presently Jews have no access to Ohel Yitzhak, the largest room, with the exception of 10 days a year.


Historical Background

Hebron was founded (Numbers 13:22) around 1720 BCE. The ancient city of Hebron was situated at Tel Rumeida. The city's history has been inseparably linked with the Cave of Machpelah, which the Patriarch Abraham purchased from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels (Genesis 23), as a family tomb. As recorded in Genesis, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, are buried there, and - according to a Jewish tradition - Adam and Eve are also buried there.

Hebron is mentioned 87 times in the Bible, and is the world's oldest Jewish community. Joshua assigned Hebron to Caleb from the tribe of Judah (Joshua 14:13-14), who subsequently led his tribe in conquering the city and its environs (Judges 1:1-20). As Joshua 14:15 notes, "the former name of Hebron was Kiryat Arba..."


Following the death of King Saul, G-d instructed David to go to Hebron, where he was anointed King of Yehuda (II Samuel 2:1-4). A little more than 7.5 years later, David was anointed King over all Israel, in Hebron (II Samuel 5:1-3).


The city was part of the United Kingdom of Israel and - later - the Southern Kingdom of Yehuda, until the latter fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Despite the loss of Jewish independence, Jews continued to live in Hebron (Nehemiah 11:25), and the city was later incorporated into the (Jewish) Hasmonean kingdom by John Hyrcanus. King Herod (reigned 37-4 BCE) built the base of the present structure - the 12 meter high wall - over the Tomb of the Patriarchs.


In 1540, Jewish exiles from Spain acquired the site of the "Court of the Jews" and built the Avraham Avinu ("Abraham Our Father") synagogue. One year - according to local legend - when the requisite quorum for prayer was lacking, the Patriarch Abraham himself appeared to complete the quorum; hence, the name of the synagogue.


In 1870, a wealthy Turkish Jew, Haim Yisrael Romano, moved to Hebron and purchased a plot of land upon which his family built a large residence and guest house, which came to be called Beit Romano. The building later housed a synagogue and served as a yeshiva.


In 1893, the building later known as Beit Hadassah was built by the Hebron Jewish community as a clinic, and a second floor was added in 1909. The American Zionist Hadassah organization contributed the salaries of the clinic's medical staff, who served both the city's Jewish and Arab populations.


In 1925, Rabbi Mordechai Epstein established a new yeshiva, and by 1929, the population had risen to 700 again.


On August 23, 1929, local Arabs devastated the Jewish community by perpetrating a vicious, large-scale, organized, pogrom. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica:



"The assault was well planned and its aim was well defined: the elimination of the Jewish settlement of Hebron. The rioters did not spare women, children, or the aged; the British gave passive assent. Sixty-seven were killed, 60 wounded, the community was destroyed, synagogues razed, and Torah scrolls burned."

A total of 59 of the 67 victims were buried in a common grave in the Jewish cemetery (including 23 who had been murdered in one house alone, and then dismembered), and the surviving Jews fled to Jerusalem. However, in 1931, 31 Jewish families returned to Hebron and re-established the community. This effort was short-lived, and in April 1936, fearing another massacre, the British authorities evacuated the community.


Following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the invasion by Arab armies, Hebron was captured and occupied by the Jordanian Arab Legion. During the Jordanian occupation, which lasted until 1967, Jews were not permitted to live in the city, nor -- despite the Armistice Agreement -- to visit or pray at the Jewish holy sites in the city. Additionally, the Jordanian authorities and local residents undertook a systematic campaign to eliminate any evidence of the Jewish presence in the city. They razed the Jewish Quarter, desecrated the Jewish cemetery and built an animal pen on the ruins of the Avraham Avinu synagogue.



The Re-established Jewish community

Israel returned to Hebron in 1967. The old Jewish Quarter had been destroyed and the cemetery was devastated. Since 1968, the re-established Jewish community in Hebron itself has been linked to the nearby community of Kiryat Arba. On April 4, 1968, a group of Jews registered at the Park Hotel in the city. The next day they announced that they had come to re- establish Hebron's Jewish community.

The actions sparked a nationwide debate and drew support from across the political spectrum. After an initial period of deliberation, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's Labor-led government decided to temporarily move the group into a near-by IDF compound, while a new community -- to be called Kiryat Arba -- was built adjacent to Hebron. The first 105 housing units were ready in the autumn of 1972. Today, Kiryat Arba has over 6,000 residents.


The Jewish community in Hebron itself was re-established permanently in April 1979, when a group of Jews from Kiryat Arba moved into Beit Hadassah.


Following a deadly terrorist attack in May 1980 in which six Jews returning from prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs were murdered, and 20 wounded, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud-led government agreed to refurbish Beit Hadassah, and to permit Jews to move into the adjacent Beit Chason and Beit Schneerson, in the old Jewish Quarter. An additional floor was built on Beit Hadassah, and 11 families moved in during 1986.


Since 1980, other Jewish properties and buildings in Hebron have been refurbished and rebuilt. Today, over 500 Jews live in Hebron.


Jewish Jerusalem

Ever since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel over 3,000 years ago, the city has played a central role in Jewish existence. The Western Wall in the Old City, the last remaining wall of the ancient Jewish Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, is the object of Jewish veneration and the focus of Jewish prayer.


Three times a day for thousands of years Jews have prayed "To Jerusalem, thy city, shall we return with joy," and have repeated the Psalmist's oath: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." By contrast, Jerusalem never served as a provincial capital under Muslim rule nor was it ever a Muslim cultural center.


Meanwhile, Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840's. Today, the total population of Jerusalem is over 660,000. The Jewish population in areas formerly controlled by Jordan exceeds 160,000, outnumbering Arabs in "East" Jerusalem.


A City Divided

In May 1948, Jordan invaded and occupied east Jerusalem, dividing the city for the first time in its history, and driving thousands of Jews, whose families had lived in the city for centuries, into exile. For the next 19 years, from 1948-67, the city was split, with Israel establishing its capital in western Jerusalem and Jordan occupying the eastern section, which included the Old City and most religious shrines.

Because Jordan, like all the Arab states at the time, maintained a state of war with Israel, the city became, in essence, two armed camps, replete with concrete walls and bunkers, barbed-wire fences, minefields and other military fortifications.


In violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, Jordan denied Israelis access to the Temple Wall and to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews have been burying their dead for 2,500 years. Jordan actually went further and desecrated Jewish holy places. King Hussein permitted the construction of a road to the Intercontinental Hotel across the Mount of Olives cemetery. Hundreds of Jewish graves were destroyed by a highway that could have easily been built elsewhere. The gravestones, honoring the memory of rabbis and sages, were used by the engineer corps of the Jordanian Arab Legion as pavement and latrines in army camps (inscriptions on the stones were still visible when Israel liberated the city). The ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ravaged, 58 Jerusalem synagogues, some centuries old-were destroyed or ruined, others were turned into stables and chicken coops. Slum dwellings were built abutting the Western Wall.


Jews were not the only ones who found their freedom impeded. Under Jordanian rule, Israeli Christians were subjected to various restrictions, with only limited numbers allowed to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter. Jordan also passed laws imposing strict government control on Christian schools, including restrictions on the opening of new schools; state controls over school finances and appointment of teachers and requirements that the Koran be taught. Christian religious and charitable institutions were also barred from purchasing real estate in Jerusalem. Because of these repressive policies, many Christians emigrated from Jerusalem, leading their numbers to dwindle from 25,000 in 1949 to less than 13,000 in June 1967.


Jerusalem is Unified

In 1967, Jordan ignored Israeli pleas to stay out of the Six-Day War and attacked the western part of the city. The Jordanians were routed by Israeli forces and driven out of east Jerusalem, allowing the city's unity to be restored. Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's mayor for 28 years, called the reunification of the city "the practical realization of the Zionist movement's goals."

As had been the case under previous Islamic rulers, King Hussein had neglected Jerusalem. The scope of his disregard became clear when Israel discovered that much of the city lacked even the most basic municipal services-a steady water supply, plumbing and electricity. As a result of reunification, these and other badly needed municipal services were extended to Arab homes and businesses in east Jerusalem.


Freedom of Religion

After the war, Israel abolished all the discriminatory laws promulgated by Jordan and adopted its own tough standard for safeguarding access to religious shrines. "Whoever does anything that is likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the various religions to the places sacred to them," Israeli law stipulates, is "liable to imprisonment for a term of five years." Israel also entrusted administration of the holy places to their respective religious authorities.

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians, many from Arab countries that remain in a state of war with Israel, have come to Jerusalem to see their holy places. Arab leaders are free to visit Jerusalem to pray if they wish to, just as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did at the Al-Aksa mosque. Although it is the holiest site in Judaism, Israel has left the Temple Mount under the control of Muslim religious authorities. The rights of the various Christian churches to custody of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem are protected in Israel.


Along with religious freedom, Arabs in Jerusalem have unprecedented political rights. Arab residents were given the choice of whether to become Israeli citizens. Most chose to retain their Jordanian citizenship. Moreover, regardless of whether they are citizens, Jerusalem Arabs are permitted to vote in municipal elections and play a role in the administration of the city.


Jewish East Jerusalem

Before 1865, the entire population of Jerusalem lived behind the Old City walls (what today would be considered part of the eastern part of the city) Later, the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, and both Jews and Arabs began to build in new areas of the city.

By the time of partition, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, an area that included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. This area of the city also contains many sites of importance to the Jewish religion, including the city of David, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. In addition, major institutions like Hebrew University and the original Hadassah hospital are on Mount Scopus, in eastern Jerusalem.


The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949-1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews. Jerusalem is one issue on which the views of Israelis are unanimous: The city must remain the undivided capital of Israel.


The Western Wall

When Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., only one outer wall remained standing. For the Jews this remnant of what was the most sacred building in the Jewish world quickly became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries Jews from throughout the world made the difficult pilgrimage to Palestine, and immediately headed for the Kotel Ha-Ma'aravi (the Western Wall) to thank G-d.

During the more than one thousand years Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, the Arabs often used the Wall as a garbage dump, so as to humiliate the Jews who visited it. For nineteen years, from 1948 to 1967, the Kotel was under Jordanian rule. Although the Jordanians had signed an armistice agreement in 1949 guaranteeing Jews the right to visit the Wall, not one Israeli Jew was ever permitted to do so.


The custom of inserting written prayers into the Kotel's cracks is so widespread that some American-Jewish newspapers carry advertisements for services that insert such prayers on behalf of sick Jews.


In addition to the large crowds that come to pray at the Kotel on Shabbat, it is also a common gathering place on all Jewish holidays, particularly on the fast of Tisha Be-Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples. Today the Wall is a national symbol, and the opening or closing ceremonies of many Jewish events, including secular ones, are conducted there.


Jerusalem, Capital of Israel

Jerusalem is, and will remain, the eternal capital of the Jewish Nation, and the eternal capital of the State of Israel.


Tiberias has been a popular destination for tourists for more than 2,000 years. As early as Roman times, this thriving recreation spa, built around 17 natural mineral hot springs more than 600 feet below sea level, welcomed visitors from every part of the ancient world. Built by Herod Antipas (one of Herod the Great's three sons who divided up Palestine after their father's death), the city was named Tiberias in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.



Tiberias plays an important role in Jewish history. It was part of the land bequeathed to Naphtali (Joshua 19:35). The Sanhedrin (the High Court of Israel during the period of the Second Temple) relocated to Tiberias from Sepphoris. In the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, Tiberias was an important spiritual center. The Mishna was completed in Tiberias in 200 C.E. under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi ("Judah the Prince"). The Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in 400 C.E.


After his death in 1204, the great Jewish sage Maimonides was buried in Tiberias. His tomb is on Ben Zakkai Street, a short distance from the town center. The street's namesake, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, is also believed to be buried nearby. Yet another shrine is the Tomb of Rabbi Akiva.


A Samaritan center existed in Tiberias in the middle of the 4th century. The Crusaders later captured the city and made it the capital of the Galilee, but Saladin retook the city for the Muslim Empire in 1187. The city suffered a decline until it was revived by the Ottoman Turks. After the city was built up over a period of about a century, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1837.


The early Zionist pioneers established some of Israel's first kibbutzim at the turn of the century in this area. After the establishment of the state, newcomers flocked to the city and the population quadrupled. Today, it is home to about 30,000 people.


The Sea of Galilee

Tiberias sits along the 32-mile shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea lies roughly 650 feet below sea level and is 14 miles long and 7 1/2 miles wide at its widest point. The Sea is the major source of fresh water for the entire country. The Sea, really a lake, lies on the ancient "Via Maris," a route that linked Egypt and Mesopotamia.


The New Testament contains several references to the lake, which is known alternatively as the Sea of Galilee, Sea of Tiberias and the Sea of Gennesaret. This is where Jesus calmed the stormy sea (Mathew 8) and walked on the water (Mathew 14).


Israel Fact

The Sea of Galilee is shaped like a harp, kinnor in Hebrew, but this is not where the name of the lake comes from.


Israelis call the Sea by the biblical name Kinneret.  This was the name of a city on the northwestern edge of the lake during the Canaanite and Israelite periods. The reference to the Sea of Tiberias is attributable to the newer riparian city.


Beyond the Sea

Just outside of Tiberias is the ancient town of Hammat, which boasts the hottest (140) mineral springs in Israel and has, not surprisingly, become a popular spa. The town also has a synagogue built in 341, that has a magnificent mosaic floor. It is unusual, in part, because it contains human figures that are nude. This is rare because synagogues rarely have human representations in them and, when they do, they are fully clothed.


On the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, you'll find the ancient fishing village of Bethsaida, the traditional home of Jesus' apostles Peter and Andrew. In this area, the Jordan River and several streams from the Golan Heights form a marshy delta that is home to a large variety of animals and birds, especially water-fowl.


The Jesus Boat 

About six miles north of Tiberias, you can visit Kibbutz Ginosar, the former home of one of Israel's great statesmen, Yigal Allon. The kibbutz has a museum devoted to Allon's life and the history of the Galilee region. It also houses the so-called Jesus boat, a 2,000-year-old boat excavated from the Kinneret in 1985 that was probably used at the time of Jesus.




At the southern tip of the sea is Degania Aleph, Israel's oldest kibbutz, founded in 1909, and its nearby twin Degania Bet (built in 1920). Degania Aleph was named after its spiritual father, A.D. Gordon, and later was the birthplace of Moshe Dayan. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol came from Degania Bet.


When the Arab armies invaded Israel from the north in 1948, they ran over the settlements farther north in the Golan, but were stopped by the defenders of Degania Aleph. A French-made Syrian tank was left at the gate as a memorial to the battle.


At the opposite bank of the sea, is the country's second agricultural commune, Kibbutz Kinneret, which was established in 1911. Nearby is a cemetery, Ohalo, which not only is the final resting place for many of the people from the kibbutz, but also some of Israel's most famous personalities, including Rahel Bluwstein (known simply as Rachel to most Israelis), Ber Borochov and Moses Hess.


Sites of Christian Pilgrimage

Two miles north of Tiberias is the agricultural settlement of Migdal. This is near the ancient town where Mary Magdalene was born. Further north is the town of Tabgha, one of many sites in the Galilee where Christians of the early Byzantine period built monasteries, churches and shrines to commemorate the ministry of Jesus and the miracles ascribed to him. Tabgha is the traditional site of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. (Matt. 14: 13-21). Nearby is the Mount of the Beatitudes. An Italian convent now stands on the hill known as. This is where Jesus is thought to have preached the Sermon on the Mount, which begins:


And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5)


Standing on the church porch overlooking the Sea and the surrounding hills makes for a powerful setting to recall the sermon.


Also to the north


The Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles 

About two miles south is Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), the lakeside town where Jesus preached, and his disciples, Peter and Andrew lived. This is where Jesus told his followers, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." He spent three years based here and performed many miracles, but was rejected by the townspeople, provoking Jesus to curse them, "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto Heaven, shall be brought down to hell!"

The synagogue may be on the site where Jesus preached, but was built two or three centuries later. We know it is a synagogue because of the Jewish symbols -- a menorah and a shofar -- inscribed on one of the columns.


The Jordan River also passes near Kibbutz Kinneret. Perhaps you have an image of the Jordan as a mighty body of water like the Mississippi, an understandable expectation given its role in history and scripture. In fact, it is more like a muddy stream that is only a few feet wide in places. Since Jesus was baptized by John in the river (near Jericho), it has become traditional for Christian pilgrims to come to a special park along the river established as a baptism site.




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