Hear in the Holy Land | Tiberias
After Nazareth I took an short bus ride to Tiberias—a city that sits on the steep slopes of the Sea of Galilee’s western coast. Because it’s situated in the Jordan Rift (i.e., well below sea level), it’s darn hot.
Happily, when I checked in to Casa Nova (a Franciscan-run “Pilgrim Guest House”) and was shown to my room, I was delighted to note that it had A/C. It also had plenty of hot water—something that has been in short supply on my trip thus far. In fact, in Tiberias they run out of cold water. I’m serious—I’ve experienced it first-hand.
Tiberias: home to puppet-kings, sacred scribes, and crusaders
I don’t really know how to describe my stay in Tiberias. It was very unlike my stays in Tel Aviv and Nazareth, in that there really wasn’t a whole lot to see here in terms of modern culture. Certainly, there’s lots to see historically and biblically in and around the area. If it wasn’t so hot this time of year I would have hiked to the top of Mount Arbel and enjoyed its incredible panorama of Galilee, looking over Jesus’ main ministry stomping grounds (according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at least); and I would have walked/biked up to Peter’s hometown of Capernaum, visiting the traditional sites of the Sermon on the Mount and the Primacy of Peter along the way (the latter is where Jesus and Peter had the famous “Do you love me?/Feed my sheep” convo—see John 21). But, well, it was just so hot. So I stayed in the city. (Also, I already did these things during my last trip here back in 2013.)
Tiberias itself is also a pretty important, historically rich city. Herod Antipas (best known as the guy who beheaded John the Baptist) founded the city and built himself a palace there. It is venerated as one of Israel’s four ‘holy cities’ because it was the place where the Talmud and Mishnah were produced, paving the way for Jews to practice their faith in a new way after the Temple was destroyed in 70AD. Finally, Tiberias was also an prominent Crusader town (you can see Crusade-age ruins everywhere, and St. Peter’s Church, which my accommodation was attached to, was built during that era of history).
What I Saw…
Despite all of this, though, I didn’t really note many sites worth visiting. There were sites that venerated important rabbis associated with the Talmud/Mishnah, but, while that is of interest to me, it’s not why I’m here. I’m here to observe current culture and art.
I was optimistic. Casa Nova was situated like 30 feet from the shoreline, and between it and the water was a promenade to walk down. That’s a perfect recipe for people-watching and artistic celebration, right? And so, after a (scalding hot!) shower, I lathered on the sun-screen, grabbed my camera, and ventured out into the urban wilds.
If Galilee had tumbleweeds, they would have been rustling by. Tiberias, at 3pm in the afternoon, was a ghost-town. Nobody was out, and at least two thirds of the shops along the promenade were closed. I kept walking, hoping I would arrive at ‘the hip busy section,’ but its arrival was not forthcoming. My stomach grumbled all along the way, reminding me angrily that I hadn’t eaten since 8:30 earlier that morning, and so for its sake I trudged on. Then, finally, I came across an open restaurant (well, I did pass a McDonalds earlier, but, well… No)! It was called ‘Big Ben’. I walked in was greeted by an Irish Pub sort of atmosphere. I ate a very overpriced meal consisting of 2 meat kebabs, some fries, and a mélange of over-dressed salads (not sure what kind of meat the kebabs were—it was supposed to be turkey, but…let’s not think about. It was turkey). I walked back to Casa Nova via a different route, but encountered similar environments mostly bereft of citizens. And that was that.
At night, though, the promenade came to life. The temperatures were lower (only marginally), and as obnoxiously loud music began to set the mood, families and couples and little pockets of young people started streaming on to the scene; restaurants opened up, competing against one another with their flamboyant signs and mood-light-lit patios; boats started leaving port for some water fun in the slowly waning sun, and some of the larger ones hosted dinner cruises further out from shore. I also noticed one very strange attraction along the walkway—a sort of ‘haunted-house’-esque walk-through experience. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, but judging by short clips they were streaming on a massive video-screen outside, you pay to go into a dark room and get the heebie-jeebies scared out of you. To each their own, I suppose.
What do I make of this?
I really don’t know how to appropriately describe my experience of Tiberias outside of referencing stereo-types, so please excuse my limited use of them. What I saw felt very blue-collar to me. It felt like what Kelowna folk think when they think of Rutland; like what Vancouver folk (or Londoners, for that matter) think when they think of Surrey. The culture felt ten years behind, as though it were only of secondary consideration—as if the ‘cutting edge’ or ‘the next big thing’ really wasn’t all that important.
To look at it another, more prompt way: hipsters would not live in Tiberias if they could help it.
Making the Connection, but Making it too Late
I will admit, with some shame, that I was very tempted to simply sneer at Tiberias and move on. So much for Tiberias, I thought. Nothing to see here.
Such a response is cruel and snobbish and wrong in any context. Such a perspective is completely out of line with my main travelling intention—and that is to be a pilgrim (who listens to what’s there) rather than a tourist (who looks only to appease his own desires).
Those things notwithstanding, I also realized in later contemplation that Tiberias, the largest city in the Galilee, may have represented a modern-day equivalent of Jesus’ own experience here. Certainly, Galileans were considered odd folk in Jesus’ day—they were second-rate citizens in the eyes of their hoity-toity counterparts down in Judea. They were fishermen and quarry-workers—blue-collar, working class citizens.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip asked with scorn, he himself a Galilean from Bethsaida (John 1:46 ESV).
Important figures didn’t come from backwater places like this (ahem, supposedly): “Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (John 7:52).
And yet Jesus focused most of His time here in Galilee. These are the people He ministered to and chummed around with. These are the people He made His disciples. Peter himself, Jesus’ clumsy but loveable right-hand man, made his living right there on the water, just up the coast from Tiberias. I wouldn’t be surprised if, supposing Peter were alive today, he would have paid to go into that dark room and get his heebie-jeebies scared out.
And so, while Tiberias was admittedly not a good choice of travel in my search for developing culture and art, I also confess that I missed a rare opportunity: to re-enchant my view of what, to me, was but a simple and uninteresting place. It could have been so much more if I was only listening.