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Galilee And The Lake - Tiberias

( Originally Published 1908 )



IT is one of the ironies of fate that the lake which saw the greater part of the ministry of Jesus, should take its modern name from a city built by Herod Antipas, and called after one of the most infamous of the Roman Emperors,—"the Sea of Tiberias."

Our road to this city of decadence leads gradually downward, through a broad, sinking moorland, covered with weeds and wild flowers—rich, monotonous, desolate. The broidery of pink flax and yellow chrysanthemums and white marguerites still follows us; but now the wider stretches of thistles and burdocks and daturas and cockleburs and water-plantains seem to be more important. The landscape saddens around us, under the deepening haze of the desert-wind, the sombre Sherkiyeh. There are no golden sunbeams, no cool cloud-shadows, only a gray and melancholy illumination growing ever fainter and more nebulous as the day declines, and the outlines of the hills fade away from the dim, silent, forsaken plain through which we move.

We are crossing the battlefield where the soldiers of Napoleon, under the brave Junot, fought desperately against the overwhelming forces of the Turks. Yonder, away to the left, in the mysterious haze, the double "Horns of Hattin" rise like a shadowy ex-halation.

That is said to be the mountain where Jesus gathered the multitude around Him and spoke His new beatitudes on the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart. It is certainly the place where the hosts of the Crusaders met the army of Saladin, in the fierce heat of a July day, seven hundred years ago, and while the burning grass and weeds and brush flamed around them, were cut to pieces and trampled and utterly consumed. There the new Kingdom of Jerusalem,—the last that was won with the sword ,—went down in ruin around the relics of "the true cross," which its soldiers carried as their talisman; and Guy de Lusignan, their King, was captured. The noble prisoners were invited by Saladin to his tent, and he offered them sherbets, cooled with snow from Hermon, to slake their feverish thirst. When they were refreshed, the conqueror ordered them to be led out and put to the sword, just yonder at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes.

From terrace to terrace of the falling moor we roll along the winding road through the brumous twilight, until we come within sight of the black, ruined walls, the gloomy towers, the huddled houses of the worn-out city of Tiberias. She is like an ancient beggar sitting on a rocky cape beside the lake and bathing her feet in the invisible water. The gathering dusk lends a sullen and forlorn aspect to the place. Behind us rise the shattered volcanic crags and cliffs of basalt; before us glimmer pallid and ghostly touches of light from the hidden waves; a few lamps twinkle here and there in the dormant town.

This was the city which Herod Antipas built for the capital of his Province of Galilee. He laid its foundations in an ancient graveyard, and stretched its walls three miles along the lake, adorning it with a palace, a forum, a race-course, and a large synagogue. But to strict Jews the place was unclean, because it was defiled with Roman idols, and be-cause its builders had polluted themselves by digging up the bones of the dead. Herod could get few Jews to live in his city, and it became a catch-all for the off-scourings of the land, people of all creeds and none, aliens, mongrels, soldiers of fortune, and citizens of the high-road. It was the strongest fortress and probably the richest town of Galilee in Christ's day, but so far as we know He never entered it.

After the fall of Jerusalem, strangely enough, the Jews made it their favourite city, the seat of their Sanhedrim and the centre of rabbinical learning. Here the famous Rabbis Jehuda and Akita and the philosopher Maimonides taught. Here the Mishna and the Gemara were written. And here, today, two-thirds of the five thousand inhabitants are Jews, many of them living on the charity of their kindred in Europe, and spending their time in the study of the Talmud while they wait for the Messiah who shall restore the kingdom to Israel. You may see their flat fur caps, dingy gabardines, long beards and melancholy faces on every street in the drowsy little city, dreaming (among fleas and fevers) of I know not what impossible glories to come.

You may see, also, on the hill near the Serai, the splendid Mission Hospital of the United Free Church of Scotland, where for twenty-three years Doctor Torrance has been ministering to the body and soul of Tiberias in the name of Jesus. Do you find the building too large and fine, the lovely garden too beautiful with flowers, the homes of the doctors, and teachers, and helpers of the sick and wounded, too clean and healthful and orderly? Do you say "To what purpose is this waste ?" Then I know not how to measure your ignorance. For you have failed to see that this is the embassy of the only King who still cares for the true welfare of this forsaken, bedraggled, broken-down Tiberias.

On the evening of our arrival, however, all these things are hidden from us in the dusk. We drive past the ruined gate of the city, a mile along the southern road toward the famous Hot Baths. Here, on a little terrace above the lake, between the road and the black basalt cliffs, our camp is pitched, and through the darkness

` We hear the water lapping on the crag,
And the long ripple washing in the reeds.'

In the freshness of the early morning the sunrise pours across the lake into our tents. There is a light, cool breeze blowing from the north, rippling the clear, green water, (of a hue like the stone called aqua marina), with a thousand flaws and wrinkles, which catch the flashing light and reflect the deep blue sky, and change beneath the shadow of floating clouds to innumerable colours of lapis lazuli, and violet, and purple, and peacock blue.

The old comparison of the shape of the lake to a lute, or a harp, is not clear to us from the point at which we stand: for the northwestward sweep of the bay of Gennesaret, which reaches a breadth of nearly eight miles from the eastern shore, is hidden from us by a promontory, where the dark walls and white houses of Tiberias slope to the water. But we can see the full length of the lake, from the de-pression of the Jordan Valley at the southern end, to the shores of Bethsaida and Capernaum at the foot of the northern hills, beyond which the dazzling whiteness of Hermon is visible.

Opposite rise the eastern heights of the Jaulan, with almost level top and steep flanks, furrowed by rocky ravines, descending precipitously to a strip of smooth, green shore. Behind us the mountains are more broken and varied in form, lifted into sharper peaks and sloped into broader valleys. The whole aspect of the scene is like a view in the English Lake country, say on Windermere or Ullswater; only there are no forests or thickets to shade and soften it. Every edge of the hills is like a silhouette against the sky; every curve of the shore clear and distinct.

Of the nine rich cities which once surrounded the lake, none is left except this ragged old Tiberias. Of the hundreds of fishing boats and passenger vessels which once crossed its waters, all have vanished except half a dozen little pleasure skiffs kept for the use of tourists. Of the armies and caravans which once travelled these shores, all have passed by into the eternal far-away, except the motley string of visitors to the Hot Springs, who were coming up to bathe in the medicinal waters in the days of Joshua when the place was called Hammath, and in the time of the Greeks when it was named Emmaus, and who are still trotting along the road in front of our camp toward the big, white dome and dirty bath-houses of Hummam. They come from all parts of Syria, from Damascus and the sea-coast, from Judea and the Hauran; Greeks and Arabs and Turks and Maronites and Jews; on foot, on donkey-back, and in litters. Now, it is a cavalcade of Druses from the Lebanon, men, women and children, riding on tired horses. Now, it is a procession of Hebrews walking with a silken canopy over the sacred books of their law.

In the morning we visit Tiberias, buy some bread and fish in the market, and go through the Mission Hospital, where one of the gentle nurses binds up a foolish little wound on my wrist.

In the afternoon we sail on the southern part of the lake. The boatmen laugh at my fruitless fishing with artificial flies, and catch a few small fish for us with their nets in the shallow, muddy places along the shore. The wind is strange and variable, now sweeping down in violent gusts that bend the long arm of the lateen sail, now dying away to a dead calm through which we row lazily home.

I remember a small purple kingfisher poising in the air over a shoal, his head bent downward, his wings vibrating swiftly. He drops like a shot and comes up out of the water with a fish held crosswise in his bill. With measured wing-strokes he flits to the top of a rock to eat his supper, and a robber-gull flaps after him to take it away. But the industrious kingfisher is too quick to be robbed. He bolts his fish with a single gulp. We eat ours in more leisurely fashion, by the light of the candles in our peaceful tent.



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