Tiberias (Hebrew: Teveryah), a city situated approximately at the mid-point of the western shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), is the largest urban settlement in the Jordan Valley and serves as the administrative, cultural and trade center of the surrounding region.
Built on a steep slope rising up from the lake, the city is spread over a relatively large area, with the highest point some 1,500 feet above the level of the lake, with consequent differences in temperature, rainfall and vegetation, even within the city limits.
The city was founded in the first century c.e. by Herod Antipas, son of Herod, king of Judea, on the remains of the biblical city of Rakkath (Joshua 19:5), and was named after the then-reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius. For about 150 years the city remained a Roman enclave, with its city administration organized on a Greek model and its population consisting mainly of laborers and artisans. During the second century, however, it was chosen by the Nasi (as the leader of the Jews was called) and the Sanhedrin (supreme court) as their place of residence, and for hundreds of years thereafter the city played a central role in the development of Jewish culture and tradition.
It remained the seat of the Nasi until the Arab conquest in the seventh century, and during this period the so-called "Palestinian Talmud" was actually composed there. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Tiberias was the home of the Masoretes, grammarians who established a definitive vocalization of the biblical text, as well as of the earliest group of post-biblical poets, the paytanim. The city suffered greatly during the Crusades, but it remained su fficiently intact to attract such a distinguished visitor as Moses Maimonides, who journeyed to Tiberias from Egypt during the last years of his life, and whose alleged tomb can be seen there to this day.
In the 16th century the city was given as a gift to Don Joseph Nasi by the Turkish sultan, and he attempted to re-establish a Jewish center there (see Nasi, Gracia). Economic forces, however, favored the development of the more northernly city of Safed, and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Tiberias began to thrive again as a Jewish settlement.
For a long time, the Jewish and Arab populations of Tiberias maintained relatively cordial and tolerant relations, but during the War of Independence in 1948, all the Arab inhabitants fled, leaving the city totally Jewish. Since then, Tiberias has become a major center of absorption of new immigrants to Israel, and today has a population of about 34,000 the majority of whom originate from the countries of North Africa and Eastern Europe.
The ancient part of the city is on the lake shore and on the hills above it there are new, modern housing projects. Tourism and recreation --- particularly in the winter when the climate is warm and sunny --- constitute Tiberias' principal economic foundation, with Lake Kinneret, the nearby hot springs, Roman and Crusader ruins, and tombs of saintly figures serving as the main attractions.