Hammat Tiberias (also spelled Hamat Tiberias) is an ancient archeological site and national park in the city of Tiberias, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) in Israel’s Northern District. The park is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Tiberias is famous for its thermal springs from both ancient and modern times. Not far from the modern-day hot springs lie the remains of the ancient bath houses. Surprisingly, Hammat Tiberias also includes the ruins of ancient synagogues. One of these synagogues has an interesting feature – a mosaic floor decorated with zodiac and figurative art.
Hammat Tiberias is thought to be located in the Canaanite town of Hammath (Joshua 19:35). But so far, no archaeological evidence was recovered from that period. Hammath eventually merged with Tiberias.
“Hammat” is derived from the Hebrew word hammath, meaning “hot spring.” Therefore, Hammat Tiberias was especially popular during the Roman and Byzantine periods, as its thermal waters were believed to have healing powers. The Talmud sages mentioned the hot springs several times, implying that the waters were heated when they flowed past the gates of Hell.
Ancient synagogue ruins
So far, only a small portion of the Roman-era bath houses has been excavated. But during the 20th century, ruins of an ancient synagogue were unearthed next to the bath house complex.
Used for over 500 years, the 4th-century synagogue, called “Synagogue B” or “Synagogue of Severus,” had been renovated a number of times. One of the renovations involved the installation of an ornate mosaic calendar floor, which is pretty intriguing.
This well-preserved mosaic floor (above picture) was uncovered in the 1920s, during which a small surrounding settlement serviced the Ottoman-era bath house only a few steps away from the synagogue site.
The mosaic calendar floor consists of three panels: a Torah shrine flanked by a couple of seven-branched menorahs, a zodiac wheel, and the Greek sun god Helios in the middle of the wheel. Also included in the mosaic floor art are the ancient Greek inscriptions flanked by two lions. In the outer corners of the mosaic calendar floor are four women representing the four seasons of the year.
The presence of a pagan god on a Jewish synagogue’s mosaic floor continues to baffle scholars up to this day.
So, what are the zodiac signs doing on the synagogue floor? What do they mean? It’s also interesting to note that Hammat Tiberias isn’t the only site in Israel where figurative art, the zodiac, and a Greek pagan god appear in an ancient synagogue. For instance, similar themes also appear in the ancient synagogues of Beth-Alpha, Sepphoris (Zippori), an archeological site located in the north-northwest of Nazareth. It is suggested that the famous “Nave Mosaics” floor of the 6th-century Beth-Alpha synagogue may have drawn on the Hammat Tiberias mosaic for inspiration.
These examples seem to attest to Judaism’s liberal attitude during the ancient era, which is hardly reflected in the Talmud. A professor in archeology named Ze’ev Weiss suggests that these unlikely elements appearing in some ancient synagogues may represent God and his omnipotence.
The other ancient synagogue, named “Synagogue A,” is located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, about 500 meters north of the city’s south wall. A 60-centimeter (almost two-foot) menorah was unearthed from this synagogue and is now on display at the Israel Museum.
Visiting Hammat Tiberias
Hammat Tiberias is an archaeological site and a national park. The entrance to the ruins is through Ernest Lehmann and Hamman Suleiman Museum, which provides information on regional history and the hot spring’s curative effects.
WARNING: Be aware of the water flowing through the gardens around the ancient ruins that come directly from the hot springs. It is VERY hot that it can burn your skin.
Located above Hammat Tiberias lies the tomb of the Jewish sage Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes (Rabbi Meir, Master of Miracles) (above picture). He was a student of Rabbi Akiva and one of the great sages who was instrumental in the compiling of the Mishnah in the 2nd century A.D.
Hammat Tiberias is open every day from 8 AM to 5 PM (check out the other information below). The Ottoman-era bath house is just near the entrance. Recently, an audio-visual presentation was added to the site as well.
Check out the other tourist sites and things to do in the north of Israel.
Hammat Tiberias – general information
Eli’ezer Kaplan Boulevard 1,
Webpage (from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website):
Sunday to Thursday and Saturday – 08:00 to 17:00
Friday and holiday eves – 08:00 to 16:00
Sunday to Thursday and Saturday – 08:00 to 16:00
Friday and holiday eves – 08:00 to 15:00
Holiday eves (including Yom Kippur eve) – 08:00 to 13:00
Entrance fees (subject to change without prior notice):
Adult – 14 NIS
Child – 7 NIS
Adult in group – 13 NIS
Child in group – 6 NIS
Student – 12 NIS
Israeli senior citizen – 7 NIS
How to get to Hammat Tiberias
- By car – Type the words “Hamat Tiberias National park” on Waze or Google Maps, and it will take you there.
- By public transport – Take the buses 5, 15, 28 or another to a nearby station.