The town owes its origins to a series of hot springs that lured pleasure-seekers of Roman times and attracted the attention of Herod Antipas.
Herod Antipas was almost as egotistical as his father, Herod the Great, founder of Caesarea: the son’s town included a grand cardo, a stadium, a gold-roofed palace and a great synagogue.
The population was mixed, but following the Bar Kochba Revolt (AD 132–35) and the resulting exile of the Jews from Jerusalem, Tiberias became the centre of Jewish life in Israel. The work of the great sages was continued beside the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and academies of rabbinical study were founded. A Tiberian system of punctuation and grammar was applied to the Torah, thus becoming the standard for all Hebrew, and the Mishnah was completed here around the year AD 200 – achievements that elevated Tiberias to the status of one of the country’s most holy Jewish cities. The population at this time is estimated to have been around 40, 000, making the city larger than the Tiberias of today.
The Crusaders took Tiberias in 1099, built a fortress slightly to the north and generally shifted the focus of the town away from its original Roman-Byzantine centre. However, the new fortifications proved inadequate and failed to keep out Saladin when he arrived at the head of an army in 1187. The loss of Tiberias to the Muslims sparked the battle at the Horns of Hittin, which proved to be another inglorious defeat for the Crusaders, heralding the demise of the Latin kingdom. Tiberias went into decline, particularly after being seriously damaged by the many battles fought there and severely rattled by occasional earthquakes.
Early in the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks gained possession of the Holy Land and in 1562 Süleyman the Magnificent granted the rights to farm the taxes of Tiberias to a Jew, Don Joseph Nussi. Aided by his mother-in-law, Donna Grazie, he attempted with some degree of success to revive the town as a Jewish enclave. The next player was an Arab sheikh named Daher al-Omar who, in the 18th century, established an independent fiefdom in the Galilee, with Tiberias as its capital. He was assassinated in 1775. The town fared little better, with a great part of it demolished by an earthquake in 1837.
Many Jews of the First Aliyah (late 19th century) chose to settle in Tiberias and more followed with the expansion of the Zionist movement. By 1947 the population of Tiberias was again predominantly Jewish. The following year the Arabs and Jews went to war over the town. The defeated Arabs fled and Tiberias was left wholly Jewish.