Tiberias’ hot springs have been luring pleasure seekers since well before 20 CE, when Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, founded the town and named it in honour of the Roman emperor Tiberias (r 14–37 CE).
After the Judeans' disastrous Bar Kochba Revolt (132–135 CE), Tiberias became one of the most important centres of Jewish life in the Land of Israel, playing a key role in the redefinition of Judaism after Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem were halted by the Roman victory of 70 CE. Some of the greatest post–Second Temple sages, including Yehuda HaNassi, chief editor of the Mishnah, lived here, and much of the redacting of the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud also seems to have taken place in Tiberias. From the late 2nd century, the Sanhedrin (ancient Israel’s supreme court) was based in the town. The system still used today to indicate vowel sounds in written Hebrew was developed in – and named after – Tiberias.
The Crusaders took Tiberias in 1099, building a massive fortress a bit north of the town’s Roman-Byzantine centre. In 1187 Saladin captured the town and shortly thereafter devastated Crusader forces at the Horns of Hattin, 8km due west of Tiberias.
In 1558, the newly arrived Ottomans granted tax-collecting rights in the Tiberias area to Dona Gracia (www.donagraciaproject.org), a Lisbon-born Conversa (outwardly Catholic but secretly Jewish) woman who had found refuge from the Inquisition in Istanbul.
In the early 1700s, a Bedouin sheikh named Daher Al Omar established an independent fiefdom in the Galilee, with Tiberias as its capital, and invited Jewish families to settle in the town. By the end of the Ottoman period, Jews constituted the great majority of Tiberias’ 6500 residents.
Tiberias was almost completely demolished in the great earthquake of 1837.