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Archaeology in Israel: Galei Kinneret

In salvage excavations that were conducted next to the Galei Kinneret Hotel, in the spring of 2002, finds of considerable importance were exposed that shed light on the history of Tiberias from the time when the city was founded in the first century CE until the Crusader period. The excavation area is next to the shore of the Kinneret and for the first time we can reconstruct the levels of the lake in Tiberias and the shoreline in ancient periods based on the excavation findings.

In the Early Roman period the area lay outside the city limits. During the excavation a thick accumulation of pebbles was exposed that was swept to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and among them were numerous pottery sherds. No buildings from this period were found and it seems that the sherds were washed to the shoreline from the nearby city.

Along the fringes of the excavation a section of a 9 m wide wall was exposed that was built of finely dressed ashlars and a core comprising lumps of stone and hard plaster. The wall is curved and is part of a large impressive building (diameter 36 m); its shape and the manner of its construction indicate that this was an important public building in Roman Tiberias. These are probably the remains of the city’s stadium, which is mentioned several times in historical sources. It was in this stadium that the residents of Tiberias assembled in order to meet with Josephus Flavius, then commander of the revolt in the Galilee, and it was here that the Jewish prisoners were brought from the battle near Migdal where their fate was to be decided. Twelve hundred of the elderly and sick were executed and the rest, 37,000 people, were sold into slavery. The stadium is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud as a well-known building of the third century that lay outside the city and served as an intermediate point for the eruv of the Sabbath domain of Bet Ma’on and Tiberias. The stadium was no longer used by the end of the third century. It apparently served for some time as a source of building material for the adjacent city and its seats were removed.

It was only during the Byzantine period that the city limits extended as far as the area that was excavated. An elongated building enclosed beneath a vaulted arch was constructed atop the stadium. It was apparently used as a storehouse. Well-constructed buildings were erected parallel to the shoreline; only their eastern wall was revealed. The erosion on the lower courses indicates that during periods of flooding the waters of the Kinneret reached the structure. A number of columns in secondary use were set in place outside the building.

The area reached the height of its prosperity during the Umayyad period. The Byzantine buildings were renovated and enlarged. A rectangular building whose eastern wall is built of adjacent columns was probably used as a pool that was built in shallow water near the shore and may have held fish before they were sold.

In 749 CE a mighty earthquake struck the country and destroyed many of its cities, among them Bet Shean and Susita. Dramatic evidence of this event was discovered in the excavation. A geological fault resulting in a vertical shift of c. 90 cm was caused by the earthquake. The walls of the buildings were cracked and sometimes shifted from their locations and collapsed. In one of the buildings bronze vessels were found that fell when the building was destroyed by the earthquake. As a result of the quake, the level of the Kinneret rose considerably and flooded the ruins of the destroyed buildings. In the Fatimid period industrial installations were constructed atop the ruinous Umayyad buildings. From the Crusader period a double pool was exposed that was treated with grey plaster applied on top of fragments of “sugar vessels”.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry