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February 24, 2020

On two days off, I’m in Tiberias, on the sea (lake) of Galilee. Arriving after a four-hour bus trip from Bethlehem, I am here courtesy of the generosity of the Church of Scotland and its minster, Kate McDonald, who helps make an apartment available for EAs to stay in, free of charge. Including meals at the staff cafeteria in the hotel (a very good meal, I should add), the apartment is 4 rooms on the top floor of a house. Living room, office, bedroom and kitchen, with two verandas, each with table and chairs, one with a charcoal barbeque. Both have a view of the Sea of Galilee. It is a great space. All we are asked to do is clean it for the next person.

A tree filled with…`
Scot’s Hotel, Church of Scotland

You can learn about Tiberias on Wikipedia if you like. Originally another one of Herod the Great’s building projects (the reason there were so many builders in the Nazareth area, I’m told, hence Joseph coming up from Bethlehem and meeting Mary). It has had an up and down history, isn’t too far from Capernaum (where I hope to go tomorrow) and the slope where Jesus taught the beatitudes (hope to get there too) with not too many loaves and fishes. 

Present-day Tiberias depends a lot on tourism, although there are some local fishing boats. Many people also commute to area industrial parks or nearby cities. I saw a waterfront designed to meet the needs of tourists, with people swimming, fishing, and boating either on small craft or large platform-style boats that look like they could accommodate parties for dozens. There are restaurants, gelato bars, market stalls and kid-friendly activities. Dotted by remains of fortress walls from Crusader and Ottoman periods, remnants of churches and mosques, it seems mainly populated by tourists from Jewish families, a number of whom seem to be from the settler community. That’s only a guess, as settler women wear their hair ‘up’ wrapped in a distinctive way. I saw a number of them, with husbands and children. Bus tours were also evident.

Catch of the day

I took a lot of photos, none with my brother’s adept hand. Might give you an idea of the place though. I did see one abandoned church and a Russian Ecumenical centre along with the Church of Scotland’s buildings and mosques figured in the photos. I also sampled the double chocolate gelato and found it met the test of taste.

Ottoman Fortress Wall and Palm Tree
Wall Mosaic in Tiberias

I was ‘struck’ by a few things: First, this is an ancient city, going back 2000 years. Not populated by Jewish people originally (according to on-line history Herod had trouble getting them to move there), it has had a multi-faith population for much of its existence, especially in the modern era. When shrunk to a small village most of its inhabitants were Muslim, as many of the Jewish residents of the area were driven out after one rebellion or another, or by the bigotry of some Christian Patriarchs (so history tells us). That said, even with the national tourist website talking about Muslim and Christian history here, I can’t find a street or neighbourhood name marking any of that history. I did see monuments to Jewish history, written entirely in Hebrew, so I can’t tell the exact matters being celebrated.

Second, the Mosque of Al Omari was built during the reign of a Muslim military commander/prince who was known for pluralism. He invited Jews and Christians to return to the area and to worship here too. The Mosque, abandoned in 1948 as the Muslim population (about half of the total at the time) fled the Nakba, stands in ruins, along with the Mosque by the sea. No one has returned to restore them. I wonder if they would be allowed to, under the current regime. 

Al Omari Mosque – abandoned 1948
Al Omari Mosque, interior

Third, Tiberias is one of Israel’s four Jewish holy cities. Mainly because the tomb of Maimonides, a celebrated 12th Century thinker, healer and teacher known for his wisdom (his teachings are considered authoritative even today) is thought to be located here. Nobody knows for sure, but it is thought his body was brought here after his death in Egypt. He was a pluralist, raised and trained in Cordova, made a refugee by fundamentalist Islamists (Berbers) who forced Jews and Christians to choose conversion or exile. Celebrated for his use of Greek and Arabic teachings and for his expansion on them, for his wisdom in analysis and codification of the Torah.

Image of Maimonides at tomb site

He is known today for that codification and for his philosophical wisdom. During his lifetime he was respected by the Arab and Jewish worlds and probably by a few Christians enlightened enough to accept wisdom from ‘Infidels’ Also a respected and sought after physician he is said to have emphasized treating the patient rather than the disease (meaning doing a thorough environmental, cultural and emotional workup) and counselled doing what could be done with diet, as a first approach to healing. Some of his more notable offerings of distilled wisdom are:

  • “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he will be fed for a lifetime.”
  • “I will destroy my enemies by converting them to friends”
  • “Anticipate charity by preventing poverty;”
  • “Inspire me with love for my art and for thy creatures, in the sufferer let me see only the human being.”
  • “One should see the world and himself with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed, the balance is tipped to good – he and the world is saved. When he does one evil deed the balance is tipped to evil – he and the world is destroyed.”
  • “All the evil that men cause to each other because of certain desires, or opinions, or religious principles are rooted in ignorance [all hatred would come to an end] when the earth was flooded with knowledge of God.”

People come from many places to mark his life and to pray at his tomb. I saw a crowd there today. His image (on a wall at the site) is of a man of his time, place and culture. He is known to be a wise and worthy teacher, venerated as a soul uniquely connected to the Creator. I wonder how it is we can celebrate our wise ones and yet turn our backs on their teachings as we raise our fists in anger against the enemy that is, in the end, ourselves. If we were not so consumed with insecurity and a need to stamp our name and only ours on every stone, archeological site, tower and monument. If the earth was flooded instead with the knowledge of God.

I’ll try to remember that tomorrow, at Capernaum and the Mount…

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