330km (205 miles) N of Jerusalem; 116km (72 miles) E of Haifa

For centuries, what little industry existed in Tiberias was built around pilgrimage and veneration of ancient tombs, some with very dubious traditions. All this has been overwhelmed by Tiberias’s new incarnation as a center for discos, party boats, fish restaurants, and international tour groups. The beaches are full during the hot weather months and pubs and restaurants along the Waterfront Promenade pound with techno and heavy metal on summer evenings.

At the same time, many large and small hotels in Tiberias have come to cater especially to a religious Jewish clientele, giving the city a decidedly split personality.

Little of the town’s splendid history is immediately visible, though it is interesting for those who seek it out. The ancient city of Tiberias was built in a.d. 18 by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great), and named in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberias. With its natural hot springs and mild, far-below-sea-level climate (warm in winter; brutally hot in summer), it became one of the most elegant winter resorts in this part of the ancient world. Classical writers describe a city adorned with colonnaded streets, impressive Roman baths and temples made of imported white marble, and broad marble steps leading into the waters of the lake. Ancient and Byzantine/Talmudic-era Tiberias was larger and more spread out than the modern city; many archaeological sites are outside its present boundaries and most have not yet been excavated.

For more than a century after its founding, rabbis condemned Tiberias as a place of pagan cults and immoral activities; worse yet, it was built on a cemetery, making it forbidden to Jews as a place to live. But the healing powers of the hot springs caused the rabbinical prohibition to be rescinded, and by the late Roman era, many of the rabbinical leaders themselves were enjoying the restorative powers of the hot springs.

In the centuries after the Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed, Tiberias developed into a new major center for Jewish learning. It was here that the Mishnah was completed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries a.d., at the direction of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi, “Judah the Prince.” Here the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the a.d. 4th century, and the standardized rules for vowel and punctuation grammar were introduced into the Hebrew language by the scribes of Tiberias. Mystics, academicians, and men believed to have magic powers have been drawn to Tiberias throughout its history. Both the town and the towering scholarship declined after the a.d. 5th century, due to the many wars fought here by the Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks. A medieval Arab historian recorded that the residents of the town led a life of decadence—dancing, feasting, playing the flute, running around naked in the summer heat, and swatting green flies, the eternal plague of the region until modern times.

Tiberias lies on one of the earth’s major geological fault lines, the Syrian/African Rift, and in 1837 the city was virtually destroyed by an earthquake. A few portions of the city’s medieval walls and older buildings, composed of volcanic rock called black basalt, survived that catastrophe, but almost nothing else of medieval or ancient Tiberias can be seen today outside of the archaeological sites open to the public.

It is this rift that has given shape to the mountains and valleys, and it is the reason why you can stand at the Sea of Galilee, 210m (689 ft.) below sea level, and look up toward the north and see Mount Hermon towering 2,700m (8,858 ft.) above sea level. It’s also the reason for the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over the eons, as well as the mineral hot springs around the shores of Lake Kinneret and The Dead Sea.

Another interesting feature of the low-lying Syrian/African Rift is that it forms an incredible highway for bird migration between Europe and Africa. Two of Israel’s major wildlife reserves—Hula Valley in the north, Hai Bar in the south—serve as stopping-off points for the birds on their long journey, and are popular with bird-watchers and nature lovers.

Tiberias is considered one of Israel’s four “Holy Cities” (along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed) and though visitors do still come here to visit the tombs of ancient sages, many simply come to party. In recent years, Tiberias has become a favored base for visiting the Sea of Galilee. Its a place of pounding discos, mass volume tourist hotels (both for secular and religious Jews; quite a split personality this town has!), spas and boardwalk strolling.