by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 42 | Contents | Chapter 44

The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition


A Storm at Night—Next MorningTiberias—Earthquakes in PalestineTiberias a Holy Place—Worship with Action—Tiberias in the Time of ChristThe ClimateThe Hot BathsThe City in the Great Jewish War—Its Associations with Jewish Literature

Our tents had been pitched at the south end of the town, so that we had to ride past the castle at its north edge, alongside the town wall, and then through the wretched apologies for streets. That night a rain-storm had its way from dark till morning, and a fine time it gave us. The tent-cover flapped like a huge bird caught in the toils, or, to vary the figure, flew up and down, out and in, as if it had been possessed; the huge red, yellow, white, and blue flowers of bunting with which it was adorned on the inside, took life, and leaped and tore round all the tent, and up and down the roof, like a weird dance. I thought of the witches going through their wild careerings on the last night of April on brooms and goats, holding revel with their master the devil at the old heathen altars of North Germany, which Walpurgis (about A.D. 750), the English monk, had by his preaching left cold and dark even on May Day, when the sacred fires used to glow on them more than in all the year besides. All through the night the rain splashed down in sheets, dripping delightfully from the roof. It was no matter where the narrow bed was dragged; before two minutes some big drop was sure to find one out; and, to make matters more pleasant, it was quite dark. Thanks to a trench dug round the tent by the men when the storm began, it was comparatively dry under-foot, and before morning the wind-spirits were tired of their madcap riot, and slunk off, taking their friend the rain with them.

The day broke clear and delightful, so that one could move about. The shore was strewn with the wreck of the once splendid city of Tiberias, which extended along it for more than half a mile. In its place, the modern town presents a spectacle of ruins, filth, and wretchedness, which is peculiar to itself, even in Palestine. The castle at the north end, with its towers, standing on a low height, was greatly injured by the terrible earthquake of 1837, which killed about half the population. A sea-wall, rising out of the water in front of the town, and of course a relic of antiquity, was twisted and rent in many places; the town walls were shaken and split, and most of the houses destroyed, some still remaining in ruins. On a smaller scale, the destruction resembled that which I saw at Scio in the Greek Archipelago, where a fine stone town had been shaken down like a set of card-houses, and several acres were covered with the debris, making it difficult to imagine how anyone escaped.

Earthquakes are not infrequent in Palestine, and were as much dreaded in Bible times as now, though only one is mentioned historically in the Old Testament (Amos 1:1; Zech 14:4,5); that which happened in the reign of Uzziah, so terrifying the people of Jerusalem that they fled to the Mount of Olives. Palestine lies on a cleft of the earth's surface in the neighbourhood of which earthquakes are common. This stretches from the volcanic Taurus Mountains, passes between the two ranges of Lebanon, forms the Jordan chasm and the bed of the Dead Sea, and ends at the Bay of Akabah. Along this line, convulsions of the earth sometimes occur with terrible violence. Josephus speaks of one which desolated Judæa in the reign of Herod, about thirty years before Christ, killing 10,000 people and a great many cattle.* The darkening of the sky at the crucifixion of our Lord must also be attributed to a disturbance of the earth, in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem (Matt 27:51). In the year 1181 the whole of the Hauran, which borders the line of the Jordan, was shaken by an earthquake. The convulsion of 1837, however, exceeded all others which are known to us. Not only Tiberias, but Safed was overthrown, while the trembling extended 500 miles north and south, and from 80 to 100 miles east and west. All earthquakes, however, have a central point of greatest violence, from which the oscillations vibrate in every direction, at the rate of about 30 miles a minute, so that the force of the earth-wave is weakened at a distance from the centre; towns like Nazareth and Jerusalem suffering little by a shock which throws down others lying, like Tiberias, nearer the centre.

* Jos. Ant., xv. 5, 2.
At Tiberias the sufferers were largely Jews, though not a few others were overwhelmed by it. A Mahommedan told Dr. Robinson that he and four companions were returning down the mountain, west of the city, on the afternoon when the shock took place. All at once the earth opened and closed again, and two of his friends disappeared. He ran home in terror, and found that his wife, mother, and two more of the family were gone. On digging next day where his two neighbours had vanished, he found them dead, in a standing posture. Seventy-eight years before, in 1759, the town was laid waste by a similar catastrophe.

The falling in of portions of the earth's crust, and the strain caused by a sudden development of gas and steam, are the causes of these awful catastrophes. Among a people like the Hebrews it was rightly felt that they were the work of God. "He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth," says the Psalmist (104:32). There is also another allusion to earthquakes, in the Eighteenth Psalm (18:7ff). Everything, indeed, in such a visitation, is fitted to overpower the mind. In 1837 the hot baths of Tiberias rose to such a temperature that ordinary thermometers were useless,* and at various places the earth opened in great chasms, swallowing up many unsuspecting travellers, and closing on them in a few seconds, as when of old the ground devoured Korah and his company (Num 16:32). In Lebanon earthquakes are so frequent that most of the houses are of only one storey, with a flat roof; and they often show, in their beams and walls, marks of the twisting and shaking of earth-waves. At Baalbek, again, there are huge pillars thrown far out of the perpendicular: an appearance which no force could produce but that of an eddy of earthquake undulations. That these stupendous phenomena should be connected with the manifestations of the Almighty need not surprise us. An earthquake rent Sinai when God passed before Elijah (1 Kings 19:11); the firmness of His promises is enforced by being set above that of the mountains and the hills (Isa 54:10); an earthquake followed the death of our Lord; and this dread terror is named among the awful signs of His final coming to judgment (Matt 24:7, 27:51).

* Furrer; Schenkel, Bib. Lex., ii. 138.
The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias, it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise out of the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of His throne! How imperishable is hope! Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed. The worship in the synagogue seems to be in some respects peculiar, since the congregation seek to intensify different parts of the service by mimetic enforcement of its words. Thus, when the Rabbi recites the passage, "Praise the Lord with the sound of a trumpet," they imitate the sound of a trumpet through their closed fists; when a tempest is mentioned, they puff and blow to represent a storm; and when the cries of the righteous in distress are spoken of in the Lesson, they all set up a loud screaming. The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and filthy, they are certainly far from attractive; but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white, and look much better than the men.

Ancient Tiberias was built by "the Fox," Herod Antipas, between A.D. 20 and 27; that is, it was begun when our Lord was about twenty-four, and finished when He was thirty-one. During His public ministry, therefore, it

was in its first glory, with its Grecian colonnades, its Roman gates, its grand palace with gilded roof, wondrous candelabra, and walls painted with what seemed to the Jews idolatrous symbols; its synagogue, one of the finest in Galilee; and its spacious squares, adorned with marble statues. Yet it is not known that our Saviour ever entered the city, notwithstanding all its splendour. St. John is the only Evangelist who mentions it, but he speaks of it only once, though he twice calls the lake "the Sea of Tiberias" (John 6:1,23, 21:1). "The Fox" was too dangerous an enemy for our Lord to put Himself into his power, but the character of the city in its first years may also account for the silence about it in the Gospels. An old cemetery had been laid bare in planning the new capital, and this made the place so unclean that no strict Jew would go near it. Indeed, a population was obtained only by giving houses to heathen freed-men and even slaves, to induce them to settle in it.* To visit a place thus defiled would have rendered Christ and His disciples ceremonially unclean, which would have cut them off from communication with the Jewish people, and thus prevented them from preaching the Gospel to them.

* Jos. Ant., xviii. 2, 3.
That there was a cemetery on the site of Tiberias is, however, a proof that another city had preceded it, though so long before that the tombs were mere antiquities. The face of the hill at the north end of the town, moreover, is pierced with many very ancient sepulchres, some of which must have been destroyed when the town walls were originally built. There is, in fact, no reaching the earliest history of Palestine; in the long past, nation follows nation, but the story of the first in the strange succession is always veiled by impenetrable antiquity.

Tiberias is exceedingly hot and unhealthy in summer, because of its low situation, for it lies no less than 682 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. This in itself would make the climate of the place very warm, but the heat is intensified by hills 1,000 feet high, behind the town, which impede the free course of the refreshing westerly winds that prevail throughout Syria during summer. Hence, intermittent fevers and severe forms of ague are very common at that season. Even in winter little rain falls; snow is almost unknown; and the tropical vegetation, seen in nubk-thorns, palm-trees, and other torrid growths, indicates a temperature much like that of the sunken "ghor" of the Jordan, and approaching the sultry oppressiveness of the valley of the Dead Sea. The hill behind the city, as well as the knoll to the north of it, is full of ancient tombs, some of them over 100 feet in length; their cemented sides and other indications showing that they had been long used as cave-dwellings, after their service as tombs had ended with the disappearance of the population by whom they had been excavated. But they are no longer inhabited, except by hyænas, foxes, and jackals.

The ancient city lay mainly to the south of the present Tiberias, as is evident from the position of the numerous foundations, traces of walls, heaps of stones, and remains of the old sea-wall. At one spot lie eight pillars of grey granite, originally brought from Syene, in Egypt; at another a single pillar is still erect; and to the west of the town are two blocks of Syenite granite, once part of a great pillar, the material of which came from the cataracts of the Nile. Water used to be brought in an aqueduct more than six miles long from the Wady Fejjas, below the south end of the lake, and the city wall, three miles long in all, was led zigzag up to the hills at the back, with cisterns at some of the angles.

About a mile south of the present city are the hot baths, famous for many ages. A stone building, with a dilapidated dome, encloses them, but it is hardly pleasant to use water after it has been enjoyed by sufferers from all kinds of ailments. The temperature of the water is very high—about 144° Fahrenheit; and it tastes like very warm sea-water, excessively salt and bitter, with a strong smell, but no taste, of sulphur. There are four springs, which are collected into a covered channel that conducts them to the baths. The present building is only about fifty years old, but it has never been repaired since it was built by Ibrahim Pasha in place of the old building, which is quite decayed. The reservoir is arched over, and retains the water till it is cool enough for use; as it comes from the ground it is too hot for the hand to bear. As these baths were known in Christ's day by the name "Ammaus," or "Warm Baths," they may have originally been the "Hammath," in the tribe of Naphtali, mentioned in Joshua (Josh 19:35).* A mile from the baths, on the brow of the hill west of the castle, and at the north end of the town, Dr. Tristram discovered a hot-air cave, which he found himself unable to explore, for the current of heated air made it impossible to carry lights, and the walls and floor were so slippery as to render attempts to advance unsafe, although he had a rope lashed round him, held by strong men outside, to draw him back in case of accident. Such a steam bath shows how entirely the whole region around the town is pervaded by subterranean furnaces, ready at any moment to spread disaster over the district.

* Jos. Ant., xviii. 2, 3.
In the great Jewish war Tiberias bore a conspicuous part, for it had out-lived its ceremonial defilement, and was both rich and populous. Josephus, when in command in Galilee, fortified it, and we may judge the size of its synagogue from its having been used by him as a place in which he convened a public assembly of the people.* Although so strong that Vespasian did not venture to approach it with fewer than three legions of his best troops, the town surrendered, and was thus saved from ruin; but Kerat, or Tarichæa, a few-miles farther south, and also on the lake, was taken only by storming. Even then, many of the inhabitants, having escaped in boats, were overcome only when Vespasian had built a fleet of other boats to pursue them. A great fight on the lake was fatal to the Jews, 6,500 falling in the naval battle and in the siege of Tarichæa itself. Twelve hundred more, either too young or too old to bear arms or to labour, were put to death in cold blood, in the circus at Tiberias. After Jerusalem had perished, the Rabbis and Jews betook themselves hither in great numbers, till at last it had as many as thirteen synagogues. Here the famous Mishna was completed, about 200 years after Christ, and the Jerusalem Talmud a century later. The city was long the great seat of Jewish learning, and the graves of many famous doctors—that of the great Maimonides among others—are still shown in the Jewish burial-ground west of the city.
* Jos. Vita, sec. 54.


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