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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

A Short Description of Tiberias.

טבריה In Arabic, Al Tibaria.

This town is situated on the western shore of the Lake Chinnereth. Its name is derived from that of the Roman Emperor Tiberias Caesar,* who reigned in the year 3718, A. M., 110 years before the destruction of the temple. In Tal. Megillah, 6a, are found several opinions as to the name of the town which formerly stood on the site on which Tiberias was built. According to some, it was Rakbath רקבת; according to others, Chamath חמת (Josh. 19:35). After the destruction of Jerusalem, it was the seat of the most learned Jews; and the last Sanhedrin, and the latest Nessiim, till about the year 4125 (365), had their seat there. Near this city stood formerly a castle, mentioned in Yerushalmi Abodah Zarah, iii. "When Rabbi Jesi died; the castle of Tiberias קסטולין דטברי fell in." It was still standing in the reign of Baldwin IV.

* So says Bereshith Rabbah, ch. 31, that Tiberias has its name from King Tiberias; Alexandria, from King Alexander; and Antioch, from King Antiochus. There is also mentioned, ibid. 20, a woman from the house Tibrinus טברינוס בית, which I suppose to signify the town of Tiberias.

I could find but few traces of Tiberias during the middle ages, only that in 4398 (638), all the Jews and Christians were driven out by the Kalif Omar ibn Kataf; but when the Christians conquered the country at a later period, Jewish inhabitants were found in it, and Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela reports there already 50 Jewish families. A little while prior to this, it was the seat of the most distinguished scholars and grammarians of all Palestine, who had an academy there, מדרש גדול, as reported by Ibn Ezra to Terumah. It was destroyed in the subsequent wars of the Christians with Saladdin; and it was still uninhabited in the year 5283 (1523), as only 12 houses were standing in it. Sultan Seliman had it surrounded with a wall in 5300 (1540), and it commenced to revive a little, and to be inhabited by the most distinguished Jewish literati; but it was again destroyed in 5420 (1660).

In 5502 (1742), the celebrated pious Rabbi Chayim Abulafia, of Smyrna, settled there, and had the city wall restored at his own cost; and it was again inhabited by Jews through the exertions of this distinguished man. Soon after, Tiberias had to endure a severe contest and siege from an Arab tribe of that neighbourhood, at which R. Chayim and his small Jewish population distinguished themselves; on account of which, he was nominated chief of the city by the Mahomedan inhabitants, as a mark of respect. This distinguished family of Abulafié has produced a large number of the most learned men. At the present day it flourishes in Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Damascus, and contains the wealthiest men in the Jewish congregations in these cities.

In 5540 (1780), many Polish Jews emigrated from their own country and settled in Tiberias.

In 5594 (1834,), during the Arab rebellion, the Tiberias Jews suffered the least. The rebels locked them up in their quarter of the town, and demanded an immense sum of money. The prisoners perceiving in what danger they were, surrendered at once all they had without the least hesitation, according to the advice of the wise king, "It is a time to lose" (Eccles. 3:6), and were then liberated, and no farther extortion was practised. But when Abraim Pacha overcame the rebels, they preferred their demand to him, again according to Solomon, "It is a time to gather in," and all the extorted property had to be restored to them.

In 5597 (1837), Tiberias was almost entirely destroyed by the great earthquake of the 24th of Tebeth, when nearly 500 Jews perished in the ruins; the city wall also fell down. Afterwards the city gradually recovered, and it is now nearly rebuilt, but the wall still lies in ruins.

Tiberias has two congregations; 1, the Sephardim, with a handsome Synagogue and 80 families; and 2, the Ashkenazim, with two Synagogues and about 100 families, who are all Poles and Russians. The Jewish inhabitants of Tiberias enjoy more peace and security than those of Zafed.

A Short Review of the Egyptian Kingdom.

As Palestine was a long time under the dominion of the rulers of Egypt, I deem it not entirely superfluous to take a brief view of this country.

Up to the year 4400 (640), Egypt was a part of the Romano-Greek, i. e., the Eastern Roman Empire. In this year it was conquered by the Kalif Omar ibn Kataf, and it thus came under the protection of the Mahomedan Kalifs. In 4628 (868), Tartaric hordes, composed of Turkomans and Turks, overran the whole of Western Asia and Egypt, and they obtained possession of the country, until the year 4772 (1012), when the Kalif Al Chakim, of the Fatimite family, defeated them, whereupon the Kalifs governed Egypt until 4930 (1190), when Saladdin arose, united Palestine with Egypt, formed a particular state, that of the Saladdinites (Ayoobites), and severed it from the Kalifat. In 4980 (1220), ruled Sultan Nadjmadin, one of Saladdin's family, who formed the corps of the Mamelukes, similar to the Janissaries at the Ottoman court. But they rose against the family of Saladdin in 5010 (1250), and chose a king out of their midst in 5014 (1254), Turan Shach Mameluki, and maintained the government two hundred and sixty-four years, till 5278 (1518), when Sultan Salim I., of the Ottoman family, conquered Egypt, and caused the last king of the Mamelukes, Sultan Tumubera Diadoro, to be executed. The country came thus under the government of the Ottoman emperors of Constantinople, or more correctly speaking, under that of the Beés (Beys), also a species of Janissaries and Mamelukes, who always ruled the land, but more particularly the governor, for the time being. These Beés obtained their greatest power and renown under Ali Bee, in the year 5526 (1766). In 5559 (1799), Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt, and it came, though for a brief time, under the .power of the French, on which occasion the Beéis lost much of their renown and power, till at last, in 5580 (1820), Mahmud Ali Pacha caused all the Beés to be executed, and thus procured himself the sole dominion over Egypt. It is now independent of the Ottoman power, and forms a state by itself. In 5609 (1849), this Pacha died at a very old age, and as his son Abraim had preceded him to the grave several months, the government is now in the hands of his son Abbas Pacha.