In a festive press conference today the mayor of Tiberias and the director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the beginning of work on the national project for the construction of an archaeological park in Tiberias that will bring the Roman city “back to life”. Berko Park is slated to be magnet that will attract tourism from Israel and abroad to Tiberias and will expose the public at large to Tiberias’ glorious past, through all of its history which has its beginnings in the Early Roman period 2,000 years ago.
At the end of the Second Lebanon War Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that 22 million sheqels from the budget of the government’s program for the reinforcement of the north will be appropriated for the park project, which was initiated by the mayor of Tiberias, Mr. Zohar Oved. The project, named after Ozer Berkowitz ז"ל, has currently gotten underway under the direction of Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Amos Goldstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with Ms. Alvit Froind – director general of the Economic Development Company of Tiberias and with guidance from the Berkowitz family.
The press conference was conducted opposite the double towered gate of the Roman city that has remained impressively preserved over the course of 2,000 years. Twenty years ago this gate was covered by a landslide and alluvium and today the gate has once again been uncovered with the aim of incorporating it as a principal element in Berko Park.
Berko Park extends across an area of approximately 100 dunams and is replete with ancient remains of the city of Tiberias that date from the time of the city’s establishment by Herod Antipas in the 1st century CE until the time of the Fatimid dynasty in the 11th century CE.
With the help of Ilan Ben Yosef, the planner of the theoretical program, a concept was formulated that led to turning a region abounding in ancient artifacts into a bustling and economic “tourism” resource – into a recreational, social and educational place of ambience for both visitors to the city and its residents. All of this will take place against the backdrop of the heritage and archaeological assets that are preserved and protected for generations, which intensify one’s awareness of the past and of history.
According to the program, which was prepared by the architect Yehuda Farhi on behalf of the Tiberias municipality and in cooperation with Shahar Puni, an architect with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the visitors will arrive in a large entrance area that will include a visitor’s center, recreation facilities for children etc. They will pass the stone walls of the Byzantine city or go by way of the southern gate of the Roman city, which was magnificently preserved including both of its towers. The visitors will continue on along the cardo, which is the main street that is paved with stone tiles and that leads from the gate to the Roman city (and to cities of later periods). They will enter a “green area” of lawns and flora characteristic of the Land of Israel that will include a network of paths which will conform to the geometry and the material appearance of the Roman city. The paths will be suitable for those on foot, the handicapped and baby strollers and will reach the assembly center – the “amphilawn”– which will contain thousands of seats and is intended for public events (which Tiberias currently lacks) where musical performances, shows etc will take place outdoors.
The main cardo will continue further north through green areas to the bathhouse which visitors can go into and on toward the basilica.
Archaeological artifacts that were discovered in excavations that were conducted in Tiberias in the past, among them stone columns and capitals, ancient agricultural installations etc, will be incorporated the length of the cardo.
Facilities offering recreational activities will operate there: bicycle trips will depart from the park to Switzerland Forest, a path around the Sea of Galilee, etc. There will also be centers offering such services as a cafeteria etc.
It is anticipated that the work in this part of the park will be finished this coming summer. Within the framework of the future expansion of Berko Park the Roman theater, which is located at the foot of Mount Berenice, is slated to be excavated. The theater is built of stone, is of imposing in size and faces east, thus those seated in it viewed the Sea of Galilee opposite them, the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. The planners envision that this ancient and impressive theater will be used once again in modern times for the presentation of grandiose performances.
Berko Park is part of a more extensive area where there are important archaeological finds that are all expected to be included in a large archaeological park in which there are ancient buildings that were previously excavated and that stand exposed today in the area. Included among them are the beit hamidrash that is ascribed to Rabbi Yochanan, which was exposed in the area of Tiberias’ waste water purification plant, the Anchor Church on Mount Berenice, another Byzantine church structure that was recently uncovered, the cardo, the marketplace, the aqueduct and the water reservoir. The city of Tiberias and the Israel Antiquities Authority will continue to act to rehabilitate and conserve these ancient structures, and to include them in a wide-scale tourism program.
At the press conference, the mayor of Tiberias, Zohar Oved, thanked the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Ra’anan Dinur for his support of the project. “Ra’anan has worked hard in order that the project would take shape out of an understanding of the importance of encouraging tourism in Tiberias”.
The entire project is being guided by Mr. David Benyamini, director of the Prime Minister’s Office in the north.
The archaeological background of the principal antiquities that will be included in Berko Park is listed below:
The Roman Gate:
The excavation of the gate was carried out by Professor Gideon Foerster in 1973-1974 as part of the trial excavations that were conducted in the area by the Department of Antiquities.
In the excavation a wide gate was uncovered that consists of two round basalt-built towers that flank both sides of the opening, of which square decorated columns and a stone threshold have survived. Despite the fact that Tiberias’ city of walls in this period are mentioned in historical sources, their remains had not yet been discovered.
In the Byzantine period, in the 6th-7th century CE, a wall was built around the city. The remains of this wall appear to have also been erected next to the towers of the Roman gate; thus archaeologists have concluded that the gate was also used in this period. While excavating the gate’s eastern tower a cluster of “incendiary bombs” was found. These were actually ceramic vessels which were used to defend the city. According to the archaeological evidence the gate continued to be used until the Fatimid period in the 11th century CE.
The bathhouse structure was excavated by Bezalel Ravani in 1955-1956, on behalf of the Department of Antiquities. The excavations apparently uncovered the main bathhouse of the city of Tiberias – the one that is frequently mentioned in rabbinic literature. It was built in the 4th century CE and continued to be used until the Fatimid period in 11th century. Over the many years of its existence numerous changes were made to it and in the end the bathhouse extended across an area of 1,300 square meters. It was divided into two main wings – a western wing where there were various rooms for bathing and an eastern wing where there were dressing rooms and halls intended for social meetings.
An Observation Point on the Basilica:
The Byzantine basilica structure is a large building that covers a total area of approximately 1,400 square meters. Two construction phases were exposed in it. The earlier phase dates to the Roman period (2nd century CE) and includes the remains of a magnificent building that is believed to be the palace of Herod Antipas. In the second phase a basilica structure was built there which Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld ז"ל attributed to the Sanhedrin building that dates to the Byzantine period (4th-5th centuries CE). The basilica structure was part of a large walled complex in which there were ancillary rooms, courtyards, underground drainage systems etc. This area was inhabited until the Fatimid period in the 11th century CE.