The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias, Kinneret, or any of quite a few other monikers, is Israel’s largest freshwater lake, and the lowest freshwater lake on the planet. But like so many landmarks dotted around the area, it has long been much more than that: over the years, it’s been a source of religious inspiration, political tension, ecological omens, and the water supplies of millions of people.
In other words, it’s a site of national and international interest for quite a few reasons.
The Sea of Galilee has long been a massive tourism draw, bringing thousands of visitors every year for centuries. The reason is simple: the lake plays a big part in quite a few stories from Christian mythology: it’s said to be where Jesus walked on water, for example, which is way more impressive on the freshwater Sea of Galilee than the nearby super-salty Dead Sea.
The lake is also namechecked in the tale of Jesus “calming the storm” – the time when, caught in a storm with his disciples, Jesus told the wind and sea to knock it off so he could have a nap. Unusually for meteorological phenomena, though, the wind and sea actually did as they were told, resulting in both the only recorded instance of a successful Full Cnut and another miracle for the Christian and Islamic canon.
It’s not just water-based miracles that are linked to the Sea of Galilee in the New Testament. Back when Jesus and his pals were kicking about, the lake was the epicenter of a cluster of cities, all rich and populated, and many of the most famous and important stories about Jesus’s life occurred if not on the lake, then at least around it. These days, prospective pilgrims to the area can follow what’s known as the “Jesus Trail” – a 64-kilometer (40-mile) hiking route that connects up many of these locations.
The story of the Sea of Galilee goes way further back than the flip from BCE to CE, however. Like so much of the so-called “fertile crescent”, archaeological digs in the region have revealed insights from many, many millennia past: in 2003, for example, researchers were surprised to find a massive conical structure, weighing an estimated 60,000 tons and with a diameter larger than the length of a Boeing 747, submerged in the lake.
“We just bumped into it,” Shmuel Marco, a geophysicist from Tel Aviv University who worked on the project, told CNN in 2013. “Usually the bottom of the lake is quite smooth. We were surprised to find a large mound. Initially we didn’t realize the importance of this but we consulted with a couple of archaeologists, and they said it looked like an unusually large Bronze Age statue.”
Just how old is this structure? Well, it’s difficult to say – and estimates based on sand accumulation and comparisons to other structures in the region haven’t been able to pin it down by much. Best guess? Somewhere between 2,000 and 12,000 years old – and that’s just the beginning of the mysteries.
“This is such a huge structure that it truly is something unusual,” said Dani Nadel, an archaeologist from the University of Haifa. “It could have been a big ceremonial structure, or a ramp. There could have once been statues on top of people in certain rituals. I mean, I’m really going wild here.”
“The truth is we don’t know how it was constructed, what its exact age is, how it was used, or how long ago it was used,” he added. “We have several speculations, but we don’t know much except that it’s there and it’s huge.”
Fast-forward zero to 10,000 years, and we have evidence of people sailing across the Sea of Galilee – not just in the form of Bible tales this time, but in the discovery of the Galilee boat: a remarkably-well preserved first-century CE fishing boat found by a pair of amateur archaeologists in 1986.
“It’s the most incredible thing I've ever seen,” Shelley Wachsmann, then an inspector for Israel’s Department of Antiquities, told the Chicago Tribune at the time.
“This is the first time we have an idea of what kind of boats were sailing on the Sea of Galilee back then.”
It was an important discovery for myriad reasons – but the thing that made it go viral wasn’t one of them. Somehow, a rumor got started that the boat was filled with gold, prompting the Department of Antiquities to post armed guards around the discovery to protect it from treasure hunters.
And not content with hiding relics from the birth of the Christian religion – as well as whatever it was people were worshipping 10,000 years before that – the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee also holds archaeological evidence from the very earliest days of Islam. An excavation in 2021 revealed the remnants of a mosque dating to 670 CE, only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, making it the oldest Muslim house of worship to be excavated in the world.
Ecological and geographical importance
Just as the Sea of Galilee holds the secrets to the past, it also can tell us a surprising amount about our future. It sits in the very North of Israel, in a valley created by the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates – and that means the area has historically been home to significant geological phenomena like earthquakes and volcanoes.
As such, it’s a place that’s of major interest to geologists. For example, while a “swarm” of earthquakes may not be what many people would consider “lucky”, when the area was hit by exactly that in 2018, it allowed an international team to monitor and study tectonic activity in a much more in-depth and dynamic way than before.
“The scientists investigated the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings using a novel and multidisciplinary approach, which included acoustic and seismic imaging at different resolutions, as well as geochemical and seismological analyses,” reads a statement from the University of Oslo. It’s research that could benefit far more than just the local area: the information gathered from the investigation may help “unravel a major problem typical of areas affected by long and deep seated strike-slip faults, such as the San Andreas Fault in California and the North-Anatolian Fault in Turkey,” the statement explains.
Like so many water sources on the planet, it’s also important for scientists monitoring the ever-precarious state of the environment. Over the past two decades, water levels in the lake have dropped significantly, reaching close to an all-time low in 2018 – and exactly why that happened is a question that provoked a lot of intense research in the region.
It wasn’t just an important question for historical or cultural reasons: less water in the lake means the liquid that is there gets saltier, making it less hospitable for the fish and plant life that flourish there naturally. That’s because the Sea of Galilee exists in a peculiar balance: its “freshwater” status holds only as long as there’s enough freshwater to weigh down a collection of saltwater springs that lie underneath.
Eventually, a wide-ranging analysis of meteorological data, information from stream gauges, and satellite observations discovered the answer to why water levels had plunged so low: rather than the natural effects of drought conditions, it was due to the long-standing use of the lake as a source for irrigation and drinking water throughout the region. In 2018, with the water levels reaching close to irreversibly dangerous levels and drought conditions continuing to get worse in the region, the Israeli government took drastic measures, approving a plan to pump desalinated water back into the lake.
Thanks to this reversal of the traditional, and evidently problematic, water cycle – as well as some serendipitous wet winters – the water levels in the lake have rebounded considerably. Today, the Sea of Galilee is basically at full capacity, reaching its highest level in 30 years by April 2022. With drinking water in the region no longer coming from the lake, and the Israeli government investing heavily in water conservation, reclamation, and desalination infrastructure in recent years, let’s hope that trend continues.