ISRAEL PHOTOS IV -- Pilgrimage

                                      Fishing at the Tiberias Marina, January 2007

                     Studies in Galilee, Ernest Masterman, University of Chicago, 1909 


Studies in Galilee, Ernest Masterman, University of Chicago 1909 

…in the summer, chiefly from el Baailhah, the great marshy delta of the Jordan at the northeastern corner of the Lake of Galilee.  From here, processions of mules, loaded with boxes of fish, make the five hours’ journey to Safed at least once, and often twice, in the twenty four hours—except during the Sabbath.  It is indeed, as the last proviso implies, particularly for the Jews that the fish is brought.  So great is the demand that fish is often cheaper and more plentiful in Safed than Tiberias, although it is Tiberias men that do all the fishing. 

   Fishing off Tiberias is only followed to a considerable extent during the winter and early spring months.  It is not nearly so important as that along the northern shore from Mejdel to el Bataihah.  The bay at et Tabighah is, during the early months of spring, a wonderful place to fish; they swarm there, attracted by he copious hot springs which, loaded with vegetable debris, here pour their waters in to the lake.  For about three months—mid-January to mid-April—the fishermen make this their headquarters, erecting, a few tents or reed huts on the shore, close to the mills.  While the water a few yards out teems with larger fish, the shallows in shore swarm with small fry fish.

   The fishing off el-Bataihah is by far the most valuable on the whole lake.  Here, close to the mouth of the Jordan, as well as in the waters of that river, fish my be taken all the year round—though varying in kind according to the season.  The fishermen, whose homes are in Tiberias, make temporary reed-mat shelters for themselves while on shore, beside which they spread out their nets along the beach to dry (cf. Ezek. 24:5, 14: 47:10).  It is interesting to notice that this, the richest fishing ground, is closest to the ruin et Tell, which is generally acknowledged to be the site of the village of Bethsaida, the “place of fishing,” which, according to Josephus, was afterward officially renamed Julias.

   At el Huleh and the Ain el Mellahah stream (which flows into the lake) fishing is carried on by very primitive methods.  The Bedawin fishermen occupy a mat hut, made of papyrus, on the eastern shore, close to the Jewish settlement of Ezbaid.  During the day they catch fish by means of the “cast net,” as will be described; but at night they employ boats and use the m’batten.

   From the Lake of Galilee fish is carried fresh to Safed, Nazaraeth, and other places in Galilee, and is dried and salted for the Damascus, Jerusalem markets.  From et Huleh and Ain Mellahah fish is sent to Safed, to Merj ‘Ayun (five or six hours away), and to Damascus.  In the case of the latter special precautions have to be taken; the fish (musht and barbut) is caught toward the evening, is sorted out on reed mats, and packed and dispatched the same night.  Salted fish is also sent from here to Zahleh and other places in the Lebanon.  During the summer months fish cannot be sent, in a fresh state, far from the lakes; most of it goes to Safed, and in this season almost all of it consists of carp and barbel.

Barbus Canis (top), Barbus Longiceps (bottom) found in the "Sea of Galilee," published by Tristram for the Palestine Expl. Fund 1881

   The average price of the best fish in Safed in from ten to fourteen piastres a rotl, or about four pence a pound.  Catfish, which is always cheaper, may be as low as a third of this when there is a glut on the market. 

   Almost all the fish are caught by means of nets, of which there are three kinds: the “cast net” or shabakeh, the “draw net” or jarf, and the m’batten.  The old-fashioned method of poinsioning fish is still at times resorted to by amateurs.  At Tiberias crumbs of bread mixed with cochineal (which appears to be a fish poison) are thrown on the water, and I am told that even ‘arak (spirits of wine) is also sometimes used.  The Arabs at ‘Ain el Mellahah sometimes capture the fish in the pool by means of poison, and they also, when the weather is getting colder, and the fish by instinct make for the deeper waters, stretch nets across the stream and make big hauls.  Yet another method employed at times at Tiberias is that of using weighted string of sharp, unbaited hooks which are rapidly drawn through the water, and, if skill is used, often come up with several impaled victims.  This may have been the method referred to in Matt. 17:27. It is, however, the regular fishing with nets which alone is of commercial importance.

   The “cast net” is a small circular net with small bars of lead attached all round its margin: to the center is usually fixed a small cord.  It is apparently the [Greek fonts deleted] of Matt. 4:18, and Mark 1:16.  Three sizes are mused, differing in wideness of spread and in fineness of mesh.  The smallest size, used for sardinnen, is known as el mukheiyer; the second, the most commonly used, is called esh shabakeh ( a name usually applied by the public to all “cast nets”) or Ashraneyeh Kajajeh; while the largest, used only in  midwinter for the largest musht, is called ‘Ashraneyeh Saroseyeh, or simply es sawoseyeh.  It may be of interest to give dimensions of samples of the two latter which I have recently measured.  The shabakeh measured in length, from the center cord attachment to the lead weights, 11 feet 6 inches.  When spread out fully the circumference was 39 feet 3 inches.  There were seventeen meshes to the lineal foot.  The saroseyeh measured:  length, 11 feet 6 inches; circumference, 61 feet 4 inches; mesh, ten to a lineal foot.  The method of using the “cast net” is as follows:  The fisherman carefully arranges the net on his right arm, the weights hang free but the net is wound up.  As the fine mesh gets readily in a tangle he critically examines the weights to see that none are out of place.  He then advances into the water up to his waist, having gathered his scanty garments well out of the way; he cautiously looks around till he sees some indication of fish—a few fins showing, a troubled surface, or a fish jumping—and then with a bold swing of his arm he deftly lets his net fly through the air so that it spreads out flat and descends into and through the water with its weighted edges in a complete level circle. As it does so, it necessarily shuts in all the fish in the area over which it falls.  The fisherman knows the lie of the net by means of the cord in his hand.  He then walks over the net, feeling with his feet nature of its contents, and flattening it down in his progress so that the fish become well entangled in its meshes.  He now draws it up again by means of the center cord, and as he carefully twists it up over his arm he disentangles the captives one by one.  He may in this way capture several dozen fish in one throw, indeed (specially when the net is used in conjunction with the jarf, as described below), so great may be the mass of fish that the net cannot be raised but must be dragged on shore.  It is seldom that the skilled man casts with no result whatever.  It is delightful, as I have repeatedly done both along the north shore of the lake Galilee and at et Huleh, to watch the skill and precision with which the net is flung.  

   The jarf or “drag net” is as much as 400 meters long.  In mesh it is as fine as the shabakeh. It is used at the lake chiefly during daylight, but along the Bay of Akka many of these nets are employed after sunset with lanterns and torches to illuminate the scene.  The net is paid out of a boat in an immense semicircle, the two ends being near the shore.  the upper side floats by means of corks, the lower is kept down by small lead weights.  As soon as the net is in position the men on the shore commence the process of hauling it in.  Four men, if possible, take charge of each extremity; they have long ropes fixed to the lower and upper corners so that they drag in the bottom at the same time as the top.  In dragging in the net they fix the ropes to their belts, and in order that a steady and uninterrupted pull may be kept up each man nearest the landward end of the ropes, as soon as there is room, leaves off his hold there and runs forward to seize the ropes at the ent-end as they come in shore.  The fishermen consider it a matter of importance that when once the net has commenced to once in, there should be no pause in its progress.  As the center parts begin to come into shallow water some of the fishermen assists its progress by jumping or diving into the water and lifting the weighted lower side over the larger stones.  This is particularly necessary at Tiberias, where there are many large stones all over the bottom.  Finally the net reaches the shore, having “gathered of every kind” (Matt. 13:48).  Clearly the net [Greek fonts deleted] here described was the draw net.    

   The m’batten (really Arabic word, meaning “lined,” a word used for the lining of clothes) is a compound net about 200 meters long, made of three nets of equal length and breadth all fixed to one suspending rope.  The outermost nets have a wide, that in the center a fine, mesh.  Like the jarf, one long side is floated near the surface by means of corks, while the other is weighted down with lead.  In order to distinguish its situation int eh dusk or dark a floating empty petroleum tin is fixed to tow ends.  A fish coming in contact with the net passes easily through the nearest outer net, but the middle one he, in his struggles, pushes in front of him, through the meshes of the third net, in such a way that when he tries to retreat he finds himself hopelessly entangled in a kind of bag of netting—covering his broad end.

   The m’batten can be laid in any depth of water as it does not touch the bottom, but, as a matter of experience, the fishermen find that the biggest hauls are made usually not far from shore.  The net is paid out in a long line parallel to shore; the fishermen then row their boats slowly along its whole length and back again—particularly on the landward side—in order to frighten the fishes.  If there is a large catch, the net, weighed down with its contents, sinks in the middle.  When this happens it is immediately hauled on board the two boats.  If there is no such result, the net may be left out from the middle of the night till daybreak.  Before paying out the nets, the fishermen are often able, even in the darkest nights, to locate a shoal of fish by the sound of the fishes opening and shutting their mouths at the surface. 

   Off Tiberias yet another method has been adopted in recent years.  It was found that the musht, who are a very wily fish and the most difficult to catch, frequently managed to jump over the floating edge of the draw-net after they had been surrounded, so a new device was contrived.  Two boats, as usual, act in concert, their movements being directed by a man stationed on a point of the shore high above the water, who, from the vantage ground is able to detect the presence of a shoal of musht.  Proceeding to the spot indicated, the fishermen of one boat quickly drop the long jarf in a circle round the shoal, while those in the second boat pay out an m’batten—without its lead weights—al round the circle, keeping it stretched out flat on the level of the water by means of wooden rods, and loosely fixing it at points to the jarf.  The musht, finding the circle closing in round them, jump the edge and land on, and are entangled in, this floating net.  The jarf may now be dragged to land.  As the bottom of the lake is full of great stones, some of the fishermen dive in and assist the progress of the weighted side over those obstructions.  When the circle is very full of fish shabakah is used again and again to partially clear is very full of fish shabakeh is used again and again to partially clear the jarf by securing the enclosed musht; under such circumstances this net is often brought up an almost solid mass of fish. 

   The Tiberias fishermen are quite a class by themselves; fine, stalwart men, mostly Moslems, with a few Christians.  The business is hereditary in certain families.  The nets are usually made and mended by the women of their households.  Irregular fishing with the “cast net” is carried on by Bedawin living near the Lake of Galilee, and particularly near the Huleh. 

   Although it does not argue to conclusively from modern customs to the ancient ones, there are one or two which throw some light on the narrative in John, chap. 21.  There is, first of all, the unknown Stranger (vs. 4) on the shore who tells the disciples where to cast the net.  If then, as now, fishermen were accustomed to have their movements directed from the shore—at times, at any rate—it will explain the fishermen’s ready response ot the dire tions.  Then, it will be noticed that it is at dawn that the nets, if left out all night, are usually hauled in.  The conditions of Simon (vs. 7) is readily understood if the fishermen were accustomed to dive into the water to assist the progress of their nets along the bottom; and so, too, his plunging in with his “fisher’s coat” to meet his Master, appears, also, all the more natural and in keeping with the surroundings.  The fishes described (vs. 11) as “great” would probably be members of the carp (Cyprindae) family, which often exceed two feet in length.  These, today, are particularly taken in the “drag net” (vs. 8)

   With regard to the varieties of fish it is unnecessary here to give a list of all the forty-three kinds found in the inland waters of Palestine.  Many of them are quire small and others extremely rare.  I shall here almost exclusively refer to the important food fishes of the two lakes of Galilee and the adjoining streams.

   Zoologically these fishes belong to three families—the Chromidae, allied to the wrass; the Siluridae, or catfishes; and the Cyprinidae, or carps.  A small blenny (Blennius varus) is also found in the lake, but it is too small to be of commercial importance.

   The Chromidae are the most characteristic fish of Palestine.  In appearance they are somewhat like their allies—the wrass.  they are broad from back to belly, but somewhat narrow from side to side.  They have a long dorsal fin running the greater part of their length, the front part of which is supported by fifteen or sixteen strong sharp spines, while a broader part behind includes about a dozen softer and more flexible spines, lying close together.  The eight known species are distinguished largely by differences in the numbers of these spines.  It is on account of the comb-like back that the fishermen have named the fish musht (Arabic) a comb.  These prickly spines are, no doubt, formidable weapons of defense, and may possibly (though this has never been proved) be poisonous to smaller fish, as in the case with the weaver fish, but they, more than anything else, are the cause of their entanglement in the fine meshes of the fishermen’s net.  It is the male members of this family of fish which have the remarkable habit of carrying the spawn and the young fry in their mouths until they develop to quite a considerable size.  As the young develop, the cheek pouches become enormously distended, and the unfortunate parent is unable to close its mouth.  How it can feed—unless it feeds on its own fry—is a mystery.  this phenomenon is very commonly observed with the kelb (Hemichromis sacra)—indeed, this is the only variety in which I have actually seen it—but it has been described in other species, and is probably, as the fisherman emphatically state, common to all the family.  During, or very soon after, the breeding season most of the musht disappear entirely from their usual haunts—it seems probable that they take to the depths of the lake.  Musht of various kinds are very plentiful during the winter and early spring months, particularly immediately after storms, but are very scarce after about May. 

   With regard to the varieties, zoologists describe eight species.  The fishermen do not make such fine distinctions.  The commercial kinds are musht abiad, musht lubbud, and kelb, or kuleibeh.  Musht abiad, or white musht is that known as Chromis niloticus, a fish found all over the Jordan system and also in the Nile.  Although a very light color, the males, during the breeding season are considerably darker, with marked spots of a lighter color; it is very handsome fish and the chief favorite for the table.  Well grown specimens are eight to nine inches long.  In addition to color and size, this musht is distinguished by a slightly convex forehead and a slightly convex tail.

   Musht lubbud is that scientifically as Chromis tiberalis.  Lubbud is apparently derived from (Arabic) meaning to “stick together,” “to be compact” (hence lebadeh, meaning “felt”), and may refer to the extraordinary compact nature of the shoals.  Thus Tristram says.  “I have seen them in shoals of over an acre in extent, so closely packed that it seemed impossible for them to move, and with their dorsal fins above the water, giving at a distance the appearance of a tremendous shower pattering on one spot of the surface of the glassy lake.”  But others explain it as referring to the habit of the fish to cling to the ground and hide under stones—a meaning equally permissible to the Arabic root.  This is the most plentiful of all the Chromidae.  of average size, perhaps a little smaller than the first mentioned, it is distinguished from  it be a more convex forehead, a darker color, and a slightly convex tail. 

   The Kelb (“dog”) is the Hemichromis sacra.  It is a small fish than the two former, from which it is easily distinguished by its narrower shape (from back to belly), its concave forehead and ugly mouth.  It is less prized as food than these others, and is caught also slightly later in the season.  It is in best condition, however, in the winter, when it fattens on the sardinnen, among which it plays havoc.  It breeds mong the flags and bulrushes, and so the males, doing their parental duties, often fall victims to the net. 

   Some of the smaller Chormidae are called ‘adadi’, but I find a good deal of disagreement among the fishermen as to what species should be called.  The Memoirs are, however, I believe, correct in saying it is the Arabic name for the small musht, Choris, Falvii Jospehi, which is distinguished by yellow spots on the anal fin.  It is not a table fish.  A Bedawy fisherman also told me that he designated one kind as marmar (marble), but he could not show me a specimen.  I have seen a small musht in the pools of ‘Ain el Madawereeh and ‘Ain et Tineh with a “marbled” back, which may be the kind referred to, but I have not had the chance of handling it.  Kart is a name also applied to a small musht, “white like silver.”  

   The “catfish” of Galilee—Claris macrocanthus—is known to the fisherman as barbul (plural barabet).  This is the fish referred to by Josephus (B.J., III x, 8) under the name Coracinus, as found in the fountain “Capharnaum.”  It has a great head, ornamented with a row of long and prominent barbells, and when ti grows to its full size—four or five feet—is a most formidable looking beast, and does great destruction among the smaller fish.  Such large individuals are rare; specimens caught for eating are usually between two and three feet.  They are sold very cheaply, because they are forbidden food to the Jews on account of the absence of scales (Lev. 11:10).  They are sometimes as cheap as four piastres (71/2d) for a rotl (=5 lbs. 10 ozs.), or more than 11/4 lbs. for 2d.  this is about a third of the price of musht.  For the table they are usually cut transversely, and fried with butter or oil.  They are excellent eating.  From the fact that they are not kosher, i.e., “pure,” they are thought to be the “bad” fish of Matt. 13:48, which “they cast away.” The habits of the catfish are in many ways remarkable.  They are able to survive a long time on dry land; they commonly reach Safed alive.  This is due to their curious aborescent gills, which do not collapse when out of water, and which, as long as they remain damp, carry on the process of respiration in the air.  Shortly before the breeding season these creatures become very lively:  I have seen numbers of them tumbling about like small purposes on the surface of the lake—near its middle—with a crowd of noisy gulls circling over them.  Although they undoubtedly creep up the warm streams, and along the irrigation canals-crossing at times even patches of dry land—the fishermen say they do not (as Tristram states) bred in these places but, in the Lake of Galilee at any rate, in the deeper water: they never see the small fry of the barbut.  In the Huleh they disappear altogether into the papyrus swamps for four months after May.  When seized the catfish gives a curious squeak, something like a cat. 

     The Cyprinidae, or carps, are a large family, and twenty-three different species have been described as occurring in Palestine.  Of these the most important food-fishes are the kersin, the abu kisher, the hajafi, the hajafi banduk, and the sardinnen. 

   The kersin, known also as abu buz, is scientifically Barbus longiceps.  It is a handsome trout-like fish, often over two feet long.  Like all the carps, its upper jaw is provided with small barbules, and the corner of its mouth with larger ones.  It is one of the best fish in the district for eating, its special attraction on the table being its absence of the many small bones which make the eating of musht such a mixed pleasure.

   Closely allied to this, but considerably more plentiful, is the binny, or abu kisher (also known as the kishereh).  The latter names, meaning “scaly,” are given on account of this fish’s remarkably large scales.  The specimens which come to the market are usually somewhat smaller than the kersin, but it grows.  I believe, at times to the same length as the latter.  Zoologically it is known as Barbus canis.

  The hajafi Capocta syriaca, a closely allied species common in all the rivers of the Jordan system, is known as hajafi banduk or “bastard” hajafi, the fishermen thinking that the fish is the product of the inter-breeding of the true hajafi with some other species.  Another banduk is Capoeta socialis.  The three species are not distinguished in trade.  Yet a fourth kind is kept by the inhabitants of the village of Deishun in the village fountain: it also occurs in a neighboring semi-under-ground pool.  It is known as Capocta fratercula.

   The fisherman also describes banadik (bastards) of the kersin and the abu ksiher, the former with a head like a abu buz, but scales like hajafi, and the latter with head like a kersin and scales like the abu kisher; but I am very doubtful whether these are really distinct species and among a considerable number I have examined, I have never found one. 

   Mention must also be made of the sardinnen (Alburnus sillah), a small species about six inches in length, which is at times caught in great numbers in the lake, near the shore, although the greater part of the year it is scarcely met with, probably because it keeps to the deep waters.  The Arabic name is a modern one, and clearly suggested by their resemblance in size and shape to sardines.  They are eaten fresh, fried, and when properly cooked are excellent, but they are not successfully pickled.  Attempts have been made in recent years to prepare them like true sardines, but without much success.  Nevertheless, it would appear not improbable that they were the sardines which we know were prepared here and were even sent to Rome.  Perhaps they were the [fonts deleted] of the Talmud, and the two “small fishes” [Greek fonts deleted] of John 6:19.  A still smaller fish of the same order...

A 1909 Galilee Fishing Description

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