By Shira a Touring Israel guide
One cold winter morning I drove over to Magdala Center by the Sea of Galilee, to finally learn about the exciting findings that were excavated there. I’ve been hearing about the place for years, but since it only opened for visitors on May 2014, I was itching to find out what the fuss was about. I brought my camera and many, many clothing items, and set out to explore Magdala, led by one of the archaeologists who’ve been digging there and a nice staff member named Jennifer.
Magdala, home of Jesus’ follower Marie Magdalene, was a Jewish town from the Hellenistic period until its destruction in 68CE, during the Great Jewish Rebellion. The famous historian Josephus Flavious wrote that its people participated in the rebellion, that he himself helped prepare the town by building a defensive wall, and that the Romans chased its defenders into the Sea of Galilee and dyed the water red with their blood.
The story began anew in 2006 with father John, a Catholic priest from Mexico, buying this land to build a pilgrim hotel and restaurant. Among all the necessary permits, there was one important signature needed from the Authority of Antiquities. An expert showed up to dig around, just for formality’s sake, but what he discovered was beyond anything he could have imagined. The more he excavated, the more excited father John became, until he finally changed the plans and started channeling the donations for the hotel into exploring this new historical site.
What they found was one of the only synagogues in existence, dating back to the time when the second temple was still standing.
- Magdala’s synagogue
At first the archaeologists didn’t dare make such assumptions, but after comparing the attributes of the other known synagogues from that time period with what was found here, they became certain. Before the temple was destroyed, synagogues were used as a place of gathering and Torah reading. There was no prayer and no special focus towards Jerusalem, which back then was still in one piece. The heart of the building was its center, the community’s center, and thus the benches all faced the middle of the room.
Also in the middle they found a unique stone:
- The one of a kind reading stone of Magdala’s synagogue
This stone was another riddle, since nothing like it has ever been discovered before. Researchers believe it was used as base for a removable wooden table, upon which the Torah scrolls were laid during public readings. During town gatherings the wooden contraption would be stowed away so as not to take up space. The stone’s decorations resemble the temple – a Roman style building, with a three-dimensional look into the Holy of Holies containing the menorah, and the alter which stood in the courtyard.
Nearby awaited another mystery – a strange wall made of pillars, benches and capitals, all taken from the synagogue:
- Wall blocking the road, made of stones removed from the synagogue
Even stranger – the wall was erected right across a main road through town, and the soil which the synagogue was buried under seemed different than the rest of the site, less rocky. This all makes perfect sense though, once you remember Josephus Flavious’ story: this was the wall he had built to defend the town against the Romans! They needed building materials in a hurry so they took what they needed from the synagogue, and blocked the road and the store fronts along that whole line. The synagogue was then intentionally buried by the town’s people, to await better times, after the fighting will have died down. I wonder if they ever imagined that it would lie hidden for almost two millennia, only to be rediscovered by accident under the proposed site of a hotel.
Magdala Center is a fascinating place with lots to see – apart from the synagogue and the incredible story of its discovery and research, there are also an ancient port, neighborhoods of plain fishermen and rich folk, sophisticated mikveh systems (Jewish ritual baths) and the modern additions to the site – a little gospel farm and the beautiful Duc In Altum church, all of which can be seen in the following photo gallery.
Magdala Center offers a great story for both Jews and Christians, and definitely makes a good addition to any visit to the region.
Shira is a guide for Touring Israel. Read more about her here.
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