At the newly opened antiquities site of Magdala, Roman-era Jewish life comes alive so vividly that visitors don’t even have to wait for the excavations to be completed to sense it at every turn. Here, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene, a few kilometers north of Tiberias, you’ll set foot in one of the most ancient synagogues in the world, and see the beautiful mosaic floor of a villa, the remains of a first-century fishing quarter, a market where live fish were once raised, and a small convention center with a big dream.
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The location of ancient Magdala has long been known, and excavations were first carried out on the Sea of Galilee shore in the early 20th century the Franciscan Custodia Terra Sancta, which cares for Catholic sacred sites in the Holy Land. Thereafter, they lay dormant until the modern excavations started in 2002 by the Israel Antiquities Authority currently led by Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar in collaboration with Marcela Zapata, from the Anáhuac University of southern Mexico City, whose volunteers you can meet and watch at work on weekday mornings at the site.
The highlight of the visit is the 11 x 11 meter synagogue, the only one in Galilee that can be dated to the time of the Second Temple. You can sit on a stone bench where the Magdalene herself may have sat, and where she may have first heard Jesus teach. Father John Solana, director of the Magdala Center, reminds visitors that at the time this synagogue was in use - up to around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple - Judaism and Christianity had not yet gone their separate ways. He says he would like to see the synagogue, and the nearby convention center, become the site of renewed dialogue between the two faiths about “that which unites us, instead of that which divides us.”
A beautiful rosette mosaic was discovered in a corridor flanking the synagogue on the east – the earliest such decoration ever found associated with a synagogue. The most exciting find is so precious that the original has been taken for safekeeping in the Israel Antiquities Authorities storerooms. But a replica is on view at the site. It is a rectangular stone on four feet that experts deduce was a table for reading Torah in the synagogue. It was adorned in relief on four sides, including, most notably, a seven-branched candelabrum. This is the first candelabrum uncovered outside of Jerusalem, carved by an artist who may have seen it in person. Architectural elements such an arcade and gate are believed to represent the Temple itself.
Another fascinating area to see is the fishermen’s quarter, so named because of the finds of equipment such as needles to repair nets and fishhooks in use at the time.
Two mikvehs, or ritual baths were also discovered. Unlike other such baths, this one was fed directly by “living water” – fresh flowing water required by Jewish law, also the earliest of this type ever found. A pier, Roman road, storehouses, and a market with artificial ponds for the sale of live fish round out an amazing picture of first-century life.
Magdala is open to visitors daily from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., with guided visits usually available. There is no entrance fee, but donations are welcome. Phone/Fax: 04-6209900; 057-2261469.