Magdala on the Kineret

Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.
Archaeologist Arfan Najar at Migdal synagogue. The strange carved stone is behind him.

Father Juan Solana was impatient. He had started a project to build a center for religious tourism at Migdal (Magdala).  The Legionaries of Christ had bought the land by the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and received approvals from national and local authorities. All they needed was certification from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that nothing of historic value would be disturbed.

“When will you finish?” he asked Arfan Najar, one of the supervising archaeologists sent by the IAA in 2009.

“Two, three months,” replied Arfan. They would dig a couple trenches, find nothing significant, and leave.

Arfan chuckled as he related that story. He was standing in the middle of the archaeological excavation at Migdal where he is still working, seven years later. ”Father Juan keeps saying, ‘Please finish. Please finish.’”

Everyone in my class from Pardes on life in the Second Temple Times laughed. We were at Migdal this week to learn about the Great Revolt (66- 70 C.E.) which ended the Second Temple Period. We’ve heard a similar story in several other places. In order to construct something new in Israel, the builder must obtain a permit from the IAA. Thinking there is nothing interesting at the site, the IAA sends a relatively unknown archaeologist to conduct a salvage dig. A salvage dig, the archaeologist reassures the builder, doesn’t take too long. He digs for two months, maybe three. Then he writes his report that there’s nothing important at the site, and the permit is issued.

But once in a while the archaeologist finds something interesting, something of historical significance and the dig continues for years. Some of the most important recent archaeological finds have come out of salvage digs. These include findings from the Givati parking lot and the Kishle in Jerusalem. That’s what happened at Migdal.

Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. Note the menorah in the middle and the oil jugs to each side of it
Replica of the Magdala stone, on display at the Migdal synagogue. The menorah with oil jugs to each side of it can be seen on the end. The original stone is in the IAA storehouse.

Arfan and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the other supervising archaeologist, and their team started digging a trench. They dug through the earth about a foot and a half and found a large rectangular stone. As they brushed the dirt from the stone, they became more and more excited. It is about the size of a large foot stool, and has short legs. The four sides and the top are intricately carved with incised religious symbols from the Second Temple era.

Within two months the archaeologists had unearthed parts of walls of what looked to be a decent sized building. The salvage dig was extended, and then became a full-fledged archaeological dig sponsored by Anahuac University of Mexico, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the IAA.

The building they unearthed is a synagogue, dating from the first century. Because a few coins were discovered in the foundation, the archaeologists know that the building was built about 30 years BCE. In 67 CE, when the Romans conquered Magdala during the Great Revolt, they destroyed the whole city. However, this building was not buried in rubble of its upper layers. Here, at the edge of the city, no destruction layer was found. The foundations, lower walls, mosaic floor, and the mysterious stone remained intact under a layer of earth for almost two thousand years.

Magdala had been built by the Romans as an administrative and commercial center for the whole Galil and served that purpose for years. The Temple in Jerusalem still stood; it was the religious center for the country. Very few synagogues existed at the time—there was no need. In 2009, when Najar and Gorni started digging, only six synagogues had been found in the whole country dating from the Second Temple period, all in the south. The only evidence of synagogues in the north came from the Christian Bible, in the stories of Jesus’ preaching. Magdala was the first Galilean synagogue to be discovered.

Like the other synagogues of the time, it is built with stone benches on its perimeter, and faces Jerusalem. The floor is decorated with a black and white mosaic in a geometric design, which reflects the great wealth of the community. Since all the pieces of the support columns have been found, the archaeologists know the ceiling was about three meters high. The main room was large enough to hold 120 people. Two small rooms on the southern side had shelves and were most likely to have held Torah scrolls.

Herod, the great builder of Caesaria, Masada, Herodyon, and the Temple, was also a great despot. He managed to hold on to the Roman province of Judea and keep everything under control. The Judean kings who came after him were not so strong, and became puppets of Rome. The real power was held by the Roman procurators, who tried to extract ever more taxes from the country. The Jews were not going to tolerate so much Roman interference and they rebelled. The Great Revolt of the Jews started in the Galil and spread south to Jerusalem.

Magdala is built on the flat land between the Kinneret and the cliffs of Arbel, just north of Tiberius. It had no natural defenses. Joseph ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the Jewish commander of the Galilee. He ordered a wall be built around the city. The Jews of the city realized it would  fall to the Romans. They did not want the synagogue desecrated so they decided to carefully dismantle it. The stones of the upper walls and the top two-thirds of the columns that supported the roof were used to build the defensive wall. The bottom third of the walls and the furnishings, including the Stone, were then covered by a thick layer of earth. They were holy and would not be subject to destruction—the layer of earth would protect them.

And protect them it did, until two thousand years later an Arab and a Jewish archaeologist dug and swept it away.

Magdala is a town of significance to Christians because of its association with the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala) may even have been the wife of Jesus, according to a minority interpretation of scripture. This association is what brought Father Solana here. He wanted to build a hotel to house religious pilgrims and a spiritual center that would be open to all faiths. The spiritual center, called Duc in Altum, has already been built close to the Western shore of the Kinneret.

The synagogue was found where the hotel was supposed to be built. After being redesigned, construction has finally started. As Arjan told us about the excavation, he occasionally had to stop speaking for a moment or two because he could not be heard over the construction noise. The new design incorporates the synagogue and other elements of the ancient city into the hotel. One wall of the lobby will be glass, offering hotel guests a close view of the ancient synagogue. A wing of the hotel is built right up to the eastern side of the synagogue.

Up to now it has been thought that early synagogues played a different role than today’s synagogues do. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset, House of Gathering. People came here to meet friends, study Torah, and attend community meetings. Communication with God was through sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue only became a Beit Tefila, a House of Prayer, after the destruction of the Temple, when people had to find a new way of communicating with God.

Archaeologist Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial's vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch
Arfan Najar and the Magdala stone (replica). Note the rosette on top, which may refer to Ezekial’s vision of the heavenly chariot. Photo courtesy of Renee Hirsch

The Magdala stone may have served as a resting place for scrolls, such as a Torah scroll. It is the right height for a seated person to read. Or perhaps it was a reminder of the Temple, designed to give the building an aura of holiness. Many of the incised designs—the menorah, the table, the oil jugs, the arches—are fixtures or architectural elements of the Temple. The rosette design on the top of the stone might be a reminder of the heavenly chariot, as described by Ezekiel. One thing is sure—it was found in the oldest synagogue ever discovered (so far).

One feature that always helps identify a building as a synagogue is a nearby mikve. So it was natural for someone in my class to ask Arjan where the mikve was. He said that four mikves had been found in the town. Then he turned and pointed to his right. “But we have here the Sea of Galilee,” he said with a smile, “the biggest mikve of all!”

For many years the town of Migdal, ancient Magdala, was of interest only to Christian pilgrims. Thanks to a Catholic priest’s desire to build a spiritual center, and the work of both a Muslim and a Jewish archaeologist, one of the earliest synagogues has been discovered. As more artifacts of life in first century Galilee are uncovered, it may well become a site of interest to more Jews as well.

Location of Migdal:

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