Magdala or Taricheae (in Greek) is located on the north-west coast of the Sea of Galilee between Capernaum and Tiberias. Mary Magdalene is considered to be from Magdala. In the days of Jesus this was a large Jewish port settlement. Magdala was an Arab village until ’48. Near it a modern moshava or agricultural settlement was established in 1910 by Russian immigrants.
Magdala is mentioned in Matt 15.39 (KJV) in which Jesus sailed to Magdala in a boat, and is an Aramaic name. However, there is also a different name in the NT manuscripts, ‘Magadan’ which is followed by recent versions of the Bible (see NIV). The parallel passage in Mark (8.10) mentions an altogether different village – ‘Dalmanutha’.
History and Archaeology:
First century AD synagogue
This is a private site which started in 2009 as a visitor’s center. Father Juan Solana of the Legionnaires of Jesus wanted to add a guest house here, to compare with Notre Dame in Jerusalem. Before they could begin building, the Israel Antiquities Authority needed to check the site, and in 2009 the unique and important Second Temple period synagogue was discovered on the northern side of the large Jewish town. This is one of only seven synagogues in the world that date from the period when Herod’s Temple was still standing. It is also the oldest synagogue found and excavated in the Galilee to date.
In the middle of the synagogue a stone was discovered depicting a seven-branch menorah. It is very significant because it is the earliest menorah discovered during the second temple period. Researchers believe that the artist who engraved the menorah copied it from the actual menorah of the Jerusalem Temple. (Israel Antiquities Authority). Remains of the 2,000 year-old town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee were also discovered.
The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Magdala twice (The Life of Josephus Flavius 59, 72). Josephus fell off his horse and was injured. He was transported from Capernaum to Magdala upon the doctors’ orders.
There was a fish industry here as can be noted by the port and various installations with fish being caught and then exported. The Greek name of the town ‘Taricheae’ means “a place where fish were pickled.” So both the Hebrew and the Greek names describe two ways of conserving fish.. Because of the hot climate fish did not stay fresh long in the Galilee and needed to be preserved in order to be transported. In the Talmud, they mention Migdal Nuniya which means the tower of fish. Perhaps this had a tower which stood guard over the road as it was on the important road called the Via Maris. Or, perhaps the ‘tower’ refers to a wooden structure in which fish were air-dried.
The original excavations revealed the mosaic with the boat that served came to serve as an example of the boats of that time period. The town originally began in the 4th-3rd century BCE as a pagan town. When the Hasmoneans conquered here in 104 BCE, they converted these pagans. Until Herod Antipas ruled here in 20 CE, this was the largest town on the western side of the Sea of Galilee or Kineret. Josephus fortified this city in 66CE and in 67CE, Rome conquered and destroyed it. Josephus claimed that those who partook in the marine battle were radicals from Tiberias. After that, Magdala shrunk in size.
Something very special about the site is that there are no layers on top of the 1st century ruins, which made it very easy to excavate. The site moved further to the south in later periods.
The Encounter room located downstairs resembles an ancient synagogue. There are 6 columns and benches all around. There is an important and beautiful picture of a woman’s hand reaching to a “cloak”. This represents the story of Luke about the woman with the issue of blood. Because of this she was ritually unclean. She reached out to Jesus and touched his cloak. Jesus felt power coming out from him and asked who touched him. The woman confessed her problem and that it had been her. His reply to her was “your faith has healed you”. The cloak could be understood to be the tallit with the four corners called tzitzit that would have been worn by Jewish men as commanded in scripture. The floor of the room uses original stones from the first century road.
Upstairs, there are four chapels related to the subject of transformation of our lives by and for Jesus. Each has a depiction of a different story from the New Testament. There is also an Atrium or entrance area dedicated to women. There is a saying outside by Pope Paul about the dignity of women.
The main chapel has a replica of a boat as the altar, as boats were so important in the ministry of Jesus, who also taught from boats. This room is located on top of the 1st century port. In the past the water level was much higher. On the boat is a mast and shroud. These represent the cross and resurrection. On the boat is a basket representing the holy of holies which had loaves of bread inside, called the show bread. The place where the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place is across the water from here.
Outside of this room is the continuation of the ancient road and where the port would have been. It continues until the property of the Franciscans. There were shops here. A bronze jar and a bronze shovel from the Second Temple period were uncovered in this area. The north part of town was where the ordinary people lived. The houses had thin walls and un-hewn stones. Across the street was where the wealthy people lived in villas. Their homes were large. The walls of the homes were thick, constructed from hewn stones. This shows the different social economic status within the same town.
One of the mansions is called the “house of dice”. This is because dice were discovered there. It probably had a second floor and it was a well made house. The villas each had 2 ritual baths/ mikvaot and these homes were from the 1st century. Interestingly, the reason for them is unknown although many suggestions are proposed.
The source of the water for the mikvaot is an underground spring and an underground aquifer. The spring is still working as there is water here today. Unusually there is no plaster on the mikvah because they wanted the mikvah to absorb the water from underground. This is the only such example of this particular mikvah from this time period. Excess water flowed into the sea. This is the location where the 8 petal rosette was discovered.
The Magdala Stone:
The stone seen outside and inside the synagogue is a replica and the original is in the Israel Museum. The stone is a three dimensional rectangle shape on short legs. The stone represents the Temple. Perhaps it was used to holding the Torah scroll for someone to read from it. On the front side etched into the stone is a menorah on a triangular tripod with two amphorae, (two handled jars used for storage). The menorah is standing on a square which represents the incense altar. Perhaps the amphorae were used to hold oil or one was for water for washing. On the second side are wheels. Maybe they represented chariot of fire or the cherubim.
On top of the stones is a rosette that Rina Tagum has stated represents the curtain that separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies. Just as the curtain in the Temple had flowers on it, here too there is a rosette and palm tree on either side.
All this demonstrates that the people of the Galilee were very attached to the Temple. Maybe this was also meant for those who were unable to go to Jerusalem for the 3 holidays.
The New Testament speaks about Jesus teaching in all the synagogues of the Galilee. This leads to the conclusion that there must have been more that have not been uncovered yet.
There had been frescoes around the columns and walls in the colors red, pink and yellow. There are two small rooms with frescoes on the wall, mosaics on the floor and shelves. It has been suggested that these were where the Torah scrolls were kept.
The earliest building that here was dated to 5-9 CE and the mosaics were dated to 40 CE
The market was just south of the synagogue and many shops were discovered here. They had fish ponds here and stairs led down to underground water pools. Fish were caught and they were placed in fish pools until people came to buy them.
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