Renew This Town’s Life – As in Days of Old by Natalie Wood,
a contributor to Live Encounters since 2011.
No mountains, but soft, green-topped undulating hills. No grapes, but ancient trees still producing the finest ‘Roman’ olive oil.
And as our coach rolled past gentle fields of tropical fruits, citrus orchards and the pretty streams of the Beit Hakerem Valley in Lower Galilee, so began a remarkable trip back in time to the early years of the first century CE and the ancient ruin of Migdal – the town associated with the Christian saint, Mary Magdalene.
The modern chapters of the story related by our guide, Nurit Greenberg opened in 2004 when Father Juan Solana of the Mexico-based Order of Legionaries of Christ answered a spiritual call to build a pilgrim centre with a church and hotel where the faithful may enrich their lives.
Twelve months later he had bought 30 dunams (about 7.5 acres) of land on the site of ancient Migdal and by 2009, he had presented his plans to the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose archaeologists, Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar were sent to investigate the site before building permission could be granted.
Then most exceptionally, the pair’s intended three-month exploratory dig started to stretch as they found, first a narrow channel directing the run-off water from the nearby Mount Arbel stream into the Kinneret and then watched, amazed, as the remains of the first century city of Magdala gradually emerged, complete with evidence of fine housing, a priests’ quarter and a working synagogue that must have functioned fully at the same time as the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem.
As we wondered round the grounds, Ms Greenberg elaborated on some of the secrets that the ongoing archaeological excavations continue to reveal. The chief discoveries, she said, have included a coin dated at 29 CE – now considered to be the most likely year of Jesus’s crucifixion – firm evidence that this was the period when Jesus preached and chose his disciples from among the local fishermen. This is also where he may have first met Mary Magdalene (‘Miriam from Magdala’) who lived in the town and was said to be the ‘apostle to the apostles’.
The implications of this revealed history are enormous for Jewish-Christian relations as it proves Jesus and his disciples were Galilean Jews who practised Judaism and Ms Greenberg several times urged us visitors to act as ‘ambassadors’ for the Jewish origins of the site.
Recent excavations have so far exposed only one layer of the town although it is believed to have been established during the Hellenistic period (circa third or fourth centuries BCE).
This initial layer has also unearthed a wealthy suburb of spacious residences founded during the first century BCE away from the smell of the landed fish by which the town earned its living. The fish were salted to preserve them and then sold on elsewhere in the area. That the local inhabitants were wealthy is demonstrated amply by the costly mosaic floors and plasterwork on the walls that survive.
This elegant quarter, destroyed in September 67 CE by the Roman Army following the Jewish Revolt against their Roman occupiers, was never resettled, but instead became covered slowly and inexorably by 1,942 years of neglect until the events of 2009 kick-started its long road to restoration.
The synagogue remains are situated near the market and close to the Arbel stream which provided the water for the pools in which the landed fish were kept before salting. Market days were traditionally Monday and Thursday and they became the days, along with the Sabbath, when the Torah was read in public.
Until the synagogue at Magdala – one of two ‘found’ synagogues in Galilee – was unearthed, archaeologists knew only of six others dating from the time when the Second Temple stood. It is likely that they were originally community centres rather than prayer houses as even the meaning of the Modern Hebrew term ‘Beit Knesset’ is similar and translates as ‘House of Assembly’.
Because of this, no special emphasis was placed on situating the Ark in the Jerusalem-facing wall of synagogues while the Temple stood. To the common people of Migdal, the synagogue would have appeared sumptuous with its plastered walls, imitation marble frescoes and costly mosaic flooring. We can therefore but imagine their horror when during the Jewish Revolt against the Romans, the ornate building was dismantled stone by stone and the pieces used to block the entrances to the city. Pious Jews believed that God would grant them victory against the pagan Romans after which the synagogue would be rebuilt. But this was not to be.
But of particular fascination to historians, theologians and the devout laity alike is that the recovered artefacts include a slab of white limestone which was decorated with Jewish symbols including a depiction of the menorah (seven branched candelabrum) which stood in the Temple. It is believed that this was the lectern used in the reading of the Torah. A replica has been placed on-site while the original has been removed to the security of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Also uncovered were two mikva’ot (ritual immersion pools), which also surprised scholars as previously it was believed that the Kinneret had been used for Jewish ritual immersion.
Today, only a few yards from the archaeological site stands the magnificent modern church of Duc in Altum (‘Launch into the Deep’) which is named after a passage in the Gospel of St Luke telling the story of Jesus standing on the lake shore and preaching to a large crowd. The story relates how he asked Simon (later St Peter) to launch his boat and throw his nets into the water although he had just returned empty-handed from an over-night fishing trip. The nets came up so full of fish that they nearly sank the boat!
The alignment of the present church is precisely that of the town’s quayside in ancient times, since when the lake has shrunk markedly. The original main road of the town has been preserved and one enters the church along it. The ancient roadway remains inside and stone seats are arranged in a circle.
But it is the scene on the upper floor that provides a breathtaking, heart-stopping moment for all. Reaching it, one sees a massive plate glass window overlooking the Kinneret. In the centre stands an altar placed in a replica boat hewn from Cedar of Lebanon. This was modelled on the ancient vessel found at nearby Kibbutz Ginosar.
The whole stands on an Italian marble base with green-coloured ‘streams’ representing the boat’s wake while the mast symbolises the cross and its sails serve as the shroud in which Jesus’s body was wrapped. Beyond the plate glass window is a pool filled with water from the Sea of Galilee and as a low winter sun streams through the glass, the effect is almost overpowering.
As the Christian community has renewed its connection to the area with this superlative place of worship, I like to think that in the years ahead, appropriate facilities will be made available on the fully excavated site for Jewish visitors to reflect on its huge significance for them.
© Natalie Wood