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Ancient City of Magdala Unearthed Near Tiberias, Israel

Magdala
The inside of the first-century AD synagogue at the ancient city of Magdala in Israel — one of only seven synagogues from that era in the country that are extant. The “Magdala Stone” showing a representation of the Temple in Jerusalem was also found there, along with spectacular mosaics. Credit: עמוס גל/CC BY-SA 4.0

The ancient city of Magdala, prominently mentioned in the Bible as the hometown of Jesus Christ’s disciple Mary Magdalene, was uncovered recently in excavations that took place when a retreat complex was constructed outside Tiberias, Israel.

Archaeologists state that what they found there was “one of the most significant finds in the past 50 years.”

The town on the shores of the Galilee, founded in Hellenistic times, was a prosperous, thriving fishing village by the time the Romans invaded the Galilee in 67 AD. At one time it was large enough to have had stone-paved streets and an elaborate first-century synagogue, but the village had tragically fallen into ruin in the centuries after Christ through religious upheavals, military conquests and the vicissitudes of time.

It was only after a Catholic priest from Spain had a vision of opening a religious retreat center on the site of ancient Magdala in 2009 that the ancient town was uncovered, as the earth was excavated for it.

Spectacular mosaics, coins showing Jesus’ teaching found at Magdala

Not realizing the site was nearly on top of the ancient city, construction workers immediately ran into stone walls and passageways that were part of the town’s state-of-the art fish processing facility. With stone-lined tanks that had fresh running water coursing through them, they were once at the heart of the Galilee town’s bustling fish market.

Just finding those walls with their perfectly-designed tanks would have been an archaeological find in and of itself — but when archaeologists began their systematic  excavations, they found a treasure that stunned them in its import.

Quickly unearthing the remains of a first-century synagogue just an incredible 30 cm under the surface, they found coins dating back to between 5 and 63 AD. A coin minted in 29 AD shows an impression of Jesus teaching in the synagogues during his public life, as recorded  in Matthew 4:23 and Mark 1:39 in the New Testament.

They also came upon stunning mosaics showing the Greco-Roman influence in the area during the Herodian period. A small mosaiced room on the southern side of the synagogue was likely where the Torah scrolls were stored, according to the archaeologists, as reported on magdala.org.

In the center of the synagogue stood the unique Magdala Stone, an elaborately-carved stone which shows what experts believe is the earliest carved representation of the Great Temple in Jerusalem — which was destroyed in the year 70 AD by the Roman army — outside of the city.

Ancient Magdala
Ancient Magdala in Israel was uncovered recently after a priest decided to build a retreat center. The area had been completely abandoned and no sign of the ancient town was visible until the project was begun. Credit: AVRAM GRAICER /CC BY-SA 3.0

Depicting a menorah that is thought to have been that which graced the Temple before it was destroyed, the site is now seen as one of the most significant in the whole country because the Magadala stone represents the oldest known sculpture of a menorah.

Only an estimated ten percent of the entire ancient town has been uncovered to this point, with archaeologists working just to the side of the retreat center. Visitors to the center can look down upon the ancient streets of the town and into the stone streets and passageways as well as the remains of its once-grand synagogue.

In the Babylonian Talmud the town was known as Magdala Nunayya (Aramaic: מגדלא נוניה, meaning “Tower of the Fishes”), which some historical geographers think may refer to its large fish processing areas.

Magdala stone ancient city israel
The “Magdala Stone” found in the ancient city of Magdala showing the menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. The ancient city and the synagogue where the stone was found were uncovered recently outside the city of Tiberias, Israel. Credit: Hanay /CC BY-SA 3.0

The modern Israeli municipality of Migdal, founded in 1910, which lies approximately 6 km (3.72 miles) from Tiberias, has now expanded into the area of the former village.

Preliminary archaeological excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted at the site in 2006 found that the settlement began during the Hellenistic period (between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC) and ended during the late Roman period (3rd century AD).

The Migdal Synagogue is the oldest synagogue found in the Galilee, and one of the only synagogues from that period found in the entire country, as of the time of the excavation.

Synagogue Magdala ancient city israel
Mosaics from the synagogue at the ancient city of Magdala, Israel, which as constructed in the first century AD. Credit: Magdala.org

Empress Helena built church in Magdala in fourth century AD

A collapsed layer from the Second Temple period supported the narrative presented by the Roman Jewish historical Josephus regarding the Roman destruction of Magdala during the Great Revolt (66 –73 AD). Excavations show that after the destruction, during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the city moved slightly to the north.

Magdala was considered to be the most important city on the western bank of the Sea of Galilee, contributing huge amounts of taxes to Rome, until the construction of the larger nearby city of Tiberias by Herod Antipas.

Recognition of Magdala as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene appears in texts dating back to the 6th century AD; in the 8th and 10th centuries, Christian sources tell of a church in the village that was also Mary Magdalene’s house, where Jesus is said to have exorcised her of demons.

The anonymous author of the “Life of Constantine” attributes the building of the church to Empress Helena in the 4th century AD, at the exact location where she found Mary Magdalene’s house.

In the year 1283, Burchard of Mount Sion records having entered the house of Mary Magdalene in the village, and about ten years later, Ricoldus of Montecroce noted his joy at having found the church and house still standing.

Most Christian scholars assume that Mary Magdalene was indeed from Magdala Nunayya    and that this is also where Jesus landed on the occasion recorded by Matthew and Mark.

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