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Mary Magdalene’s Synagogue Discovered? (2010)

“I found myself in the middle of a family vacation in Cyprus jumping with excitement from seeing the image of the relief on my cell-phone screen” Dina said, with a big smile just at the memory of this moment.

Few people will get excited from seeing an image of an ancient relief on their cell-phone, but Dina had a good reason to rejoice. The image she received was a of a one-of-a-kind stone relief  depicting a menorah which her colleague, Arfan Najar, found on a floor of a first century CE synagogue at the site of Magdala. Such a find would be a dream for many archaeologists. For Dina and Arfan this dream became true.

Magadala was a wealthy Jewish town on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee in Roman times. It’s Greek name, “Tarichaea”, indicates that it was known for its fish.

Yet in the year 66 CE the Jews of the province revolted against the Romans, and eventually Magdala was destroyed. Later the site was sparsely inhabited.

Magdala is also mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus knew Magdala and may have visited the city, although it is not stated in the Gospels. But the Gospels do record a women of Magdala as one of the most faithful followers of Jesus – Mary Magdalene (=Mary from Magdala).

Christian sources record a chapel built over the house of Mary Magdalene in Byzantine times (4th-7thcentury), yet later sources describe how the chapel was turned into a stable by the local Bedouin. Over the centuries debris covered the whole city, and only it’s name was preserved by the locals, who called the area “Majdal”.

In the early 20th century the Fransciscans purchased most of the plot of ancient Magdala, and in 1970-1971, the Franciscan archaeologist Corbo excavated parts of it. Later the Franciscans fenced the site, and closed it for visits.

But in 2005 The Pontifical Institute “Notre Dam in Jerusalem” announced on the ambitious plan to re-open and develop the site of Magdala. The “Magdala Center” project is aiming to expose more of the ancient site, and combine the finds with a complex that will include a hotel, a congress hall, a multimedia center, a culture center for women, and more. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011.

On July 2009 a team of the IAA (=Israel Antiquities Authority) began surveying the site and conducting some trial excavations. The heads of the team, Dina Avshalom-Gorni, and Arfan Najar hoped to find more of the city, but could not imagine hat in just two weeks, and only 10 cm below the surface, they will expose a first century CE synagogue.

An aerial view of the Synagogue discovered in Magdala

An aerial view of the Synagogue discovered in Magdala. © Nikki Davidov. Courtesy of the IAA.

“When I first found a bench built against a wall that was dated to the first century CE, I tossed in my mind the thought that this could be a synagogue. But this was more of wishful thinking. Roman period synagogues are usually found with benches along there walls, as at Capernaum, but other kinds of buildings can also have this feature. The building was also at the north western edge of the city, while one would expect a synagogue to be in a more central location.”

But as Dina and Arfan continued the excavation their wishful thinking turned into a fact. The other walls had benches built against to them as well, and the size of the building left no question that this was indeed an ancient synagogue.  In the middle of the synagogue they also found a slab of stone whose top was decorated with a relief depicting a rosette between to palm trees.

At that stage Dina left for a short family vacation that was planned months in advance. “We had not yet exposed the whole floor, but I did not want to disappoint my family who were waiting for this vacation”.

While she was away Arfan and the excavating team continued to expose the decorated stone and the rest of the floor. When cleaning one of its sides, Arfan was amazed to find a relief depicting a seven branch candelabra (a Menorah). Such a candelabra was placed in the contemporary temple in Jerusalem. Excited Arfan figured the best way to inform his colleague on this discovery was to send her an image using the camera of his cell-phone.

When Dina returned they completed exposing of the decorated stone. The other sides were also decorated, mostly with images of palm trees.

It seems that this decorated stone was a base for a stand on which the Torah may have been read. “There are no parallels to this stone, and so I am still trying to figure out its exact function” Dina concluded.

When the discovery was announced, it attracted the attention of world media. Many people have asked visit the place, the IAA want to complete the dig first.

Archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni cleaning the decorated stone slab found at the ancient synagogue in Magdala

Archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni cleaning the decorated stone slab found at the ancient synagogue in Magdala. On the side of the stone a one-of-a-kind relief depicting a seven-branched candelabra (a Menorah) can be seen. Such a candelabra was placed in the contemporary temple in Jerusalem. © Yoli Schwartz. Courtesy of the IAA.

“Is it possible that Mary Magdalene attended this Synagogue?” I asked Dina before leaving.

She smiled. “That is something I cannot prove, but it is indeed a possibility.”  “In fact” she added, “you cannot over rule the possibility that Jesus himself attended this synagogue, at least once. After all he did travel and preach in this area”.

“So perhaps this is where Mary and Jesus first met??”, I commented.

“Who knows” Dina smiled again, “these types of questions cannot be answered by archaeological finds”.

Shalom.

A close view of the decorated stone discovered at the synagogue of ancient Magdala

A close view of the decorated stone discovered at the synagogue of ancient Magdala. The full meaning of all the symbols, as well as the function of the stone remains somewhat unclear, but the image of the seven-branched candelabra (menorah) is clear, and is based on the Menorah placed in the contemporary Jewish temple in Jerusalem. © Nikki Davidov. Courtesy of the IAA.