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12. Magdala: Home of Mary Magdalene

About 4.5 km north of Tiberias, at the junction with a road coming down from Nazareth, are the remains of the Arab village called “Majdala”. This village was settled by Egyptian farmers in the 19th century and was abandoned in 1948, but its name preserves the ancient name of the site – Magdala.

General view of the excavation site of Magdala

General view of the excavation site of Magdala. Since the site is closed to the public, the only way to photograph it is through the fence. photo © Danny Herman

Ancient Magdala is famous in Christian tradition for being the city from which Mary “Magdalene” came. Mary Magdalene is mentioned for the first time in Luke 8:1-2 as a woman “from whom seven demons had come out”. Apparently she was a very close follower of Jesus: She is one of the few persons mentioned by name as a witness to his crucifixion (Mat. 26:55; Mark 15:41); According to the gospel of John she was the only witness to see his tomb empty, and tell Peter about it (John 20:1-2); and according to the same gospel she was also the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus, though at first she did not recognize him (John 20:14-17). The Apocryphal work “Acts of Phillip” emphasizes her close and even intimate relationship with Jesus, and many are familiar with the novel “Da Vinci Code” in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene supposedly bore mutual children. On the other hand Christian tradition demonized her character and labeled her as a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene as depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 16th century

Mary Magdalene as depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 16th century. Christian theology and art demonized her caricature, and often she is depicted in a soliciting gesture.

The city of Magdala (‘Tower’ in Aramaic) had a few more names. In Mat. 15:39 the city is spelled “Magadan” and in Mark 8:10 – “Dalmanutha”. The Talmud calls the city “Migdal Nunya” (‘Tower of fishes’ in Aramaic), and Josephus provides an additional name – “Tarichaea”, Greek for ‘Salted fish’. Josephus also provides some details about the city: its population was 40,000 (perhaps an exaggeration), it had 230 vessels, and even a hippodrome. Josephus described how he fortified the city during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans (66-70 AD), yet the city was taken by the Romans after a fierce battle, which included even a naval combat.

During the late Roman period one of the 24 Jewish priestly families who once served in the temple, settled in Magdala. But during the Byzantine period the site became a pilgrimage stop for Christians. Eusebius records that already in the 4th century CE a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene was built at Magdala. This church was documented by Christian pilgrims during the Byzantine and Crusaders periods, but shortly after the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, a pilgrim recorded that the church was converted into a stable. Later pilgrims documented Magdala as in complete ruins.

Between 1971 to 1977 the Franciscans, after purchasing the land of the site, excavated parts of Magdala. The excavations, led by V.C. Corbo, revealed a section of the ancient site where a Byzantine period monastic complex was built over remains from the Roman period. The Roman period remains attest that the city originally had an orthogonal plan, with streets intersecting each other in right degree angles. Between two intersecting streets II and III the Franciscan excavators found a building, more then 7×8 meters, with two rows of pillars supporting its roof, a row of benches along it’s the northern wall, and an entrance from the east. Small finds like pottery shards dated the building to the late Hellenistic period (2nd-1st centuries BCE), and the archaeologists identified it as a Jewish Synagogue from the Roman period. Other scholars have suggested the building is too small, and was really a “spring house”.

Excavations at Magdala in the 1970's exposed a 7x8 meters colonnaded building

Excavations at Magdala in the 1970's exposed a 7x8 meters colonnaded building. While at first it may seem like a Roman period synagogue, it is more likely a decorative building for drawing water from a local spring.

North of the disputed structure a large building, partly decorated with mosaic floors, was identified as a Roman style villa. Another structure nearby was identified as a water tower.

The Byzantine period church that was dedicated to Mary Magdalene is not discovered yet, and will remain the task for future investigation at the site. Although the site and its finds are impressive and important, unfortunately the site is closed to visitors for many years.

South of the site, on the side of the main road, Roman period large stone coffins and carved trenches are remnants of the cemetery of Magdala during the Roman period.

On the other side of the road a domed tomb structure is sometimes misidentified as the tomb of Mary Magdalene. It is really the tomb of a Muslim saint namedMohaamad Ruslan.

A photo of Magdala from 1900

A photo of Magdala from 1900, showing the Muslim tomb in the front. The houses in the back are of the Arab fishermen, but they are built over remains of ancient Magdala.

A photo of the tomb today

A photo of the tomb today. The view of the remains of the excavated area in the back is blocked today by trees. © Danny Herman


for the amazing discovery of a synagogue from the first century in Migdal see here.