Category Archives: Church

Magdala on Sea of Galilee

Magdala Nunayya (Magdala of the fishes) was an important Jewish city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee established during the Hasmonean period, centuries before neighboring Tiberias. In Christian tradition, it is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene and where Jesus went after he fed the five thousand (Mark 8:10).

Q: What do you get when you cross a hotel, a new spiritual center and an archaeological site at the historical location of Magdala/Tarichaea overlooking the Sea of Galilee?

A: The Magdala Center, a new tourist and pilgrim destination.

The original excavations at the site were done by the Franciscan Corbo in the 1970s. Paved streets and a large colonnaded square typical of a Roman city were found, along with buildings with mosaic floors. On the floor of one urban villa an image of a sailing ship, a type of Mediterranean vessel, modified for the lake was found in mosaic. Scholars think that boats like this were used to transport goods between Magdala and the Decapolis on the eastern shore of the lake. The shape of the hull and the additional cutwater (forward curve of the stem of a ship) resembles the features of the boat discovered in the mud near Ginnosar.

In excavations from 2007 carried out by De Luca large portions of the paved Cardo and the Decumanus were uncovered. Underneath these streets were drainage channels which fed numerous wells and fountains, part of the city’s sophisticated water system. In 2008 thermal pools were discovered. The water supply system serves primarily the large thermal complex east of the Cardo and the large Quadriporticus which served as palaestra (rectangular court surrounded by colonnades with adjoining rooms) for the visitors of the thermae. The newly discovered harbour of Magdala includes in situ: massive foundations of a tower with casemate, a Hasmonean wall built of ashlar stones with dressed margins, ramps for recovering ships, a staircase, a large L-shaped basin with breakwater and six mooring stones incorporated in the painted plastered wall – the largest and best preserved harbour on the Sea of Galilee discovered so far. Everywhere in the excavations De Luca encountered damage caused by the First Jewish Revolt in which Magdala played a major role (as recorded by Josephus). Plans are to re-open this site in the near future.

In the most recent excavations by archaeologists Avshalom-Gorni and Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of a salvage dig a building that covers about 120 square meters with simple mosaics covering the floor and frescoes of colored wall panels was found. The building has stone benches along the walls and columns that would have supported the roof and has been identified as a first century synagogue.

Synagogue 1st C at Magdala aerial

from IAA

from IAA

Perhaps the most interesting find is a nearly 3-foot-long limestone block found on the floor in the center of the synagogue elaborately carved on the sides and top. On one side is the first and only pre-70 Galilean depiction of a seven-branched menorah between 2 amphorae and fluted columns (another early menorah is the drawing in plaster found in a mansion in the Herodian quarter in Jerusalem). The precise function of the stone remains uncertain – it may have been used as a table on which Torah scrolls were rolled out and read. Perhaps less impressive but still very interesting is a series of mikva’ot (ritual baths) that have been uncovered that fill from underground springs.

Mikva at Magdala

The excavations have also found the fish market and some pools used for holding and sorting the fish brought in by the fishermen, attesting to the importance of fishing to the economy of Magdala.

In the plans, besides the hotel, a church or Spirituality Center is being built called “Duc in altum” based on the words from Luke 5:4 that Pope John Paul II chose, “Put out into the deep” to say, that with God’s help, anything and everything can be accomplished. The building is in the shape of an octagon which is usual for a martyrium as opposed to the traditional Byzantine basilica (rectangular, central nave with apse, and two or more aisles). Not only the shape is reminiscent of early Orthodox churches but the interior of the main chapel is decorated with paintings of holy figures like in an Orthodox church, in the spirit of ecumenism. The area of the altar has a replica of a wooden boat so that as you sit in the chapel, you face the boat with a view of the lake behind it.

Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, Jesus asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  Luke 5:3

Duc in Altum sanctuary

There are 4 smaller chapels off the main hall, each decorated with beautiful mosaics by artist Maria Jesus Fernández depicting scenes from Jesus’ ministry: the resurrection of  Jairus’ daughter, Jesus calling the disciples, the exorcism of Mary Magdalene and Jesus calming the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Below is an ecumenical chapel where the floor paving stones are from Magdala’s first century market.

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Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

The Church of the Annunciation has a long history. In the middle of the 4th century, a shrine with altar was built in the cave in which Mary had lived. Emperor Constantine commissioned a larger structure when his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land to discover the locations of and commemorate important events in Jesus’ life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem [interesting that Barluzzi worked on all three of these important churches]. It was known to still exist around 570 CE, but was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest.

The second church was built over the ruins of the Byzantine era church during the Crusades, after the conquest of Nazareth by Tancred in 1102 but was never completed. Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in 1187 ended construction of the church. Five Crusader Romanesque capitals carved by stonemasons from northern France were discovered during excavations along with artifacts from the Middle Bronze Age, Israelite period, Herodian-Roman  and Byzantine periods are in the small museum in the Franciscan convent. In 1260, Baybars and his Mamluk army destroyed the church during their attack on Nazareth.

The Franciscans received permission to return to Nazareth in 1620 and constructed a small structure to enclose the holy grotto that is venerated as the house of Mary. In 1730, they received permission to construct a new church, which was enlarged in 1877.

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

Church of Annunciation, Nazareth, 1945

This church stood until 1954 when it was demolished to enable the construction of a new basilica.

In 1924 Ferdinando Diotallevi, the custos, or head of the Franciscan Custody, with the approval of Pope Pius XI began to plan a new basilica to commemorate the Annunciation in Nazareth. Diotallevi intended to entrust the building of the church to Antonio Barluzzi, a young architect who had already proved his abilities and qualifications by building the Church of the Agony (Gethsemane, 1922-24) in Jerusalem and the Church of the Transfiguration on top of Mount Tabor (1919–24) for the Franciscan Custody. Barluzzi was asked to submit his plans for the Church of the Annunciation, but the project was aborted, due to political tensions inside and outside the Custody.

The idea of rebuilding the church emerged again fifteen years later in 1939 when the new custos, Alberto Gori, reappointed Barluzzi to the project. During World War II Barluzzi resided in Italy returning to the Holy Land in 1947. During that time he designed two churches. The first was the incredibly ambitious project of rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The new plan was prepared by Barluzzi and Luigi Marangoni but was never built [sometimes an architect’s best plans are never actualized, check out Louis Kahn and the Hurva synagogue].

Model Church of Holy Sepulcher, Barluzzi

The second was the design for the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth which Barluzzi thought would be his final work in the Holy Land.

Barluzzi designed a church in eclectic style, using contemporary construction technique, reinforced concrete covered mostly by local limestone. The church was a concentric building dominated by a large dome reminiscent of St. Peters in Rome and surrounded by four towers dedicated to the four evangelists. The towers symbolized the voices announcing to the four corners of the world the event of the Incarnation – critics said the building looked too much like a mosque. In the plan, the length of the church was 90 meters, and the height from the ground to the cross on top of the dome was 72 meters, a very large building. Inside, Barluzzi designed a rotunda over the holy grotto and four wings for the requirements of the liturgy. Like his other projects Barluzzi was involved in the smallest details of the inner decoration far beyond the usual level of architectural planning. For each statue he designated a location, character, symbolic meaning, and connection to the main theme of the church. By 1941, Barluzzi had prepared many sketches of the church and a model on scale of 1:100, and his plans were approved by Father Leonardo Bello, the minister general of the Franciscan order.

Barluzzi drawing Annunciation

Model Church of Annunciation, Barluzzi

All the necessary permits were obtained from the State of Israel, and in December 1954, the year designated by the Vatican as the Year of Mary, the cornerstone of the church that corresponded to Barluzzi’s plan was laid in a well-attended ceremony. However, four years later, in 1958, the new Franciscan custos, Alfredo Polidori took the project from Barluzzi.

Barluzzi wrote in his diary: On 3rd February 1958 the Custos of the Holy Land replaced me by the architect Muzio of Milan to build the Nazareth sanctuary. This gave me heart trouble all night long.. I am going back to Rome and I will seek refuge at the Delegation of the Holy Land…

Barluzzi died on December 14, 1960 in a small room at the Delegation of the Holy Land.

The new basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio of Milan, one of the leading architects of the Novecento style who came to Israel for the first time in 1958. Muzio planned the church as a fortress, to contrast the new church with the remains of the earlier  churches – he meant to convey that its fate, unlike that of its predecessors, would be different. The fortified nature of the church is evident in its size and strength, its seclusion from the urban surroundings, and the details of the building, like narrow windows, almost slits. The church dimensions are 44.6 meters long and 27 meters wide, and the dome height is 55 meters, still a large church. The outer walls are covered in light-colored combinations of local stone with modern reliefs and engravings that decorate the southern and western façades. It seems that the church was based on an earlier St. Antonio church that was built by Muzio in Varese, Italy.

Church of Annunciation, Muzio

Muzio actually erected two churches, one on top of the other. The lower church protects the valuable archaeological remains of the Byzantine-era church which are displayed next to the holy grotto, the perimeter of the modern church follows the outer limits of the walls of the Crusader-era church. The upper church is designated for the celebration of the liturgy. The upper church is connected to the monastery by a suspended courtyard that protects the underlying remains of the ancient village of Nazareth from the time of Jesus that was discovered during excavation work in 1955.

Annunciation Church grotto

Inside, the modern style of Muzio’s work manifests itself in the extensive use of exposed reinforced concrete and sharp angles. The stained glass windows are striking.

Annunciation church stained glass

The church is decorated by works of art dedicated to Mary and to the Annunciation that were donated by every nation of the Catholic world. Muzio was not involved in choosing the art. The church was built by the Israeli building firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69 and cost 2 million dollars.

Annunciation church dome

Chuch of Annunciation, Interior

Church of Annunciation, Interior 2


For an excellent in-depth analysis, see Masha Halevi’s article, “The Politics Behind the Construction of the Modern Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth” at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/catholic_historical_review/v096/96.1.halevi.html

Nazareth

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of about 75,000 of whom 69% are Muslim and 30.9% are Christian, mostly Orthodox, but including Maronites, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals and Copts. In the New Testament, the city is described as the childhood home of Jesus, and hence is a center of Christian pilgrimage, with many shrines commemorating biblical events.

Gabriel chuch, Nazareth

The Church of St. Gabriel is located over an underground spring, which according to Eastern Orthodox belief is where the Virgin Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation.

Mary's well, Nazareth

Water from the spring still runs inside the apse of the church; it also feeds the adjacent site of Mary’s Well, located 140 meters away.

In the old city market is the Synagogue church, a Melkite Greek Catholic church at the traditional site of the synagogue where Jesus studied and prayed. This is where one Sabbath morning Jesus delivered his famous sermon (Matthew 13, Mark 6, Luke 4) based on Isaiah 61, where he declared himself the Messiah.

Mount Precipice, Nazareth

This so infuriated the congregation that they wanted to throw him off a nearby cliff. Just outside Nazareth, Mount Precipice is believed to be the site described in Luke 4:29-30 but “he passed through the midst of them and went away.”

St Joseph church

St Joseph’s Church marks the traditional place of Joseph’s carpentry workshop.

Under the Mary of Nazareth International Center, next to the Church of the Annunciation, an archaeological excavation recently conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority has uncovered remains of a dwelling that date to the Early Roman period. According to excavation director Yardenna Alexandre, “The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus”.

Based on solid New Testament scholarship and the most up-to-date archaeology, Nazareth Village brings to life a farm and Galilean village, recreating Nazareth as it was 2,000 years ago, when Jesus lived there.

Church of Annunciation, Muzio

Church of the Annunciation is the largest Catholic church in the Middle East. In Roman Catholic tradition, it marks the site where the Archangel Gabriel announced the future birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-31). The new modern, fortress-like basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio and built by the Israeli construction firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69.

Christian Pilgrim Itinerary (9 days)

If you are interested in experiencing the Holy Land as a Christian pilgrim I am happy to work with you to create a personalized tour. Here is a sample 9 day itinerary with visits to religious and archaeological sites with time for prayer and reflection. We will visit the trinity of cities: Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem and their churches: Annunciation, Nativity and Holy Sepulcher. Click links for more information. I will be sharing more details on Nazareth and Bethlehem in upcoming blog posts.

Day 1 pickup at the airport and drive to Nazareth

Day 2  Nazareth

  • Mary’s Well and Greek Orthodox church
  • Synagogue church
  • Church of the Annunciation
  • St Joseph’s Church
  • Mary of Nazareth International Center
  • Mount Precipice
  • Transfiguration on Mount Tabor
  • dinner in Tiberias overlooking Sea of Galilee

Day 3  Around Sea of Galilee

  • Korazim
  • Jordan river
  • Tabgha: Church of Multiplication; Peter’s Primacy
  • lunch: St. Peter’s fish
  • Capernaum
  • Domus Galilaeae
  • Jesus boat
  • dinner in Rosh Pina with a view

Day 4 Galilee

drive to Jerusalem; Shabbat dinner with my family

Day 5  Bethlehem

Day 6  Jerusalem Old City

  • Mount Zion
    • Dormition Abbey
    • Room of Last Supper
  • Peter in Gallicantu – model of Jerusalem in Byzantine period
  • Gethsemane
  • Church of Agony
  • Tomb of Mary

Day 7

Day 8  Judean desert

Day 9

Bethesda Pool and Church of Santa Anna

Near Lion’s Gate is a large wooden door that gives access to the White Fathers’ compound and one of my favorite sites in Jerusalem’s Old City – Bethesda pools and the Church of Santa Anna.

Mary (mother of Jesus) was born to Anna and Joachim who lived near the Bethesda pools.  Because Jerusalem is on the edge of the Judean desert water has always been crucial for the residents of the city and the first pool was built in the 8th century BCE, when a dam was built across the valley, collecting rain runoff in a reservoir (40×50 meters), known as the Upper Pool. A sluice-gate in the dam allowed the water height to be controlled, and a rock-cut channel brought the water into the city. Around 200 BCE, the channel was enclosed, and a second pool (50×60 meters) was added on the south side of the dam.

Bethesda pool

In the 1st century BC, natural caves to the east of the two pools were turned into small baths, as part of an asclepieion, a healing temple. As it was outside the city walls, scholars think it likely that the Roman garrison of the nearby Antonia Fortress built the site as they would have been able to protect it. According to Christian tradition the site is one of two places in Jerusalem where Jesus performed a miracle, healing a paralytic of 38 years (John 5:1-15).

In the mid 1st century CE, Herod Agrippa built the third wall enclosing the northern area of the city and bringing the asclepieion within the walled city. When Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, he placed a roadway along the dam, and expanded the asclepieion into a large temple to Asclepius and Serapis. In the Byzantine period, 5th century, a large church was built on the dike, requiring support of two rows of arches.

After the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the Byzantine church, destroyed by the Persians in 614 CE, rebuilt by patriarch Modestus and destroyed in 1009 by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim, was rebuilt on a smaller scale. A new Romanesque church, named for Saint Anne was completed in 1138 CE by Arda, widow of Baldwin I, the first Crusader King of Jerusalem, built over the site of a grotto believed by the Crusaders to be the birthplace of Mary. After the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin it was transformed into a school for Islamic jurisprudence. Over time, the buildings fell into ruin. In 1856, the Ottomans, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War gave the site to France. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what we see today is original.

Santa Anna interiorThe three-aisled basilica incorporates cross-vaulted ceilings and columns, clean lines and an unadorned interior. Because of the fine stonework and large volume of the church the acoustics are amazing. The altar is by the French sculptor Philippe Kaeppelin – on the front of the altar are depicted the Nativity, the Descent from the Cross and the Annunciation; on the ends the teaching of Mary by her mother and her presentation in the Temple.

Kaeppelin altar

Crusader Jerusalem

A reader asked me to post something about the Crusaders in Jerusalem. I am happy to and also to lead tours focussing on the Crusader period.

Raymond of Aguilers, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade (1096–1099), relates that on the morning of June 7, 1099, the Crusaders reached the summit of Nebi Samuel, from which they saw Jerusalem for the first time. The elated Crusaders fell to the ground and wept with joy, calling it Mons Gaudi, mount of joy. The same day they reached the walls of Jerusalem.

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph as Crusader

With insufficient troops and supplies and rumor of a Fatimid advance, the Crusaders could not besiege the city for long but had to organize a direct assault.  After about a month they were able to get skilled builders and wood by cannibalizing Genoan ships that had arrived at Jaffa port for siege towers. This enabled the Crusaders to breach the walls in 3 places on July 15th. The Crusaders massacred most of the Muslims and Jews and evicted the remainder leaving Jerusalem almost uninhabited until Christians could be encouraged to settle there. On 22 July, a council was held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that chose Godfrey as the princeps for the newly created Kingdom of Jerusalem which became an important Christian center.

Crusader sites in Jerusalem

In 1160 the Crusaders added a glacis to the tower at the Citadel and dug a moat around it.

The Roman Cardo was subdivided into 3 covered markets: Vegetable or Spice market, Market of Malcuisinat and Covered market – this property was donated to the convent at Santa Anna. Nearby along David St. today, was the poultry market selling eggs, milk, cheese.

The Crusaders built a church in Kidron valley that contained the Tomb to the VIrgin Mary  and Queen Melisende was buried there. Beside it was Gethsemane and a Barluzzi church in 1920s was built on earlier Byzantine and Crusader ruins.

The remains of the Church of Mary of Latina can be seen in part of the German Lutheran Church of Redeemer that was dedicated in 1898 during the German Kaiser’s visit.

Capitals outside German Lutheran churchClose by is the Church of Holy Sepulcher, rebuilt by the Crusaders and dedicated in 1149. The sculpted marble panels on lintels over the two main doors, in Romanesque style, are now in the Rockefeller museum.

Ascension of Jesus Crusader mosaicOn the ceiling of the Catholic Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross (11th station) is a 12th-century medallion of the Ascension of Jesus — the only surviving Crusader mosaic in the building. Small geometric-shaped pieces of marble inlaid in the floor is a style known as Cosmati or Cosmatesque a traditional technique from the Crusader period though it was done when the chapel was renovated in 1937 by Barluzzi.

There are Hospitaler sites in the Muristan and German knights in the Jewish quarter, remains of a hospice, hospital and church, St. Mary of Germans.

Up on the Haram el-Sharif, the Knights Templar, used the Al Dome of AscensionAqsa mosque, called Templum Solomonis by the Crusaders, and the underground arches of Solomon’s stables. The Dome of the Rock functioned as a church, Templum Domini. A short distance to the northwest, is the Dome of the Ascension, which served as its baptistery. The Dome of the Chain to the east was a Christian chapel to St. James.

If you have the chance, visit the Temple Mount Sifting Project to try some hands-on archaeology and take the opportunity to see artifacts like arrowheads, coins and relics from the Crusader period.

At Bethesda Pools is the ruins of a Crusader chapel, Mary of Bethesda, built on the ruins of a much larger Byzantine church from the 5th century named for St. Mary (Church of the Probatica) and the Church of Santa Anna, one of the most exquisite examples of Crusader architecture in the country.

Santa AnnaOn Mount Zion, the German Dormition Abbey was built on the ruins of the Crusader church of St Mary of Mount Zion which includes an upstairs room which can be visited today, the Coenaculum or Room of the Last Supper.

The Crusaders built many buildings which affected the city’s image, adding a Christian flavor to the 450 year old Muslim city and many of these changes can still be seen in the Old City today.

Euthemius, Judean Desert Monastery

The history of the third monastery of Euthemius, which bears his name, illustrates the history of Christian monasticism in the Judean desert. Young monks were drawn to the holy Euthemius and the monastery became the most important and central among the Byzantine monasteries in the 5th century CE.

Northern wall Euthemius

Euthemius came to the Holy Land as a pilgrim in 406 from Armenia and stayed at the laura of Faran, founded by the monk Chariton at Wadi Qelt. A laura is a cluster of caves or cells where monks live in seclusion and meditation. They gathered centrally once a week, generally on Sunday, for prayer. After five years, he and a fellow hermit, Theoktistus, moved to a cave on the cliffs of Nahal Og. With additional monks attracted to Euthemius, the site became the first coenobium in the Judean desert. A coenobium is a communal monastery where the monks live together with a strict daily schedule of work and prayer, a walled complex that consists of living quarters, refectory and church.

Inside Euthemius monasteryTo continue in solitude, Euthemius and a fellow hermit, left the monastery and moved to the ruins of Masada. In 428 CE he returned to the monastery of Theoktistus but preferring solitude went to live in a cave to the west of the monastery off the main Jericho-Jerusalem road. When other monks joined him, it grew into a laura. In 475, after a full life, Euthemius died at the age of 97.  After his death, the laura became a coenobium and a crypt was built in the center of the monastery around the same cave where the monastery had begun and his bones re-interred there. Pilgrims came to visit the monastery to pay their respects to Euthemius and a tradition arose to pour wine down a chute to the crypt which poured over his bones – the wine was collected as a keepsake.

By the end of the fifth century many important monasteries were established, including Mar Saba, Martyrius, Gerasimus and St. George – all of which can be visited on a tour of monasteries in the northern Judean desert, also called the desert of Jerusalem because of its proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Unlike most Christian sites, the monastery was not damaged by the Islamic conquest of 638. However, it was severely damaged in the 659 earthquake – the ruins of the church that we see today are from after the earthquake, the mosaic floor is from the Byzantine period.

Mosaic floorThe monasteries in the Judean desert were frequently attacked during the Islamic period and in 809 the monastery was plundered and destroyed in the 12th century. The main arched gate on the northern wall and the eastern wall and the opus sectile floor in the church are from the Crusader period.

Crusader opus sectileThe other important aspect of the Judean desert monasteries are their water systems, for little rainfall falls in the region and water had to be accumulated or it would be impossible to live there. Four tremendous cisterns were discovered in the monastery. You can enter the largest one (12 meters by 18 meters and 12 meters deep that would hold 3000 cubic meters) which is outside the eastern wall. Channels bring water from runoff to a collecting pool and then to the covered cistern.

Large cistern Euthemius