Category Archives: Mosaics

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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Hisham’s Palace in Jericho

The Umayyads ruled from Damascus but built a number of palace complexes in this area – we have found ruins of their palaces in Jerusalem, at the southern corner of the Western wall and at Khirbet al-Minya, on the Sea of Galilee beside Karei Deshe.

Palace entrance

One of the most impressive sites from the Umayyad period (661-750) is the ruins of Khirbet al-Mafjar (meaning flowing water ruins), popularly known as Hisham’s palace just outside Jericho and I am now authorized to guide tourists there.

Hisham's name on marble, from Hamilton

Hisham’s name on marble, from Hamilton

The palace is identified with Hisham ibn abd el-Malik (ruled 723-743) because of an inscription containing his name, in ink on a marble slab, found at the site by Dmitry Baramki who excavated there under the British between 1934 and 1948. Based on the artwork that decorated the palace, Robert Hamilton, Director of Antiquities under the British, argued that the palace was a residence of al-Walid b. al-Yazid (ruled 743-744), a nephew of Hisham who was famous for his extravagant lifestyle which probably led to his assassination.  Al-Walid II was a hunter, poet and musician, something of a playboy who loved the good life.

Khirbet al-Mafjar planThe site is thought to have been destroyed by the severe earthquake of 749 CE before it was completed, but an analysis of Baramki’s detailed reports of the ceramic record indicates that the occupation continued through the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with a significant phase of occupation between 900–1000.

In walking around the site you will get to view the ruins of the palace, the bath complex, a pavilion and mosque enclosed by a wall; more recently, excavations to the north have uncovered an agricultural estate. The excavations uncovered fine mosaics and elaborate stucco figures, as well as stone sculpture and frescoes. The carved stucco is of exceptional quality in geometric and vegetal patterns; in the bath complex there are even male and female figures, their upper bodies naked.

Pavilion Facade

Caliph on Lions

A statue depicting a male standing figure with a sword on two lions, very likely the caliph patron himself, stood in a niche above the entrance to the bath hall.

The floors are decorated with incredible mosaics but unfortunately, besides the well-known Tree of Life mosaic in the bahw or special reception room in the bath complex, most are currently covered. This floor mosaic consists of a fruit tree (apple, lemon or quince) under which on the left are two gazelles grazing and on the right a lion pouncing on a gazelle. Given that the mosaic is in the bahw the image is more than just a popular hunting scene¹. Here the lion represents the ruling Caliph and the gazelles the subjects, living in peace or being subdued.

Tree of Life mosaic

There is little to see of the plaster sculptures and stucco as they were removed from the site during the British period and are on display in one hall at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Sculpted ceiling plaster

Entrance

In the back corner of the courtyard are some Umayyad architectural details, part of a sculpted arch with its original paint and an example of a merlon, a step-shaped stone that sits on the top of a wall.

Umayyad

As your guide I can help you create an itinerary that matches your interests and ensures that not only do you get to visit archaeological sites which enable you to understand the context but museums that display and explain the artifacts discovered at the site so that you get the most out of your visit.


Reference
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar, 1997.

Lion & Gazelles

¹ Interestingly, I saw a similar motif in mosaic from a Byzantine church on display at the Israel Museum.

Lion killing ox

Grazing

Israel Roundup

Rockefeller Museum

Although few visit, the historic Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem is definitely worth a visit. A blend of western and local eastern architecture, combining historic architecture with modern innovations, the museum was built in 1938, during the Mandate period by the British architect St. Barbe Harrison.

Rockefeller courtyard

Ohanessian tile workIn the main hall is a model of the museum – exit to the courtyard to see the pool, the Armenian mosaics by Ohanessian and the 10 iconic stone reliefs sculpted by Eric Gill representing the major civilizations that left an imprint on this region. Many of the exhibits in the museum are a little dated, walnut wood framed glass cases with dozen of artifacts each, labelling is just a number which you have to cross-reference with a mimeographed book that you can ask for at security. But they have some important pieces: Greekthe Crusader marble sculpted panels from the lintels of the entranceway to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Roman sarcophagi, Umayyad architectural details with their original paint, Crusader capital with goblin from Church of Annunciation, mosaic from an early synagogue, like the one in Jericho also called Peace unto Israel, found in the Druze village of Usifiya.

Having visited the actual site of Hisham’s palace in Jericho and been Romandisappointed at how few of the mosaics and artifacts are on display it was heartening to see the impressive exhibit of sculpture and stucco from Hisham’s palace safe at the museum.

An incredible piece in the courtyard is a Roman wash basin from the 1st century that was found in the Crusader fortress at Montfort – striking how similar it is to the basin that Emperor Augustus sent with Marcus Agrippa as a present for King Herod on display at the Israel museum exhibit on Herod (viewable at https://israel-tourguide.info/2013/02/14/herod-design-realpolitik/).

Wash basin Montfort

There is a very interesting article about architects St. Barbe Harrison and Erich Mendelssohn and their contributions to beautifying Jerusalem. http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/Jerusalem-the-beautiful-312517

BBC has an article about the Hula painted frog at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22770959

A species of frog that was recently rediscovered after being declared extinct in 1966 has been reclassified as a “living fossil”.

Israel’s Hula painted frog had not been seen for nearly 60 years, but in 2011 one was found lurking in a patch of swampy undergrowth. Tests have revealed that the frog belongs to a group of amphibians that died out 15,000 years ago.

 

BBC interviewed me for their series, In the Prince’s Footsteps and asked me to take them to the Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert. We talked about photographer Francis Bedford’s 1862 photograph of the monastery on his travels with Edward, Prince of Wales to the Holy Land. You can read my blog post at Mar Saba and Judean Desert Revisited.

You can hear the interview by clicking on the red button.

I am Gabriel A unique 87 line Hebrew inscription, ink on stone, from the beginning of the Roman period, I am Gabriel, is on display at the Israel museum. Its content is prophetic-apocalyptic, its style literary-religious, and its language reminiscent of the later books of the Prophets. Accompanying it are rare ancient manuscripts, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an. The exhibition traces the changing roles of the angel Gabriel in the three monotheistic religions.

While thinking about the Israel museum plan to spend a day with Herod the Great, legendary builder and King of Judea. Combines an in-depth guided tour of Herodium, Herod’s palace complex in the desert and the site of his tomb with the monumental exhibit “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey”.  https://israel-tourguide.info/herod-the-great-tour/

Jerusalem Botanic Garden is open for free on Fridays & Saturdays in the month of June 2013 for residents of Jerusalem with presentation of your teudat zehut. This is a great opportunity to wander around the garden and discover the lovely, shaded areas of green that are one of the best kept secrets of the City.  http://en.botanic.co.il/Pages/Show/7

Mosaics at Bet Qama

Israel Antiquities Authority reported on excavations it is carrying out prior to construction of the extension of highway 6 north of Beersheva.

Byzantine crossRemains of a settlement that extends across more than six dunams were uncovered in the excavation being conducted in the fields of Kibbutz Bet Qama. The site seems to have consisted of a large estate that included a tower, a church, residential buildings, presumably an inn for travelers, and storerooms, a large cistern, a public building and pools surrounded by farmland. Also found was a stone with a Byzantine cross in secondary usage. It seems to me that this would be a good candidate for a monastery. Bet Qama excavationThe public building was a large hall 12 meters long by 8.5 meters wide. A spectacular colorful mosaic dating to the Byzantine period (4th–6th centuries CE) was exposed in recent weeks. The well-preserved mosaic consists of 3 square sections each surrounding a circle decorated with geometric patterns. One has amphorae (jars used to transport wine) in two opposite corners, one with a pair of peacocks, the other a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril. These are common designs that are known from this period; however, what makes this mosaic unique is the large number of motifs that were incorporated in one carpet.

North carpet

Middle carpet

South carpet

Pools and a system of channels and pipes between them used to convey water were discovered in front of the building. Steps were exposed in one of the pools (not a ritual bath, miqve, according to IAA) whose walls were covered with multiple layers of colored plaster (fresco) implying that whatever the pool was later used for, it continued for some time – no theory about what it might have been used for.

Pool w frescoArchaeologists in the Antiquities Authority are still trying to determine the purpose of the impressive public building and the pools whose construction required considerable economic resources. No destruction layer was found, the site was vacated in the Early Arab period.

In other excavations nearby, two Jewish settlements were found. At Horbat Rimon a synagogue and miqve were exposed. At Nahal Shoval the remains of two Jewish ritual baths and two public buildings were uncovered. Both of the public buildings feature raised platforms along the walls facing Jerusalem, a feature of Jewish synagogues of the period.

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

Ein Karem and Barluzzi’s Church of the Visitation

When you’re in Jerusalem take some time to enjoy walking around and exploring the village of Ein Karem (Hebrew of Spring of the Vineyard), today a neighborhood of Jerusalem and when you get hungry check out one of the restaurants (see below). The spring made it possible for settlement there dating from the Middle Bronze Age. According to Christian tradition,  Mary, pregnant with Jesus, met Elizabeth, pregnant with John at the spring.

There are two churches named St. John the Baptist, one a Franciscan church built in the second half of the 19th century on the remnants of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches and an Eastern Orthodox church built in 1894 (restored in 1975), also on the remnants of an ancient church. Inside the Franciscan church are the remains of a Byzantine mosaic floor and a cave where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist was born. Below the building a mikve or Jewish ritual bath was found dated to the Second Temple period.

The Franciscan Church of the Visitation is located across the village from St. John. The ancient sanctuary there was built against a rock slope, the site where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived and where Mary visited them. An ancient cistern from which, according to tradition, Zechariah and Elizabeth drank, can also be found in the church; the stone next to it is said to have hidden the two from Herod’s soldiers. Tradition attributes its construction to Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother.

Barluzzi Church of VisitationOn the wall of the courtyard are ceramic tiles bearing verses from the Magnificat (the Canticle of Mary from Luke 1:46-55) in forty-two different languages. On the church’s façade is a striking mosaic commemorating the Visitation.

Visitation church InteriorThe lower level of the church was built in 1862, the upper level was begun in 1938 and completed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1955. The upper hall is dedicated to Mary, and its walls are decorated with many paintings in her honor. The interior has Italianate frescoes depicting the Visitation, Elizabeth hiding her son John the Baptist, and Zechariah next to the altar in the Temple and beautiful mosaic floors. In one of the frescoes, there is an image of none other than Barluzzi himself.

Interior 2

Visitation church mosaic floor

Located up the hill is the Russian Orthodox Church, part of the Gorny monastery, nicknamed Moscovia by the locals, begun in 1905 and only completed in 2005, with its classic gold onions.

Take the opportunity to walk or meditate in the tranquil garden of Notre Dame De Sion monastery.

Restaurants

Pundak Ein Karem “with a garden blooming in and around its stone courtyard specializes in pan-European fusion cuisine of the decidedly unkosher variety; free WiFi.”

Karma “will have you eating like a Buddhist monk fallen off the wagon, a genre-defying culinary quality, with a traditional Middle Eastern taboon stone oven at its spiritual center.”

Café Inbal “small bake shop has a nice selection of classic light Israeli fare, kosher.”

Charlotte for those with a passion for a variety of grilled meats and delicious side dishes, kosher.

Esti and Perla “run by and in the home of two ladies by the names of Esti and Perla, who have resided in Ein Karem for over 50 years serves high-quality dairy food, specializing in Moroccan fare, kosher.”

Archaeology in Israel Tour

I’m delighted to announce that Dan McLerran at Popular Archaeology and I are creating a phenomenal tour of archaeological sites in Israel that I will be guiding October 2013.
I invite you to join us on this adventure, 12 days of touring in Israel, where we’ll cover the famous sites like Megiddo and Hazor and uncover some of the less well-known gems like Sussita-Hippos, one of the Decapolis cities overlooking the Sea of Galilee that was destroyed in the earthquake of 749CE and never rebuilt.

Sussita excavation

We’ll start by going back 6500 years to the Chalcolithic period and tour up on the Golan Heights to learn about burial at that time. We’ll see dolmens, the megalithic tombs consisting of a flat rock resting on two vertical rocks that mark a grave. We’ll hike to the cultic site of Rujm el Hiri – is it a site that is connected to the calendar or to burial? At Ein Gedi we’ll see the ruins of a Chalcolithic temple. We’ll see artifacts at the Israel museum, examples of clay ossuaries and fine bronze castings of ritual objects.

We’ll follow in the path of the Kings from 1000BCE to 586BCE by traveling from Dan where a piece of a basalt victory stella in Aramaic was found mentioning the kings of Israel and the house of David. We will explore the City of David, the walled Jebusite city on the ridge between the Kidron and Tyropean valleys. We’ll walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel that brought the water of the Gihon spring to the Siloam pool inside the walls. From there we will follow in the steps of pilgrims to the Temple mount. Part of the 650m distance will be in Jerusalem’s drainage channel until we come out right under Robinson’s Arch. We’ll see the Broad wall, the remains of an 8 meter high wall that protected Jerusalem from the north in the time of the Kings.

Khirbet Qeiyafa

We’ll explore the walled Judean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, with two gates and hence identified as Shaarayim, situated on the border of Judea facing the Phillistines.

We’ll learn about the Second Temple Period, specifically the time of the Hasmoneans and King Herod who ruled under the auspices of the Romans. We’ll check out Herod’s impressive building projects. At Caesarea, we have the temple to Augustus, the protected harbor, the palace as well as a theater and a hippodrome later used as an amphitheater. At Sebaste there is another temple to Augustus. Josephus writes that Herod built a third temple at Banias. It’s unclear whether the temple was at Banias or nearby, perhaps at Omrit. We’ll visit Herod’s palaces at Masada, the Western palace and the 3 tier hanging palace on the northern end of the site. We’ll explore the palace and administrative complex at Lower Herodium and the palace/fortress on the top of a manmade mountain where the base of a mausoleum was discovered by Prof. Ehud Netzer in 2007.

Herodium Palace:fortress

We’ll visit the newly opened exhibit at the Israel museum Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, artifacts from Herodium on display for the first time. We’ll also visit the Second Temple period model that displays Jerusalem at its peak just before its destruction at the hand of the Romans. We’ll visit the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea scrolls and other artifacts and combine that with the archaeological site of Qumran by the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found.

We’ll focus on the architecture of sacred space and check out various churches, in the basilica and martyrium form from the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century) and synagogues from the same period. We’ll see some amazing mosaics by visiting the  museum at the Inn of Good Samaritan, the archaeological sites of Sepphoris/Tzippori, and the synagogue at Beit Alfa. We’ll visit sites off the beaten path like the Kathisma church on the way to Bethlehem and Samaritan site on Mount Gerizim.

Synagogue mosaic floor at Israel Museum

Besides the Western wall, Judaism’s holy site, we will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity and go up onto the Haram el-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site to Islam.

We’ll travel around the Sea of Galilee stopping at sites important to Christianity like Kursi, Capernaum and Magdala. We’ll even go up to the Golan Heights to the Jewish city of Gamla, the Masada of the north.

Gamla

For anyone who enjoys taking photographs, there will be plenty of opportunities and as an special incentive to join the tour, participants will be able to submit their best photographs from the tour to a special Pinterest site and will have a chance to win up to $1000. for the “best photo”.

If you’re interested in participating in an archaeological tour of the Holy Land, contact  me.