Tag Archives: Galilee

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.

Advertisements

Tzfat Synagogues

Visitors who are impressed with the architecture and style of the churches in the Holy Land often ask to see similar synagogues. When in Tzfat it’s worth visiting some of the synagogues.

The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue

The synagogue was built in the sixteenth century on the northern edge of the Sephardic neighborhood by Spanish exiles who had emigrated from Gerigos, Greece. Kabbalists, mostly followers of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero frequented the synagogue and in 1570 Rabbi Isaac Luria (known by his acronym “the Ari”) joined them – for a short two years until his death. On the Eve of Sabbath, they walked to a nearby field, the Hakal Tapuchin, (apple orchard) to welcome the Sabbath bride to the melody of Lecha Dodi written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. Cordovero, the Ari, Alkabetz and other kabbalists are buried in the cemetery, their graves covered in bright, sky blue paint.

Tzfat cemeteryIn the eighteenth century, a large group of Hasidim from Europe arrived and the synagogue began to be called “the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.” It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1837, and rebuilt in 1857. Notice the inscription in Hebrew that appears above the entrance, which in Hebrew numerology is equivalent to “and My Temple shalt thou revere”.

Ari synagogueThe Holy Ark was carved from olive wood by a craftsman from Galicia, Poland, in the style of the synagogues of Eastern Europe. The craftsman was a non-Jew who was unaware of Judaism’s adherence to the second commandment against graven images. At the top of the ark he placed a human face – this was transformed into an anthropomorphic image of a lion, alluding to the acronym Ari, which means lion.

Ark in Ari synagogue

The Ari Sephardic Synagogue

Down by the cemetery there is another synagogue, Eliyahu HaNavi, the oldest synagogue in Safed that historical sources tell us existed as early as 1522 and was used by North African Jews. The Ari frequently prayed in this synagogue, preferring this location over others because of the view of Mt. Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The Ari liked to sit in a little alcove on the eastern side of the synagogue studying Kabbalah, and that while he was absorbed in his studies, the prophet Elijah appeared to him.

Ari Sephardic synagogueMost of the structure was destroyed in the massive earthquakes that struck Tzfat in 1759 and 1837. In 1840, the Italian Jewish philanthropist Yitzhak Guetta donated money for the renovation of the synagogue.

Alsheikh synagogue

The only synagogue in Tzfat which was not destroyed by either the 1759 or the 1837 earthquake is the Alsheich synagogue named after Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, one of the foremost kabbalists of his day. He gave weekly sermons on the Torah portion of the week at the synagogue with kabbalistic commentaries to which the Ari and Rabbi Yosef Karo attended.

Alsheich synagogueThe Alsheich oversaw the construction of the synagogue which was erected in the style of 16th century Sephardic synagogues but had no women’s gallery. After 1759, the synagogue was renovated and the workmen inserted beams and peaked arches in the style of the Bukharan Jews of Samarkand which enabled it to withstand the devastating earthquake of 1837. One of the most valued items in the synagogue is the Torah scroll cover inscribed with the year 1434.

Abuhav synagogue

The synagogue is named after the fifteenth century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Abuhav, who is considered one of the great sages of Castile, Spain.

Tradition states that Abuhav, who never left Spain, designed the synagogue and his disciples erected the building when they arrived in the 1490s after their expulsion from Spain. Another legend claims that Abuhav came to Rabbi Ohana, a kabbalist from Fez, Morocco in a dream and asked for his help to transport the synagogue miraculously from Spain to Safed. The kabbalists gathered together at midnight in the House of Study, after fasting and immersing in the mikve (ritual bath) – in Toledo, a whirlwind with frightening power ripped up the synagogue from its foundations and set it down in an empty field in Tzfat.

Abuhav synagogueThe synagogue has three Arks on its southern wall, the only wall left standing in the 1837 earthquake. The bima is in the center and the benches for the congregation are arranged around it, as was customary. The interior of the synagogue dome is decorated with paintings of musical instruments that were used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The crowns mentioned in Pirkei Avot 4:13 represent the crowns of Torah, the priesthood, royalty, “a good name” and a crown unique to Tzfat, the crown of redemption. In keeping with the numerological tradition of Kabbalah, the design of the synagogue has numerical significance: 1 bima, 3 Arks, 4 central columns that represent earth, water, air and fire, 6 steps up to the bima, 10 windows in the dome represent the Ten Commandments and there are pictures symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.

In the rightmost ark, is a Torah scroll that is 650 years old, written by Rabbi Abuhav, conceivably the oldest Torah scroll still in use. It is only taken out for reading three times a year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shavuot. Among Abuhav’s pupils was Rabbi Ya’acov Beirav, who later moved to Tzfat and became one of its foremost sages. It may have been Beirav who brought the Torah scroll to Tzfat. Another Torah scroll in the Abuhav Synagogue is the scroll of Rabbi Ohana.

Other Church at Capernaum

Capernaum is an important place to visit because not only is it an interesting archaeological site but it has historical importance in understanding Jewish life in the time of Jesus. According to the Gospels Jesus lived in Capernaum during much of his ministry in the Galilee.

The site was first discovered in 1838 by the American biblical geographer Dr. Edward Robinson. British explorer Captain Charles Wilson identified the ruins of the synagogue in his survey of 1866, and in 1894 a part of the ancient site was purchased by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land – this is the site most often visited.

Archeological evidence (from excavations by the Franciscans between 1968-84) indicates that the fishing village of Capernaum was established at the beginning of Hasmonean rule – the earliest coins found at the site date from the 2nd C BCE. The town, near the border of the province of Galilee, was on a branch of the Via Maris trade route. At the time of Jesus, Capernaum included a customs post and a small Roman garrison commanded by a centurion. Although the natural building material was black basalt, from the remains that we see today we know that the town had an impressive synagogue in white limestone (the floor plan is similar to the 4th C synagogue at Korazim and the 3rd C synagogue at Baram, a comparison would make an interesting subject for another post) and an octagonal church (5th C), a short distance from one another.

Since the town did not participate in either of the two major Jewish revolts against Rome village life continued quietly until a winter day in 749CE . On January 18th Capernaum was badly damaged by the Golan earthquake and was rebuilt a short distance to the northeast but little is known of its  history, decline and eventual abandonment sometime in the 11th century. Despite the importance of Capernaum in the life of Jesus, there is no evidence of any construction during the Crusader period.

The small, pink-domed Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles (built in 1931) marks the site to which the village of Capernaum was relocated after the earthquake. A monk greeted us when we entered so we asked why the church had pink domes – he replied that it was the paint they had found at the local hardware store. The church is dedicated to the seven apostles (Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples not recorded (John 21). Jesus appears for the third time, this time by the Sea of Galilee. The interior of the church is covered with paintings and I got some photographs of them.

Archeological excavations carried out at four locations on the site between 1978-82 revealed the foundations of residential dwellings with the same black basalt dry-stone walling as the earlier constructions in Capernaum. Of special note are the remnants of a two-meter-wide basalt wall along the shoreline that may have been part of a quay along the entire lakefront of the village and two stonework jetties extending at right angles into the lake. This would have provided both sheltered anchorage and a slip for hauling boats out of the water.


This post is especially for a friend, Alex Koch who is an art historian and guide who lives in Munich and loves Israel.

Hike Sea to Sea

Israel packs a lot into a small country, mountains, desert, coast, forests (over the past 100 years, the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 million trees and in fact, Israel is the only country that entered the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees). There are 4 seas, the Mediterranean, Red, Dead and the Sea of Galilee (at 209 m below sea level, the lowest fresh-water lake in the world), in Hebrew, the Kinneret.

Because Israel is small, it’s possible to hike the width of the country in a few days, from sea to sea, yam l’yam, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee.

Mediterranean Sea

Coastline of Mediterranean Sea

Kineret Sea of Galilee

Overlooking the Kinneret, Sea of Galilee

There are even rituals to perform, you start and end by immersing all or part of your body in each sea and you carry some water with you from one sea which you pour into the other sea when you arrive.

The hike starts at Achziv, follows Nahal Kziv past the Crusader Montfort Castle, Ein Tamir and on to the Druze village of Horpish. From there we join the Israel Trail, past Har Meron to Nahal Amud. We climb to Mizpe Yamim with a view of the Mediterrranean Sea from whence we came and below us the Sea of Galilee where we will end our hike. This hike takes 3 to 4 days, accommodation can be arranged at Bed & Breakfasts along the route.

You can also hike or drive between the other seas: 2) from the Red Sea at Eilat, along the southern part of the 940 km. Israel Trail to the area of the Dead Sea, 3) from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, 4) follow the Great Rift valley and drive between the Dead Sea and the Kinneret. Before you do, you might want to read Haim Watzman’s personal account in his recent book, A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel’s Rift Valley:

“This rift is one of the globe’s largest features, clearly visible from space, and I live on its edge. It forms an intricate landscape that makes the human soul turn end over end in wonder…”