Tag Archives: Sea of 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.

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Photo of the Week – Heron at Kinneret

I’ve been guiding in the north, around the Sea of Galilee and caught this heron on the lake in the morning.

Morning HeronThe technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon DSLR camera (ISO 1000, 200mm, F13 at 1/1000 sec).

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

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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.

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.