The front face of the Magdala Stone.
The front face of the Magdala Stone.

Excavation for a Galilee pilgrims’ guesthouse yields a 1st-century city

Israel’s Galilee region is popular with tourists, including many Christian pilgrims who want to see the area where Jesus lived and taught. Now, a major new archaeological find at Magdala, near Migdal, a town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, is attracting both Christians and Jews. For Christians, Magdala has special significance as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, a key follower of Jesus, who they believe was the first person to see him after his resurrection.

Like many other archaeological discoveries in Israel, this one came about during excavation for a new building — in this case, a guesthouse and spiritual complex planned for Christian pilgrims by the Legion of Christ, an international Catholic organization.

As required for all major new construction, Israel Antiquities Authority staff members were on site in 2009 when excavation began and they were stunned to find extensive remains of a 1st-century city quite close to the surface.

Along with archaeologists from two Mexican universities, they have discovered a synagogue, mikvahs, homes, a market area, a fisherman’s workshop, a warehouse and wharf. Volunteers are helping to delicately remove dirt and debris to expose these very old structures that date from the time of the second temple — 70 C.E. It is one of only seven synagogues of this era that has been excavated and has several unusual features.

For Christians, it is especially meaningful that Jesus, who lived in nearby Nazareth, undoubtedly taught there, according to Father Eamon Kelly, L.C., who is heading the Magdala project. “This is from his time, where he lived. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi. The site is so important to both [Jewish and Christian] communities,” he explains.

Perhaps the most unusual element of the ancient synagogue is a large stone rectangle with extensive carvings, including a seven-branch menorah like the one in the second temple. The purpose of the Magdala Stone is not certain but it may have served as an altar.

Several detailed mosaics have been excavated and their designs are duplicated in the striking Duc in Altum spiritual center that opened near the Archaeological Park in 2010. Duc in Altum, which is from the book of Luke in the New Testament, means “Launch into the Deep.”

The beautiful, modern complex includes a Women’s Atrium honoring Mary Magdalene and other women of the Old Testament; a boat chapel with an altar shaped like an ancient fishing boat; mosaic chapels; and an encounter chapel. A guesthouse and educational and conference center are being built nearby with completion expected in 2018.

Building Interfaith Relationships
Kelly, who is vice director of “Magdala — The Crossroads of Jewish and Christian History” and vice chargé of the Pontifical Institute, Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, recently traveled in the U.S. to expand interfaith relationships as well as build awareness of and raise funds for the Magdala project.

It was at the Notre Dame Center where earlier this year he met Mark Davidoff, Deloitte’s Michigan managing partner, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Davidoff and Snyder were with separate groups of Michigan business and government leaders dining at Notre Dame’s rooftop restaurant. Davidoff, a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, is a self-proclaimed “Israel fanatic” and visits Israel often with groups of business people and government officials from Michigan. When the three spoke that evening, Kelly expressed an interest in visiting Michigan and Snyder tapped Davidoff to put the visit together.

On that recent trip, Kelly toured the Holocaust Memorial Center, met with Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, gave the invocation for a lunch with the Michigan Legislature in Lansing and attended a reception for business, government and religious leaders hosted by Snyder.

This gave him a chance to reconnect with individuals he knew early in his career when he worked in youth ministry in the Detroit area and taught a religion class at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills.

Davidoff describes Kelly as “sort of an ambassador,” he said. “Watching how people react to him is amazing.”

Kelly views the discovery of the ancient city of Magdala as a “catalyst for renewal and reconciliation worldwide. We need to sow seeds of understanding in this time of divisiveness and crass tribalism,” he said.

Magdala’s Archaeological Park has been open to the public since 2010 and has attracted approximately 80,000 visitors this year.

To learn more about the Archaeological Park and the Duc in Altum Spiritual Center, visit magdala.org.

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