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Ancient Site Brought Back to Life

1.1The mosaic floor inside the villa of the Cohanim at Magdala

The short paperback Jewish Magdala: The Pompei of Galilee was not only a labor of love for its author, Michael Moss, but should be recognized as an important book.

Despite its being a self-published work, it fulfils an important function in that it reclaims for Jewish history a site on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee which is generally adopted by Christianity. In addition, the author presents some of his own intriguing conjectures as to the significance of artefacts and aspects of the site.

If you peruse the Magdala website, you will learn that land at Magdala was purchased with a view to building a hotel and spiritual center on the shores of the Sea of Galilee by the Legion of Christ, a Roman Catholic religious institution, in association with the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.

When building work started in 2009, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority were stunned to strike first an extraordinary and enigmatic chest-like carved stone, now known as the Magdala Stone, in the center of the only 1st Century Synagogue discovered to date in the Galilee. It was all as a prelude to the discovery, just below the surface, of an entire 1st century CE Jewish town.

In the middle of reading the book, I felt I had to experience the site for myself. A long-time volunteer at the site, Michael, provided a tour of the archaeological park, ably assisted by his wife Ros, and they vividly recreated life in the town for both my husband and me.

The site comprises a replica of the Magdala Stone, the synagogue and its bet midrash (study hall), a villa, and mikvehs (ritual baths), market with shops, town square, warehouse and wharf. The remnants of dark red and orange paint on buildings are reminiscent of those of Pompeii and are typical of the period, thus suggesting his book's title.

The whole site was buried beneath a 1st century mudslide from the nearby, distinctively shaped Mount Arbel. It provides the sole layer of archaeological remains to be found there.

Visiting the site brings the life of this town into stark relief. The author reminds us of the groups of Cohanim- priests-who were situated in various towns, including Magdala. These priests would be allocated their special periods of Mishmarot, (guard shifts) for service in the Temple in Jerusalem.

As a Cohen, my husband was particularly fascinated with the steps of a mikveh. They had been so well preserved that they appeared as if they had only been recently completed. Michael pointed out that they were wide enough to allow for the priests to descend on one side and ascend, purified, on the other. I found that reminiscent of Essene mikvehs which had a separation for a similar purpose down their staircases.

The town square would have been used by the priests for sleeping after their purification in the mikveh, and prior to their trip to the Temple, so as not to be rendered ritually impure from sleeping under the roof of someone who had died. Unfortunately, part of the square is covered by new buildings. 

Synagogue pillars used as a defensive wall
Steps to the mikvah at Magdala
Menorah on Magdala Stone

Intriguingly, the priestly watch in Magdala was called the Yehezkel (Ezekiel) watch. This name ties in with some of the symbols carved on the unique and enigmatic Magdala stone. Conjecture about the purpose of the Magdala Stone tends to suggest it was a lectern for reading the Torah, but Michael posits another suggestion – one which I find quite convincing.

The stone was situated in the synagogue resting on four low feet, and was slightly raised at one end. It pointed towards the Temple in Jerusalem. The entrance to the Temple is depicted in addition to pillars around it plus the altar and showbread.*

Of particular interest is the stone's carving of two wheels with what can only be described as jagged sparks or bolts of lightning emanating from them. This carving, explained Michael, is understood to depict the mystical "Merkava" Chariot in Ezekiel's vision in the bible. It thus ties in with the name of the priestly Ezekiel watch stationed there, and might have acted as a link to the Temple and the claim to a connection with the prophet Ezekiel.

The image of the Temple Menorah (candelabra) differs from the one on Israel's state symbol and from the one the Arch of Titus in Rome, which depict a multi-tiered base. It has a tripod base, similar to the depiction of a contemporaneous mosaic of the Temple menorah in the Golan Heights.

While there, the Sea of Galilee was almost full and it was a delightful sight to behold. One could easily imagine the ancient fisherman active there and the lively fish market for which the town also produced the garum fish paste seasoning beloved and much in demand by the Romans.

Life there was all brought to a brutal end in 67CE by Vespasian and the Roman soldiers. Segmented basalt pillars from the synagogue were utilized to build fortifications. Fighting took place in the town and on the lake on rafts. The few who survived the Roman onslaught during the Jewish Revolt fled to the last stronghold in the north - Gamla on the Golan Heights.

It was astonishing to tour this town and have it brought back to life by Michael Moss and his wife Ros. If you get the chance, do go. 

 Showbread refers to the cakes or loaves of bread which were always present on a specially dedicated table, in the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God. Wikipedia

Michael can be contacted for a free tour, and his book Jewish Magdala: The Pompeii of Galilee is available on Amazon or as a  signed version for NIS50 via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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Sunday, 12 July 2020

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