Biblical Magdala, rejuvenated

With a stunning view of the Kinneret, a Catholic spiritual center offers cultural encounters and religious experiences at the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.

Magdala (photo credit: COURTESY MAGDALA)
(photo credit: COURTESY MAGDALA)
Magdala, the once-abandoned seaside town on the shore of Lake Kinneret and several kilometers from Tiberias, is said to have been home to the New Testament figure Mary Magdalene. Today, this former fishing town is enjoying somewhat of a revival, thanks to the vision and effort of Father Juan Maria Solana, director of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
Solana, of Puebla, Mexico, was assigned to the position in 2004. His original plan was to build a retreat for Christian pilgrims visiting the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), since it was in the Galilee that Jesus did most of his teaching.
In March 2005, when he made his first visit to Magdala, Solana felt it was an ideal place to build a second center – and in 2006, the church acquired the first plot of land on the recently closed Hawaii Beach resort.
Construction began in 2009, and in 2014 the Magdala Spiritual Center’s “Duc in Altum” church was dedicated.
With a stunning view of the lake, the center also offers guests a restaurant and visitors’ center.
The biggest surprise for everyone involved in the project has been the overwhelming number of artifacts that have been uncovered throughout the phases of construction. What began as some first-century artifacts soon became one of the most important archeological findings in over 50 years. A first-century CE synagogue from around the time of the Second Temple was found, complete with a mikve (ritual bath).
“Perhaps the most significant discovery at Magdala is the synagogue,” explains Dr. R. Steven Notley, director of the Nyack College Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. “Within the walls of the synagogue a stone artifact was found engraved with distinct and meaningful images, giving students of Judaism, early Christianity and ancient art a tangible piece of religious history from the late Hellenistic and Roman periods.”
Excavation director Dina Avshalom- Gorni also notes that the discovery of the menorah decoration is the first of its kind.
“We are dealing with an exciting and unique find,” she asserts. “This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing; this is the first menorah to be discovered in a Jewish context, and one that dates to the Second Temple period/beginning of the early Roman period. We can assume that the engraving which appears on the stone, which the Antiquities Authority uncovered, was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah with his own eyes in the Temple in Jerusalem.”
Today, the Magdala center hosts nearly 25,000 visitors a year of all faiths and nationalities. It is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
The launch of the second phase of building is to take place on July 22, the feast day of Mary Magdalene.
Plans call for building a pilgrims’ house, a restaurant for 900 people and the Magdalena Institute, a center to promote women’s dignity.
The Magdala center’s goal is to offer facilities and opportunities for educational activities, cultural encounters and religious experiences in this new site of crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.
Solana enthuses: “It is amazing to bring Magdala to life, since 2,000 years ago the city was covered and now it is vibrant again. Magdala is a place where all can gather together in peace, and where Jews and Christians meet in history and faith.”