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Magdala Synagogue.(Photo by: .)
Mary Magdalene's synagogue?
One-of-a-kind relief depicting a menora discovered at Magdala site
'I found myself in the middle of a family vacation in Cyprus jumping with excitement from seeing the image on my cellphone,' says acheologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni, smiling at the memory. Few people will get excited by an image of an ancient relief, but Dina had good reason to rejoice. The image she received was of a unique stone relief depicting a menora which her colleague, Arfan Najar, had found on the floor of a first-century synagogue at Magdala. Such a find would be a dream for many archeologists.

Magadala was a wealthy Jewish town on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. Its Greek name, 'Tarichaea,' indicates that it was known for its fish. Yet in the year 66 CE the Jews of the province revolted against the Romans, and Magdala was destroyed.

Magdala is also mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus may have visited the city, although it is not stated in the Gospels. But the Gospels do record a women from Magdala as being one of the most faithful followers of Jesus - Mary Magdalene (=Mary from Magdala).

Christian sources record that a chapel was built over the house of Mary Magdalene in Byzantine times (4th-7th century), yet later sources describe how the chapel was turned into a stable by the local Beduin.

Over the centuries debris covered the whole city, and only its name was preserved by the locals, who called the area Majdal.

In the early 20th century the Fransciscans purchased most of ancient Magdala, and in 1970-1971, Franciscan archeologist Corbo excavated parts of it. Later the Franciscans fenced the site off and closed it to visitors.

But in 2005 The Pontifical Institute 'Notre Dame in Jerusalem' announced an ambitious plan to develop the site. The Magdala Center project is aiming to expose more of the ancient site, and combine the finds with a complex that will include a hotel, a congress hall, a multimedia center, a cultural center for women, and more. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011.

In July 2009 a team of the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) began surveying the site and conducting some trial excavations. The heads of the team, Dina and Arfan, hoped to find more of the city,

but could not imagine that in just two weeks, and only 10 cm below the surface, they would expose a first-century CE synagogue.

'When I first found a bench built against a wall dated to the first century, I played with the thought that this might be a synagogue, since Roman-period synagogues are usually found with benches along the walls, as at Capernaum, but other kinds of buildings can also have this feature. The building was also at the north western edge of the city, while one would expect a synagogue to be in a more central location.'

But as Dina and Arfan continued the excavation they found that the other walls had benches built against them as well, and the size of the building left no doubt that this was indeed an ancient synagogue.

In the middle they also found a slab of stone decorated with a relief depicting a rosette between two palm trees.

At that stage Dina left for a short family vacation. 'We had not yet exposed the whole floor, but I didn't want to disappoint my family.' While she was away, Arfan and the excavating team continued to expose the decorated stone and the rest of the floor. When cleaning one of its sides, Arfan was amazed to find a relief depicting a seven- branched candelabra (a menora) similar to the one in the Second Temple. Excited, Arfan figured the best way to inform his colleague was to send her an image using his cellphone.

When Dina returned they completed exposing the decorated stone. The other sides were also decorated, mostly with images of palm trees.

It seems that this stone was the base for a stand on which the Torah may have been read. 'There are no parallels to this stone, so I am still trying to figure out its exact function,' Dina concluded.

When the discovery was announced, it attracted the attention of world media. Many people have asked visit the place, but the IAA wants to complete the dig first.

'Is it possible that Mary Magdalene attended this synagogue?' I asked Dina before leaving. She smiled. 'That's something I cannot prove, but it is indeed a possibility. In fact,' she added, 'you cannot dismiss the possibility that Jesus himself attended this synagogue at least once. After all, he did travel and preach in this area.'

'So perhaps this is where Mary and Jesus first met?' I commented.

'Who knows?' Dina smiled again. 'These types of questions cannot be answered by archeological finds.'

Jose Miguel Abat, a legal representative for Ark New Gate, the company developing the land, said the firm is thrilled at news of the find, and plans to establish a multi-cultural, multi-religious center at the location.

'We are sure this finding and the planned center will attract tourists and visitors from Israel and around the world,' Abat said in a statement.

Archeologist Danny Herman is a veteran tourist guide. Write to or call 054-604-0200 for more information.

*This article appeared in the April issue of the Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition,
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