Friday, August 30, 2013

Mary Magdalene & the Town of Magdela on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee

 Mary Magdalene, apostle of the apostles "Apostolorum apostola", was present when Jesus was crucified.  She was the one who prepared his body for burial when it was removed from the cross and it was she who was present, in the company of Mary, mother of Jesus, when the angel first announced the resurrection of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is mentioned 18 times in the new testament – more than any other female figure. The Apocryphal Gospel, according to Phillipus', describes Mary Magdalene as Jesus' partner. The numerous references and descriptions of Mary Magdalene have inspired writers and artists to immortalize her in various art forms.

Family names, as we refer to them today, are relatively modern terms. Even this concept continues to evolve as attitudes toward the family unit changes; as women's roles beyond motherhood become more prominent; and as both mother and father family names are being used more and more frequently. However; in Biblical times, there was no such thing as a "Family Name". People were known by their private names only. In order to distinguish one person from another of the same name, quite often, a supplementary description was added; like the person's profession, the name of the town they lived in, or the name of their father. Some examples that portray this are: Joseph the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth or David, son of Eshai (Jesse). Therefore , Mary Magdalene, was simply Mary from the town of Magdala - (Aramaic) or Migdal (Hebrew).

Where is Magdala and what was it like?
The New Testament tells us that Jesus left Nazareth and travelled to the village of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee - a distance of about 60 km (36 miles). Jesus makes the north shore and the village of Capernaum the center of his messianic work. His followers and disciples are the residents and inhabitants of the fishing villages of the lake. One can confidently state that this area, about 30 km long (18 miles) and a width of about 5km (3 miles), is the stage for most of the events in the New Testament. Along this section of shoreline, many of the ancient sites exist till today and are authentic, not just 'traditional'. Even the scenery has not changed significantly in 2000 years. Jesus was active among the Jewish fishermen and farmers comprising the villages of this area. Most of these people, who became followers of Jesus, were poor and hardworking.

Magdala was known by various names which bear witness to the town’s character:  Migdal Nunieh (in Hebrew, meaning "Tower of Fish") and Magdala Tarichaeae (in Greek meaning "The Place Where Fish are Salted"). It is located on the northwest corner of the lake, about 10 km north of Tiberias. A Jewish village was established at Migdal in 1909 ,which today has a population of 1600 inhabitants and the ancient Magdala of 2000 years ago lies about 1 km southeast, (1000 yds) of the modern town of Migdal .

Magdala, in contrast to the other villages that Jesus frequented, was successful, well planned and well organized . It was a major town and a commercial center of the lake region during the first century. Much of its success was based on the fish preservation industry that flourished there. According to the writings of Josephus, Magdala had many boats, shipyard workers and supplies of wood. The archaeological excavations that are surfacing daily, definitely prove these observations.

At the archaeological site of Magdala Center we are greeted by the charismatic Father Juan Maria Solana, from the Pontifical Institute of Notre Dame of Jerusalem. He tells us that when he first visited Israel and the Galilee many years ago, he inquired about the location of Magdala. He was told that it was on the location of  the 'Hawaii Beach Hotel'.

Years later when the Pontifical Institute had come to the decision that they would make a Pilgrim Center in the Galilee, it came to Father Juan's knowledge that 'Hawaii Beach' was for sale and he knew that would be the place for the project . The initial purchase of the plot was in 2006 and intensive research and excavations at the site were started . In 2009 construction permits were finally granted.

Father Juan describes with passion the present phase of construction, future plans, and dreams and hopes at the site of Magdala Village

The excavations at the site are by the Israeli Antiquities Authority in cooperation with research institutes and various universities worldwide. It is important to emphasize that the site is mainly a Jewish fishing village and the fish industry from the 1st Century sheds light on everyday life in Jesus time. Some of the recently uncovered findings are: the dock where the fishermen's boats were tied to, the fish market with special pools to keep the live fish and the Jewish ritual bath (mikva). The streets from the first century and the villa, indicate that the town was well planned in contrast to Capernaum, where there was no central planning. One of the most exciting discoveries is the First Century Synagogue. We can discern that this was one of the places that Jesus visited and maybe even taught in during his walks between the fishing villages.  Let us not forget too, that this is where he met Mary Magdalene.  Although, this is the only synagogue discovered thus far in Magdala; from past experience, it makes sense that there were more. The synagogue and its structure is a classical example of synagogues from that period. It is important to keep in mind that synagogues from the first century before the destruction of the temple in the year 70 had a different purpose than synagogues as we know them today. They were not places of worship but rather places of gathering and reading the Torah.

Next to the synagogue a Beit Midrash was discovered (a place to study Torah). However, the most exciting finding was a stone table (pictured below), believed to be a stand with four corner columns connecting to a table that held the scrolls. Engravings on the sides and top of the stone, include the Menorah – the seven branched candelabra and ritual instruments from the temple. There is almost no doubt that the artist that depicted this scene saw the temple in Jerusalem with his own eyes.

Replica of the stone table with engravings of the menora, oil jars and other instruments.

Today, intensive archaeological work is being done to expose the ancient site and at the same time the project's construction includes a hotel to provide affordable lodging for pilgrims, an archaeological park to showcase the findings now being discovered daily , a spiritual center, a multimedia center, and the Magdalena Institute for Women to highlight the role of women.

Although the land is owned by the Vatican , it is open to all Christian faiths as well as to all peoples who are interested in history and archaeology. Everyone is welcome and there will be places allocated where people can meditate or pray in their own spiritual beliefs. The site is unique in the sense, that regardless of the ongoing  intensive work , it is already open to the public. One can see and feel the pulse of exciting archaeological discoveries alongside the modern development of the site . Since it is a construction site, special care needs to be taken while visiting.

It is interesting to note that the two archaeologists in charge of the excavation from the Israel Antiquities Authorities are Arfan Najjar, an Israeli Arab and Dina Gorni, an Israeli Jew and maybe it has significant meaning and value that a Muslim man and a Jewish lady are working together to unveil Christian roots.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Travel Israel - Understanding the Holy Land through Nature

Hello Everyone, 

After close to 20 years of guiding in Israel and many years of study and research, I decided to try to share some of the knowledge and insight that I have acquired. This blog will be about the history of Israel and related subjects. 

At one point in my career, I was fortunate to be guiding busloads of British tourists to Jerusalem, on a regular basis. In the first few tours I quickly learnt that there are 3 topics that are taboo in polite conversation: RELIGION – POLITICS – and … 'FOOTBALL'. But quite honestly… in ISRAEL … what else is there to talk about ? 

Therefore; let me state from the outset, that what I write is without prejudice and with much affection to those who cross borders, oceans and international skies for whatever reason, to visit this old/new country, that I call home. 

The "book of books" - THE BIBLE - is the best seller of all times and has historically influenced humanity more than any other book. Judaism is based on the Old Testament; Christianity is based on both the Old and the New Testament (which evolved from the former);  and even the Koran, the Muslim holy book, is rooted in the Old Testament.

Despite the fact that the bible plays a role in the lives of billions of people worldwide, most have never been to the land of Israel, and are not familiar with its landscape, the nature, nor its climate . Yet one of the key factors to understanding biblical context is to understand the conditions and natural environment of the land at that time. 

During the 'Old Testament' period and even up to not that long ago, most people lived off the land, and therefore biblical stories and parables evolved around farm life and nature. If we bring the geopolitical element into the natural setting of the time ; using some knowledge of biblical terminology, we are able to construe with greater clarity, the events of that period. Following is an example of how that formula actually works.

One of the most important trees that the Land of Israel is blessed with, is the olive tree. Today, it is common around the Mediterranean and other locations where there is suitable climate, but it was domesticated in the Middle East.

The fruit of the olive tree has made a significant contribution to Israel's economy throughout history. The tree itself is very hardy and can withstand extensive damage, either by nature or man, and still recover. This is why the olive tree has come to symbolize stability.

Olive trees, Garden of Gethsemane.
The olive is mentioned endless times in the bible. One of the most famous references is in the story of the flood in the book of Genesis, when Noah sends a dove to check if the flood has stopped and it returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf . "Shal" from the root word "shalom" in Hebrew, which also means 'peace' was the biblical term used to indicate that the flood had subsided.  Therefore, a dove with a branch of olives is indicative of an international symbol of peace.

The most important thing about the olive tree is the olive itself and it can definitely be considered a 'multi-functional' fruit.

Olives are food… we eat them. At social gatherings, what is a martini without an olive  ?

Tel Aviv, Carmel Open Market
Take the olives, crush them and extract oil from them. Extraction is the process of separating the oil from the other fruit content. Of course, modern day facilities for oil extraction from olives exist but one can still find oil presses that are thousands of years old throughout Israel.

Capernaum Oil Press
 In the time of the bible, a slice of bread dipped in olive oil and vinegar was a meal.

Olive oil is one of the best oils that exists. It is known as an excellent antioxidant, it lowers cholesterol levels and is rich in monounsaturated fat (the good kind of fat). According to some medical experts its properties help protect against heart disease, aid in digestion, and are known to promote healthy aging.

For thousands of years, people have used olive oil in cosmetics and high quality soaps.

And, a small ceramic container filled with olive oil and a wick, provided light.

Typical Oil lamp from the Old Testament Period

In the temple of Jerusalem, the 7 branched candelabra or menorah was lit with olive oil. Usually the lowest grade of olive oil was used for light, but ancient Jewish documents describe that in the temple, only the highest quality oil was used for the Menorah.

This Menorah in Jerusalem, across from the Knesset (Parliament)
 was a gift from the British government to the State of Israel

Official Emblem of the State of Israel is a Menorah with Olive leaves

Emblem of the IDF adorned by olive branch and leaves

But probably, one of the lesser talked about uses of olive oil in the modern world is the one that in the ancient world was of critical consequence. The exact recipe can be found in the bible (Exodus 30:23). Take olive oil, mix it with perfume and smear this mixture over the head of a monarch. We call this practice "ANOINTING.

Young David, for example, is anointed this way by the prophet Samuel in Bethlehem (1st Samual 16:13) "Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him (David) in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward."

And, Solomon was anointed at the Gihon Spring (1st King 1:39)."Then Zadok the priest took a horn of oil from the tabernacle and anointed Solomon. And they blew the horn, and all the people said 'Long live King Solomon"

The Hebrew word "Messiah" translates into English as "Anointed One" and translates into Greek as "Christos". When the term "Messiah" was used, it fundamentally meant a ruler. Two thousand years ago this refers to a political leader, who would lead the people to freedom from the Roman occupation. The spiritual and social connotation of the word 'Messiah' was not separate.  Thus one can get an idea of how the terminology and nature give background to the political environment of the times.

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