And over the eastern Arabah up to the Sea of Kinneret and, southward by way of Beth-Jeshimoth at the foot of the slopes of Pisgah on the east, down to the Sea of the Arabah, that is, the Dead Sea. Joshua 12:17 (The Israel BibleTM)
A second synagogue from over two millennia ago has been excavated in Migdal, a town in Israel’s Northern District on the northwestern shoreline of the Kinneret. The town is named after an ancient city from the called Magdala that is believed to have been located on the site of the depopulated village of al-Majdal, which preserved the name.
In 1908, a small group of German Catholics who identified the site as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene settled there, but they left after a year and the land was bought by Russian Zionists who founded a farm, Ahuzat Moskva (Moscow Estate) in 1910. This settlement was adjacent to the Arab village al-Majdal. A few years later, the land was sold to private investors. The modern town was founded in 1910 and granted local council status in 1949; it now has a population of some 2,000 people.
The first ancient Migdal synagogue, one of the oldest in Israel, was in use between 50 BCE and 100 CE and part of the archaeology site of ancient Magdala. It includes a carved stone representing the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that was located in the Temple, making it the oldest such representation in a Jewish context and one that appears to have been made by someone who had seen the menorah in the Temple.
The historic synagogue was discovered in 2009 during a salvage dig conducted by Dr. Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the location of a new hotel at Migdal Beach, the site of ancient Magdala, a fishing town that was mentioned in Jewish documents of the period as a major site during the first Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) in the Galilee and served as the main base of Yosef ben Matityahu in his war against the Romans. Migdal at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE is also mentioned in Christian texts as the home community of Mary Magdalene.
The first ancient synagogue in Migdal covers about 120 square meters (1,300 sq ft). As in other ancient synagogues, it has stone benches built against the walls. The walls were decorated with elaborately designed and colored frescos, and the floor is partially made of mosaics. In the center of the synagogue, the archaeologists found a unique stone with a relief of a seven-branched lamp, with the scholars’ explanation being that the artist engraved the lamp that restored the lamp placed in the temple. This stone is currently on display in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s exhibition “The Sanhedrin Trail” at Beit Yigal Allon.
The newly discovered Migdal site is just one of seven synagogues known to date back to the Second Temple period, with the relative scarcity of such houses of worship explained by the prevailing religious practice of making pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimage festivals of Passover), Shavuot (marking the giving of the Torah) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Succot)) as the main form of worship at the time. The second synagogue constitutes the first case that has been exposed so far for the existence of two synagogues in any locality from this period, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was still standing.This is the first case in which two synagogues from the Second Temple period are in the same locality – just 200 meters from each other. “The unveiling of a second synagogue in the Galilee community sheds light on the social and religious life of the Jews in the Galilee during this period and indicates the need for a special structure for studying and reading the Torah and social gathering,” said Avshalo- Gurni.
This archaeological excavation is being conducted by Y.G. Contract Archeology Ltd., headed by Dr. Yehuda Guvrin and under the scientific auspices of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
The unveiling of a second synagogue in the Galilee sheds light on the social and religious life of Jews in the Galilee during this period and indicates the need for a special structure for Torah study and reading and social gathering. “The coins and stone vessels used for purity indicate the connection of the Jews of Migdal with Jerusalem and the Temple,” said Avshalom-Gorni, who was a partner in the new excavation. The synagogue currently being excavated was partially exposed for the first time in test excavations carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority at the beginning of the year for Netivei Israel under the management of Barak Tzin. The Antiquities Authority pointed to excavations for the existence of a public building from the Roman period, but because only a small part of it was excavated, there was no definition of the nature of the building and its use. Continuation of the current rescue excavation revealed a wide, square structure built of basalt and limestone, with a central hall and two additional rooms. The walls of the main hall are plastered with white and colored plaster and next to them a stone bench was built, which is also plastered. The ceiling of the hall, which was probably made of wood and clay, was supported by six pillars of which two stone bases have been preserved on site. A small room on the south side of the hall contained a plastered stone shelf and may have served as a room for storing the Torah scrolls.
“The importance of the safety project we are establishing at Netivei Yisrael here at Migdal Junction on the shores of the Sea of Galilee will save lives and prevent road accidents. As an engineer for many years I am proud that thanks to Netivei Yisrael’s present and future projects, we have the right to discover such amazing finds,” added Shai Klartag from the company. Dr. Yehuda Govrin noted that all those involved intend to work for the preservation of the synagogue on its site, and its future access to visitors, in coordination with the authorities.
Photos of the synagogue and the excavation findings will be presented for the first time at a conference of the Institute of Archeology to be held at the University of Haifa that will be broadcast on Tuesday, December 28th.