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Magdala Revisited

by | Jan 15, 2021 | Destination spotlight

Mentioned by name by all four Gospel writers, described by some as Apostle to the Apostles, St. Mary Magdalene has been a central figure in Christianity since its beginning. Her name comes from the prosperous fishing center of Magdala in the Galilee, where she was born. Located along the shoreline, Magdala was situated between Tiberias and Capernaum, only a few miles from each. Scripture first mentions Mary as a woman “who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” (Lk 8:2) During her lifetime, she was an active supporter and follower of Jesus who accompanied him and ministered to him. She was there at the crucifixion, among the first to see the empty tomb, and witness to the resurrection. When other disciples betrayed or denied, Mary was steadfast in her devotion. According to St. John’s Gospel, it is to Mary whom the risen Jesus first appears. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned round and said to him, ‘Rabbuni!’ (which means Master.)”(Jn 20:15-16)

With these thoughts of Mary in mind, let us travel forward in time about two thousand years. We are in Jerusalem, and we see Fr. Juan Solana, the papal appointee to Pontifical Institute Notre Dame in Jerusalem. Fr. Solana ministers to Christians who come to the Holy Land from all over the world. From his center, pilgrims can visit the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and other sites pertaining to Our Lord’s final days in Jerusalem. But, Fr. Solana feels led by Christ to establish another retreat center for pilgrims, one to be located in the north, in Galilee, where Jesus spent the majority of his ministry.

The Sea of Galilee

After researching, Fr. Solana chooses an available site. The land is purchased, and in 2009 construction is set to begin. Workers are about to dig the guest house foundation when mandatory archaeological tests reveal something solid – the remains of a First Century synagogue and what further excavation reveals to be the ruins of Magdala, the city where Mary Magdalene was born and where surely Jesus taught. 

Overnight, Fr. Solana’s project gains much greater religious and historical significance than he had ever envisioned. God has greater plans.

Magdala stands at the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history. Significant to Jewish history, ancient Magdala was also home to Yosef ben Matityahu, better known today as Josephus Flavius, who fought against the Romans at Magdala, yet would live to go and write its history. The city is significant to Christian history because it is one that Jesus surely visited, teaching and preaching. As we have learned from Josephus, in AD 67, Vespasian and his Roman forces surrounded the city, laid siege, and eventually destroyed it. Most of the rebels either fled by boat or were killed. Magdala became a forgotten city.

Forgotten until the 21st Century. Today, your visit to Magdala is enriched by its past, present, and future. The archaeological site offers a clear view of this once prosperous walled city. Central is the synagogue, the oldest in Galilee, and one of only seven from the first century in all of Israel. It is well preserved and includes an entrance hall and a chamber for storing the Torah scrolls. We know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom. He no doubt stood where you will stand when you visit.

Found in the synagogue is a carved block, now called the Magdala Stone. It holds clues that will help scholars establish a more complete picture of First Century Judaism. It depicts the oldest depiction of a 7-branched menorah ever found. The carving is rich in other symbols and depictions as well. In addition to the Synagogue, you will find the remains of mansions with colorful mosaic floors, a mikvaot (ritual bath), the marketplace and shops, as well as a large warehouse and a large stone wharf.

Duc In Altum, Magdala

Not all in Magdala is ancient, however. On May 26, 2014, Pope Francis blessed the tabernacle now located in the Boat Chapel of Duc in Altum. This modern spiritual center takes its name from Jesus’ command to Peter to “launch into the deep” or “put out into deep water.” The purpose of Duc in Altum is to honor Jesus’ public ministry. Within its walls you will find a number of distinct areas. 

The Women’s Atrium exalts the presence of women in the Gospels. It features eight pillars, seven of which represent women in the Bible who followed Jesus. The eighth, unmarked pillar honors women of all time who love God and live by faith.

From the Women’s Atrium, you can proceed to a number of specific chapels. With its unique altar and panoramic view of the water, the Boat Chapel has room for up to 300 pilgrims and reminds us of Jesus’ connection to the Sea of Galilee. The four Mosaic Chapels are home to art that illustrates events from the public life of Jesus: Walking on Water, Fishers of Men, Mary Magdalene (Casting out Demons), and The Daughter of Jairus Raised from the Dead. Each of the Mosaic Chapels can accommodate up to fifty people.

Of all of the chapels in Duc in Altum, pilgrims have most often written to us about The Encounter Chapel. This space is an archaeological treasure because its floor is that of the original market place of the Magdala port. In addition, the chapel houses the large unique painting depicting the encounter between Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. Modeled after the Magdala First Century Synagogue, with room for up to 120 people, this chapel is dedicated to Jesus’ encounter with all of us.

As the archaeologists and scholars continue to unlock the mysteries of the past, builders are looking to the future. Plans call for completion of the restaurant, an outdoor seaside worship center, visitors’ center, gardens, and of course the guest house and priests’ house – Fr. Solana’s idea of which began this adventure. Soon, the Magdalena Institute will become an international hub, dedicated to the discussion of women’s issues.

The Magdalena Institute

But, you don’t have to wait for the future, because Magdala is open today. Already, over 100,000 people have visited the site. Dr. Gregory Pouncey of Mobile, Alabama wrote, “The whole site was one of my personal favorites in the tour of Galilee.” In agreement, The Rev. Aaron Reynolds, who shepherded his flock from Deltona, Florida told us, “Magdala is most certainly one of my new favorite experiences in the area of the Sea of Galilee. 

It is beautifully situated by the water, of course, but the fantastic ruins at the location are breathtaking. I am most grateful that the caretakers of the Magdala site have preserved its authenticity, and have allowed visitors to learn in comfort, but also without having to imagine too much of what the area might have looked like 2000 years ago. I highly recommend any traveler to the land of Israel to make Magdala a priority stop along your journey!”

Today, Catholics and other Christians, Jews, believers of all faiths and all walks of life are coming to Magdala. You are invited to join them, to explore the city that Mary Magdalene once called home. Walk where Jesus walked. Visit the synagogue where he brought the Good News to the people of Magdala. Gaze out at the Sea of Galilee and recall the many Gospel stories of Jesus’ ministry – right here, in this very place.

 

Visit Magdala as one of the highlights on any of our tours to the Holy Land. Call us at 1-8000-CATHOLIC for more information.

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