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Tiberias

Israel

The thriving resort of Tiberias, with its balmy climate, lakeside hotels and fish restaurants, is a popular base for Christian pilgrims exploring the Galilee that Jesus knew.

Tiberias

Modern Tiberias (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Its location on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias in John’s Gospel) is within easy reach of the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Tabgha, Bethsaida, Chorazin, Magdala, Kursi, Cana, Mount Tabor, Nain and Nazareth.

Tiberias was a new city when Jesus began his public ministry. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, founded it around AD 20 to replace Sepphoris as his capital.

Antipas — who would later behead Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist — chose a site just south of the present resort, taking advantage of 17 hot springs renowned since ancient times for their healing qualities. He named his new city after his patron, the emperor Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberias

Hot springs at Tiberias (David Q. Hall)

Because the site lay over ancient burial grounds, observant Jews refused to incur ritual impurity by living there. Antipas had to resort to compulsion and financial inducements to populate his city.

Though Jesus spent much of his ministry on and around the Sea of Tiberias, its inappropriate siting may explain why there is no record that he ever visited Tiberias.

 

Powerhouse of Jewish scholarship

Ritual purification of the city was carried out in the middle of the second century AD. The timing was opportune. The Second Jewish Revolt had failed, and the Romans had responded by banning Jews from Jerusalem.

Jews flocked to Tiberias, which became the major centre of Jewish culture and learning, with 13 synagogues. Even the Sanhedrin (the supreme court) moved from Sepphoris. “Preachers, poets, scholars and rabbis abounded,” wrote historian G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville.

Over the following centuries, it was this powerhouse of Jewish scholarship that compiled almost all of the Jerusalem Talmud — one of the two central texts of Jewish religious teaching and commentary that had previously been transmitted orally — and the fixed Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible.

Tiberias

Tomb of Maimonides (Bukvoed)

A Christian community was established in the 4th century, when Tiberias became a major destination for pilgrims visiting the Christian sites of the Galilee region.

In 1033 an earthquake destroyed Tiberias. The Crusaders rebuilt it about two kilometres further north, where the present city stands.

 

Rabbi’s body was carried from Egypt

Tiberias

St Peter in his boat, at St Peter’s Church, Tiberias (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Thanks to successive conquests, modern Tiberias has fewer monuments or ancient ruins than other localities in the Holy Land.

Historic sites include the graves of several distinguished rabbis. These include the celebrated philosopher Maimonides, leader of the Jewish community in Cairo in the 12th century. In accordance with his will, his body was carried overland on the route believed to have been taken by Moses and the Israelites to the Promised Land, for burial in Tiberias (his grave is on Ben Zakkai Street).

One of the few remaining Crusader buildings is the Church of St Peter, hidden down an alley from the lakeside promenade. Erected around 1100, this Catholic church was a mosque, a caravanserai and a stable for animals before being rebuilt in 1870 by the Franciscans.

Remains of an older church, from the 6th century, have been discovered in a commanding position on Mount Berenice, west of the city. It is called the Anchor Church, because a huge stone with a hole in its centre was found under the base of the altar.

 

Coins found with likeness of Jesus

South of the modern city, where steam from hot springs rises above the ground, are a national park and an archaeological park.

The highlight of the national park is a 4th-century synagogue with a spectacular mosaic floor. It was discovered in 1921 during the first major archaeological dig led by Zionist Jews in Israel.

Tiberias

Ark of the Torah flanked by menorah, in synagogue mosaic at Tiberias (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

In a curious mix of Jewish and pagan symbols, the Ark of the Torah is flanked by a pair of menorah, but immediately below is a Zodiac circle revolving around the figure of the pagan sun god Helios riding his celestial chariot.

The archaeological park contains the remains of the old city of Tiberias.

Excavations have uncovered part of the cardo (main street), a bathhouse, an unidentified colonnaded building, a reservoir, a tower and the south gate complex.

Tiberias

Bronze coin with likeness of Jesus discovered at Tiberias

A treasure trove of bronze coins was discovered in 1998, hidden in pottery jars under the floor of a building. They included 58 bearing the likeness of Jesus, with Greek inscriptions such as “Jesus the Messiah, the King of Kings”, minted in Constantinople in the 11th century.

 

Hammat Tiberias National Park

Tel.: 972-4-6725287

Open: Apr-Sep 8am-5pm; Oct-Mar 8am-4pm (last entry one hour before closing time)

 

St Peter’s Church

Tel.: 972-4-6721059

Open: 8am-12.30pm, 2.30-5.30pm


References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Heinsch, James: “Tiberias Church of St Peter”, Holy Land, Autumn 1999.
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)

 

External links

Hammat Tiberias (BibleWalks)
Tiberias (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Tiberias — The Anchor Church (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Magdala

Israel

 

Magdala was a major first-century port on the Sea of Galilee, a centre of trade and commerce, and an exporter of salted fish to markets as far away as Europe. Archaeological discoveries early in the 21st century have made it a burgeoning pilgrimage destination.

Magdala

Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

Magdala’s fame down the centuries rested on one notable person, Mary Magdalene. This enigmatic woman — revered as a saint by the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches — was one of the few persons named in the Gospels as being present at Christ’s crucifixion and the first recorded witness of his Resurrection.

Whether she lived in Magdala or was simply born there is unknown, but she was apparently a wealthy woman.

The city, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee between Tiberias and Capernaum, is mentioned only once in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (15:39) says Jesus went there by boat — but even this reference is uncertain, since some early manuscripts give the name as Magadan.

Synagogue uncovered at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Synagogue uncovered at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Both Matthew and Mark say Jesus preached in synagogues “throughout Galilee”, and Magdala was only 10 kilometres from Capernaum, where he based his ministry.

The Jewish historian Josephus says Magdala had a population of 40,000 people and a fleet of 230 boats about 30 years after Jesus died.

 

Mary was called ‘apostle of the apostles’

Magdala

Carved stone decorated with menorah (© Moshe Hartal, Israel Antiquities Authority)

All four Gospels refer to a close follower of Jesus called Mary Magdalene. Luke says she had been cured of “seven demons” and he lists her first among the women who accompanied Jesus and supported his ministry from their own resources (8:2-3).

After Jesus died she was one of the women who took spices for anointing to the tomb. They found the tomb empty, but “two men in dazzling clothes” gave them the news that Jesus had risen. (Luke 24:1-12)

Later Jesus appeared to Mary. At first she thought he was the gardener, but she recognised him when he spoke her name. Then she announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. (John 20:1-18)

By the 3rd century, Mary Magdalene was described by the theologian Hippolytus of Rome as the “apostle of the apostles”.

 

Identity became confused

Jesus casting seven demons from Mary Magdalene, mosaic in Magdala church (Seetheholyland.net)

Jesus casting seven demons from Mary Magdalene, mosaic in Magdala church (Seetheholyland.net)

But Mary’s identity became confused in 591. In that year Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon which expressed his belief that the Mary who had been cured of seven demons was the same person as the penitent prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment (Luke 7:37-50) and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume (John 12:3-8).

A revision of the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969 reverted to the Eastern tradition of distinguishing Mary Magdalene from the reformed prostitute. By then, however, this persona had endeared her to artists down the centuries.

More recently, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code mined a rich lode of pseudo-Christian texts to present Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and co-founder of an arcane dynasty at odds with the institutional Church and its beliefs.

And what really became of Mary? A Greek tradition has her dying in Ephesus, with her relics preserved in Constantinople. A French tradition says she converted Provence to Christianity and her relics ended up in Vézelay Abbey in Burgundy, where they are still venerated.

 

City fought Romans on the sea

Magdala

Single-handled jug found at Magdala, dating to the Roman period (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The city that gave its name to Mary Magdalene became a fortified base for rebels during the First Jewish Revolt in AD 66-70, even engaging the Romans in a disastrous sea battle.

According to the historian Josephus — who commanded the Jewish forces in Galilee — the Sea of Galilee became red with blood and “full of dead bodies”. Of the survivors, emperor Vespasian sent 6000 to build a canal in Greece and ordered more than 30,000 to be sold as slaves.

Magdala continued as a much-reduced Jewish village during Roman and Byzantine times, and in more recent centuries as an Arab village until 1948. Mark Twain visited it in 1867, calling it “thoroughly ugly, and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable, and filthy”.

In the 4th century a church was built on the reputed site of Mary Magdalene’s house. Destroyed in the 7th century, it was rebuilt by Crusaders in the 12th century but was converted into a stable when the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land.

 

Port and city uncovered

Mosaic including boat discovered at Magdala (© Magdala Project)

Mosaic including boat discovered at Magdala (© Magdala Project)

Beginning in the 1960s, Franciscan archaeologists discovered Magdala’s ancient port and a city grid, with paved streets, water canals, a marketplace, villas and mosaics — one depicting a sailing boat.

Buried in the mud covering a thermal bath complex were ceramic crockery, perfume jars, jewellery, hairbrushes and combs, and bronze applicators for make-up.

The discovery of the massive foundations of a tower may account for the city’s name. Both Magdala in Aramaic and Migdal in Hebrew mean “tower”.

First-century synagogue identified

More archaeological remains were uncovered in 2009 on an adjacent property newly acquired by the Legion of Christ to establish a hotel, institute for women and retreat centre. The Legion, a Catholic congregation, manages the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.

Ritual baths at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Ritual baths at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Three interconnected ritual baths were discovered, the first found in Israel using groundwater from springs — which for purification purposes was considered “living water” — rather than rainwater.

In the remains of one building, under a thin layer of soil, excavators found a stone block engraved with motifs including a seven-branched menorah, the type of lampstand used in the Temple. This significant find led to the identification of the building as a synagogue.

Boat-shaped altar in Duc in Altum church at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Boat-shaped altar in Duc in Altum church at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Unlike other first-century synagogues found in Galilee, the Magdala building had ornate mosaics and frescoes.

In 2014 the Legion opened a new church on the site, simple in design but also rich in mosaics and murals, focusing especially on women in the Bible. It is named Duc in Altum (Latin for “Put out into the deep”, from Christ’s words in Luke 5:4). The altar is in the shape of a first-century boat, standing in front of an infinity pool leading the eye to the lake beyond.

In the crypt is an ecumenical worship space, called the Encounter Chapel, paved with stones from Magdala’s first-century marketplace.

 

Jesus Boat found nearby

Magdala’s port, now submerged in the beach, had a stone breakwater that extended into the sea and curved around the harbour to protect boats from the sudden storms that buffet the Sea of Galilee.

In 1986 the hull of the so-called Jesus Boat, a fishing boat old enough to have been in use during the time of Christ, was found in the lakebed near the ancient port of Magdala.

 

In Scripture:

Jesus visits Magdala by boat: Matthew 15:39

Mary cured of seven demons: Luke 8:2

Mary supports Jesus’ ministry: Luke 8:3

Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18

Mary announces the Resurrection to the disciples: John 20:18

 

Administered by: Legion of Christ

Tel.: +972 2 627-9111

Magdala Center: +972-057-226-1469 Tel/Fax: +972-04-620-9900

Open: 8am-6pm

 

 

References

Bagatti, Bellarmino: Ancient Christian Villages of Galilee (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, 1999).
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Precious Fragrances”, Holy Land Review (Spring 2009)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Corbett, Joey: “New Synagogue Excavations In Israel and Beyond”, Biblical Archaeological Review (July/August 2011)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Lofenfeld Winkler, Lea, and Frenkel, Ramit: The Boat and the Sea of Galilee (Gefen Publishing House, 2010)
Merk, August: “Magdala”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1910)
Nun, Mendel: “Ports of Galilee”, Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1999)
Reich, Ronny, and Zapata Meza, Marcela: “A Preliminary Report on the Miqwa’ot of Migdal”, Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 64, no. 1, 2014
Shanks, Hershel: “Major New Excavation Planned for Mary Magdalene’s Hometown”, Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 2007)
Twain, Mark: The Innocents Abroad (Wordsworth, 2010)

 

 

External links

Magdala Center (Legion of Christ)
Magdala Project (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum)
Mary Magdalene (Wikipedia)

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Jerusalem

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Onion domes and ornate frontage of Church of St Mary Magdalene (Seetheholyland.net)

Seven gilded onion domes, each topped by a tall Russian Orthodox cross, make the Church of St Mary Magdalene one of Jerusalem’s most picturesque sights.

It makes an especially striking spectacle at night, when its floodlit domes seem to be floating above the dark trees that surround it.

The church stands on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, above the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. It commemorates the enigmatic Mary from Magdala  — revered as a saint by the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches — who was one of the few persons named in the Gospels as being present at Christ’s crucifixion and who was the first recorded witness of his Resurrection.

In its convent live about 30 Russian Orthodox nuns from several different countries. While particularly known for the quality of their liturgical singing, they also paint icons, embroider vestments and items for liturgical use, and decorate Russian eggs.

 

Design reflects Muscovite architecture

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Medallion above door of Church of St Mary Magdalene (© Deror Avi)

The Church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1888 by Czar Alexander III of Russia, in memory of his mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, whose patron saint was Mary Magdalene.

Its onion-shaped domes and the general style reflect the architecture of Moscow during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Although the intricately decorated façade appears to be made of marble, it is actually of sculpted white sandstone.

Above the entrance a circular blue mosaic depicts Mary Magdalene, the first recorded witness of the Resurrection, robed in white.

 

Painting illustrates Mary Magdalene legend

In contrast to the exterior, the interior of the Church of St Mary Magdalene is rather plain. The walls are covered with designs, predominantly in shades of brown.The white marble and bronze iconostasis — the partition that separates the nave from the sanctuary — holds icons and paintings, including depictions of the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel.

Church of St Mary Magdalene

Inside Church of St Mary Magdalene (© Deror Avi)

Above the iconostasis, a large canvas by Russian artist Sergei Ivanov illustrates a popular legend in which Mary Magdalene travels to Rome to tell the Emperor Tiberius of Jesus’ unfair trial and unjust sentence. She is shown presenting the emperor with a red egg, symbolising the Resurrection and eternal life.

To the right side of the iconostasis, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary in a hand-carved wooden case has a place of honour. The icon is said to have miraculous powers.

 

Two Russian saints are buried

On either side of the nave is a marble sarcophagus, each containing the body of a Russian Orthodox saint.

The better known one is Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. A German princess, she was the wife of the Czar’s brother Sergei, a sister of the Czar’s wife Alexandra — and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

The grand duchess took a deep personal interest in the church and was responsible for commissioning its art works.

Widowed when an assassin killed her husband in 1905, she founded a convent and became its abbess. She and her nuns did much to help alleviate the suffering of the poor in Moscow.

After the Russian Revolution, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, her companion Sister Barbara Yakovleva and other members of the Russian imperial family were thrown down a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and left to die.

The bodies of Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Sister Barbara (whose remains are in the other sarcophagus) were eventually smuggled out of Russia and brought to Jerusalem. Both women have been canonised as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a crypt below the church is buried Princess Alice of Greece, the mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. She had expressed a wish to be buried near Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who was her aunt.

In Scripture:

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene: John 20:1-18

Administered by: Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem

Tel.: 972-2-6284373

Open: Tuesday and Thursday, 10am-noon

 

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Convent of St Mary Magdalene — the Garden of Gethsemane
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