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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.


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’


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


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 2021 a second synagogue dating from the Second Temple period was found at Magdala. 

It was smaller and not so ornate as the first one, with an earthen floor that had been plastered. Archaeologists believe both existed at the same time, from about 50 BC until AD 67.

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




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
Schuster, Ruth: “In Hometown of Mary Magdalene, Israeli Archaeologists Find Second Synagogue”, Haaretz (December 12, 2021)
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)
Tabgha and Magdala (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Mary Magdalene (Wikipedia)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels


Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing (Seetheholyland.net)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem — venerated as the place where Jesus Christ died and rose again — contains a bewildering conglomeration of 30-plus chapels and worship spaces. There are no helpful signs.

This article describes the most significant areas that are not covered in the main Church of the Holy Sepulchre article.

The description begins at the main door (on the south side of the church) and circles the church in a roughly clockwise manner.

Immediately inside the main door is the Stone of Anointing, a slab of reddish stone flanked by candlesticks and overhung by a row of eight lamps. It commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial (though this stone dates only from 1810). It belongs
jointly to the Greek Orthodox, Catholics
and Armenian Orthodox.

On the wall behind the stone, a Greek mosaic depicts (from right to left) Christ being taken down from the cross, his body being prepared for burial, and his body being taken to the tomb.

To the left of the Stone of Anointing is a small circular slab with four pillars surmounted by a marble canopy. This shrine is the Armenian Station of the Holy Women. It commemorates Jesus’ mother and her companions who viewed the crucifixion.

On the wall behind the shrine, a large mosaic recalls the scene. The Armenians’ sacristy is on the left.


‘Little house’ encloses tomb

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Dome above edicule of the Tomb of Christ (Seetheholyland.net)

From this position the Tomb of Christ can be seen. A stone edicule (“little house”) encloses the sepulchre where it is believed Jesus lay buried for three days — and where he rose from the dead. (It is described in more detail in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre article.)

The lofty circular stone structure encompassing this whole area is known as the Rotunda. Above it is a huge dome decorated with a starburst of light.

Opposite the entrance to the Tomb, a triumphal arch built by the Crusaders leads to the basilica’s central worship space, the Katholikon. Originally the choir of the 12th-century Crusader church, it is now the Greek Orthodox cathedral.

A highly decorated screen called the iconostasis partially hides the altar from view. On the polished marble floor stands a goblet marking the “omphalos” (navel), the legendary centre of the earth. There are thrones for the patriarch of Jerusalem and the patriarch of Antioch.


Jewish tomb from 1st century

Behind the Tomb is a tiny Coptic chapel attached to the edicule.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

First-century Jewish tombs adjacent to Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus (Seetheholyland.net)

Directly opposite this tiny chapel, walk between two of the pillars of the Rotunda into a dilapidated room, the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus. On Sundays and feast days it is furnished for the celebration of Mass.

On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to two complete 1st-century Jewish tombs. Since Jews always buried their dead outside the city, this proves that the Holy Sepulchre site was outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion. There is a tradition that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here.

Catholic Chapel of the Apparition

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Chapel of the Apparition of Jesus to his Mother (Seetheholyland.net)

Returning to the Rotunda, the area to the left (on the north side of the church) belongs to the Catholics. There is an altar dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, then double bronze doors (donated by the people of Australia in 1982) lead to the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition. It commemorates the ancient tradition that Jesus appeared to his mother after his Resurrection, an event not found in the Gospels.

On the right inside the entrance of the chapel is a section of a column, said to be the one to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged. Along the far wall, scenes of the Way of the Cross are depicted in wrought iron.


Greek and Armenian chapels

Returning past the altar of St Mary Magdalene, turn left into a rather dark gallery, known as the Arches of the Virgin (commemorating a belief that Mary made visits to her son’s Tomb). It contains pillars and other remains from earlier constructions.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Prison of Christ chapel in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

At the far end, on the left, is a small Greek chapel called the Prison of Christ, apparently based on a belief that he was temporarily confined here before the crucifixion.

Further around the semi-circular aisle are two chapels on the left. The first is the Greek Chapel of St Longinus. It is dedicated to the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his spear and then accepted him as the Son of God.

Further along is the Armenian Chapel of the Division of the Raiment, recalling that the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s clothes among them.

Next on the left is a stairwell, its walls inscribed with hundreds of crosses left by pilgrims in past centuries.


Two chapels are underground

The 29 steep steps descend to the underground Armenian Chapel of St Helena. This was the crypt of the emperor Constantine’s 4th-century basilica and is therefore the oldest complete part of the entire building.

The Armenians have re-named the chapel to honour their national patron, St Gregory the Illuminator. The left-hand altar is dedicated to St Dismas (the Good Thief).

In an ancient quarry behind a wrought iron gate (open only with permission from the Armenians) is the Chapel of St Vartan and the Armenian Martyrs.

On a stone in a second-century wall is a drawing of a sailing vessel with a Latin inscription usually rendered as DOMINE IVIMUS (“Lord, we will go”). One interpretation is that it is a pilgrim’s reference to Psalm 122 (“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord’.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Statue of St Helena holding the Cross of Christ, in Chapel of the Finding of the Cross (Seetheholyland.net)

From the right of the chapel, another steep staircase of 22 steps leads to the Franciscan Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. This rough-walled area has been built within part of the ancient quarry, apparently later converted into a cistern for water storage.

Here, according to tradition, St Helena (Constantine’s mother) discovered the True Cross and other instruments of the Passion and crucifixion. A statue behind the altar shows her holding the Cross.

Remnants of 12th-century frescoes are displayed behind glass walls.

After ascending all the steps to the ground floor again, immediately on the left is the Greek Chapel of the Derision. It commemorates the mocking of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Under the altar is a fragment of a column, said to be the one Jesus sat on when the crown of thorns was put on his head.


Rock of Calvary can be seen

Further along, on the left, a glass screen protrudes slightly into the aisle. Through it can be seen the natural rock of Calvary.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Rock of Calvary on display in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

Next to it is a small area called the Chapel of Adam. It is directly beneath the Chapel of Calvary upstairs, and an ancient tradition suggests that Adam was buried here and that the blood of Jesus tricked down to his skull.

Here the rock of Calvary can be seen again, with a fissure running through it. Some believe the fissure was caused by the earthquake at the time Christ died. Others suggest that the rock of Calvary was left standing by quarrymen because it was cracked.

From this chapel, a door leads to the Greek Treasury, holding relics including one of the True Cross. The treasury is usually closed.


Rights of possession are jealously guarded

Under a decree called the Status Quo imposed by the Ottoman Turks in 1757, ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared between the Greek Orthodox, Catholics (known in the Holy Land as Latins) and Armenian Orthodox. Three minor communities, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox, have rights to use certain areas. All the churches jealously guard their rights.

One effect of the Status Quo can be seen by looking above the main entrance on leaving the church.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Immovable ladder over entrance to Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

The wooden ladder leaning against a window ledge has been there since early in the 18th century. Nobody knows why it is there, but because it was in place when the Status Quo began in 1757, it must remain there.

As one faces the main entrance, to the right is a disused stairway that was the Crusaders’ entrance to Calvary. At the top of the stairs is the Chapel of the Franks. Beneath it is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of St Mary of Egypt — a prostitute who was converted in the church courtyard in the 4th century and spent the rest of her life as a hermit.

Related article:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In Scripture:

The crucifixion: Matthew 27:24-56; Mark 15:16-41; Luke 23:1-49; John 19:1-37

The burial of Jesus: Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42

The Resurrection: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10

Administered by: Confraternity of the Holy Sepulchre (Greek Orthodox), Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (Catholic), Brotherhood of St James (Armenian Orthodox)

Tel.: 972-2-6267000

Opens: Apr-Sep 4am, Oct-Mar 5am. Closes: Apr-Aug 8pm, Mar and Sep 7.30pm, Oct-Feb 7pm.  Sunday morning liturgies are usually: Coptic 4am, Catholic 5.30am, Greek Orthodox 7am, Syriac Orthodox 8am; Armenian Orthodox 8.45am on alternating Sundays with a weekly procession at 4.15pm.


Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Benelli, Carla, and Saltini, Tommaso (eds): The Holy Sepulchre: The Pilgrim’s New Guide (Franciscan Printing Press, 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)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Wright, J. Robert: “Holy Sepulchre”, Holy Land, spring 1998)

External links:

Holy Sepulchre (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Wikipedia)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem Virtual Tours)

Church of St Mary Magdalene


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 medallion depicts Mary Magdalene 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




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 (Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem)
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