Who can ever tell what the future holds? Or where our lives will lead us?
Father Juan Solana has been running the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem for the Legionaries of Christ religious order for the past ten years. But back in 2004, when informed by the Vatican that he was being sent to Israel, the young, Mexican-born Catholic priest found the prospect daunting, and even a bit frightening. For not only was Israel in the middle of a violent intifada, but Father Juan didn’t know the language. Besides, there were problems at Notre Dame that he felt he didn’t have the experience to solve. Simply put – he was afraid that he wasn’t quite up to the task.
Before setting out for the Middle East, Father Juan flew to Rome for a bit of extra spiritual strengthening. Entering a small chapel in the Vatican, he found himself in front of an unfamiliar altar. As he prayed, he raised his eyes and looked up at the mosaic on the wall, a scene on the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus rebukes his disciple Peter. Above it, there was a quote from the Gospels: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
From that moment on, Father Juan knew that he was on the right path. Even so, in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have imagined just how right it would be. For once in the Holy Land, chance led him to a unique and marvelous discovery.
Father Juan spent one of his first nights in Israel on the shores of Lake Kinneret. Walking near the water at dawn, he saw a fisherman netting his nets in front of him. And he began to dream about what he could accomplish in the Holy Land.
Soon Father Juan learned that Christian pilgrims to Israel made two major stops: they explored Jerusalem’s holy sites, and followed in the footsteps of Jesus around Lake Kinneret. Obviously, what was needed was another Notre Dame Center, or something similar, in the Galilee.
In 2005, after learning that a property called “Hawaii Beach Hotel” in the village of Migdal north of Tiberias was being sold, Father Juan began the long and complicated process of purchasing the property. Detailed plans for a worship center complete with guesthouse and restaurant were drawn up, and in 2009 construction began on the foundations.
Not surprisingly, the pre-construction archaeological survey of the site — required by Israeli law — soon found antiquities buried under mounds of dirt. Experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority were informed and the IAA began to carry out excavations. In the end, Father Juan decided to temporarily halt further construction of his longed-for Pilgrims’ Retreat.
What the shovels had uncovered was a rare first century synagogue – one of only a handful in the entire country and boasting stone benches, mosaics, and frescoes. Most importantly, in the synagogue’s debris the archaeologists found a uniquely engraved, 2,000-year-old stone altar/prayer table.
As excavations continued, more and more discoveries were made. Soon archaeologists had uncovered the houses and shops of Magdala, a Second Temple era Jewish settlement on the shores of Lake Kinneret and home to Jesus’ friend/disciple Mary Magdalene. Among the more exciting discoveries were ritual baths – the only ones known today whose water comes from the aquifer (an underground layer of porous rock containing water). Another find was a variety of fishing paraphernalia, buried in the ruins of the two-storied edifice that has been named the Fisherman’s House.
Until the founding of Tiberias, Magdala had been one of the principal towns of the Galilee, famous for its fish industry and boasting thousands of residents. A variety of coins have been found on the site. They range in time from the year 20 CE to 67/68, allowing archaeologists to determine exactly when the town flourished.
However, the most amazing discovery to date is the altar stone found in the synagogue wreckage, says archaeologist Arfan Najjar. Born in the Galilee village of Daboriya, Najjar has been excavating Magdala for the past five years. Najjar and other experts believe the altar stone to be a model of the Jerusalem Temple – created by a contemporary artist who saw it first-hand.
Engraved on the table’s top and sides are carvings of the Temple’s parallel arcades, columns, beams, and arches. Clearly visible are vessels, tools and brushes that would have been used for sacrifices, and for cleaning up after they took place. And – the jewel in the crown – carved on the face of the table is a menorah, just like the one that stood in the Temple.
The synagogue and its table are of enormous significance for Jews, as this is the first time an ornately decorated altar stone from the first century has been found in Israel. At the same time, Magdala has become a holy site to Christians, for it is highly likely that Jesus stood in this synagogue while preaching in Jewish settlements around the Sea of Galilee. After all, Mary Magdalene, mentioned frequently in the Gospels, is believed to have been from Magdala..
The planned guesthouse and visitors’ center were moved a bit further north so that the synagogue could become a focal center for the site. Since then, although most of the funds slated for the Pilgrim Center have gone towards excavations, foundations have been dug for a beautiful guesthouse. Also underway is a large restaurant expected to offer delicious Mexican dishes along with other international fare. Father Juan hopes the guesthouse and restaurant will be ready to open by December of next year.
What is already complete, however, is a beautiful prayer and reflection center. It is called Duc in Altum, from the Gospel of Luke, and means “launch into the deep” or, figuratively, “try again, without fear.” Fantastically impressive, it features an area facing the Sea of Galilee that can hold up to 250 visitors. In addition, four side chapels suitable for 50 people are each decorated with a stunning mosaic. Designed like a byzantine church with mosaics, icons, and pillars, the center also features a large, round atrium dedicated to women.
While digging the foundations of the prayer center, workers discovered a first-century stone plaza that probably led to the harbor. This remains in situ, giving a thoroughly ancient atmosphere to an ecumenical chapel. Devoid of Christian symbols, it is meant as a place of worship for all faiths.
Next to the excavations are excellent explanatory signs in English and Hebrew. Visitors view the prayer and reflexion center, as well, and explore the synagogue, whose mosaics bear a resemblance to those in Masada, the City of David, and on some ossuaries in Jerusalem. And do enjoy the constantly growing New Testament Farm, whose residents include chickens, goats, sheep, lambs, donkeys and camels.
(The center was inaugurated just over a year ago, and the entire site is open daily from 8:00-18:00. For the time being, entrance is free. To reach Magdala, turn at Migdal Junction and pass through the Galileo Project – a new commercial center that belongs to modern Migdal.)
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.