Saturday, October 3, 2009

Israel: Synagogue from Second Temple Period Excavated at Migdal

Israel: Synagogue from Second Temple Period Excavated at Migdal

(ISJM) According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, a synagogue from the Second Temple Period (pre-70 CE) was excavated at Migdal, near the Sea of Galilee .The remains appear to have been remarkably well preserved with surviving perimeter benches, floor mosaic and traces of colored wall painting.

The most unusual feature is a large stone covered with symbolic relief carving (see photo). This includes what archaeologists believe is the earliest known representation of a menorah in a synagogue setting. The discovery of the synagogue - during construction of a hotel - adds important new evidence of extensive building of Jewish synagogues prior to the destruction of the Temple. There is still no consensus, however, on what exactly took place in these meeting halls. Torah reading? Study? Individual and collective prayer? When it is fully Migdal will no doubt now be included in the standard synagogue histories in which the Second Temple period is dominated with mention of Gamla and Masada.

Migdal, Israel. Carved stone from the excavated synagogue, Photo: IAA

Here is the IAA Press Release:

A synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE) was exposed in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at a site slated for the construction of a hotel on Migdal beach, in an area owned by the Ark New Gate Company. In the middle of the synagogue is a stone that is engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never been seen. The excavations were directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The main hall of synagogue is c. 120 square meters in area and its stone benches, which served as seats for the worshippers, were built up against the walls of the hall. Its floor was made of mosaic and its walls were treated with colored plaster (frescoes). A square stone, the top and four sides of which are adorned with reliefs, was discovered in the hall. The stone is engraved with a seven-branched menorah set atop a pedestal with a triangular base, which is flanked on either side by an amphora (jars).

According to the excavation director, Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “We are dealing with an exciting and unique find. This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing. This is the first menorah to be discovered in a Jewish context and that dates to the Second Temple period/beginning of the Early Roman period. We can assume that the engraving that appears on the stone, which the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered, was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah with his own eyes in the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue that was uncovered joins just six other synagogues in the world that are known to date to the Second Temple period”.

According to the Minister of Culture and Sport, MK Limor Livnat, “This important find attests to the extensive Jewish settlement in the northern region at the time of the Temple. I am certain that the site will constitute an attraction for tourists from abroad and from Israel and will shed light on life in the Jewish settlement during the Second Temple period”.

Jose Miguel Abat, legal representative of "Ark New Gate" company, expressed his joy for the finding and said it reinforces the company's intention to establish a center of dialogue and respect between the different religions and cultures. Abat said that "we are sure this finding and the planned center will attract tourists and visitors from Israel and from around the World".

The synagogue is located in Migdal (‘Magdala’ in Aramaic), which is mentioned in Jewish sources. Migdal played an important role during the Great Revolt and was actually the main base of Yosef Ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), commander of the rebellion in the Galilee. Migdal also continued to resist the Romans after both the Galilee and Tiberias had surrendered. ‘Magdala’ is mentioned in Christian sources as the place whence Mary Magdalene came, one of the women who accompanied Jesus and the apostles and who Christian tradition has sanctified. After it was conquered by the Romans, the city was destroyed and many of its residents were killed. At the end of the Second Temple period Migdal was an administrative center of the western basin of the Sea of Galilee. Until the founding of Tiberias in the year 19 CE, Migdal was the only important settlement along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The site is currently closed to visitors and will be opened to the public in the future.

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