I had occasion to visit Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center the other day and received some information on the current status of the excavations at Magdala, particularly how one might arrange a visit to the site. The Notre Dame connection comes from the fact that the same people, the Catholic movement Legionaries of Christ, are in charge of both places: the Center in Jerusalem and the large piece of property at Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. The Magdala site is slated to become a large pilgrim facility (hence, the excavations) on which construction in fact is already underway.
The Magdala Center project, as it is called, is detailed on their web-site, HERE. If anyone is in Jerusalem, there is an informational display area in the Notre Dame lobby, one feature of which is a replica of the carved stone bearing a menorah which was excavated on the site (see photo). The Legionaries are also glad to host groups at Notre Dame to explain the project, the excavations, etc. The person to contact for such is Mr. Eduardo Guerra (not “Father”, as I repeatedly called him!); his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the excavations: Much information is available on this web-log. As has been publicized elsewhere, they have put out a call for volunteers to come and help dig and are even providing room and board for up to 30 days, which is quite unusual. They seem to want people who can come and spend a few weeks, though. Again, the person to contact about volunteering to dig is Mr. Guerra.
The person I talked to, Veronica, stated that they are glad to have visitors come to the Magdala site to see what they’re doing. The best bet is to arrange this in advance, once again through Mr. Guerra. For one thing, they have to notify the guard at the site to look for you and let you in at the gate. It sounds like the digging is going on pretty much all the time, though — they don’t have a set “season” as at most other excavations.
Finally, below is a visual guide to the Magdala properties which some may find helpful. I have marked up a Google Maps screen-shot to try to show the status of the various areas there, based on what they told me at Notre Dame. The area shown is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, north of Tiberius and at the foot of Mount Arbel. (Note: It is an old photo, from at least several years ago; the number and letter designations are my invention.)
The area outlined in yellow (1) is the walled compound of the Franciscans, where Fr. Corbo et al. excavated in the 1970s and found, among other things, a stretch of the Roman road, a mosaic depiction of a sailing vessel, and what they identified as a synagogue. There is currently no access to this area, I was told. How (or whether) the finds there will be connected to whatever emerges to the north remains to be seen. (See UPDATE below.)
The areas labelled in red “2” and “3” together make up the Legionaries Magdala Center site; the red line marks it’s northern boundary. Area 2 is now described as “closed” and the excavations there completed. It is there that the early stages of construction are already underway (the photo shows an old holiday village, which of course is all gone now). “A” is the approximate location of the “synagogue” which was so much in the news a while back and the topic of a previous post of mine. The “synagogue”, they say, will be preserved in the vicinity of the center’s main entrance, the plans for which are being revised to accommodate the ancient remains. Apparently, nothing else too exciting was found in area 2; some residential structures is all that was mentioned. By the way, even though the area is now closed, the “synagogue” should be viewable by visitors to the site who request to see it.
Area 3, especially at “B”, is where excavations are going on at present and where you are likely to find the archaeologists and other staff if you should visit. [UPDATE, 2012: Almost the entire strip of land “3” has now been excavated, or is under excavation!] The excavation director is a Mexican archaeologist named Marcela Zapata, according to the web-log. They are projecting that it will take three years to thoroughly excavate this parcel. Again, it will be interesting to see how this new work will connect to what the Franciscans did in the past.
By the way, if you happen to visit Mount Arbel, the area under discussion here is visible from the summit. You have to walk a bit to the east of the developed viewpoint, however (preferably without going over the edge!). Bring your binoculars.
UPDATE / 2012
Actually, the Franciscans, through their Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (SBF) have had their own “Magdala Project” underway for the past few years, in part revisiting the large areas excavated in the 1970s. In addition to digging some new areas, they are re-exposing, consolidating and restoring the previous finds there, including taking up entire mosaic floors for preservation. They hope to open the site to visitors in the future. Information can be found HERE and at their official web-site (several items are in Italian only; see the blog for photo-reports on recent activities: survey work, GPR-based geo-surveying, harbor stratigraphy, etc.) This project might be worth contacting regarding volunteer opportunities as well.]
UPDATE / June 2014
The Franciscan Media Center has released a short video highlighting the 2014 official opening of the Magdala Center, the elaborate pilgrim facilities that are being created adjacent to the excavated ruins of the ancient town. It will give you some sense of the current appearance of the site and how the antiquities are being preserved and presented.
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Read this RELATED POST about the Magdala “synagogue”.