Following parts I and II of Bar Ilan University’s two-day trip to the Kinneret (or Sea of Galilee) area, our two buses drove from the scenic ruins of Wadi Hamam to the newly excavated ruins of Migdal (or Magdala). When I was visiting friends and family in Michigan a few months ago, I stumbled upon a free copy of Smithsonian magazine (Jan-Feb 2016 issue) which featured the findings of Magdala as their cover story, which I brought back home with me (see HERE). And now, on this trip, I was able to visit the much-discussed site and to hear the discovery story from the archaeologist and IAA official mentioned in the article, Arfan Najar and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, respectively.
First gawking at the ridiculous souvenirs for the myriads of religious tourists, such as tiny vials of “synagogue sand” or “Sea of Galilee water” (each for $1 apiece), we settled down for an introductory lecture on the site. At the culmination of said lecture we all stood up and walked over to the start of the archaeological park tour, showcasing the structural finds previously hidden underground.
We discussed the unique findings of household mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) in some of the houses, with the Kinneret just minutes away by foot – evidence of wealth in the village. Onwards we walked around the complex of uncovered walls until we reached the paramount discovery of the dig, a 2,000 year old synagogue with some rather interesting features. One such detail was a short, squat, ornately carved stone table which was presumed to be used for communal Torah scroll readings, a debatable assumption. A replica of the altar-like table can be seen in the photograph below, resting on the dirt partially obscured by a broken column.
Continuing onward with the extensive ruins, we walked alongside the unfinished Magdala Resort and I took the opportunity to wander off in the direction of the richly blue-coloured Kinneret. I noticed a dark basalt complex not far south and found Najar to identify it for me; an Ottoman-era homestead with an adjacent pump house was his answer. With a multitude of thanks to the guest speakers we wrapped up our Magdala visit and returned to the buses, driving north to a site I hadn’t known about: Horvat Minya.
Pulling up right outside the ruins, we were greeted by a formidable limestone wall and an open main gate flanked by half-round towers. Horvat Minya is a the remains of an Islamic palace from the Umayyad period, built by Hisham, the same caliph attributed to the construction of the Islamic palace outside Jericho (the cleverly named Hisham’s Palace).
Upon entering the ruined palace I was immediately swept over by a feeling of exotic adventure, like I was following in the footsteps of the lovable titular character of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Everything about the colonnaded courtyard and the atypical grass-covered floors of the rooms in the northeast quadrant of the palace felt so foreign, and I reveled in the feeling.
Passing a room with a collapsed vaulted ceiling, we snaked our way through the overgrown spring vegetation and dismantled masonry. We found Persian and/or Islamic potsherds with the characteristic green glaze as well as a large stash of broken white marble of high quality. In one room, under a sturdy staircase, we found what seems to be holes made by looters, hoping to find hidden treasure troves. Rejoining the group, we visited the remains of the on-site mosque, kitchen and numerous other rooms, paying special attention to the anchoring holes on the southern wall, used to affix marble plates in efforts to beautify the room. Despite the fact that we could have stayed a lot longer, the sun was setting and there was still one more site to visit: Tel Kinnorot.
We disembarked just off the road not far from Capernaum Junction and climbed up the hill overlooking the Kinneret, reaching the excavated ruins partway up. An ancient settlement that has been used in research to showcase early urbanisation, Tel Kinnorot was mentioned in the Bible as a fortified city in two separate accounts. A fragment from an Egyptian stella with hieroglyphic markings was found in 1928 and a very thorough and well composed article was written up in recent years which can be seen HERE (I especially liked the fish bit). But we stopped to visit just the gate and storage houses, if I recall correctly, where we had a lecture as the sun slipped over the slope of the tel.
Afterwards we enjoyed snacks and beverages both hot and cold before walking back down to the parked buses. I was dropped off at Migdal where my parents picked me up for the drive back home, ending a very long but very enjoyable trip with Bar Ilan University, hopefully the first of many…