Travel Blog

New Discoveries are still made in the Holy Land

Of all the destinations visited by Christian pilgrims, the Holy Land where Jesus walked 2000 years ago might seem the least likely to offer something new.

Pilgrims have been treading a path to holy sites since the early Christian centuries, and biblical archaeologists have been digging for 170 years. Yet new discoveries are still being made.

Pool of Siloam

Pool of Siloam

On my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1996, our guide showed us a narrow pool in Jerusalem that for many centuries had been identified as the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a man who had been blind since birth.

Eight years later a drainage repair crew, working on pipe maintenance nearby, uncovered stone steps leading to the real Pool of Siloam. A much bigger structure, it had been destroyed by Roman conquerors around AD 70 and gradually covered by debris. Photo by Ian Scott

Baptismal Pools in Jordan

Baptismal Pools in Jordan

In Jordan, the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus became accessible to modern pilgrims only about 15 years ago. Before 1996 the site known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan was a minefield on the front line between Israel and Jordan.

Now the remains of more than 20 Christian sites have been discovered, including several churches, a walled monastery, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system.

With the encouragement of Jordan’s royal family, several Christian denominations have built new churches in the area. A Catholic church is under construction. Photo by Jan Smith

Nazareth Village Ancient House

Nazareth Village Ancient House

In the Galilean city of Nazareth, the newest pilgrims’ venue – and TripAdvisor’s number one Nazareth attraction — is the International Mary of Nazareth Center, which uses multimedia technology to depict the Virgin Mary’s role in salvation history.

Two years before it opened in 2011, workers on the site were digging up an old courtyard when they uncovered the walls of an ancient house. The Israel Antiquities Authority declared the remains were of the first residential building dating to the time of Jesus ever discovered in the city.

Since there were probably only about 100 houses in Nazareth at the time, Jesus would certainly have known the place and might even have visited it — perhaps played with the children who lived there. Photo by James Emery

Magdala Synagogues

Magdala Synagogues

But the most striking discovery made at a pilgrimage site in the Holy Land in recent years has been at Magdala, home town of St Mary Magdalene.

For years our pilgrimage bus used to pass a rather derelict site beside the Sea of Galilee, where Franciscan archaeologists in the 1960s had discovered an ancient port and city grid.

Then the Legionaires of Christ bought an adjacent property to establish a hotel, institute for women and retreat centre. When they were preparing to build in 2009, archaeological remains were uncovered.

Jewish ritual baths and a building with ornate mosaics and frescoes identified as a synagogue were found. The synagogue had a stone block engraved with motifs including a menorah, the seven-branched lampstand used in the Temple.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark say Jesus preached in synagogues “throughout Galilee”. Magdala was only 10 kilometers from Capernaum, where he based his ministry, so he probably preached in this building.

Last year the Legion opened a new church at Magdala, simple in design but also rich in mosaics and murals, focusing especially on women in the Bible. The altar is in the shape of a first-century boat, standing in front of an infinity pool leading the eye to the Sea of Galilee beyond.

Article by Pat McCarthy, director of the pilgrimage website

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