The Israel Antiquities Authority has uncovered one of the world's oldest synagogues in an excavation at Migdal, near the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret). Inside the synagogue, a stone relief contains a depiction of the seven branched Menorah which stood in the Temple, and which was most likely seen by the artist who sculpted the stone relief.

Known depictions of the Menorah from Second Temple times include the famous relief of Titus's Arch in Rome, which shows Roman soldiers taking it away after destroying the Temple, and depictions on contemporary coins as well as graffiti etched into stone in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter. However, the new find is said to be the first which includes a relief etched by an artist contemporary with the Temple. 

The Menorah relief. (Israel Antiquities Authority, Moshe Hartal)

The synagogue has been dated to the years 50 BCE – 100 CE. The rectangular stone bearing the Menorah relief stands inside its central chamber. The chamber is about 120 square meters in size and stone benches line its sides.

The decorated stone depicts amphorae (earthenware vessels) on both sides of the Menorah and bears additional decorative motifs on its four sides and its top.

The floor of the synagogue was adorned with a mosaic and its walls were covered with a colorful fresco.

The dig was conducted by Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najer of the Antiquities Authority. According to Gorni, the find is “unique and exciting.”

Aerial view of synagogue (picture by SkyView)

"This is the first time that a Menorah decoration is discovered from the days in which the Temple still stood,” she said. “It is the first Menorah that is discovered in a Jewish context, which is dated to Second Temple times – the early Roman period. We can estimate that the inscription that appears on the stone... was made by an artist who saw the seven-branched Menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue joins only six synagogues known in the world from Second Temple times.”

The dig was conducted on land owned by a company which intends to build a hotel on the property.

Ancient Migdal – or Migdala, in Aramaic – was mentioned in Jewish sources and served as one of the central bases for forces under the command of Josephus Flavius (Yosef Ben Matityahu), who commanded the Galilee rebellion but later crossed over to the Roman camp. Resistance at Migdal continued after Tiberias and the rest of the Galilee had surrendered.

Migdal is also mentioned in the Christian “New Testament” as the place where Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala, came from.

In late Second Temple times the town was an administrative center of the western Sea of Galilee area. Until the establishment of Tiberias in the year 19 CE, it was the central town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

The site will be open to visitors in the future.