Identification of the Ancient Capernaum

1905: H. Kohl and C. Watzinger working in the synagogue

Surveys and excavations

The ancient village was abandoned a millennium ago, but some Arab families of the Semekiyeh tribe kept living there until the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Two thirds of the ruins belong to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, while the remainder on the east side belongs to the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate.

The American scholar E. Robinson, who visited the site in 1838, left the following description: "The whole place is desolate and mournful. A few Arabs only of the Semekiyeh were here encamped in tents, and had built up a few hovels among the ruins which they used as magazines".
Not far from the lake shore Robinson noticed "the prostrate ruins of an edifice which, for expense, labour and ornament, surpasses any thing we have yet seen in Palestine". During a second visit he correctly identified that building as a synagogue.

The English archaeologist C. W. Wilson in 1866 made in the synagogue a small sounding, which was still insufficient to provide a reliable plan of the edifice. Further, he described two monumental tombs, one of which is still visible some 200 m north of the synagogue.
In the following years the precious remains of the synagogue were heavily damaged by local Bedouins and by the inhabitants of Tiberias. This pitiable destruction, deplored in vain by the French traveller Guérin (1880), continued until 1894.

In that year the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, through brother Giuseppe Baldi of Naples (below), acquired from the Bedouins the ruins of the synagogue and a large area of ancient Capharnaum. The Franciscan property was soon fenced off and protected by stone walls still visible today; and even the remains of the synagogue were carefully covered with earth for further protection against any vandalism.

In 1905 Kohl and Watzinger of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft were allowed by the Franciscans to excavate the synagogue. The cleaning of that imposing monument was continued in the following years (1906-1915) by the Franciscan architect Brother Wendelin von Menden, who excavated also a portion of the ancient village on the W and SW sides of the synagogue, and finally started the excavations of an octagonal church some 30 m S of the synagogue.

Photos of the octagonal church excavated in 1921 by Orfali

In 1921 Fr. Gaudentius Orfali of Nazareth (below), conducted a short season of excavations, partly uncovering the octagonal church and exposing an Arab level of the town in the area between the synagogue and the octagonal church. To this young Franciscan we owe the restoration of the synagogue.
A long dedicatory inscription in Latin was engraved on one column of the N stylobate by the Department of Antiquities to commemorate the event. After Orfali's untimely death in 1926, no major work was done in Capharnaum for some 40 years.

From 1968 to 1991 the dynamic Franciscan archaeologist Fr. Virgilio C. Corbo and Fr. Stanislao Loffreda worked almost without interruption in rediscovering ancient Capharnaum. The excavations concentrated first on the two public buildings of the town, namely on the octagonal church and on the synagogue; and our efforts were rewarded by the sensational discovery of the house of St. Peter and of the first century synagogue built by the Roman centurion.
In addition, a large portion of the ancient village was brought to light, clarifying the long and fascinating history of the site. Fr. Corbo continued the reconstruction of the synagogue and completely reshaped the Franciscan property to cope with the ever increasing number of pilgrims and tourists. He died on Dec. 6, 1991 and he was buried in the insula sacra under the modern Church which had been dedicated on June 29, 1990.
In the meantime Dr. V. Tzaferis of the Department of Antiquities conducted five seasons of excavations in the Greek-Orthodox property (1978-1982).

Four new excavations were directed by Father Stanislao Loffreda between 2000 and 2003 involving a part of the village that had not previously been explored, to the east of the public road. The results of these investigations are contained in the volume “Cafarnao V, Documentazione fotografica degli scavi – 1968-2003” [“Capernaum V, Photographic documentation of the excavations – 1968-2003”], Jerusalem 2005.

History and archeology