The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority are to restore ancient mills in the Galilee hills. The mills, located in the Amud Stream valley, not far from Safed, are among the country’s most important sites for documenting centuries-old agricultural traditions that have all but disappeared.
According to the director of the Amud Stream Nature Reserve, Lazar Bergman, more than 20 mills dot the stream, where the inhabitants once milled their grain into flour — more than any other area in Israel. It is believed that the first of these mills was built during the Crusader era in the 12th or 13th century.
The mills in the Amud Stream operated by stream water flowing into a gully, at the bottom of which was a stone paddle wheel. The water moved the wheel, which turned the grinding stones in the mill house. “These mills were built on the basis of very precise calculations on how to make the most of the water power,” Bergman said. “It was so precise that not even one more mill could be built because the water power was fully utilized.”
In the golden age of 16th-century Safed, which was settled mostly by Jews from Spain, the Amud Stream valley also saw the development of a wool industry that also utilized the valley’s water power to full the cloth. Thus the Amud Stream became both an agricultural and industrial center for the Galilee. The Arabic name for one of the mills, Tahunat el-Battan, preserves in it the Spanish word for fulling. The mills continued to operate until the early 20th century.
“I interviewed elderly men from the Bedouin, Druze and Arab villages in the area and they told me how they would leave home in the morning with a camel laden with grain, arrive at the mill and wait their turn to grind the wheat into flour,” Bergman says.
When, in the 1930s, the British built a modern mill in Safed, the mills in the Amud Stream valley began to close down, Bergman says.
When the Amud Stream was declared a nature reserve, the INPA recognized the historic importance of the flour mills but had difficulty caring for them. “Without ongoing maintenance, the fill in the walls eroded and the mills began to collapse,” Bergman explains.
In recent years the INPA, together with the IAA, began raising money to conserve and restore the sites in the Amud Stream. The work began with a survey to document all the mills, during which it emerged that in addition to the mills the valley had 10 bridges and five diversion dams built as part as the infrastructure to send water to the mills.
Three months ago work began to restore and conserve the buildings, with the assistance of conservation architect Amir Freundlich. The work includes cutting down trees and bushes whose roots had penetrated the walls, causing them to crumble, as well as strengthening the walls with wooden supports. Bergman says two of the mills, which were in the greatest danger of collapse, are already in the process of restoration and other mills will follow.