On a Galilean mountaintop, in about 1150, King Baldwin III stopped grousing at his mother, Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, and built a castle in the village of Mi’ilya, from which he sought to consolidate his shrunken share of the Frankish Crusader kingdom in the Holy Land. Almost 900 years later, residents of this village have come together in a unique venture spearheaded by a local archaeologist, to fix and restore the dangerously crumbling castle. In parallel, next door to the castle, a curious gas-station owner named Salma Assaf privately funded an excavation beneath her house – leading to the discovery of what may have been the biggest winery in the Crusader world.
Unique in the annals of medieval winemaking, this winery had not one treading floor where the grapes were crushed, but two parallel ones, which apparently drain into a huge pit carved out of bedrock back in the Roman period.
“The Byzantines had much larger wineries,” explains Rabei Khamisy, the Mi’ilya born-and-bred archaeologist who is leading this unusual endeavor. “But the Crusaders had nothing comparable, as far as we know.”
The castle had been disintegrating for decades, if not centuries, but Dr. Khamisy was spurred to action because the situation had worsened. The villagers were in real danger of getting brained by falling bricks. For decades the government commiserated but did nothing except put up roadblocks around it. “What child doesn’t head straight for a road marked ‘No entrance’?” the archaeologist asks rhetorically.
In January 2017, stones started to fall from the castle’s northern wall; again, the path to it was closed. As Khamisy, who lives across the road, recalls: “I said to my wife: If the fort falls in front of me, I have no right to live here.” Thus the project to rescue the castle in Mi'ilya, located north of Ma’alot-Tarshiha, was born.
The Israel Antiquities Authority estimated that the cost of and restoring the entire castle-fort would be about 3 million shekels (approximately $861,000). Khamisy knew that wasn’t going to happen.
But, starting small, by shoring up just a five-meter stretch of wall – “the most dangerous, which would kill a child someday” should it collapse – would run a doable 300,000 shekels. And since the government wouldn’t help, the locals would step up and do it for themselves.
Khamisy set about to make it happen. He began to lecture in the village, inviting expert guest speakers, and personally knocked on every door.
“Mi’ilyans love archaeology,” he says. “Divided among the families, it worked out to 66 shekels per person. I asked everybody to donate the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes, and for that I would preserve the fort and safeguard our children and our antiquities.”
All the land in Mi’ilya is privately owned, including that on which the castle sits. But preservation of antiquities is a national responsibility. A family can’t so much as fix a faucet without obtaining permission, in what is usually a lengthy process. Khamisy obtained permits in record time.
About 250 households participated in the funding effort. The local council ponied up about 100,000 shekels, local businesses made up the rest – and the project took off.
The crumbling wall of the castle-fort was restored under the aegis of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, where Khamisy teaches.
Meanwhile, starting in July 2017, under the aegis of Salma Assaf, excavators removed vast quantities of dirt and debris from underneath her house, uncovering the Crusader-era wine factory with the Roman-era pit next to the grape-treading floors. Centuries later, the Mamluks built a vaulted roof over the pit, which still has what appear to be remnants of plaster on its walls and may have originally been part of a water reservoir.
Today visitors can see the cleared-up remains of the wine factory through glass windows on the floor of the Chateau de Roi, the spacious, high-end culinary and tourist center Assaf has built above the ruins of the ancient winery. The eatery also has views of the Galilee from the windows to the outside. The restaurant and two guest rooms are due to open for business in late August 2019. Assaf by the way has moved to another building in the village.
Most of the castle and its environs still remain to be unearthed and explored. In fact, that could also be said of modern Mi’ilya itself. The whole town sits on a site with a history going back at least ten millennia.
The oldest remains found so far are from the pre-pottery Neolithic B stage ("PPNB"), about 10,000 years ago, but it’s reasonable to conjecture that occupation began earlier. Some chapters of human evolution happened right in this area of the Levant. But if archaic hominins dwelled in water-rich Mi’ilya, fed by multiple springs – the evidence is long gone.
Or buried. About 100 years ago a local family, the Arrafs, whose descendants are Khamisy’s next-door neighbors, began expanding their house and discovered beneath it the mosaic floor of what is probably part of a long-forgotten Byzantine monastery. The Arrafs have been protecting the ancient mosaic, visible by peering through a trapdoor in their yard, ever since and hope to hire Khamisy privately one day to mount a proper excavation of their backyard.
The conversion of Mi’ilya
The Byzantine era began in 324 C.E. and by the year 390, the Christian empire controlled the Holy Land. It seems likely that the people of Mi’ilya all converted to Christianity. Then, about 250 years later, the caliphate arrived: Jerusalem surrendered to it in the year 637.
In the pendulum that is Palestine, Jerusalem was reconquered in 1099 by Christian forces and the Crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which would survive for about two centuries.
It was a good time for Mi’ilya: It would become the capital of the Frankish Crusader lordship in the Galilee.
Khamisy believes the castle-fort that the villagers are helping to fix up was originally built by King Baldwin III.
After co-ruling the Holy Land for years with his mother Queen Melisende, in the late 1140s, the two became estranged. They agreed to split up, with Baldwin reigning in the Galilee while Melisende would retain Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem.
“We don’t know when we were conquered, but it was probably in the early Crusader period, with the fall of Acre in 1104,” says Khamisy, who evidently takes the subjugation of his village 1,000 years ago personally.
The first official mention of the name of Mi’ilya is in Crusader sources dating to 1160, at which point Baldwin III handed over the management of the castle/fort and its property to the knight John (Johannes) of Haifa. John was also given management of nine villages surrounding around the site. In other words, in Baldwin’s time, Mi’ilya was the center of a fief.
There isn’t actually any definitive evidence that Baldwin built the structure in question, but there aren't exactly any other options, says Khamisy. Also, it was built in the quadriburgium style – with four corner towers, typical of Baldwin’s time, the 12th century, he says.
Not that Baldwin III lived there, Khamisy clarifies. He probably moved between Acre and Tyre, but part of his kingdom was managed from Mi’ilya, which has a strategic view of the whole central Galilee. (In 1152, Baldwin III prevailed against his mother, and began to rule from Jerusalem).
In 1187, Mi’ilya fell to Saladin, but after the Third Crusade, co-sponsored by Richard the Lionheart and Philippe of France, the Treaty of Jaffa was signed in 1192 by Saladin and Richard, and the western Galilee with Mi’ilya returned to Crusader control.
However, around 1226, the Teutonic knights began building Monfort Castle (which recent archaeological exploration showed was even bigger than thought) and Mi’ilya began to decline. Forty years later the Mamluks rolled over the Crusader forts and Mi’ilya fell in about 1266. Monfort would fall in 1271.
The Mamluks continued to control the region from Mi’ilya. But in the late 14th century or during the 15th – sometime before the transition to Ottoman rule – something mysterious happened in Mi’ilya: It was wiped out.
“We find no mention from that time, nor has any pottery from that period been discovered so far,” notes Khamisy, adding that a record from 1549 mentions the existence of just 17 households in Mi’iliya, while another source from 1555 mentions it as being a farm. The center of action had by then moved to nearby Tarshiha (and later, in modern Israel, to Ma’alot).
Khamisy does, however, have a theory about what happened to his village: It was probably decimated by an earthquake and/or a plague. Black death was not unique to medieval Europe.
During this period, the local name of the village was maintained: After all, somebody remained and remembered it, Khamisy suggests.
In the 1740s, Daher al-Omar, commander of Acre on the Ottomans’ behalf, wanted to create an autonomous territory in and around the Galilee – separate from the Turks. “He had good ties with Europe and Greek Catholics began to arrive in Mi’ilya,” says Khamisy.
The families built their homes on the ruins of those dating from the Late Bronze era to the al-Umarian age. Their descendants, of which Khamisy is one, all Greek Catholic to this day, are still there.
Salma Assaf gets curious
Khamisy and his colleagues and friends are presently excavating Ottoman structures built on Mamluk foundations that were built on Frankish foundations that leaned on the outer wall of his village, and a church. He is satisfied with the restoration job on the five-meter stretch of wall – as a start.
But the real discovery proved to lie in Salma Assaf’s basement.
As said, all land in Mi’ilya is privately owned. The Assafs are among the oldest extant families in the modern village, their ancestors having arrived between 200 and 250 years ago; one of the family homes was actually located inside the Crusader fort.
Salma Assaf embarked on her own venture by buying out her kinfolk, obtaining full ownership and then hiring Khamisy.
“I wanted to know what was underneath my home,” she says simply.
Assaf and her late husband had been involved in preserving an Ottoman-era compound in the town some time ago. Now this project, supported by her three children, became her new baby.
Khamisy’s initial study led to discovery of a Crusader-era wall. He suggested that the Assafs either rebury it or conduct a proper excavation, which would require permits, machinery and tons of money.
No millionaire she, Salma Assaf was nonetheless game, helped by the proceeds of the gas station and some rented-out homes.
The excavation and restoration work on this site has to date cost the family about half a million shekels. Thus far, beneath Assaf’s property, workers have found Ottoman ruins sitting on Mamluk ruins sitting on Crusader ruins built on the bedrock.
“There could have been older settlements but the Crusaders may have removed them. They used to do that,” Khamisy shrugs. And the excavation also unearthed the winery, which – again, attesting to Mi’ilya’s importance during the Crusader era – seems to have been fed by vineyards located all around it.
Indeed, Crusader documents describe vast grape cultivation in the area. Possibly that strange Roman-era pit, situated right next to the two treading floors, which even seem to drain into it, was utilized by the knights to store the grape juice collected for fermentation, in wooden drums. Monfort had a winery too but it was smaller, Khamisy sniffs.
Visitors to Salma Assaf’s new restaurant will be able to see the winemaking factory through the windows on the floor and also go underground, to touch the history for themselves. But this is just a start for the archaeology-loving people of Mi’ilya. The passion to find out what’s under their homes has been fired.
Now Assaf, with the assistance and supervision of Khamisy, wants to build a museum in her cellar, where they will also produce local wine and display artifacts of Mi’ilyan culture from the Neolithic B era to this very day – as Khamisy continues to reveal the history of his own home, with the help of his very own hometown.