Secrets of Crusader Water System Uncovered in Northern Israel

Rabei Khamisy of Mi'ilya finds not one but three water shafts integrated into in the walls of King Baldwin’s castle, leading to ancient cisterns cut into the bedrock

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The view of Mi’ilya from the Crusader castle walls
View of Mi’ilya from the Crusader castle wallsCredit: Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

The room features all the amenities one looks for in a good place to stay: a furnished bedroom, bathroom, electricity, a television – and a well shaft. The shaft is in the bathroom.

Unlike most options for tourist accommodation, this room is in a Crusader tower in the Galilean hilltop town of Mi’ilya. Actually the “well” is a shaft that descends into an ancient cistern carved into the bedrock that may even predate the castle itself; it isn’t a well that taps groundwater.

Electrical wires snake around the original chiseled Crusader blocks on which the flat-screen TV is mounted. The time-worn corners and steps in the room are original, only modified for preservation.

Khamisy pointing out cross-cut Crusader-style blocks in an Ottoman-period house built in the premises of the castleCredit: Andrew Califf

The bathroom shaft runs the height of two floors and in the past, may have been even longer. Its present mouth lies in the floor above the rental room for tourists and is blocked by a grille, lest the curious fall in. In the bathroom, access to the shaft is barred by a metal gate, again to prevent gratuitous disaster.

The castle had been built by King Baldwin III in roughly the year 1150, Khamisy says, from which he ruled western Upper Galilee, was part of his share of the Frankish kingdom in northern Israel.

In fact this is one of three cistern systems the excavators of the castle have found so far. The finds shed light on the Frankish operating system and priorities.

The castle itself was roughly square in shape, and had a lookout tower at each corner. The room being renovated for tourists is in one of these towers.

But first, how is it that a Frankish period tower is being transformed into a mini-hotel? Is the Israel Antiquities Authority okay with that? Yes, and the reason lies in the entire castle grounds being privately owned, by the families from the village who arrived and settled it a few centuries ago.

Among these families is that of entrepreneur Salma Assaf, which is footing much of the bill for the castle’s archaeological exploration and the renovation itself.

The village that is excavating itself

The story of Mi’ilya, the village that is excavating itself, begins with the fact that after 900 years, the Crusader castle was in parlous condition. It was falling apart, and had been for decades if not centuries.

As hometown archaeologist Rabei Khamisy explains, it posed a danger to the town’s residents as they walked by its crumbling walls. It urgently needed repair and the authorities were not inclined to pay the bill.

Crusader wall still standing above the ruins of a later house and sundry detritusCredit: Andrew Califf

Acutely worried by its condition, Khamisy initiated a fundraiser among the villagers; it succeeded; and thus the project to renovate the Crusader stronghold atop Mi’ilya began.

In parallel, villagers who suspected – or knew for sure – that their homes were sitting atop antiquities hired Khamisy to help dig beneath their floors. In fact some of those homes are within the castle grounds, built atop the ruins – sometimes utilizing the walls of the Crusader castle, and sometimes repurposing the ancient stone bricks.

Khamisy, a native of Mi’ilya who works at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, now spends the majority of his digging up his hometown and the 12th century Crusader castle smack in the middle of it. He even knew about one of the cistern shafts since he was a kid, not that he knew what it was or where it went. Now he knows there were at least three.

Rabei Khamisy standing before the Crusader outer wall of the village Credit: Rabei Khamisy
B&B in a tower built by King Baldwin III, Mi'ilyaCredit: Andrew Califf

Knights in the house

The shaft in the bathroom, we have met. It was discovered in the course of the archaeological exploration of the ruins of the Crusader tower. It apparently once stretched from the top of the castle’s three-meter-thick defensive outer wall to the cistern – a distance of at least five or six meters.

A second shaft ran down one of the castle’s exterior walls. It started from the top of the wall and ran down to its own cistern carved into the bedrock. This is the one Khamisy had known from childhood.

“We were a little bit crazy, so sometimes me and my friends would put a ladder down there, only about five or six meters,” Khamisy said about his childhood exploration efforts. “Me and some of my friends always had dreams to excavate Mi’ilya and find the antiquities and the history.”

Filled-in back entrance to the castle and the open side of one of the water shaftsCredit: Andrew Califf

The third cistern system has been discovered in an Ottoman-period house built within the castle grounds.

Two of the water systems, the one in the refurbished tower and the one in the wall, still have ceramic pipes for collecting precious rainfall and directing it to the cisterns. When a conservator was cleaning, he found the pipe on top of the wall, and that told Khamisy where to look two floors below. The shaft passing through the refurbished bathroom also retains ceramic pipes.

The top of the well that has been exposed since Khamisy’s childhood, and the ceramic pipe exposed by conservation workersCredit: Andrew Califf

“It’s amazing! You can find something here or there, but this is complete. You have the shaft, you have the pipe, you have the entrance to it, you have where they took the water. It’s just a little bit damaged,” Khamisy says. “It’s the best place to work on water systems in the Crusader period. This is heaven for this research.”

Studying their structure, Khamisy believes that the shafts were pre-planned while building the castle, to take advantage of the even more ancient cisterns. The Crusader builders created the wall using blocks with the shaft shape already carved into them.

The three shafts all end in water storage chambers, now filled with soil, says Khamisy, who peered inside using a camera.

Back in the renovated bathroom: the shaft continues upwards and downwards and as said is, today, gated to prevent accidents. A small pit carved into the ceiling of the Crusader room by the entrance to the shaft leads Khamisy to surmise that the Crusader inhabitants had a water collection system that went well beyond a bucket on a rope.

The circular mark is where a pole may have been fitted. The pole may have had an attached arm that would be extended over the shaft, from which a bucket would be lowered – and strangely, going by the position of the pit in the ceiling, the putative pole wasn’t centered.

Note the off-center pit in the ceilingCredit: Andrew Califf

Khamisy postulates this was so setups like this could be on different floors without inconveniencing the aristocratic users of the system upstairs – who, after all, would be staying in the castle? Likely knights and possibly representatives of the castle owner, not the hoi polloi, he points out.

The excavations also yielded a well-preserved back-door to the castle, where horses may have passed (and drunk their fill). The archaeologist also notes evidence of long-gone vaulted ceilings based on the some curving blocks remaining in the walls.

Burn marks from an Ottoman-era destruction layer wrap around the interior of the castle walls, likely from the 17th century.

Windows into a Crusader world

Given that the Antiquities authorities weren’t inclined to foot the roughly $3 million bill to fix up the castle, as said, the villagers set about pursuing the project themselves, led by Khamisy – and some began excavating beneath their own homes. Key to the story is Salma Assaf, owner of the local gas station and the resident angel of the Mi’ilya archaeological drive.

“The place was destroyed, full of rubbish. No-one tried to do anything until Salma came,” Khamisy says. She funded excavations, research, and preservation.

Assaf still owns her gas station and has expanded her business by building houses to rent out, and building a restaurant nearby the castle ruins - featuring windows in the floor, through which diners can see the giant Crusader winery below. She is also working with Khamisy and the IAA on opening a museum on the winery ruins, which is slated to open in April, if all goes according to plan.

Inside Salma Assaf's restaurant: Note the windows on the floor, with a view of the Crusader-era winery.Credit: Rabei Khamisy

The antiquities authority is accepting of the unusual arrangement in Mi’ilya, confining its role to periodically sending surveyors. This is the only place in Israel where an arrangement like this exists, Khamisy says – the castle exploration and renovation were important enough for the IAA to bend its own rules on dealing with antiquities, he says.

It bears adding that the water shafts are all within the walls of the castle while the winery is 15 meters to the northeast. Galilean and Palestinian wine in general have been popular around the region for millennia but one must have priorities.

Now that Khamisy, who began excavating the site in 2017, has reached the castle floor, preservation works have already begun on the freshly excavated walls. He also looks forward to diving down the shafts to excavate the cisterns, presumably with more than a ladder this time.

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