A Palestinian Stone House, Its Jewish Occupants, and the Ancient City Buried Underneath

For decades, Israeli couple Miri and Ilan Shalev lived peacefully in a Jerusalem house built by Palestinians who fled during the Nakba, unaware of the archaeological history hiding under their feet

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The house in Motza, a neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The house in Motza, a neighborhood of Jerusalem. Credit: Yair Shalev
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo
Gur Megiddo

In a spot where construction materials are now piled, a mulberry tree once stood. Parked underneath was a Renault 4. For 15 years or so, the blue junk heap sat parked under the tree, like a memorial to itself. The car with an airplane gearshift had faithfully served its owner, and when it couldn’t go on any longer it stayed there to decorate the yard, as another of Miri’s flowerpots.

The iron scraps and other construction debris lay next to a large mound of dirt, cement and rocks that covers the spot where there once was a house. It was a stone house with meter-thick walls and an iron door with floral decorations.

Built by Palestinians, for more than 60 years it was the home of Jews. After the original owners fled in 1948, Israel nationalized the property, which at first was allocated for the army’s use. The yard became a gas station for military vehicles and the house served as the base for the soldiers who operated the station.

The house stood on the remains of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic city, one of the most important archaeological discoveries to come out of Israel in recent years

The symbol of the State of Israel and the word delek (“gasoline”) etched on the stone doorpost are the only traces of that brief period, which lasted less than five years. At that point, the house was transferred to the Israeli public housing company, which in 1953 leased it to a Jewish family for key money, a form of rent control.

This family consisted of Shlomo and Bruria Shalev and their sons, Motti and Ilan, who decided to move to the Jerusalem area from the Jezreel Valley after Ilan’s eye doctor suggested that the capital’s air would have a salutary effect on the disease from which he suffered. Evidently he was right.

Along with the house, the family also rented over an acre of land, on which they had two chicken coops and a few dozen fruit trees. “In those years, that was enough to scrape by on,” Motti says.

The old Renault 4. Sat parked under the tree for 15 years.Credit: Yair Shalev

Willie Wonka in the kingdom of rust

Motti eventually moved to Jerusalem, but Ilan remained in the house with his parents, even as an adult. He lived there with his first wife, Etti, and their daughter, Ayelet. They divorced, and he continued to live there with his second wife, Miri, and their children, Yair and Yael. It was a three-generational household until the parents died, Shlomo in 1985 and Bruria in 1998.

When the family began to expand, Ilan renovated the cellar, which the original occupants had apparently used for storage. Had he dug another foot or two, he might have discovered 2,000-year-old Roman pottery shards or a 9,000-year-old arrowhead, as archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority did four decades later.

The main floor retained most of its original layout, with a few changes. The Arab family that built the house situated the kitchen in a separate building in the yard, as was once standard among Palestinians. The Jewish occupants installed a modest kitchen with orange Formica cabinets typical of the period. The kitchen windows faced Jerusalem, and to the left they overlooked the main highway. The noise from there was part of the house’s regular soundtrack.

An old family photo showing Miri and Ilan Shalev.

One day, the original inhabitants arrived for a surprise visit. This happened a few years after the peace treaty with Jordan

If you were to enter this kitchen around lunchtime, you would behold a natural wonder more stunning than anything that David Attenborough ever captured on film – Miri beating eggs for schnitzel at a dazzling rate of at least 1,500 rpm. Anyone who ever witnessed this marvel will never forget it. Efficiency is sacred. Miri, a teacher, always said she had a lot of tests to grade. When the tests were done, she hurried to the yard, to plunge back into the endless war against weeds. The woman lives by the compulsive principle inculcated by her parents’ generation: that idleness is an abomination. “You know how I am, it’s how I was raised,” she always says. As soon as she finished doing battle with the weeds, she would turn her attention to caring for the ragtag assortment of injured cats she collected and fed, for reasons that only she and others like her could understand.

On paper, Ilan was the computer and technology guy. As a kid who hung out in this house in the years when the blue Renaut still labored up the hill to the Castel, I suspected that this was a cover story. This suspicion arose because of the amount of time Ilan spent in the back of the cellar, in his workshop, which was essentially a dark hole crammed with screws, nails, tools, old motors and assorted parts that had been stripped from the carcasses of broken washing machines, kerosene heaters or old boilers that were found tossed on the side of the road.

“What kind of idiots throw this stuff out?” he would exclaim. “They don’t know how much it’s worth.”

Ilan Shalev in front of his former home, before it was demolished.Credit: Yair Shalev

As the sparks flew from the rusty iron Ilan was cutting, they light up the dark, jam-packed workshop, and outlined the silhouette of the tall, obstinate, shirtless (in the summer) elderly man. In the background, smoke curled as it almost always did, from a forgotten cigarette burning in an ashtray. Everything that touched this man was like the old days. It was a pleasure to watch him, although there isn’t enough mercy in the world for anyone who mistakenly dared interrupt the old man at work.

At the end of these outbursts of creativity, Ilan would proudly show passing guests the house, whether they wanted to or preferred to drink bleach instead. Tables, weather vanes, rocking chairs, parts of a chimney, clotheslines and the masterpiece – the “sputnik” – a meat smoker that got its name from its resemblance to the Soviet rocket of the 1950s. These are obligatory stops for visitors at Willie Wonka’s kingdom of rust at the Motza turn. The whole rusty operation is now buried, alongside the road that emerges like a tongue on the boulevard of huge concrete pillars from the mouth of the mountain.

The iron key was left hanging on the wall

Miri and Ilan never tried to obscure the fact that their house was home to a Palestinian family, with all the injustice this involves. The giant iron key left by the house’s original inhabitants, an object that always sparked conversation about the sad history of the building, they hung on the wall.

One day, the original inhabitants arrived for a surprise visit. This happened a few years after the peace treaty with Jordan. Miri remembers two men and one old woman who knocked on the door and said they were from the village of Qalunya, its Arab name, and that this was their house. They didn’t need to say more. It was clear to both sides that the visitors had not come to ask for their house back. They only wanted to see the place.

“We invited them in, and tried to treat them with respect. We offered them coffee. I don’t remember exactly how long they stayed or exactly what they said. I remember mainly that I felt very uncomfortable. I thought about my family’s house in Poland,” Miri says. The two men went into the house and examined the walls for some time. The whole time, the old woman refused to go in. She remained outside, weeping.

Unlike the Palestinian family that fled from their home for fear of the war, Ilan and Miri had time to get ready for the evacuation that was forced on them. Expropriation had been hanging over them for decades, as the occasional warning letters attested. The date in the letters was postponed again and again.

Unlike the Palestinian family that fled from their home for fear of the war, Ilan and Miri had time to get ready for the evacuation that was forced on them

The house before it was demolished.Credit: Yair Shalev

The planners of Route 16, which will create an entrance to West Jerusalem via a tunnel, changed the plans repeatedly – until one day, in late 2015, the time came. When it happened, Miri and Ilan decided not to fight. In any case they assumed that life there would not look the same in the shadow of the new concrete-and-asphalt monster. They negotiated with the government through a lawyer, took the compensation that was offered and bought themselves a fine home nearby, in comfortable Har Adar, with a view of the West Bank separation barrier.

In their new home’s front yard Ilan installed one of his weather vanes, made from the stone with the symbol of the state, which he had removed from the wall of the Motza house a moment before it was demolished. The sputnik was brought to its new location and so was Miri’s gaggle of cats, with certain replacements that only Miri knows precisely.

Strange new contraptions began to appear in the yard, which while much smaller than the one in Motza was not particularly small. They continued to multiply until about three months ago, when Ilan was diagnosed with cancer. He died one month later, in his bed, at age 76.

75 acres of archaeological digs

Ilan lived to see the bulldozers raze the old stone house. After the bulldozers, came the Israel Antiquities Authority. The archaeologists discovered that the house stood on the remains of a 9,000-year-old city (from the Neolithic period), one of the most important archaeological discoveries to come out of Israel in recent years. The unusually large dig site – 75 acres – included Miri and Ilan’s former house and part of their yard. Their whole lives they lived in a house thinking it was 100 years old or so and was historic.

At the height of the dig, which began in 2018 and continued for about two years, there were 300 people excavating the site under the direction of Hamoudi Khalaily, an IAI archaeologist.

The house before is was razed by bulldozers. The Arab family that built the house situated the kitchen in a separate building in the yard, as was once standard among Palestinians. Credit: Yair Shalev

Evidence has been found that the denizens of Motza grew chickpeas and fava beans (ful in Arabic and Hebrew), which seem to have been domesticated earlier elsewhere in Israel.

The importance of the site also stems from the sheer size of the city, which seems to have had hundreds of structures and homes. “We estimate that some 2,000 people lived here at the peak. In terms of the era, that’s a megacity,” says Khalaily.

The number and size of the houses also reveals details about the social structure of the place. “This was a nonegalitarian society. The size of some structures compared to others shows a small leadership group, whereas most inhabitants produced food or crafted items,” he explains. “We found lots of flint tools such as scythe blades and arrowheads, made at a high standard from specialized materials."

Alongside the material finds, the archaeologists found about 300 graves. Many of the bodies were adorned with stone bracelets: this may happears to have been a funerary custom. The Neolithic city survived for some 600 years, until it was abandoned for an unknown reason. Maybe someone ran a highway interchange through it.

The archaeological site before it was covered again.

Tel Motza has yielded artifacts from other archeological periods too, some even earlier than the Neolithic city and some thousands of years later. Khalaily estimates that Motza has been settled for at least 11,000 years, which is around the time people began transitioning from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to doing all that, and farming too.

Colonia and Qalunya

Among the later findings are remains from the Roman village Colonia which was located here – and which gave its name to the Palestinian Qalunya. Khalaily can describe precisely what was found underneath Miri and Ilan’s home: “The foundations of the house ran down into the remains of the city, and part of the concrete floor actually sat within a 9,000 year-old Neolithic structure. In another part of the house, we found a 40-centimeter-thick (16 inches) layer of earth rich with pottery from Roman Colonia.” Roman Colonia was a military veterans’ community.

“These were Roman soldiers who conquered Jerusalem and retired at the end of the campaign,” Khalaily explains. “The veteran conquerors received permission from the authorities to take the land, in order to build themselves farms along the road from Beit Guvrin to Jerusalem.”

Over the Neolithic city, Roman Colonia, the desolate Qalunya, and what was once Ilan’s home, there is now a river of asphalt and concrete.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Among other things discovered by excavators near Miri and Ilan’s home are Roman structures such as homes, workshops, oil presses and even a church from the Byzantine period, part of which was buried under the road. “Not far from there we found a sword forge, and another metal smithy,” he relates.

The fate of the Neolithic stonemasons’ workshops and those of the Roman metalsmiths is not so different from that of Ilan’s own work shed. Like the other findings of the immense dig, the important artifacts were packed and transferred to Israel Antiquities Authority facilities, where researchers will continue their work. Some of the structures discovered were filled with earth. Some of them were recovered by black asphalt, whose planners hope will provide at least temporary relief to Jerusalem’s endless traffic jams.

Over the Neolithic city, Roman Colonia, the desolate Qalunya, and what was once Ilan’s home, there is now a river of asphalt and concrete, leading to a monstrous tunnel from the Late Chinese Contractor period.

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