MAILIA, Israel – In the middle of Elijah Araf’s house – between two living rooms, a cactus garden and a makeshift gym – are two large pits, each containing the ruins of a church that archaeologists have described. Archaeologists believe it was built about 1,600 years ago.
Mr Araf found large parts of the church’s mosaic floor under his house in 2020, when he tried to convert his aunt’s bedroom and olive oil storeroom into a new kitchen. The kitchen plan was quickly abandoned. Instead, Mr. Araf turned the central part of his home into an archeological site – and later, a minor tourist attraction.
“We lost part of our house,” said Mr. alias, a 69-year-old electrical engineer with a mustache. “But what we have below is what money can’t buy.”
In virtually any other village in Israel, Mr. Araf’s decision to dig his own house would have been unheard of. But in the mountainous village of Mailia, home to about 3,200 people in northern Israel, most of whom are Arab Christians, it is part of a whimsical trend of privately funded archeological excavations.
Since 2017, four families have begun excavating 10 private homes in search of the Crusades and Byzantine ruins. Hundreds more families in Mi’ilya have funded a village-wide project to restore part of its crumbling crusade.
In the process, villagers discovered the most famous winery of the Crusades, a crusade city wall, a Roman basin and Iron Age cooking utensils – as well as a Byzantine church under Mr. Araf’s house.
“It was a domino effect,” he said Rabi Khamisi, A village archaeologist who is the driving force behind the project. “Excavation in Maila has become a tradition.”
For years, villagers knew they lived between the top and the archeological treasury, but they never went to dig most of it. Parts of the present village date back to the 12th century, when the French Crusaders built a fort there, probably during the reign of Baldwin III, a Christian king of Jerusalem.
Today, Mi’ilya is one of the Christian-majority villages in Israel. Most of its inhabitants are Greek Catholics, whose ancestors began settling here during the Ottoman rule in the mid-18th century.
Many live in houses built between the ruins of the Crusaders, which became the backdrop for generations of villagers. But it has never been properly excavated or restored.
“The council always said, ‘We will build a fort, we will work on the palace,'” said Dr. Khamsi, who grew up in the shadow of the palace. “But nothing ever happened.”
The turning point came in early 2017, when part of the fort wall began to fall, endangering passersby.
Dr. Khamisi, a 45-year-old crusader archaeologist, recently started a new research post at a nearby university and had little time for a new project. But he felt that the fort was now or never to be saved, and felt that it was a matter of honor for his hometown.
“I’m going to restore the castle,” he thought. If I don’t, I will leave the village. I can’t stay here. “
Thus began the first of many restoration and excavation projects in Melia.
Dr. Khamsi urged the Village Council to convene a meeting in which he asked each family to donate the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes. The villagers answered the call, paying about ً 60,000, and the council offered 30,000.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority immediately issued the relevant permits.
Several weeks later, the most dangerous part of the wall was removed.
Historically, the inhabitants of villages like Mylia have been careful to report any hidden artifacts to the Antiquities Authority, which, although often in the possession of the homeowner, legally becomes state property. Residents feared the government could seize their property or demand time-consuming excavations, especially if significant landmarks were discovered.
Numerous villagers said that for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as some of the people of Myalia praise themselves, the fear was intense, because the government Acquired Arab-owned land throughout Israel In the decades after the establishment of the state.
But the wall restoration plan gave the villagers more confidence in the authorities – not least because Dr. Khamsi was a key mediator between the village and the government.
“He is the son of a villager,” said Salma Assaf, a former accountant who owns several properties in and around the fort’s ruins. “It broke the wall between us and the antiquities authorities.”
Soon, the village clergy allowed the excavation of the village church, where Dr. Khamisi said that pottery from the Iron Age had been excavated.
But the most dramatic discovery was hidden under Ms. Asif’s own property.
Ms. Asif, 69, was busy converting her family’s Ottoman home into a restaurant. As the architects were working in its basement, they discovered an ancient stone structure.
Inspired by Dr. Khamisi’s recent project, Ms. Asif invited him to review it. Archaeologists soon realized that this was an already unknown part of the Crusades – perhaps part of a medieval bar.
Excited, Dr. Khamsi called the Antiquities Authority, and asked permission to dig in depth. A license was granted extraordinarily quickly, within days.
Just as the restoration of the wall made the village less cautious than the authorities, so the authorities now had more confidence in the villagers. He was also satisfied with the participation of Dr. Khamisi.
“We knew it, we trusted it,” said Kamil Sari, director of the authority in northern Israel. “He cares about what he’s doing.”
Equipped with trolleys, shovels and pickaxes, Dr. Khamisi and the Asaf family began digging the basement themselves.
After digging for two weeks, Dr. Khamisi suddenly started screaming and jumping. About two yards below the floor, he found the first signs of the Crusades’ drainage system.
Ms. Assaf’s building, experts later concluded, was standing on top of the most famous wine press of the Crusades – a revelation that drew the attention of a major Israeli newspaper. Hearts.
“It was one of the most wonderful times of my life,” Ms. Asif recalled.
Encouraged by the discovery, Ms. Asaf began buying other properties around the fort, excavated them with Dr. Khamisi’s help, and then restored them. They uncovered a crusader’s waterworks and a Roman-era pool used by the Crusaders. There were no earthquake discoveries, but they helped archaeologists deepen their understanding of the Crusades in the 12th century, when European Christians strengthened their efforts to colonize the region by force. ۔
“This discovery is important for a crusader historian, or an archaeologist like me,” said Adrian Boas, a professor of medieval archeology at the University of Haifa. “They are adding to the information we know about the Crusades.”
Professor Bose said perhaps more importantly, he had helped the villagers to understand the “importance of the past and their connection to the place where they live”.
At the bottom of the hill, Mr. Archeology was the next to catch the bug. In the 1980’s, relatives found Byzantine mosaic in a basement behind their home. But her older siblings have always said that there were larger and more impressive mosaic floors beneath the central part of their home – the relics were briefly discovered during renovations in the 1950s and then hidden. Gone.
What if her siblings were right?
Under Dr. Khamisi’s guidance, the Araf family dug for two weeks – one foot, two feet, three feet deep. Just beyond the four-foot mark, Dr. Khamisi shouted again: He had found what was the navel of the Byzantine church.
For a token fee to cover their expenses, Mr. alias allows tour groups to visit his home to see the mosaics, which are on the ground floor of his two-story house.
Mr. Araf said that sometimes, the pilgrims have struggled to remove their disbelief. In a context in which Jews, Muslims and Christians often debate who is more powerful. Relation to the landSome Jewish pilgrims have rejected the notion that a Christian could find a real Christian ruin under his house.
But for Mr. Arif, such criticism is hardly recorded. He is still amazed at the fact that there is a ruined church under his aunt’s old bedroom.
“I check it every day,” he said. “Just for fun.”
Rawan Sheikh Ahmed Assisted in reporting from Mi’ilya, and Myra Novak From Jerusalem