MI’ILYA, Israel – In the middle of Eilia Arraf’s home – between two living rooms, a cactus garden and a makeshift fitness center – there are two large pits, each containing the ruins of a church that archaeologists believe was built about 1,600 years ago.
Sir. Arraf found large sections of the church’s mosaic floors under his house in 2020 as he tried to convert his aunt’s bedroom and an olive oil warehouse into a new kitchen. The kitchen project was quickly abandoned. Instead, Mr Arraf turned the central part of his house into an archeological site – and later a smaller tourist attraction.
“We lost part of our house,” said Mr Arraf, 69, an electrical engineer with a mustache. “But what we have under us is something that money cannot buy.”
In virtually every other village in Israel, Mr. Arraf’s decision to dig his home would have been unheard of. But in Mi’ilya, a hilltop village of about 3,200 people, mostly Arab Christians, in northern Israel, he is part of an eccentric trend of privately funded archeological excavations.
Since 2017, four families have begun the process of excavating 10 private homes in search of crusaders and Byzantine ruins. Hundreds of families in Mi’ilya have funded a village-wide project to restore part of the crumbling crusader castle.
In the process, the villagers have discovered the largest known vineyard from the Crusader era, a crusader city wall, a Roman cistern and Iron Age kitchen equipment – as well as the Byzantine church under Mr. Arraf’s home.
“It was a domino effect,” said Rabei Khamisy, an archaeologist from the village who is the driving force behind the project. “In Mi’ilya, excavation became something of a tradition.”
For years, the villagers had known they lived on top and among a number of archeological treasures, but they had never managed to dig up much of it. Parts of the present village date from the 12th century, when Frankish crusaders built a castle there, probably under Baldwin III, a Christian king of Jerusalem.
Today, Mi’ilya is still one of a handful of Christian-majority villages in Israel. Most of its inhabitants are Greek Catholics, whose ancestors began to settle here under Ottoman rule in the mid-18th century.
Many live in houses built among the ruins of the Crusader castle, which became the backdrop for life for generations of villagers. But it was never properly excavated or restored.
“The council always said, ‘We have to make the castle, we want to work at the castle,'” said Dr. Khamisy, who grew up in the shadow of the castle. “But nothing ever happened.”
The turning point came in early 2017, when part of the castle wall began to collapse and endanger passers-by.
A specialist in crusader archeology, Dr. Khamisy, 45, had only recently started a new research position at a nearby university and had some time for a new project. But he realized it was now or never to preserve the fortress, and felt it was a matter of hometown honor.
“I’m going to restore the castle,” he remembered thinking. ‘If I do not, I will leave the village. I can not live here. “
Then began the first of several restoration and excavation projects in Mi’ilya.
Dr. Khamisy called on the village council to convene a meeting in which he asked the families to each donate the equivalent of the price of two packs of cigarettes. The villagers responded to the call and gave about $ 60,000, and the council deposited $ 30,000.
The Israel Antiquities Authority quickly provided the relevant permits.
Several weeks later, the most dangerous stretch of the wall had been secured.
Historically, residents of villages like Mi’ilya would have been wary of notifying the Antiquities Authority if they found any hidden relics that, although often kept in the homeowner’s custody, legally become state property. Residents feared the government could take over their property or demand time-consuming excavations if a particularly notable ruin was discovered.
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, as some residents of Mi’ilya define themselves, the fear was particularly sharp, several villagers said, because the government had requisitioned Arab-owned land across Israel in the decades after the state was founded.
But the wall restoration project gave the villagers greater confidence in the authorities – not least because Dr. Khamisy was the main intermediary between the village and the government.
“He is a son of the village,” said Salma Assaf, a former accountant who owns several properties in and around the castle ruins. “He broke the wall between us and the antiquities authorities.”
Soon the village clergy allowed the excavation of the village church, where Dr. Khamisy said pottery from the Iron Age was excavated.
But the most dramatic discovery lurked under Mrs. Assaf’s own property next door.
Mrs Assaf, 69, was in the process of transforming her family’s house from Ottoman times into a restaurant. While the builders were working in its basement, they discovered an ancient stone structure.
Galvanized by Dr. Khamisi’s recent project invited Ms. Assaf him over to investigate it. The archaeologist quickly realized that it was an unprecedented part of the Crusader city – perhaps part of a medieval wine press.
Excited, Dr. Khamisy to the Antiquities Authority and asked for permission to dig deeper. A permit was granted exceptionally quickly, within a few days.
Just as the wall restoration had made the village less careful with the authorities, the authorities were now more confident in the villagers. They were also reassured by Dr. Khamisi’s involvement.
“We knew him, we trusted him,” said Kamil Sari, the authority’s director in northern Israel. “He cares about what he does.”
Armed with trowel, shovels and picks, Dr. Khamisy and the Assaf family themselves in the process of digging out the basement.
After digging for two weeks, Dr. Khamisy suddenly yelling and jumping. About two feet below the floor, he had found the first signs of a drainage system from the time of the Crusades.
Mrs Assaf’s building, experts later concluded, stood over the largest known wine press in the Crusader era – a revelation that attracted the attention of a major Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.
“It was the most wonderful time of my life,” Mrs Assaf recalled.
Encouraged by the discovery, Mrs. Assaf began buying up other properties around the castle, excavating them with Dr. Khamisi’s help and then restore them. They revealed a crusader waterworks and a cistern from Roman times that the Crusaders seemed to have used as their own; nor were they seismic discoveries, but they helped archaeologists deepen their understanding of the lives of the Crusaders in the 12th century as European Christians consolidated their efforts to colonize the region by force.
“The finds themselves are important to a crusader historian or an archaeologist like myself,” said Adrian Boas, a professor of medieval archeology at the University of Haifa. “They add information to what we know about the Crusades.”
But perhaps more markedly, they have helped make villagers more “aware of the importance of the past and their connection to the place they live,” Professor Boas said.
Down the hill, Mr Arraf was the next to catch the archeological fault. By the 1980s, his relatives had found Byzantine mosaics in a basement behind their home. But his older siblings had always said that there were larger and more impressive mosaic floors under the main part of their home – relics, they said, were briefly discovered and then stored again during renovations in the 1950s.
What if his siblings were right?
Led by Dr. Khamisy dug the Arraf family for two weeks – one foot, two feet, three feet deep. Just beyond the four-foot mark, Dr. shouted Khamisy one more up: He had found what turned out to be the nave of a Byzantine church.
For a token fee to cover his expenses, Mr. Arraf has travel groups visit his home to see the mosaics, which are inside the lower floor of his two-story house.
Sometimes visitors have struggled to remove their unbelief, Mr Arraf said. In a context where Jews, Muslims and Christians often quarrel about who has the strongest connection to the country, some Jewish visitors have rejected the idea that a Christian could have found a true Christian ruin under his own home.
But for Mr Arraf, such criticism can hardly be registered. He still wonders if he has a ruined church under his aunt’s old bedroom.
“I check it every day,” he said. “Just for my own pleasure.”
Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Mi’ilya, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.