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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On How to Present the Past

Restaurant over the wine-press complex at Mi'ilya (photo by Rabei Khamisy)

In the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Hozevim, today a High-Tech industrial area, there is a large stone building known as the Beck Science Centre. It is fronted with broad columns to its full height and surmounted by a small green dome. Ignoring the somewhat disproportionate and incongruous dome, with a rather large stretch of the imagination this building might appear to be influenced by classical colonnaded temples. It is an example of modern architecture about which I hesitate to give an opinion. It does not entirely displease me, but then, I don’t particularly like it.

In the walled town of Akko in northern Israel there is a modern youth hostel. For some obscure reason it is named the “Templar Youth Hostel” or the “Knights’ Hostel” though I very much doubt if any Templar youths, or knights for that matter, have ever resided in it. Before it was built, this area was referred to as the “Knights’ Parking Lot”, but I have been unable so far to find any record of the knights who parked there! However inappropriate its name, as a hostel it certainly is far more inviting that the former flea and cockroach-ridden, ramshackle youth hostel in the heart of the town where I used to stay when I was carrying out a survey in the nineties, and where I spent many sleepless nights on an uncomfortable, lumpy and not terribly clean mattress surrounded by a variety of snoring bodies.

Whatever their architectural merits, certainly open to debate, both of these buildings are examples of modern development at the price of archaeological preservation. In order to construct the building at Har Hozevim, a twelfth century farmhouse was entirely dismantled. It had consisted of a two-storey hall-house with a flagstone floor, ovens, storerooms, a stable, animal pens, a chicken coop, a staircase and a tiled roof. It was a uniquely well-preserved example of a Frankish rural building, but it was not regarded by the decision-makers as important enough to warrant preservation. The youth hostel in Akko was built over the remains of a thirteenth century neighbourhood, with houses, shops, workshops, paved streets, sewage systems and water cisterns. It had been partly exposed in excavations and constituted the only extensive area within the Turkish walls of Akko where no later building replaced or incorporated and complicated the medieval remains. It could and should have been excavated and preserved in its entirety. Instead, the hostel occupies a large part of the neighbourhood and only a small area remains, preserved within the courtyard, cut off from its surroundings and surviving as an out-of-context fragment.

I am not opposed to development. Living in a country where it is almost impossible to dig a hole without hitting something antique, a balance has to be reached between the need to build for the present, and to preserve the past. Both of the two examples given above are cases where there were possible alternatives, but property values and other considerations overrode historical interests.

A rather different and positive example of how to deal with these divergent needs is today to be found in the town of Mi'ilya in the western Galilee. Here in a private residence adjacent to the twelfth century castle, Castellum Regis, an excavation carried out by my former student (and current co-director at our excavations at Montfort) Dr Rabei Khamisy, himself a resident of the village, has revealed a large wine production complex, unique for its size in the kingdom of Jerusalem. It was probably a monopoly of the local feudal lord, or perhaps of the German military order, the Teutonic knights, who purchased the castle and surrounding lands in 1220. The excavation was promoted and funded by the property owner, Mrs. Salma Assaf, who with considerable astuteness and exceptional good taste achieved the desired balance between the preservation of an archaeological site and the development of the property for use, in this case as a "culinary complex" including a conference room, guest rooms and restaurant. Extensive excavation and careful recording of the complex was followed by the incorporation of the medieval remains in an attractive, well-constructed and, most important, intact fashion. Underneath the restaurant the medieval complex can now be observed through glass windows set in the floor. The remains are an attraction to restaurant guests while via a staircase, visitors can enter and observe at close hand the excavations, entire and beautifully preserved.

One of the two wine-presses at Mi'ilya (photo by Rabei Khamisy)

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