Largest Crusader winery ever discovered is found under a house during castle restoration in Israel

While excavating a castle built by King Baldwin III during the Crusades, archaeologist Rabei Khamisy had no idea the largest Crusader era winery ever found had been under the floor of a nearby house.

The grandson of an original crusader who ruled Jerusalem after helping to capture it in 1099 during the First Crusade, Baldwin III had a fort built in the Galilean town of Mi’ilya in 1160.

“We don’t know when we were conquered, but it was probably in the early Crusader period, with the fall of Acre in 1104,” Khamisy told Haaretz.

Baldwin had been in the midst of feuding with his overbearing mother Princess Melisende, who had co-ruled with him since he was a child.

Eventually, their feud came to an end when he defeated her in a civil war, and would exercise his power by building forts and castles to provide for the defense of his kingdom.

Unfortunately, Baldwin would die just three years later in 1163, and would be succeeded by his brother Amalric I, his mother having died two years earlier.

The castle he built in Mi’ilya, however, known as King’s Castle, would continue to stand throughout the centuries as a reminder of his reign.

Part of the castle that still stands. Image via Wikimedia.

There isn’t actually any definitive evidence that Baldwin built the structure in question, but there aren’t exactly any other options, says Khamisy. Also, it was built in the quadriburgium style – with four corner towers, typical of Baldwin’s time, the 12th century, he says.

Not that Baldwin III lived there, Khamisy clarifies. He probably moved between Acre and Tyre, but part of his kingdom was managed from Mi’ilya, which has a strategic view of the whole central Galilee. (In 1152, Baldwin III prevailed against his mother, and began to rule from Jerusalem).

Of course, the Holy Land has a habit of changing hands frequently, fought over for centuries by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Even the Romans and Greeks once controlled the town, both of whom left their own marks.

Yet, the castle has survived. But for years, the castle had fallen into disrepair and the local city council refused to do anything about it beyond closing roads and blocking access to the ancient landmark. Walls were beginning to crumble, creating a hazard that could potentially kill children curious to explore the ruins.

Ruins of King’s Castle located in Mi’ilya, Israel. Image via Wikimedia.

And so, Khamisy, who lives across from the castle, decided to do something about it.

Rather than asking the council, Khamisy would go to the residents and make his case. In the end, they donated enough funds to at least repair and restore the parts of the castle that were falling apart.

“Mi’ilyans love archaeology,” he said. “Divided among the families, it worked out to 66 shekels per person. I asked everybody to donate the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes, and for that I would preserve the fort and safeguard our children and our antiquities.”

To repair the castle walls, Khamisy favored Ottoman period stones that are smaller and easy to handle, not to mention less expensive.

Repairs to a section of the castle wall using smaller Ottoman period stones rather than the heavier Crusader stones. Image via Facebook.
King’s Caste wall as repaired by Khamisy and his team. Image via Facebook.

And it worked out well since there are examples of Ottoman architecture in the city from when the Ottoman Empire controlled it for hundreds of years starting in 1596. Prior to that, there’s a gap of around 200 years in the city’s history that is largely unaccounted for as if it disappeared.

“We find no mention from that time, nor has any pottery from that period been discovered so far,” Khamisy says, speculating that the town was likely nearly wiped out by the Black Plague or an earthquake.

One such Ottoman-period building is owned by Salma Assaf, whose family home had been built inside the boundaries of the castle.

Curious to learn more about what lies underneath her property, Assaf asked Khamisy to extend his excavation, which he happily agreed to do.

“I wanted to know what was underneath my home,” she said.

What he found is nothing short of extraordinary.

It turns out that Assaf’s home was built on top of an ancient Crusader-era winery, the largest such winery ever found.

“The Byzantines had much larger wineries,” Khamisy says. “But the Crusaders had nothing comparable, as far as we know.”

Still, it’s a cool find.

The Romans had built a pit in an earlier century, which the crusaders took advantage of, building treading floors so that juice from the grapes would drain into the pit for storage. The pit would later be covered by a vaulted ceiling built by the Mamluks, who served as Islamic slaves between the 9th and 19th centuries.

The Mamluk vaulted ceiling over the winery. Image via Twitter.

Sadly, there were no bottles of wine left behind. But there is a history of growing grapes in the area.

Crusader documents describe vast grape cultivation in the area. Possibly that strange Roman-era pit, situated right next to the two treading floors, which even seem to drain into it, was utilized by the knights to store the grape juice collected for fermentation, in wooden drums.

Vineyard in Mi’ilya, Israel. Image via Twitter.

Khamisy says that it’s likely the Crusaders removed their old settlements.

“There could have been older settlements but the Crusaders may have removed them,” he said. “They used to do that.”

The citizens of this town have a lot to be proud of. They came together to solve a growing problem, but solved it while maintaining their history at the same time. While they were at it, other residents were inspired enough to be curious about what’s underneath their own homes, resulting in a once in a lifetime discovery of a winery that people there will be talking about for years to come. And there is likely even more to find from various eras in history if only more residents are willing to let archaeologists like Khamisy look for it.

More about King Baldwin III and his war with his own mother, Princess Melisende with commentary by Real Crusades History:

Featured Image: Twitter

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