Living Like Kings

Perched high atop a hill in the Northern Israeli village of Mi’ilya  were the vestiges of an old castle. For decades families had used the outer towers, building their homes over and inside the walls. But time had long ago taken its toll, and the structure had fallen into such disrepair that it was structurally unsafe. 

Labib Assad (of blessed memory) lived in one of those houses since his childhood. He had many childhood stories to pass down of life in the village. Labib, a policeman, and his wife, Salma, owner of the village gas station, gradually bought up the other existing houses one by one until they owned a large part of the complex. It had been Salma’s dream for years and years to bring to life the existing skeleton. In 2012 the Assafs received a letter telling them the castle needed to be restored or destroyed. It could no longer safely stand on its own with its crumbling walls and arches. There was an existential dilemma. What to do? The cost of a rebuild would be absolutely exorbitant, but this could be their one opportunity to make Salma’s dream come true, while at the same time preserving an important part of the local heritage.

Flash back to the 12th century: Baldwin Bourcq led a Crusade from France to the Holy Land with his cousins Godfrey de Bouillon and Baldwin du Boulogne in 1096. On the way, he became Count of Edessa  (in present-day Turkey), marrying and setting up a fiefdom there. He rode into Jerusalem in 1100, winning many battles, and was crowned King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1118, expanding the reach of his empire to as far as Damascus. He was aided by the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers.  King Baldwin had four daughters by his Armenian Christian wife, Morphia. The eldest daughter, Mellisande, became his successor. 

Mellisande married and had a son, Baldwin III, in 1129. He was crowned King Baldwin III of the Crusader State of Jerusalem when he was 14 years old. Eventually wresting power from his mother during a familial civil war, he ceded Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria to her. Keeping his title, King Baldwin set up his home in the mountains of the Galilee. His reign extended from the Jezreel Valley in the south to Beirut in the north and as far as Damascus in the east. On a mountaintop in Mi’ilya, midway between the coastal cities of Acre and Tyre, with sweeping views to the Mediterranean and the Galilee, he built “Castellum Regis,” the King’s Castle. It would serve as the capital of his Frankish Lordship in the Galilee. It was a massive, walled stone compound with four square guard towers, one at each corner. 

The property was first mentioned in 1166 after the death of Baldwin III in a land transfer to a Jean d’Khayfa (John of Haifa). It was, in turn, sold along with the surrounding houses, gardens and vineyards to Count Jocelyn III, uncle of Baldwin IV in 1179 under the name Castellum Novo. A sizable Byzantine church adjacent to the castle was also part of the property. It all fell to the Muslim conqueror Saladin in 1187 during the Third Crusade. However, in 1192, with the signing of the Treaty of Jaffa by Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted and Phillipe of France, it was returned to the Crusaders, along with the Western Galilee and the city of Acre, six miles to the west. 

By the mid-1200s, the castle had been superseded by the newly-built Starkenberg Castle (Castle Montfort) just three mountaintops away. Starkenberg was built by German Teutonic Knights, who also bought the Castellum Novo property for 7000 silver marks. It was a short-lived investment, as Baybars, the Mamluk Turk known infamously as the “Father of Conquest” swept in and took everything, levying a 25% dhimmi tax on the barley, olives, wheat, dates, figs, goats, and beehives owned by the resident Christians. There are no existing records after that. The castle and its inhabitants were wiped out in the 15th century. Was it the result of the Ottoman invasion? An earthquake? Black Plague brought to the area by the Europeans? It remains a mystery. 

Melkite (Greek Orthodox Catholic) Christians returned to the area in the mid 1700s, with the Assaf, Shufani, Abo-Oksa and Arraf families among the first residents. They rebuilt a little village in and around the old castle, and resurrected a church near the site of the original Crusader era one that had been completely destroyed. Upon digging the foundations for their Ottoman-era houses, they began to uncover treasures from the past – mosaic tiled floors, burial chambers and an underground water reservoir. The finds were covered up, but stories of riches in the ground were passed down through the generations.

Salma Assaf had heard the rumors of hidden treasure from her childhood. She was passionate about history.  When the letter threatening possible demolition was received, Salma and her husband made the decision to restore the houses, starting a project that took over a decade and a half to complete. It was her life’s dream. Unfortunately, Labib passed away in 2012 before seeing the project to its fruition.

When reaching the final stages of restoration of the buildings, on a whim and out of curiosity, the Assaf family decided to put spade to the ground below. Would stories of the past be revealed or were they all just legend? Salma reached out to her neighbor, Rabei Khamisy, Doctor of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. He, too, a lifelong resident of Mi’ilya, had been brought up with these stories from the past. Together they sprang into action. In a short time, something extraordinary came to light: the largest winepresses and two treading floors from the Latin East (the correct term for the Crusader period in the Levant) had been discovered. Further digging  2 meters from the winepresses revealed a stone dome which covered a 6-meter deep Roman period cistern from the first century. The Crusaders had repurposed the ancient cistern to hold barrels of wine for aging in the cool deep cavity below. For Salma, it was a good omen. It was upon this historical foundation that she would build her restaurant, Chateau du Roi, the King’s Castle. Salma enlisted her son, Khalil, a successful accountant, to be the CFO.

The whole project – the restoration of the above-ground building as well as the excavation – were privately funded by the Assaf family. A greatly appreciated contribution of the local community helped finance the shoring up of the crumbling north wall of the castle adjacent to the restaurant.

They worked tirelessly for four years in tandem with the Israeli Antiquities Authority to complete the excavation. Much more treasure was unearthed: ancient coins; the seal of the archbishop of Acre, who also lived there at one time; cooking tools, trenchers, and plates from the Crusader kitchen. As to the buildings above ground (where the restaurant, bar and boutique hotel rooms stand today), architects and contractors carefully conserved much of the traditional structure. The winepresses have been preserved in the basement of Chateau du Roi, and are open for viewing. Plexiglass windows have been thoughtfully and strategically placed in the floor of the restaurant’s main dining room so guests can view the winepresses below.

The restaurant is composed of many spaces, each with stone walls, high arches, balconies accessible by winding staircases, cozy inglenooks and fireplaces. A large outdoor patio offers a sweeping panorama of the picturesque Northern Galilee mountains. Chateau du Roi has the ambiance of the finest European restaurant. No detail is overlooked from the china, silver and crystal on the beautifully set tables to the antiques throughout. 

In the cozy and comfortable pub, a large wooden bar stands along one wall. The room is flanked by niches and pillowed window seats built into the arched windows. Luxurious leather chairs invite a person to relax and cast aside all cares. All the culinary equipment and accoutrements throughout the restaurant including the pizza oven in the bar are of the finest quality imported from Italy. Live jazz and acoustic music is featured regularly. Other dining options include a spacious covered patio courtyard with full service, and private dining niches under the castle’s stone arches. It doesn’t get more romantic than this!

Salma called in an old family friend, Elian Layousse, originally from Mi’ilya, who was working as a chef in Padua, Italy. He was more than happy to oblige and quickly assembled an award-winning team. The menu at this five-star restaurant is a fusion of Northern-Italian and Israeli. The dishes are traditional, yet unique. Everything is prepared from the freshest seasonal ingredients: Golan beef, Mediterranean seafood, homemade pasta, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Elian’s passion for detail is evident in every bite. The wine list is impressive. As an added bonus, Salma is able to provide jobs for many of the locals. The staff is warm and welcoming, and not only is Hebrew spoken, but Arabic, English, French and Italian, so guests should feel at home. It is one of Israel’s top gourmet destinations. 

In addition to the restaurant, the Assafs have opened two guest rooms on the property. Khalil, speaking lovingly about how his mother pampers all the guests as if they were her own family, says she serves “the grandest local breakfast. Wow!” Work has already started on converting the west wing of the castle into seven additional luxury guest rooms and suites. No expense will be spared and the fully-appointed rooms will be a blend of ancient architecture and antiques with top-of-the-line modern conveniences. A stay in the castle will make you feel like as if you were living like kings.

Currently, the Assafs are correlating with the Israel Antiquities Authority to open a museum on site. All of the finds from the excavations, which have been catalogued and stored in the Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, would be returned so visitors can see the town’s history from Roman times onward. 

In addition to Chateau du Roi, the villagers have begun unearthing treasures on their ownproperties. The Arraf family, for instance, are sitting atop a Byzantine church and adjoining monastery. Beautifully colored geometric mosaic floors are once again coming to light. The recent excavations are exposing a complete Frankish rural settlement in what was once known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

Today, Mi’ilya has grown to about 750 homes with a population of about 3000. It is one of two exclusively Christian villages in Israel (the other being Fassuta, about 4km to the east). All of the land and the excavations are privately funded by each villager. The Israeli government has commiserated, but has done nothing to help financially. All of the funds for the digs have been raised privately by the village and through donations. Each year during the Christmas season, they hold a Christmas market. The village is festooned with lights and decorations. It is a grand celebration and thousands of people from miles around come to enjoy the festivities. In addition to this religious festival, the municipality holds a social/cultural Spring Festival with musical shows and local products for sale. 

A trip to Mi’ilya is a trip back in time, and a stay at Chateau du Roi will make you feel pampered like royalty. Their website is https://chateauduroi.co/  

3 thoughts on “Living Like Kings

  1. What a great travel log I love small out-of-the-way places and hands on caretakers and owners . I pray for peace so the special places do not get destroyed . It’s great to hear people can make a livelihood highlighting and making use of a place that has such a history

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    • Thanks for the prayers, Miriam. In Israel, everything that is found archaeologically must be reported to the Israeli Antiquities Authority under strict penalties for those that don’t. There are new discoveries (important) daily, from pre-Canaanite era on.
      If you’ve heard in the news about the recent Silwan land dispute in East Jerusalem, people have illegally built homes and businesses (not to code either) over King Solomon’s walled garden area (as in Song of Songs). It’s adjacent to the archaeological dig at David’s palace. The area was designated as a historical site decades ago, with intent to dig and have an archaeological park open to the public. It’s a real mess, because with the homes on it, digging cannot commence. If digging cannot commence at this most important historical site, ancient Biblical history cannot be exposed- thus preventing Jewish claim to the land.
      Situations here are quite complex, often misunderstood, and always distorted by the media.

      Like

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