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/  

In the Footsteps of Elijah

Fresco, Ascent of Elijah, on the wall of Stella Maris

I love that everywhere we go in Israel, there is a biblical or historical site. They are everywhere. For the past month, we have been on the trail of the prophet Elijah. Our balcony overlooks Carmel Ridge, where much of the Biblical story takes place. It’s about 40 minutes from our house, so when friends offered to take us to Mukhraka (‘the place of the fire’ in Arabic) last month, we jumped at the opportunity. They were going for the sweeping panoramas. We were hunting Elijah, Eliyahu in Hebrew.

On the southeastern slope of Mount Carmel, the prophet had his famous showdown with King Ahab and the prophets of the god Baal. In this encounter, described in 1 Kings 18:1-40, Elijah issued a challenge to 450 pagan priests over whose god could make it rain. Before an assembly on the summit of Carmel, he called on the priests to seek fire from Baal to light their sacrifice. When Baal failed to respond to their pleading, Elijah built an altar to the L-rd, pouring mega-gallons of water (this was during an extreme drought!!!!!) on top of his own sacrifice. Immediately, fire from heaven consumed his waterlogged offering. Directly down the steep slope of this mountain runs the Kishon Stream, just as it was written in the Bible attesting to us the fact this was the correct location. Elijah tells his servant to go look out to sea to see if there is any sign of rain. From this spot, one can look far off in the distance to see the Mediterranean(another verification of the site). Soon after, the storm began and Elijah outran the chariot and horses of King Ahab down Mt. Carmel to the Jezreel Valley below. When I was a kid, we used to think Elijah was the fastest man alive because he could outrun Ahab’s chariot. Today, now that I’ve been to Mukhraka, I think he was smart. As we stood atop the mountain looking down, we could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like to drive horses and chariot down a steep, very rocky slope. Avoiding trees. Flash flooding. Mudslides. It must have taken endless hours. So much faster and much more direct to just make one’s way by foot!!

Mukhraka today is a Carmelite monastery open to the public. The gardens are well-kept and peaceful. In the center courtyard a monument to Elijah stands. Inside the small chapel is an altar with 12 stones from the site, just like the 12 stones the prophet erected for his altar on this spot. But the prize is climbing to the rooftop for the panorama. You can see for miles and miles in all directions. In the North, you can see all the way to the mountains of the Lebanese border. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea. To the east, the view encompasses the Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor, Nazareth and the surrounding areas, and to the South one can see Megiddo, Ceasaria, Netanyahu and all the way to Tel Aviv!!! It’s absolutely breathtaking!!!

Elijah the prophet was known to hide out in a cave on the Carmel ridge because King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were both seeking out the prophets of G-d to kill them – and for Elijah in particular. This is where the story gets even more interesting. Here in Israel, you will often find different locations for each Bible story. Because the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Protestants, the Jews, the Druze and the Muslims will not worship at the same site together, there are multiple locations (i.e. The Holy Sepulchre vs the Garden Tomb; three sites of Capernaum; three sites for the Sermon on the Mountain; the Western Wall for Jews and the Temple Mount for Muslims, different sites of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary). After researching and asking many people and tour guides, we found four different caves of Elijah. Each religion swears theirs is the correct one. So, here goes-

The Jewish Cave of Elijah is at the very base of Mount Carmel near Bat Galim Beach in Haifa. It’s not terribly well known. To find it, you must go up a flight of steep steps to a person’s private residence. The old stone home is built right atop the entrance to a cave. Finding it is not so easy as it’s not well marked and the cave is behind a large set of wooden double doors. Once inside, there is a divided cavern – one side for the women and one side for men, as prayer is segregated by sexes in Judaism. At the back of this cavern is a smaller chamber in the rock where the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls are kept. All in all, the cavern is spacious, dimly lit and musty. Could this be the place?

The next Cave of Elijah is a story unto itself. We were equally unprepared for this one. My husband and I heard that there was another cave at the top of the western cliff of Mt Carmel in Haifa, just 140 meters up the hill above the Jewish cave. Literally surrounding the cave is the Roman Catholic Church of Stella Maris, run by the Carmelite order. The Carmelites were founded upon Mount Carmel during the Crusades by hermit monks who lived in caves like the prophet Elijah had done. Many of the monks here were killed by the Muslims in the 1400s, but resettled the mountain in 1631, purchasing the land outright from Emir Jorabay with mediation from the French. They erected the monastery, but were expelled by Al Omar in 1767. Not daunted, the Carmelite monks received patronage from the Turkish Sultan and the French and were allowed to return and expand their building. During Napoleon’s siege of Akko eight miles to the north, the building was converted to a French hospital for the wounded soldiers. In 1821, Abdullah Pasha, the governor of Akko tore down the church, but it was rebuilt in 1836. It became an influential institution to the city of Haifa, attracting a large Arab Christian population. Furthermore, the ‘rediscovery’ of the Holy Land in the late 1880s (Mark Twain) brought more visitors and pilgrims to the area. In 1887, a hostel was built around the cave and church. Many brought their sick who came for the chance the spirit of Elijah would heal them. The large complex of monastery, basilica, lighthouse (which we see from our balcony every night), and surrounding gardens stand to this day.

Before I get back to Elijah, there’s another thread I want to share (that happens all the time here. I’ll go for one story and find three other fascinating ones as well!!). A mysterious, invisible straight line links seven monasteries from Ireland to Israel. They were built independently of one another from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries and are all very far apart from each other, yet all in a line. As the story goes, the archangel Michael fought a great battle in heaven with Lucifer/Satan, eventually hurling him from heaven to earth. It is said that the line of churches follows the path of Michael’s sword, the tip landing in Haifa on Mt Carmel. The first monastery is located on the island of Skellig Michael in Ireland…on to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, UK…Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France…Sacra di San Michele in Turin, Italy…Monte Santangelo, Italy….Simi Monastery, Greece… and Stella Maris. And all were supposedly built by direct request from an apparition of St. Michael, Archangel.

We made it up the mountain to Stella Maris Church just in time for the Mass. The church was reminiscent of many I’d seen in France or Italy. It was astoundingly beautiful, but strikingly different, because the raised altar was built over top of Elijah’s Cave. The walls were marble imported from Italy, as was the mosaic floor. Stained glass panels told the story of Elijah, and overhead was a stunning cupola with frescoed panels depicting Elijah, King David, other prophets, and Mary. Just beyond the pews were three steps down into the grotto, where pilgrims go to pray and light candles, much as in the Jewish cave. Above the altar was a large statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Suspended from her hand is a large scapular. Mary, patroness of the Carmelites, gave this scapular to one of the monks in the 1200s. Many Catholic faithful today wear it. A tiny bit like a talit kattan worn by Jewish men or a mezuzah, the scapular is a prayer placard suspended around the neck by cords or fringes. It rests over the heart and between the scapula bones at the back. Of all the Elijah caves we visited, this was certainly the most impressive.

At the southwestern face of the Carmel Ridge is the site that Protestant Christians claim is the true cave of Elijah. There are no fancy churches, no places for prayer or lighting of candles, no holy books or gardens….just a lonely walk to a cave in the side of the mountain. It was roped off and quite inaccessible to humans – except for a couple of creepy life-sized dolls. Were they supposed to be representations of the famous prophet? The site certainly had that desolate feel of a place a hermit would live or a place one would go to seek escape. But those dolls!!! What were the people that put them there thinking???

The last cave of Elijah was not on Mount Carmel at all. It was adjacent to the city in which we live! A five minute drive across the highway and a twenty minute hike on a narrow trail. Located between the Arab towns of Nahef and Deir al Assad, we could see the structure high up in the mountain cliffs. John and I had always wondered what it could be? It looked like an ancient Egyptian temple or some type of mausoleum. It was the Muslim site of Elijah’s cave. In Arabic Elijah is known as “El Khader”. During the Byzantine period the Beit ha Kerem (House of Vineyards) Valley was a major center of Christian monasteries. The caves in the hills were used as burial sites for local Jewish residents and also for the early Hebrew Christians of the Galilee. Monks secluded themselves in these numerous caves as well. When the Muslims invaded the land, they took over many of these sites. They built their own shrine at the entrance to one of the larger caverns for their El Khader. Today, Bedouins still go up to the heights to offer sacrifices of sheep and goats… seeing the remnants of a recent Eid sacrifice near the entrance was just a little weird for us.

2 Kings, chapter 2 recounts the famous Bible story of Elijah being taken bodily to heaven in a whirlwind. He had traveled with his disciple Elisha down to the Judaean desert at the Jordan River crossing. There, Elijah instructed Elisha to wait on the western side of the river and not to take his eyes off him as he crossed over and ascended in the whirlwind when a fiery chariot split the sky (but Elisha’s attention was not diverted!!!) and he saw his mentor go up into the heavens. He then received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing – and his mantle.

Last month, our good friend, Marc, wanted to visit that spot at the Jordan River – to see how high the water was after two years of heavy winter rains. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) was still full and feeding the Jordan, which down near the Dead Sea is usually just a slimy trickle a couple inches deep. This year, it was supposed to be freely flowing and quite deep. I was dying to go because not only was it where Elijah was taken up, but it was also the exact spot where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land of Israel at Gilgal (near Jericho)after their forty year desert wanderings – Joshua 3. Once we got down there, I learned it was also the site where John the Baptist was immersing his disciples – and where he immersed Jesus. Also, it marks the spot where the leprous Syrian general Naaman dipped seven times in the river at the directive of Elisha. He was reticent to do something so simple, but was immediately cured of his disease (2 Kings 5). So it was quite the holy place!!!

In the Samarian (Shomron) desert, also known as the West Bank, on the border with Jordan, is Qaser Al-Yahud, also known as ‘the baptismal site.’ It had been completely closed since the 1967 War. Following Jordan’s defeat in the war, and their loss of control of the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat began to launch attacks on Israel from the Jordanian territory. The fighting lasted until Black September in 1970 when the troops of King Hussein routed the Palestinians (being supported by Haze Assad of Syria) into Lebanon. The area they left behind had been heavily mined. The old church that stood at the site is still pockmarked with bullet holes. Over the past decade, the IDF has been working to clear the landmines in the immediate vicinity so the Catholic Church and Franciscan monastery there could be used again. Today, it’s under the protection of the Israeli Parks Service and the Franciscans and can now be used for baptisms…once tourists are allowed back after the pandemic closures.

Because there were so few tourists on the Israeli side, we had a fun time to ourselves. Being careful to stay within the confines of the designated paths, we made our way down to the Jordan River. Unlike the crystal clear waters in the North, the Jordan was quite muddy by the time it reached Qaser al Yahud. The Israeli side was quite sparse, but there were an assortment of beautiful churches on the Jordanian side: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox. There were steps leading down to the river for baptisms, and a large chain dividing line that signified the border between Israel and Jordan. It was crazy being so close to the border!

As I was dipping my foot in (I just HAD to do it!) the murky waters, we heard singing coming from the Jordanian side. English voices! Americans!!!! Escorted by an armed guard, an American Evangelical pastor from California had taken some of his congregation on a pilgrimage. I yelled to them from the Israeli side. He was there to baptize them. How lucky for us to be there to see them!!

In total, he baptized six people. Tears were flowing, songs were being lifted heavenward, and you could just tell it was a moment that would forever be sealed in the hearts of those people. By the time we left, the one armed guard was joined by four other Jordanian military. And so we found ourselves at the last point in Elijah’s earthly life. It had been a most interesting journey for us.

The Spice Life: Recipes!!!!!

After our months of lockdown, opening my home/cage and setting me free has been an incredible experience. To take a friend, get in the car and start driving to a brand new location – WOW!!! There are just so many places to discover here in the Galilee region of Israel’s North!!! A few weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to Bethlehem. No, not THAT Bethlehem! The other one. Bet Lechem haGlilit – the Galilean Bethlehem. Are you totally confused yet? Just wait…

In the Jezreel Valley of the Lower Galilee, about 15 miles east of Haifa and 6 miles northwest of Nazareth is a sleepy little blip on the map, Bethlehem of the Galil. Because it is within an easy morning’s walk to Nazareth, one Israeli archaeologist is convinced that THIS is actually the birthplace of Jesus. After all, why would Mary and Joseph walk almost 75 miles over mountains and through deserts when she was in her ninth month? It kind of destroys the whole narrative found in the Gospels, but this is Israel, and there are a myriad of opinions on everything.

It did exist in antiquity and there was a Byzantine community that was established here in the 3rd century. After that, there came the Crusaders, as seen from the architectural ruins and structures built atop them. It was later re-settled by the Mamaluks and then Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, but was deserted by the late 1700s. In the 1800’s German Templars settled in Bethlehem haGlilit as well as several other places in Israel. Their distinctive architectural style – the stone houses with wooden shutters – can be seen in the photos below. In the 1930’s the Israeli/German Templars aligned wholeheartedly with the Nazi party. YES!!! We had Nazis living in Israel. How ironic is THAT??? In 1941, the British, who controlled Palestine, deported them as enemy aliens to Australia. Weirdness abounds here.

“The Other Bethlehem” is now an agricultural community of mostly Jewish families, but there are lots of Muslim and Druze residing in the area. Famous for its herb and spice farms, it’s home to Lavido Cosmetics Factory and store (we never made it as far as Lavido) and Derech HaTavlinim, The Spice Way – the largest spice store I’ve ever seen. This is unlike any other shuk or spice place I’ve ever been, and the next time we have guests from abroad, I’ll include this on our “go to” list. The intensity of colors!!! And smells!!!! So let’s go visit!!!

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Let’s start with rice spice, which is incredibly popular here. Variations of rice spice are sold from burlap bags and cardboard boxes at every supermarket here. I’ve always been intrigued, but never knew how to use them. So I bought several blends and took them apart for you to be able to make at home. Recipes to follow. But who knew there were so many different ways of making rice? That each ethnicity here has a favorite blend and particular recipe?

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The simple white blend in the above photo has a mixture of dried white onions, currants, golden raisins, sliced roasted almonds and sea salt. I love that they have instructions (in Hebrew) for many of the blends. This one, you add a handful to jasmine or white Persian rice as it cooks and then sprinkle some on top for crunch. The blend to the above left is a Mexican seasoning with crushed bell pepper, chile, cumin, salt, died onions, dried garlic, pepitas and crushed dried tomato powder.

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As you can see, this is unbelievable, and I was in culinary heaven!! Thank goodness, most of the blends are inexpensive, and I bought small amounts of several just to try. There are Asian blends, blends with dried lentils, assorted nuts, all kinds of interesting ingredients. There is a special blend for cooking in red rice. Once mixed in your own kitchen lab, it can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar for about six months. Sprinkle it over freshly cooked red rice and mix well. Add some to the top for extra crunch. It uses:                              1/2 cup dried onions                                                                                    1/4 cup dried minced garlic                                                                       1/4 cup toasted pine nuts                                                                           1/3 cup roasted, salted pecan bits                                                                1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt                                                                           1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

Here is one blend I took apart and has now become a favorite. It’s sweet and mild enough to add a nice flavor. Great served with chicken or salmon.

Orange-Cranberry Rice 

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The spice blend for this is as follows. It can be stored for up to six months in an airtight jar.

  • 1 cup dried onions
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 2 Tbsp minced, dried, red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup orange peel, diced
  • 1 tsp sea salt, coarse, or Kosher salt (Maldon is great)

Use this with a long grain, white rice. For every cup of rice I use 2 1/4 cups water and a handful of the above seasoning blend as it cooks. You can add a squeeze of fresh orange juice. This is so absolutely delicious, and adds just the right amount of fancy.

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There were dozens of za’taar blends: Druze, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and more. Each ethnicity having their own version. It’s made of hyssop, a thyme/oregano type woody herb that is indigenous to the MidEast, salt, and sesames with many variations. Usually, it is spread over humus, or fresh dairy products, sprinkled on Israeli salads (think tiny cucumbers and tomatoes chopped very small), and served in Druze flatbread sandwiches filled with Labaneh, a wildly popular sour cream cheese.

Easy HomeMade Goat Cheese Loaf Galilee Style

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Ingredients:

  • 1 liter fresh goat milk (Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods)
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp nigella seeds (ketzach) or (back) sesame seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • za’taar

Pour the goat milk into a glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice. Let sit for an hour until curds begin to form. Strain the curdled milk (you can save the leftover whey water for pickling vegetables – that’s how it’s done here) in a finely meshed colander. Add the seeds and salt. You can also add 2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh herbs and garlic at this point OR 1 tsp za’taar. It’s optional, but wonderful. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Place the cheese curds into a large cheesecloth folded/doubled over. Tie the ends of the cloth onto a wooden spoon and hang on the faucet over the kitchen sink. This allows all the liquid to drain out, taking 3-4 hours. Unfold the cheesecloth and dump the cheese ball, which can be formed into a ball or loaf with well-oiled hands, onto a plate or shallow bowl. Refrigerate for an hour to firm and chill. Serve with olive oil and za’taar sprinkled on top. This is typically a breakfast food here, served with pita, olives, and chopped veggies. Very Galilean.

At The Spice Way, there was an entire row of different fish spices. With Lake Kinneret (sea of Galilee) only a twenty minute drive, fresh fish is quite popular here. Denis, Amnon, St Peter’s Fish, Trout are all found in abundance in the Kinneret. Ordering the fish at a restaurant, it comes to the table completely whole (skin, bones, head and tail) smothered in spices, piping hot off the grill. It’s an experience. Anyway there were so many different spices just for fish:

And of course, there were bulk dried herbs, dried fruits, and combinations of herbs and fruits to make tea infusions. A huge grinding machine for crushing sesame seeds to make techineh. Dried lemons and limes, crushed dried flowers (for Middle Eastern culinary delights), preserved citrus in huge jars; preserved fruits and veggies; grains and pulses; olives of all kinds; freshly pressed oils – the list seems endless.

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I’ve never seen so many pepper blends: powders and crushes – so many shades of orange and red. Hungarian paprika; tomato, chile and bell pepper blends; smoked and sweet paprikas; hot peppers; sweet peppers; Italian, Spanish, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern. Craaziness! (no filter used to enhance- these are the absolute gorgeous colors!!)

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There were several bowls of spice and herb blends just for different potato dishes. I bought a few and went home to experiment. This is the best recipe I came up with after “dissecting” the ingredients of one particular sack.

Potato & Onion Strata

I made this dish three times. I wanted to snap a photo, but every time my husband or son had carved more than half for themselves. Finally….

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First let’s start with this mixture of deliciousness – stores in glass jar for up to six months nicely – if it lasts more than a week or two. The blend cam be sprinkled on mashed potatoes or loaded baked potatoes. Put a little dish out at your next do-it-yourself potato bar.

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Spice Blend for Potatoes: 

  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted garlic pieces
  • 1/4 cup dried/roasted whole garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup dried onion flakes
  •  1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsp dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp oregano, optional
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp dehydrated, minced tomato (sun dried), optional

For the strata, I used a quiche dish, but you can use any style baking dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced paper thin (I use my mandolin)
  • 3-4 large yellow or brown-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup potato spice blend
  • 3 large eggs, beaten

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Preheat oven to 200*C/400*F. Grease your baking dish with the olive oil. Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes concentrically or in overlapping rows on the bottom. Add a layer of the onions. Sprinkle with the olive oil and the spice blend. Add another later alternating potatoes and onions, oil and spice. Do this as many times as you can until the layers are almost at the top of the dish. Pour the beaten egg over the top, very slowly, to allow it all to seep into the cracks. sprinkle more spice blend on top. Place on foil lined baking sheet and bake in oven about 15 minutes until the top browns. Cover with foil to prevent burning and bake an additional 20 minutes. Uncover dish and let brown about 3 more minutes. Don’t let it burn. Remove from oven and let set, about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

This next recipe is very Middle Eastern. I hate to claim it as Israeli, because, once again, there are so many variations based on ethnicity. It starts with a spiced chickpea which can be roasted and eaten as a low-cal, healthy snack.  It can be served uncooked, mixed into a salad(think veggies, quinoa or cooked bulgar wheat). The Egyptians use it as a stuffing for hollowed out baked onions, peppers, and squashed. Yemenites use it to stuff a chicken before baking. Some people blend it up to make a humus. Quite versatile.

This uses sumac, a red berry from the sumac bush which grows in this area. The berries are died and ground into a powder. It’s a bit coarse and has a tart, almost lemony taste that cannot be duplicated. It can be found in many grocery and specialty stores outside the Middle East. It is ubiquitous here – a staple ingredient in fattoush salads.

Basic Spiced Chickpeas

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Ingredients:

  • 2 14 oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground sumac
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin

Preheat oven to 170*C/3608F. Heat the oil one medium high heat in a medium sized pot for about a minute. When hot, add the spices and reduce heat too low. Cook, stirring until fragrance is released, about 2 minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir to coat.Turn out onto Silpat covered or greased parchment covered baking sheet. Spread out so chickpeas cover the pan in a single layer. Bake for about 10 minutes.

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These are great eaten as a snack, cold, as is. The peas turn out slightly crunchy, but have a soft center. You can add the chickpeas to a Galilean salad.

  Galilean Chickpea Salad

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup spiced chickpeas (see recipe above)
  • 1 cucumber, diced finely
  • 1 large tomato, diced finely
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1/3 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup mint, chopped
  • 1/3 cup celery leaves, chopped, optional
  • 1 lemon
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • sea salt, to taste

Combine the chopped veggies in a large bowl. Add the chickpeas and mix. Squeeze lemon using a strainer to catch pips. Add juice to chickpea mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Add the chopped parsley and mint (and celery leaves). Stir to combine. May add sea salt to taste. Serve cold.

Another option to the above salad is to add a cup of cooked quinoa, and here in Israel, cooked freekeh(a grain) or burgil(a cracked wheat)  is also a popular variation. If you are serving a dairy dish, crumbled feta cheese can also be added.

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The above picture is one of the more ‘interesting’ blends. Ras-el-Hanut translates from the Arabic loosely to mean specialty of the store. Each spice shop has their own unique blend, and, once again, it varied widely depending upon ethnicity. This one contains cardamom, ground roses (really!!!), ground lavender, cinnamon, cloves, and dried ground raisins.  The little sign at the bottom instructs us to add it to a kilo (2.2 pounds) of ground beef along with chopped onion and chopped cuzbara (cilantro) and salt. Mix gently until combined and form into small logs (kabobim) and grill. Or form into balls and simmer in a tomato sauce.

Now for a healthy dessert. A couple days after we visited the spice superstore, my travel buddy, Hadassah Rose, surprised me with a lovely gift –

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She made a wonderful sweet, but not too sweet, healthy date roll chock full of goodies like nuts and dried fruit and mini dark chocolate chips. We finished it off in no time. Using many of the ingredients she bought that day, Hadassah gladly shared her recipe. A couple days later she brought over another adorably wrapped log, this time filled with dried pineapple, mango, papaya and coconut. Oh my L-rd!!!!

Hadassah Rose’s Date Logs

  • 100 grams coconut oil (1/2 cup)
  • 400 grams pitted dates (medjool) (1 1/2 cup, well packed)
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut or 1 cup almond flour
  • 3 Tbsp almond butter or techineh (tahini)
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup dried fruit (apricots, cherries, cranberries or tropical), chopped
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts)
  • 1/2 cup seeds (sunflower, pecan or toasted sesames)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • extra coconut, fruit or nuts to decorate

Process first five ingredients in a to a smooth, thick paste. Transfer to bowl. Mix in fruits and nuts, with oiled/gloved hands (this is sticky!!!) Smash down in parchment lined (coconut oiled) pan. Refrigerate until hard, 2-3 hours. Cut into squares; or with oiled/gloved hands, roll into log or balls. Can decorate by rolling in coconut or nuts. Wrap in parchment. Keep in fridge until ready to eat.

Perhaps this will inspire you to experiment with creating your own unique combination of herbs and spices. If you are ever out here, I’m certainly game for a return trip to ‘the other Bethlehem’ to visit Derech haTavlinim!!!! 

 

 

 

Mysteries of Antiquity

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Montfort Castle (in mid-ground) perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the Mediterranean

There are few things Israelis (both native-born and immigrants) love more than a tiyuul (TEE-ool), a day-trip, tour or hike. We had hiked up to Montfort Castle, six miles south of the Lebanese border, twice before – from different angles and with different tour-guide friends. Each time we got a different view of the majestic ruins of this Crusader fortress – and each time we got a different story. Each story was fascinating and mysterious, full of romance and military moves. And each had elements of historical truth and fact; but all three stories varied wildly.

How does one piece together truth from ruined antiquities? Each person telling the stories of the past has his or her own bias and own historical interests and specialties. Add to that a host of unsolved murders, ghost stories and tales of hauntings that have crept into the retellings, and you have quite the mix to sort out. Such is the case with Montfort Castle. The first time we made the hike was four years ago, with Shabtai, an Israeli who loved history and loved a good yarn. It was a beautiful spring day, in the times before COVID, when the trails were jam-packed with hikers of all ages. Those intrepid Israelis: babies and musical instruments on their backs, navigating the steep mountain trails like the Israeli deer one can see on the cliffs.

Shabtai had told us about this Crusader Fortress, one of several built during the 12th century by the Christian conquerors of the Holy Land – Christians bent on establishing an enduring presence in Terra Sancta. These Europeans traveled to Israel – some for religious pilgrimage; some for adventure, fame and fortune; some for conquest – to rid the land of infidels, Muslim and Jew alike; some to set up missions and colonize the area for the Church. On a steep ridgeline in the center of a wadi overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, eight miles northeast of the ancient Akko port, these French Crusader knights decided to build a fortress. It was hidden from plain view, but afforded excellent views from all directions. It was the perfect and most strategic spot for a military installation. And because it was so hidden it was the perfect location to store hidden treasure – everything from Biblical antiquities from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (think of the movies, National Treasure or Indiana Jones) to plunders of gold and silver artifacts from the Muslim sheiks to religious relics of various saints. It was all stored and buried there or in caves in close proximity to the fortress. I remember the tale he told of a handsome Christian knight who fell in love with a local Galilean Jewish girl, both young and beautiful. It went against religious practices for either of them to marry each other. As the story goes, they had a secret rendezvous at the castle on a moonlit night and fling themselves over the parapet into the cavernous wadi below rather than to live apart. Their ghosts still linger as mists on the walls on nights with a full moon.

Our friend, Shabtai, is a grand story teller. We could listen to him all day, but have learned to take much of what he says with a few grains of salt. About 45% is actual historical fact, the rest….well, it makes us want to research the true histories of the land. I’ve learned to check my old history books (from the days of homeschooling) and look for first-hand documentation, if it can be found. The histories of Josephus Flavius, the Scriptures – a working knowledge of both Tanach and New Testament are important in this land; diaries and letters from ancient Romans, Jewish rabbis and European Crusaders; old maps; and speaking with archaeologists and historians are all part of putting together the puzzle pieces.

The next time, we hiked up the wadi following the Katziv Stream. It was an early autumn hike, and the stream bed had long dried up. Avigail, our guide for this one, gave us a history lesson that seemed much more factual than our first introduction. Archaelogical excavations had revealed this was once the site of an ancient Roman fortress, as coins and Roman spear tips had been found in situ. After the Romans, the Muslim invasions of Israel swept down from the North and the East in the 700s-800s. French Crusaders first conquered the Holy Land from the Islamists in 1099. As a reward, large swaths of Israel, were gifted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe to royal families. This whole northern area was given to the DeMille family of France to settle and farm. They built a castle atop this mountain and planted vines for the cultivation of wine. In the late 1100s, SalahDin, the Kurdish Muslim general, took the land and the castle from the French settlers upon his brutal retaking of the land. Enter the English and French together, who vanquished SalahDin under Richard the Lionheart. These Crusaders resettled the coast of Israel from Jaffa to Caesaria and Akko, their new capital(also known as Acre). The land where the DeMille estate was located was sold to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (Germans).

There was a great rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller over Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Akko. Who would have control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holy sites and the strategic sites? The Teutonic Knights were formed as a German military order of the Holy Roman Empire to secure territory and aid pilgrims from Europe traveling to the Holy Land. They gained control of Akko, but moved to the abandoned Montfort Estate in 1229, fortifying the property with outer and inner walls and guard towers. The Teutonic Knights added a second story as well as magnificent archives and a treasury, renaming it Castel Starkenberg. In 1266, the fortress was overtaken by the Mamaluks (Muslim mercenaries from Egypt who were first enslaved by the Sunnis, but proved to be an excellent asset for their military and engineering prowess). Sultan, Baybars conquered much of the territory of the Northern Galilee, including Montfort. A siege ensued. The Crusaders were forced out and the much of the remote mountain fortress was razed. Fortunately, the Teutonic Knights were able to take the contents of the great library and the most of the treasury with them as they fled back to the Germanic territories in Europe in 1271.

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Last week was another beautiful week in the Northwest Galilee. We planned a tiyuul with friends to some of the border villages and to Park Goren, a JNF sponsored park. Goren is gorgeous!!! It reminds me a tiny bit of Yosemite with spectacular views of cliffs and canyons. It’s a favorite place for hikes, picnics and campouts. Fortunately for us, the area was rather deserted and very peaceful. This time, John and I looked over the wadi to the mountain ridge opposite for the most spectacular view of Montfort Castle (see above). People are able to take the steep, almost vertical, steps to the bottom of the wadi (to the Katziv Stream/Nahal Kziv). From there it is an hour or two hike up to the ruins.

This trip found us in the company of an amateur military historian and fascinating story teller. He explained to us that Montfort is the site of one of the greatest military mysteries of all times. The way Avi tells it, during the Second Crusade, the French wanted to establish a hidden and strategic military outpost. As soon as they saw the ridge of the Beautiful Mountain, they knew they had found their spot. It was perfect for defense: an arrow shot right into the wadi below, a rolling stone down the cliff, the high ground easily kept. From Montfort, one could watch for invading armies sweeping down from the North in what is now Lebanon. It was the perfect site for an ambush! They would also have a fairly unobstructed view down the wadi to the coast. It was decided at once to start the massive building project at any and all expense. Slave labor was recruited from both the remaining Jewish population and the Bedouins that lived in the area. Three years spent hewing massive rock and constructing the fortress, many lives lost in the process. It was only during the third year of the great building campaign that the French decided to send their scouts further up the wadi. These Crusaders had been waiting in vain for an imminent attack from the North for all those years but none had come. It didn’t take the scouts long to return. Not four miles to the north, the twisting path of the wadi became a dead end, completely blocked by the mountains, cut off at the pass!

Now why would the French build without first thoroughly scouting out the land in all directions? Who would give the orders and who would procure funds from the Pope and the French monarch? Who would release the fortune required to undertake such an endeavor? Avi says it is one of the unsolved military mysteries of all time. After the tragic discovery, he informed us that it remained a type of resort for retired military generals – that they could finish up their tours of duty with mountain breezes and gorgeous vistas without fear of enemy invasion.

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As for us, it was a great tale, but will stick with Avigail’s more factual rendition.

We did learn that with advance permission, you can spend the night camping out at Montfort Castle. It is a popular spot for school trips and summer camps (although not this summer). The stream below is known for its natural beauty as well as a great shady walk for families on hot days. In the spring, the entire hillsides are covered in wildflowers. And there is a stable in the village of Hila which offers horseback rides both to the castle and  through the wadi. All in all, it makes for a beautiful day trip – take your pick on the stories.

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