From 16th century well to ‘48 war, centuries of history unveiled in Safed

Among other structures, the researchers unearthed a 16th century market, a well, water cisterns, remains of several buildings dating back between the 17th and the 19th century.

Excavations conducted in the Ashtam Square in the Old City of Safed. (photo credit: SAFED MUNICIPALITY)
Excavations conducted in the Ashtam Square in the Old City of Safed.
(photo credit: SAFED MUNICIPALITY)
Archaeological excavations conducted in the heart of Safed’s old city have revealed findings that date back to its last 500 years of history, offering insights into its rich Jewish life, the different earthquakes that hit it, the time of the British mandate and even the 1948 War of Independence.
Among other structures, the researchers unearthed a 16th century market, a well, water cisterns, remains of several buildings dating back between the 17th and the 19th century and a war tunnel, the municipality of Safed announced on Tuesday.
“In the 12th and 13th centuries in Israel, after the Mamluks destroyed Acre, which had become an important city under the Crusaders, Safed became the most important center in the region,” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dr. Eliezer Stern explained to The Jerusalem Post.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire conquered the land of Israel.
“They were known to be pretty tolerant rulers. After the expulsion of Spain in 1492, many Jews continued to make their way to Safed. In the 16th century, the Jewish community flourished,” Stern pointed out.
The market uncovered dates back to that period, when the city was home to the greatest rabbis, including the prominent kabbalist Isaac Luria or “Haari Hakadosh” as he was better known, and also to an affluent economy, also thanks to the revenues of the wool trade.
At the end of the century however, an earthquake hit the city.
“Safed experienced several earthquakes over the centuries, as we could see in the different layers we uncovered,” the archaeologist said. “As time went by, the Jewish community became less and less important, until the beginning of the 19th century, when another influx of Jewish immigrants moved to the city from Eastern Europe. However, also this short period of Jewish revival was interrupted by an earthquake in 1837. From that moment, the center of Jewish life in Israel remained Jerusalem.”
Several of the rooms of the ancient market were used as water cisterns for buildings erected in later periods. Besides structures dating back to the British Mandate, the archaeologist also discovered a tunnel that was dug during the War of Independence.
“The oldest residents of Safed recall that in 1948, in the attack conducted by Arab soldiers to take over the Jewish neighborhood of the city, they made an attempt to place explosives under a Jewish post that stood in the square where we conducted the excavation. Now we uncovered the tunnel that they tried to use. After hearing so much about it. It is really incredible to see the actual structure,” Stern pointed out.
The city of Safed is planning to develop the site, which also offers a stunning view on Mount Meron, into a tourist attraction.
“These are fascinating and exciting findings that expose an extensive part of the history of the city, in a sort of time machine to different periods of the capital of the Galilee,” Safed Mayor Shuki Ohana said in a press release. “I personally have a connection to the discovery from the War of Independence since terrorist tunnels from the Muslim Quarter were excavated along this area: my uncle, after whom I am named, was killed by a sniper while standing in their nearby Ashtam building.”
Ohana added that they have been working with archaeologists, architects and consultants and in the next few days the city will present a plan for the development of the site.