The ‘largest-ever’ Crusader-era winery discovered in the Galilee

Structure dates back to the 12th century and boasts two treading floors

One of the 800-year-old treading floors of what's believed to be the largest Crusader winery found in Mi'ilya, northern Israel.  (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
One of the 800-year-old treading floors of what's believed to be the largest Crusader winery found in Mi'ilya, northern Israel.
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
In the quaint and quiet northern Israeli village of Mi’ilya sits what may be the largest Crusader winery.
The winery dates back to the 12th century, and today it’s under a private property belonging to the Assaf family.
It was discovered by Salma Assaf, whose husband’s family has owned the property for 260 years.
The family moved from Lebanon during the Ottoman period, settled in the ruins of the Crusader castle in Mi’ilya and built a home there.
The ruins date back to about 1160 CE, when King Baldwin III built the castle on the mountaintop and ruled over the Galilee.
On Wednesday, The Jerusalem Post visited the ancient winery as part of a pre-Christmas tour of the Greek Catholic village sponsored by Media Central. The village is located a few kilometers shy of the Lebanese border.
Rabei Khamisy, an archaeologist at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, explained that one of the most unique features of the winery is how “it was built in a sophisticated and beautiful way by the Crusaders.”
He explained that most wineries from the period only had one treading floor, but this winery, which was part of the Frankish Crusader Kingdom, had two. A treading floor has a slight slope that leads down to a collecting vat for liquid and seeds to be deposited.
From there, it would be put into jars and “would be taken for fermentation,” Khamisy said. “The Byzantines had much larger wineries; as far as we know, the Crusaders didn’t have anything similar to that size.”
Some 800 years later, the winery’s treading floors are still in good condition, and the unique details of the decorations are still intact.
“We also found a 6-meter hole, which we think was used to store the jars of wine to ferment,” he said, adding they suspect it belonged to the lords living in the Crusader castle, whose ruins sit next to the location of the winery.
Khamisy, who was born and raised in Mi’ilya, explained that the depth of the hole at the time of use was about 5 meters. The layer below was used by Romans, “as we found Roman ceramics – the pit was here before. It might be from the first or second century.”
Asked how she found the winery, Assaf explained that while cleaning their home three years ago, some workers came across “a rift in the floor.”
She explained the workers found a loose stone, and when they moved it and looked into the hole, “we realized there was something there.
“I was suspicious, I thought maybe it was a grave initially, because it was this big stone under the house,” Assaf said.
She called Khamisy, who said he believed it was a winery. He returned with the correct tools and began excavations.
Assaf paid for the winery’s excavations with her own money, as she believed it was an important find.
“I was hesitant to do the excavations in the beginning... but together with my sons we decided to do it,” she said, adding they asked Khamisy to get permission from government authorities to do so.
“We started excavating the first room and realized there was more,” Assaf highlighted, referring to the room where the hole for storing the fermenting wine was found. “We wanted to close, but then we decided to continue excavating.”
She added she was very excited about finding the winery under her home.
Three months ago, their home was expanded and converted into a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast.
They hope to eventually open a museum where the ancient winery stands.
In 2017, Khamisy also managed to raise NIS 200,000 from residents in Mi’ilya for a project to preserve the crumbling ruins of the castle, after they had been neglected for many years. He said locals gave the amounts he asked for without question, and preservation work was done on the walls of the castle.
Khamisy stressed this showed “how important archaeology is to the people of Mi’ilya.
“Ninety-nine percent of people living here now don’t own property in Mi’ilya, but they feel they have a duty to preserve the castle,” he said.
Khamisy added that they are planning to do more excavation and preservation of the towers and other parts in the near future.