The Khan of the White Donkey

A medieval inn in the Galilee is now a center for music and culture

The Khan of the White Donkey (photo credit: courtesy )
The Khan of the White Donkey
(photo credit: courtesy )
A painted sign showing a playful white donkey hangs over the green door on Tzvi Levanon Street, Safed. Push the door open, and step into a time warp.
Cool, white-plastered stone walls and arched doorways in typical Safed style surround you. Venturing into the building, you find yourself in a large stone chamber with sittingroom alcoves let into the walls. You could be in a medieval khan – an inn for the merchants traveling the Silk Road. And indeed, you are.
The Khan of the White Donkey was part of an important mercantile center in ancient times; the last stop between Acre and Damascus for the caravans that traveled that historical route. The merchants slept upstairs, in comfort. The servants slept in the alcoves, some of which served as kiosks or stables. Today, rugs, cushions and low sofas make the alcoves into cozy meeting corners.
The Khan is the oldest building in Safed in continuous use, and its purposes have been varied. From medieval khan, to bomb shelter in all of Israel’s wars, to a center for modern cultural and musical events, the Khan has withstood time and earthquakes to serve Safed’s community.
American computer software expert Moshe Tov Krebs bought the building in 2002. Krebs was born and grew up in New York and lived in California, where he was active in the Jewish Renewal community. Divorced, with an adult daughter in California, he made aliya in 2000. He lived in Jerusalem for two years, then moved to Safed.
“I originally bought the property with modest plans. I wanted it as a community health center, which today is the Halevav Healthy Living Center. It wasn’t a ruin, but it was rundown, with bad wiring and plumbing, and some cracked walls. Talking to old Safed residents, I was originally told that this building is 160 to 180 years old. It was assumed to have been rebuilt after the 1837 earthquake.
Part of it was collapsed, but some had survived the earthquake.
“I brought in local archeologists.Gradually, we saw that the building was just a piece of a whole big commercial property in the area. It’s next to an old mosque and a spring: everything travelers needed in ancient times. We began fitting pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, with a little bit of information here and a little information there. We checked records, spoke to local elders, and discovered that it had been part of the Friday morning market complex in the Arab part of Safed. It was called Khan al-Juma in Arabic: Friday market khan.”
The story of the Khan’s renovation continued unfolding, as renovations revealed walls behind the walls and layers under the tiled floor.
“A restoration expert from the Antiquities Authority told me to remove all the modern plaster and concrete. We discovered details that suggested that part of the building had survived the earthquakes.
When we opened everything up, we discovered a passageway in the innermost part of the building that led to a chamber. In a corner of the chamber there was a Mameluke stone carving in one corner, and a few small clay artifacts. Architects said that the site probably goes back to the 14th century. Carbon-dating shows that the artifacts are from that time.”
As old rubbish was cleared away, Krebs and his crew found two water cisterns and a “cave” that’s thought to be from the Crusader era. One of the restored cisterns is used for rainwater collection.
Renovations were done with natural lime plaster and some decorative mud building. “The whole building became a workshop in lime plaster techniques. Nobody had done this before around here,” notes Krebs.
Most of the work, however, was stone reconstruction. As restoration manager and team coordinator Andy Alpern explained to Metro, mineralrich moisture infiltrates stone and destroys it. When lime mortar is used, the ambient moisture evaporates via the lime plaster around the stone.
Part of the Khan is underground, so moisture must always be controlled.
“The polished lime floor is the biggest in Israel,” says Alpern.
Today, the Khan is a combination of community activities and business.
“My goal was to make a hybrid of business and nonprofit community activities,” explains Krebs.
The original activities in the Khan focused on the Halevav health center and community projects, but gave way to music and cultural events over time. The Safed Municipality took over the recycling project that started there, such that there are recycling bins all over the town today. A community garden at a local community center still flourishes under students’ care. On Sundays, the building hosts regular acupuncture sessions. But today, the Khan mostly functions as a cultural center and licensed events hall.
There are performances two or three times a month, featuring local ethnic music.
“It’s a prime venue for music in the North; a labor of love to bring culture and music into the area, and to showcase new, young performers from the Galilee,” says Krebs.
An imaginative attraction is dinner at the Khan. The Khan’s business manager is Maxim Ben-Abu, who is a trained chef. He offers typical foods to go with the flavor of the performances. For example, with a recent show of flamenco dancing, the audience was served Spanish tapas. At another performance of Indian music and dance, diners enjoyed a menu of Indian foods.
Audiences come from all segments of society, depending on the nature of the performances. “You have to like the music that’s performed; it’s not always mainstream,” says Krebs.
“We get religious and secular people; residents from nearby yishuvim [villages], and some tourists.”
The building is open during the week for tourists. It’s also a venue for family events, meetings and conferences, seating 100 people. The municipality hosts special visitors to the city there, showing off what can be done with old Safed properties if renovated.
Another aspect of the Khan is the tzimmerim, rooms for short-term rent next door. They were renovated in the late Ottoman style, fitting to the period in which they were built.
Krebs originally bought the building to fix the roof, which was leaking into the Khan during winter. With typical entrepreneurship, he converted the rooms into a stylish and comfortable tzimmer with gorgeous views of Safed and the surrounding Meron hills.
Renovations, he says, were done with the same eco-friendly materials as used to renovate the Khan. There is a large downstairs room on the ground floor, for disabled access.