A Magnificent Manor: Majdal Yābā - A Fortified Ottoman and British Mandate Period Manor House in Central Israel

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Itamar Taxel and Tsvika Tsuk

Within view of the modern town of Rosh Ha-‘Ayin is a site that was continuously inhabited between the Iron Age II and the British Mandate. Majdal Yābā is located on a hill at the western fringes of Samaria, overlooking the coastal plain and the eastern basin of the Yarqon River. Thanks to the impressive and well-preserved remains of a fortified monumental structure on the summit, it is visible from a distance. The site provides a unique view on not only the landscape but upper class Ottoman period society.

The Ottoman manor house built over the Crusader castle, looking southeast.

Majdal Yābā is identified with Aphecou Pyrgos/Aphek Turris (“Tower of Aphek [ancient Hebrew: water source]”) of the Early Roman period, from which the site’s modern Hebrew name Migdal (tower) Aphek derives. The site’s history is better known from the Crusader period onwards. The Crusaders called it Mirabel and established a castle that functioned as an administrative center until its conquest by the Ayyubid army in 1187 CE. The location has been called Majdal Yābā in Muslim sources at least since 1225 CE, when it was described as a village with a strong fortress.

The importance of Majdal Yābā increased again in the seventeenth century, when the village was taken over by the Rayyān family, who emigrated from Transjordan. They established their own estate in the form of a monumental two-storey manor house built atop and around the remains of the medieval castle. This magnificent structure, however, is dated to the eighteenth century, and underwent several additions and renovations in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Humbler village dwellings and a few public buildings clustered around the manor, and the site was damaged during the First World War and Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

Since the 19th century Majdal Yābā has been intensively documented. Scholars have been especially interested in the last two phases – the medieval, mainly Crusader, period and the (late) Ottoman and British Mandate periods. Several units of the Ottoman-Mandatory manor house, including parts of the Crusader castle, were excavated on behalf of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (in, and) following the site’s listing as a national park. The architectural survey of the manor house documented more than sixty different rooms, courtyards, and other architectural spaces.

Most of these spaces can be divided into four apartments and one service wing (with Apartment 1 identified as the residence of the local sheikh who owned the building and his nuclear family), each with a separate entrance from the building’s central courtyard. Each entrance is located in the ground floor from which a staircase leads to a small, unroofed courtyard on the second floor. The manor house had a main gate located on its northern wall, and a secondary gate at its eastern wall.

General view from Apartment 4 (second floor) to Apartment 2, looking west.

The main courtyard, looking northwest; the Crusader tower is seen in the middle.

The excavations fully or partially unearthed several rooms, courtyards and porticos located at the ground and second floors, as well as the main gate area, the secondary gate, and part of the Crusader moat outside the northern wall. The most prominent standing remain of the Crusader castle is a massive tower that bordered the entranceway of the Ottoman manor house, which was converted during the Ottoman period into the entrance hall which led to Apartment 1. Various architectural elements from the Roman and Byzantine periods were incorporated in the walls of the tower and other visible parts of the Crusader castle. The most important element is a large Byzantine-period lintel embedded over the tower’s doorway, which bears a tabula ansata with a Greek inscription that reads: “Martyrium of St. Kerykos/Cyriacus.”

General view of a large room excavated in the ground floor of Apartment 4.

The Byzantine lintel bearing a Greek inscription in secondary use in the doorway of the Crusader tower.

Another interesting unit unearthed in the ground floor (at the back of Apartment 1) is a large stable, which was entered from the north façade of the manor house. It includes three built-in vaulted mangers and three stone tethering loops embedded in the wall next to each manger. 

Noteworthy architectural components in the manor house were chimney-equipped fireplaces and built-in storage niches of various dimensions, installed in many rooms on the ground and second floors, and at least three built-in toilet chambers located in the second floor of Apartments 1 and 2, and in Apartment 3. In Ottoman and British Mandate times, built-in toilets were essentially a characteristic of urban architecture and were rarely found in villages.

The stable. Note the three built-in mangers at the rear wall.

Toilet chamber on the second floor of Apartment 2.

Majdal Yābā was one of a few dozen “throne villages” which existed in strategic mountainous locations throughout the Palestinian central hill country and in Galilee. Fortified manor houses were built in these villages during the eighteenth century. They were the seats of local sheikhs, appointed by the territorial sovereign as authorized representatives of the Ottoman regime in these counties, or sheikhdoms. Their palatial manor houses were hybrid, combining urban and rural architecture, despite their rural settings. At Majdal Yābā, a good example of this unique architecture are the most mundane and intimate components of the manor house – the built-in toilet chamber.

The Majdal Yābā excavations provided important evidence about the material culture, economy, and daily life of the inhabitants of the manor house complex, and about the broader cultural and socio-political context of the country during the late Ottoman and Mandate periods, roughly the nineteenth century to 1948. Relatively large quantities of artifacts were retrieved in the excavations. The animal bones found in the excavations, for example, indicate certain patterns of diet habits and animal exploitation in the manor’s latest phases. The faunal remains are predominantly sheep/goats, with smaller quantities of cattle, domestic fowl, pig/wild boar, and Persian fallow deer. Abundance signs of butchery, the presence of all body parts of sheep and goats, and the butchering of young animals, suggest that the manor house was a self-sufficient household and that its inhabitants enjoyed an affluent diet. This corresponded the assumed high status of the complex, but surprisingly, the presence of pig bones indicates that a certain portion of the site’s population (which was exclusively Muslim) hunted and consumed wild boars.

The overwhelming majority of the finds are fragments of pottery vessels, mostly of local (Palestinian) origin, in addition to imported glazed table and cooking vessels from Turkey, France, and probably other European countries. Also found were clay and metal parts of smoking implements (hand/dry pipes and water pipes),  Mandate-period coins and various objects made of glass, metal, stone or bone. Noteworthy examples include a few fragments of metal-and-glass hurricane lamps, apparently European imports. 

Late Ottoman-Mandatory selected porcelain and refined white earthenware vessels.

Late Ottoman-Mandatory selected glass objects (nos. 6-8 belong to hurricane lamps).

Late Ottoman-Mandatory selected hand smoking pipes

Late Ottoman-Mandatory water-pipe parts. 

In this respect, Majdal Yābā was not different from many other villages in Palestine. Many of these products, and the materials or activities associated with them (such as the use of kerosene for lighting, coffee and tea drinking, and tobacco smoking) formed only part of a much more extensive process of “modernization” and globalization which started its first steps in Palestine during the nineteenth century, while combining pan-Ottoman and Western/European trends. These rapid changes influenced – though not necessarily simultaneously and at the same scale – virtually every part of the country as it entered the modern era.

Itamar Taxel is the Head of Pottery Specializations Branch at the Archaeological Research Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Tsvika Tsuk is Chief Archaeologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.




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