Archaeology in Israel - Ancient Bread Mills in the Lower Galilee

    March Passover 2002 Edition            
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Bread Mills in the Lower Galilee

by Jacqueline Schaalje

The importance of bread is accounted for in the Bible and Jewish literature in hundreds of references, for instance in the blessing "who brings forth bread from the earth." God cursed Adam when he expelled him from paradise, with: "You shall earn your bread with the sweat of your brow." Bread should be given to the poor: "He that has a generous eye will be blessed; for he gives his bread to the poor (Proverbs 22:9)." That is exactly what the rabbis did: "Whenever R[abbi] Huna broke bread for a meal, he first opened his door and said, 'Let anyone in need come and eat' (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 20b)."

The Tosepha Shabbat mentions water mills: "You should not put grains between 'water millstones' except to grind them (Tosepha 1:20)." In Biblical times bread was always eaten with the hands, and from this comes the old expression "breaking bread," which has become a synonym of eating.

Archaeology in Israel

The earliest grinders were made of two stones between which the grain was rubbed. In the Iron Age, the lower stone was made of volcanic basalt stone, because it had a rough surface to make grinding quicker. The drawback was that basalt flakes could enter the bread and wear down the teeth. Later grinding became more elaborate, consisting of small containers and mortars. In a later stage, large round cut stones were lain on top of each other.

Grinding the wheat was usually the woman's job. According to estimations, a mother in a household of six needed three hours every morning to grind the wheat for her family. The early grindstones, before the process was mechanized, rested on the ground. To prevent back problems, the grinder sat on her knees while working. A more upgraded version existed in the Byzantine era, where heavy millstones were turned round by a donkey. Such millstones, weighing 100 kilograms each, were the subject of a news item, when they turned up at the house of someone who had stolen them from their archaeological finding place near Tiberias.

Between Haifa and the ancient city of Zippori winds the nahal (river) Zippori. On the western side it ends in the river Kishon, which was in the news recently because of reports about pollution. The river rises at the other end in springs scattered over the lower Galilee. Along the river there are two antique Turkish bread mills, which are powered by the water from the stream.

After the winter rains the river is full with water and streams fast. The first bread mill can be reached via the N70 road from Kfar Hasidim to Shefaram, and then turning right on a small road to Tel Alil. The first bread mill is also called Alil, and lies west of the road, towering above the steep ravine. The location has a panoramic view on Haifa and Kiryat Ata. Down in the depths, the Zippori stream is hidden by reeds. The mill itself appears as a sort of broken-down viaduct, which only reveals its surprises to someone who takes the trouble to climb down.

The second mill is called Ha'nezirim, or 'the monks', is reached by foot and following the river, or alternatively by car (only 4 x 4) via a muddy dirt road from the nearby Arab village of Kaabiyye-Tabbash. From the mill, the village of Harduf (its organic bread is sold in supermarkets) can be seen crowning the hill.

The second mill has the added feature of a house on top, which was not inhabited by monks - despite its name. The mill got this name because Carmelite monks owned the surrounding fields from Haifa during the Ottoman era. These monks settled in the Carmel and lower Galilee because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who roamed the area (1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 2:25 and 4:25). The monks produced the wheat in this fertile part of the country. A rich Arabic family from Haifa owned the mill. Both mills operated until Israel's independence. (The only remaining operating water mill in Israel is in Banyas in the Golan).

The second mill of Ha'nezirim has been recently bought by someone, who is expected to turn it into a restaurant. But for now it is an idyllic spot. Among rustic hills, Arabic and Jewish villagers from nearby, picnic and loaf along the river just under the mill or sit under its picturesque bridge. Small boys take a swim; others just dip their feet.

A little bit further down the river lies one of Israel's very old storage lakes, also dating from the Turkish period. It is tiny and if you did not know that it was manmade, you would just pass it by. Two walls push up the water level of the river. That the dams belong to the two mills is evident, as the waterpower had to be accelerated in order to be used in the functioning of the mill. The water would stream from the small lake to the first mill at Ha'nezirim and then the same water would be recycled to the second mill of Alil.

Archaeology in Israel

The water mills present the farthest advanced mechanical method for grinding until modern industrial factories were built. Mills were invented in the 13th/14th century. They present the first stage in which wheat was mass-produced. In Europe many windmills were built, but along swift-flowing streams water mills performed the same job. Most rivers in Israel are not suitable for milling, because they do not carry enough water, especially in the summer. Most mills can thus be found in northern Israel and in the Golan. Their average production was 30 to 50 kilograms per hour. The medieval miller usually collected a third of the flour for himself.

The bread mills in the Galilee are especially sophisticated, in that the water is used several times over to drive the movement of the millstones. The technique can be studied best in the Alil mill. The highest point of the mill starts at road level and descends 50 meters to the riverbank. There is a small stone ridge that led the water down the hill.

Climbing down one soon discovers that the building consists of two mills - one on top of the other. At the end of the ridge, which slightly slopes downward, the water disappeared into a hole and fell forcefully through the inside of a column. At the column's lower end it ended in a small cave under the floor of the upper building. In this cave, which can be seen by descending again a few meters - at the back of the building - there used to be a horizontal wheel, made of stone. This connected to a wooden pole of sturdy size. Because of the force of the spouting water inside the cave the wheel turned. The pole was connected to two millstones above the floor level of the building, and they would turn too, grinding the wheat that was placed between them.

The water meanwhile, which had splashed against the stones, would lose its powerful momentum and flow outside of the hole at the back of the building. It would then trickle to the end of the small ridge, and forcefully jump through the second column. There the whole process was repeated, as the lower mill is an exact copy of the upper mill. Also here a small cave can be seen under the mill, in which a wooden pole turned. Finally, the water gushed out and calmly flowed into the Zippori stream.

Archaeology in Israel

The bread mills have an interesting long cultural background, as bread is one of the oldest foods in the world. Grains grew naturally in Israel, and were soon cultivated. Wheat and barley are one of the seven species of plants in the Bible, in which Israel is described as "a land of wheat and barley, of vines, fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of oil-olives and honey (Deuteronomy 8:8)." The Jewish holiday of Shavuot celebrates the harvest of wheat.

According to archaeologists, prehistoric man already discovered that grains are edible, which is quite a feat, because grain is one of 1000 plant families, of which only 12 are edible. In archaeological excavations, grains, besides olives, dates and vegetables are known from the Stone Age onwards (6000 years ago). According to archaeologists, the invention of bread dates from this time too, and is quite remarkable, as several simultaneous inventions were necessary: the first plow, to prepare the land for sowing; tools for grinding the wheat; and fire to bake the bread.

Bread became the most popular food in the world. From Egypt, wheat and bread was exported to the Greek and later Roman world, and would finally spread around the globe. Bread is still the main food in Israel today, witness the ubiquity of the simplest form of bread, a flat pita. For holidays, there are Passover matzot and for Shabbat and the other holidays plaited challah are baked.

Most breads are not very sophisticated, and their recipes are very old. All traditional breads in Israel are white, but they were not always so. Antique grinding techniques did not separate the chaff from the wheat. This only changed with the invention in the 19th century of the cylinder mill, in which the kernel was crushed instead of ground. The dark bread that is available today is an importation from northern Europe and Russia.

Archaeology in Israel

As a nice illustration of the history of milling, many millstones and a replica of a medieval water mill similar to the Galilean Turkish water mills can be found at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv. Exhibited in the mill are also old plows, and threshers that sifted the wheat, a process that was done on the floor in ancient times (see the story of Ruth in Ruth 3:2 and further).


from the March Passover 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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