The Siebenberg House is a museum located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, located in the street “Simtat Beit Hashoeva”. What makes it particularly fascinating is that the top part of the house is a ‘normal’ residence but the lower part is the museum - and the museum is the brainchild of the house owners.
The house itself tells the story of three different periods of Jewish history - firstly, King David and Solomon period, secondly under the Hasmonean dynasty, and thirdly in the shape of the modern State of Israel - all drawing on artifacts found during excavations that were carried out between 1970 and the present day.
The house/museum was founded by Theo Siebenberg, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1940 at the age of 13, he and his family, fleeing Nazi persecution, left Europe for New York and he spent his formative and early adult years there. However, after the Six-Day War, having always felt connected to his Jewish roots and possessed of rather a Zionist outlook, he moved to Israel. After meeting his wife, Miriam, who at that time lived in Tel Aviv, they decided to look for a home to buy and they made the joint decision to search in Jerusalem.
In 1970, they found a house in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and signed the papers. Soon after, however, he began wondering if anything of archaeological interest lay beneath the surface. Because it was so close to the Temple Mount, he became increasingly convinced that ‘hidden treasures’ were buried beneath the earth. His curiosity was piqued even more by archaeologists from the Hebrew University who, from 1970 onwards, had begun digging in the vicinity and finding all kinds of unusual artifacts.
The archaeological worlds in progress inspired Siebenberg to apply for a permit from the relevant Jerusalem authorities, in order to begin digging beneath his home. After receiving permission, he used his own money to employ engineers, architects, and builders to start work. Soon, enormous amounts of rubble were being removed - using donkeys, who carried away sacks of dirt and stones - and excavations began in earnest.
Excavations and Archaeology
Their excavations did not pay off immediately. In fact, initially, the archaeologists working with Mr. Siebenberg were convinced there was nothing of value under the ground. Still, he remained sure that, eventually, something would be unearthed and after two years of waiting patiently, he proved to be correct.
All kinds of findings came to light in 1972. These included mikvahs (ritual baths) and a pillar that was used to support one of them (with traces of ash on it). There were also two large cisterns, rooms cut out of rock, and burial vaults, believed to have been used by Jewish royalty around 10 BCE, during the reign of King Solomon At that time, historians knew the area was being used as a cemetery for the nearby City of David. In 750 BCE, after the Jews were exiled by their conquerors, they began building homes in this area, removing what remained from the burial chambers and purifying the vaults, which they then used for underground storage.
Other discoveries included glass perfume bottles, pottery, coins, a mosaic (depicting a three-pronged candelabra), an ivory pen and inkwell, and even weapons. Archaeologists discovered arrowheads - which they believe were used to fight off Babylonian invaders - and even a rusty machine gun (made in the Czech Republic) which was left behind by Jews fighting the British in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
The lower aqueduct they uncovered was 70 meters long, sloping down gradually and coming from King Solomon’s Pool. The water ran all the way to a site called the ‘Azrarah’ which was where ritual sacrifices were performed on important Jewish holidays. After the sacrifices, the water would be ‘released’ through a plug and flow down into the Kidron Valley, fertilizing the soil.
Pieces of jewelry were also unearthed, the most significant find of which was a bronze key ring. Archaeologists think this dates back to the Second Temple era and was the property of a woman who used it possibly as a key to unlock her jewelry box. Theo Siebenberg’s wife. Miriam eventually had a copy of this made into a ring, which she now wears on her finger.
The Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem dates back over 2,000 years and the Siebenberg House actually sits above an intricate network of tunnels. These are made of limestone and, historically, were used to transport water from one part of the city to another. Historians also believe that the tunnels were used by Jews to escape their Roman rulers, during the Great Revolt (circa 66 CE, during Emperor Nero’s twelfth year of reign).
Traces of dolomite can also be found within the enormous stones that make up the tunnels. Today, according to a special law, all buildings erected in Jerusalem must have their facing made of limestone. This is commonly referred to as “Jerusalem stone” and, of course, it really gives the buildings in this extraordinary city a special (and very pretty) look.
Bookings: Guided tours of the excavations are available (and the tour can be carried out in several languages). However, it is necessary to call ahead and book an appointment and it is preferred that any group that arrives is of 20 people or more. As well as the tour, there is an interesting informational slideshow on offer.
Address: Beit Hashoeva Alley, Old City, Jerusalem (which can be reached from the lower part of Batei Mahasa Road)
Tel: 02 628-2341 Hours: Sunday to Thursday - 10 am until 4 pm www.siebenberghouse.com