New York Times


JERUSALEM, March 30ā€” Theo Siebenberg is a man obsessed with his basement.

But who can blame him?

It is not every house in Jerusalem that has ”3,000 years of Jewish history humming away underneath it,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Siebenberg and his wife, Miriam, live in what may be the most unusual house in Jerusalem. The upstairs is a multistory, stylish, white- walled town house in the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The basement is an archeological dig of more than 5,000 square feet – a dusty, dirty hole where, in the last 15 years, the Siebenbergs have been discovering artifacts that span 3,000 years of Jewish history. And they are still digging.

Here We Were

Tunneling away underneath their home, using donkeys to bring out the piles of rubble for sifting, the Siebenbergs have uncovered everything from a mikvah, or ritual bath, that was used by Jews during the Second Temple Period, to a rusty Czechoslovak-made machine gun left behind by the last Jewish defenders of the neighborhood, who fought during the 1948 war.

”The sense of the continuity of Jewish history comes right up from the basement,” Mr. Siebenberg said, raising his arms to emphasize his point. ”Here, in one spot, you can see Jewish history vertically. It is not like taking children to a museum and showing them arrowheads with this date on them or jars with that date. It’s all here. Here we were and here we are.”

The tale of the Siebenberg home began in 1966, when Theo emigrated to Israel from Belgium after having amassed a substantial fortune in various investments. He comes from one of the most prominent families of Jewish diamond merchants in Antwerp.

Having married Miriam, an Israeli artist, Mr. Siebenberg settled in a rented villa in Haifa. But immediately after the 1967 war he and his wife left that city to fulfill a longtime desire to live in a reunified Jerusalem. They began building their own villa in a new neighborhood, Ramat Eshkol.

Into the Old City

Their real ambition, however, was to live inside the ancient walls of the Old City in the destroyed, but newly captured, Jewish Quarter, where Jews had lived on and off since the time of King David. Eventually, the municipality of Jerusalem put real-estate lots there up for sale. The Siebenbergs bought one and began building a home, one that would eventually turn out to be more interesting for its foundations than its structure.

Just as the finishing touches on the house were being completed in 1970, with a cluster of apartment houses around it, Mr. Siebenberg became fascinated watching archeologists from Hebrew University excavate in the Jewish Quarter not far from his home.

”I went over one day and asked the archeologists if they had checked the area where my house was,” Mr. Siebenberg said. ”They said they had and that they were sure nothing was there.”

A Link With the Past

This answer did not make sense to Mr. Siebenberg, a man who was driven not only to locate himself in his ancestral homeland but also to anchor himself there by establishing a link with his people’s past. It is a common impulse here, one that has helped to make Israel a nation of amateur archeologists, all looking for the conclusive deed to the Holy Land.

”The archeologists were sure that nothing was there,” Mr. Siebenberg said. ”But it just did not seem right to me. I would stand here and picture myself in the Second Temple Period.

”The temple was just over there,” he said, motioning to the Wailing Wall, which is visible from his home. ”Why wouldn’t Jews have built here then? Every inch of land near the temple must have been very valuable.”

Mr. Siebenberg asked his architects and engineers if it would be possible for him to conduct an archeological dig under his house. The engineers were incredulous.

‘I Kept Pestering Them’

”They said the houses in the neighborhood behind us were all resting on a raft of concrete, and if I excavated under mine the whole neighborhood above us would come sliding down the hill,” Mr. Siebenberg said. ”But I kept pestering them.”

Eventually, the engineers said there was a solution, but it would cost a fortune. A retaining wall, built slowly and held down by dozens of steel anchors, could prevent the neighboring houses from slipping away.

The Siebenbergs told their engineers to go ahead and worry about the expense later. The wall was built in sections over eight years, and the Siebenbergs were gradually able to excavate behind each piece as it went up, extending the excavation under neighbors’ homes. Before beginning in 1970, Mr. Siebenberg signed documents promising the neighbors that he would assume the cost of any resulting damages.

‘Something I Had to Do’

”I had to dig,” said Mr. Siebenberg, 59 years old. ”I don’t know why, it was just something I had to do. Like Sir Edmund Hillary said, ‘I did it because it was there.’ Only instead of going up, I went down.”

His wife supported him, despite the laughter and doubting whispers from neighbors and professional archeologists, and even though she could not always fully comprehend this urge to dig at almost any cost.

Sometimes as many as 30 workers were hired. For two years they burrowed, taking the earth out in bucketfuls, carrying it off on donkeys’ backs and sifting for signs of the past. They discovered nothing but dirt.

Finally, one day in 1972 they hit an archeological mother lode. First, a bronze key ring, probably used by a woman to lock her jewelry box during the Second Temple Period – about the time of Jesus – rolled off a pile of dirt.

”He came running upstairs,” Mrs. Siebenberg said of that day. ”He said it was ‘a key ring, a key ring.’ I said: ‘How do you know? It’s just a ball of dirt.’ He said, ‘I know, I know.’ ”

Digging Deeper

Although he had no formal archeological training, Mr. Siebenberg immersed himself in the subject and eventually received a license from the Israel Department of Antiquities, which registers all of his discoveries and has the right to take any of them for the national museum.

As they dug deeper, the Siebenbergs discovered the remains of what had probably been the homes of wealthy Jews that the Romans destroyed in 70 A.D. Arrowheads used by the defenders were unearthed, as were pieces of jewelry now displayed in the Siebenbergs’ living room, stone weights, inkwells, coins, a glass cup, jars, mosaics, two mikvahs in excellent condition and a huge cistern from the Byzantine Period, about the fifth century.

Digging still deeper, the Siebenbergs found burial vaults believed to have been used for Jewish royalty during the period of King Solomon, in the 10th century B.C.

The objects alone are not exceptional in archeological terms. But put them together with the archeologist, the site of the dig and the determination that led to their discovery, and they amount to a remarkable find.

An Emotional Moment

One day, Mr. Siebenberg says, he may have run into an ancient neighbor.

”The workers called to me, and I came running over,” he said. ”They had uncovered a skull. The earth fell off it, and it was just staring at me. It was probably one of the Jewish defenders who was beheaded by the Romans when they destroyed the Jewish Quarter. It was one of the people who lived here. I stood there looking at it, and I had tears running down my cheeks.”

Mr. Siebenberg suffered a few more shocks, but those were administered by his 20th-century neighbors.

”We went along for eight years without any negative reaction from the neighbors,” he said. ”They liked it. They would say: ‘Ah, you’re the one digging under the house. Why are you wasting your money?’

”Then one day one of the neighbors saw how much we had dug out, and he decided he wanted some of it. He wanted workspace for his wife, who was an artist. This then whetted the appetite of all the other neighbors. They all decided to get together, and before I knew it I had the city engineers on my neck, locking up the place.”

A Favorable Ruling

After several years in court, the neighbors gave up when the city ruled that they owned only the spaces in their apartments and had no rights to the area that had been burrowed out underneath with the city’s permission.

”I have learned a lot in the course of these years, most of all that you should not give up on your dreams,” Mr. Siebenberg said.

His dream will be open to the public this summer. Largely at his own expense, he is turning his unusual basement into a museum and has bequeathed his upper house to the city when he and Miriam die.

”My modest tribute to the Jews who once defended this place,” he says.

No visitor to the Siebenberg home is allowed to leave without signing the guest book, which is full of people’s stunned impressions of his 3,000-year- old residence.

Mr. Siebenberg points to a recent note from a Belgian visitor: ”To have saved one soul is to have redeemed the world. To have built one house and revealed all that lies beneath it is to have resurrected our people’s tower to the heavens.”

Replacing the book gently on a table, Mr. Siebenberg – ever the archeologist – says half-seriously, ”I am leaving it right here so 2,000 years from now someone will find it.”


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