Imagine purchasing your dream home, convinced that it stands on the ruins of your people’s history. Now imagine that experts don’t believe your convictions and you must finance the excavations yourself. And imagine that you turn out to be correct. This is exactly what happened to Theodore and Miriam Siebenberg of Jerusalem.
Theo was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and moved to Israel in 1966. Miriam was born and raised in Tel Aviv. They met in Israel and married, and after the Six-Day War in 1967, they decided to buy a home in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Theo always felt homeless, having been uprooted from his Antwerp home at the age of 16 by the Nazis,” Miriam explains, “but he always knew he wanted to live in Jerusalem’s Old City and as close as possible to where the Temple once stood – the most important place in Jewish history. This was the only place he considered home in his lifetime.”
They moved into their new home in 1970, but Theo was always certain there were historical treasures buried deep beneath the house. Archeological experts disagreed, so Siebenberg financed the excavations himself. First, he hired engineers to examine the feasibility of excavating. They informed him that he would need to add concrete foundations to the house, which, though very expensive, he did. After two years of fruitless digging, the first treasure turned up — a ring-shaped key similar to those found in the Dead Sea excavations and probably used for a woman’s jewellery box. That was only the beginning.
The Siebenbergs ultimately invested millions of their own money in the excavations, turning up fascinating discoveries. On display in the museum, in addition to the ring/key, are pottery, arrowhead, inkwells, coins and a glass cup. On the same day that Siebenberg found a 2,000 year-old arrowhead, he also discovered a German-made machine gun that had been hidden there during the War of Independence in 1948. The excavations extend to a depth of four storeys and spread out beneath four adjacent homes.
Among the most fascinating finds are a burial chamber from the 10th century BCE, the time of King Solomon. The chamber is devoid of human remains, and it is believed they were removed to make way for the foundations of a later palace that includes mikvahs, or ritual baths, providing a window into Jewish life at the time. Other layers of history include stones from a Hasmonean-era structure, one of which is engraved with a menorah, and a line of ash and human bone showing the devastation dating to the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. The excavations took place over 18 years.
In 1985, the Siebenbergs turned their home into a museum and opened it to the public, playing host to European parliamentarians, US Congressmen, foreign media and other important public figures. An auditorium dug below street level can be used as a concert venue; it was inspired by the discovery of a 2,000-year-old bronze bell which still rings with clarity. In fact, the Israel Museum’s website advertises the site for harp recitals.
Miriam Siebenberg reopened the museum in June. “I live the ancient past of the Jewish nation, and I want to share this history and experience with as many people as possible.” The museum offers guided tours in several languages and is open Sunday through Thursday.