The Ghosts of the Khan of Ajjur

Zionism and a haunted castle
Khan of Ajjur stands in broad daylight.

Haunted houses don’t really exist. Even my dog knew that. But that didn’t stop him from barking when the winds blew in and rattled the heavy metal shutters on the first day I moved into the Khan of Ajjur, a 250-year-old Ottoman-era castle rising from the Elah Valley in central Israel’s Judean Hills.

Being originally from New Orleans, I understood ghosts and reckoned they only appear in distress. So I calmly laid down my broom and, with open palms, asked, “May I help you?” Shortly after, I decided to conduct a ghost-cleansing ceremony and summoned friends to help. We burned sage in a tin atop the green-carpeted floor of the spacious second-story salon and sprinkled seawater in the corners. I stuck pins in voodoo dolls as friends played a guitar, Jew’s harp and harmonica. Others chanted biblical verses, an ancient Assyrian text and an Irish-Catholic poem—all praying for this house to be protected. We then took turns sipping from a kiddush cup that had been salvaged from a New Orleans synagogue gutted by Hurricane Katrina.

None of it worked. The ghosts continued to make noises. Footsteps. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they’d kill the electricity on the north side of the house, or blow the shutters closed on a windless day, darkening a sunny room.

Built around 1770 with Roman-era stone obviously pilfered from ancient sites, the castle has three-foot-thick walls and arched windows with deep sills inside. Two pillars support three massive arches that rise above vaulted rooms on the first floor of the asymmetrical but striking structure. In between the arches are intricately carved florets. An exterior staircase leads to a large veranda off the second floor, which has multiple rooms, including a salon with 18-foot-high ceilings—perfect for an indoor swing—and huge walls for art. The rooms on the first level are mysteriously sealed off with iron shutters and doors welded shut.

Legend had it that at least four people had been murdered in the castle. And there were bullet scars, too, from battles the structure had endured. Intrigued after I came to stay in 2014, I began researching the castle’s history.

The castle is located just south of Agur, a rundown moshav (cooperative agricultural settlement) about 20 miles west of Jerusalem and not too far from the market town of Beit Shemesh. Despite Agur’s proximity to Jerusalem, it’s an out-of-the-way place in modern Israel. Built next to the Arab village of Ajjur that once existed here, the moshav is mostly inhabited by Jews of Kurdish origin whose families were settled here after the State of Israel was declared in 1948. The settlement appears to be stuck in a time warp, somewhere around 1955. There are no sidewalks, and livestock and barefoot children roam the streets. People live in tiny three-room shacks and cling to farming small plots of land.

The surrounding Elah Valley region of Adullam in the Judean foothills is serene, mostly forested countryside, peppered with kibbutzim and moshavim. The area is off the beaten path for most tourists, even though there is a genuine Roman amphitheater where gladiators once fought and died down the road at Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. Across the valley are the colossal caves of Luzit (where the movies Jesus Christ Superstar and Rambo III were filmed). On weekends, the hills do fill up with picnickers, who seem oblivious to the mounds of rubble and fungus-draped collections of gray stones that poke out of the weeds—remains of the dozens of Palestinian villages that once existed in this district.

Occasionally, vans filled with Palestinians turn up, often accompanied by European film crews to document their return to their villages. So I wasn’t really surprised when, one Friday afternoon about a year after I’d moved into the castle, a fancy jeep drove roughly into the yard. A dark-haired, middle-aged man got out, along with a woman and two teenage girls.

I went up to them and asked in as friendly a tone as I could: “Shalom, who are you?”

The man turned to me and said: “Who are you?”

“I live here,” I replied.

“This is my house!” he retorted.

Ah, and so here it was.

I immediately understood that I was being confronted, face-to-face, with the uncomfortable scenario that hangs over every Israeli who today lives in a formerly Arab-owned house—or any person anywhere who lives in a home taken by war or force—of the previous owners or their descendants knocking on the door.

“So,” I said, “you must be from the al-Azza clan. Yes?”

“Yes, my name is Mohammed al-Azza. We have never been to the house before.”

I invited them in.

“My mother, Hilma, was born here,” Mohammed said as he looked around. “She told me how she used to play on the windowsills as a child.”

His daughters, dressed in tight jeans and blouses, explored a bit but seemed to be more interested in their phones than in their ancestors’ castle. His wife, Naima, who wore her black hair uncovered—unusual for Muslim women in Israel—listened closely. Her mother-in-law, she explained, had told her that in 1948, as the Israeli soldiers were approaching, the family had gathered their gold and jewelry and buried it in the caves around the house. (Not just ghosts, but treasure too, I thought. This house was starting to give up its secrets.)

Mohammed, I learned, was a schoolteacher and a member of a wealthy landowning family in the district. After a while, I ventured to mention the elephant in the room. I asked Mohammed if he wanted the house back.

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“Sure, why not?” he said. And suddenly we laughed. We both understood that his chances were pretty much nil. The State of Israel had taken possession of all abandoned or conquered Arab property in 1948. Since then, the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected all claims to such property on the grounds that doing otherwise would pave the way for the return of masses of Palestinian refugees, presenting an existential threat to the Jewish state. The philosophy is that the Land of Israel belongs to all the Jews of the world. Thus, in Israel, 93 percent of the land is owned by the state, and people, even farmers—Jewish farmers—lease land for 49 years; they don’t own it.

The ice broken, I showed Mohammed some of the 1940s Mandate-era British army maps I had in my possession. His visit that day was the start of an ongoing friendship.

A man from the village where the castle remains surrenders during the 1948 Arab Israeli war

A man from the village of Ajjur surrenders during the 1948 Arab Israeli war (Photo credit: courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; GPO; Omar Ghobariya from Palestine remembered)

The al-azza clan originated from Egypt hundreds of years ago and settled in three villages—Ajjur, Beit Jibrin and Tell es-Safi. Members of the clan grew powerful, eventually controlling huge tracts of land and aligning themselves with the Ottomans. But in the 1830s, the powerful Egyptian viceroy, Muhammad Ali, conquered the area and sent his son Ibrahim Pasha to enforce his rule (i.e., collect taxes). A revolt broke out, and the leaders of the rebellion, including the al-Azza mukhtars (clan leaders) of Ajjur, were beheaded (possibly even in this house?).

Europeans, too, found their way to Ajjur. Around this time, British explorer Edward Robinson mentioned the village in his travelogue, Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petra: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838, vividly describing the flocks of goats, cattle and camels gathered around the village’s ancient well—and generous inhabitants who shared the water with travelers. And in 1863, the French explorer Victor Guerin passed through. He was impressed by the arched house built with ancient stones. A half-century or so later, Ajjur also figured in World War I, when the British wrested Palestine from the Turks and Germans and became the administrators of what was called Mandatory Palestine.

The year 1936 brought more change. There was the Arab revolt against the British, which resulted in the arrest and exile of collaborators in Ajjur. The following year, the British Peel Commission first recommended partitioning the land between the Jews and the Arabs. The proposal was barely approved by the Zionist leadership and unanimously condemned by the Arabs, so with no partition plan on the table, pre-state Jewish authorties set about buying up as much land as possible. Agents of the Jewish Agency arrived in Ajjur in 1946 and approached Mohammed’s great-grandfather Yusef al-Azza, who was the village mukhtar and lived in the castle. He sold them some of the land he owned a few miles to the south on the condition that Jews not live there as long as he was alive.

However, on Yom Kippur that year, the Jewish Agency set up 11 settlements on the Mandate’s frontiers to establish “facts on the ground” to ensure that the land would become part of the future Jewish state. This included the lands of nearby Kibbutz Galon, which Yusef had sold to the Jews. A short while later, Yusef was murdered (possibly even in this house?) for selling the land, say locals and family members. His son Abdel Hamid al-Azza inherited the property and lived in the castle.

It was a turbulent time for Ajjur. The village had existed in relative isolation under the Ottomans and British, but history was closing in. When Israel declared statehood in May 1948, the Arabs declared war. In October, a platoon of Egyptian troops led by a Yugoslav officer entered Ajjur, armed the men of the village and prepared barricades. But, as the Israeli army approached, the platoon disappeared, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Israeli troops took over the al-Azza castle and started shooting into the air, causing flight and panic. Abdel Hamid fled with his family to a refugee camp near Jericho, where he died shortly afterward, leaving his daughter Hilma, Mohammed’s mother, a teenage orphan.

Roman-era carved details on the pillars of the Khan of Ajjur

Roman-era carved details adorn the castle’s pillars. (Photo credit: Courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; GPO; Omar Ghobariya from Palestine remembered)

In the first months after the war, the Arabs tried to return to the area—first to attempt to harvest the wheat and other crops, but as the years passed, to search the abandoned villages for gold and other treasures left behind. Some came to murder. The early 1950s were perilous years for the new State of Israel. Many Israelis, most of them civilians from among the boatloads that were arriving each month from Europe, North Africa and Arab countries, were killed by Arab terrorists between 1949 and 1956.

The ghosts of the Khan of Ajjur, it turned out, were both more numerous and more powerful than I could have imagined.

In 1953, truckloads of Kurdish Jews were sent to the new moshav, which took the name Agur instead of Ajjur. But the newcomers weren’t farmers, and they struggled to scratch out a living. So in January 1955, the Jewish Agency sent two young Jewish tractor drivers, Hector “Tzvi” Eidman and Eliezer Katz, to help the villagers plough their fields. The two camped out in the castle. On January 17, marauders sneaked into the house and slit their throats. The bodies weren’t found until the next morning. According to news accounts, Eidman was found lying on his belly “like a slaughtered animal” and Katz on his back in a pool of blood. The perpetrators were never found, but tracks led over the fields the tractor drivers had just ploughed in the direction of the Hebron hills, in what was then Jordan.

After that, the Agur moshav used the castle as a school for a while, but in the early 1960s, it was abandoned and thus officially came to belong to the Israel Lands Authority. It remained empty until 1994.

Author Arieh O’Sullivan works on a project in the Khan of Ajjur

Author Arieh O’Sullivan works on a project while living at the castle. (Photo credit: Courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; GPO; Omar Ghobariya from Palestine remembered)

That was the year my friend itzhak taragan, who had fought in all of Israel’s wars and had friends in high places, retired from Israel Radio as chief technician. Itzhak was a larger-than-life character with a gift for endearing people to his wild ideas, and he convinced the Israel Lands Authority to give him the castle for cultural events. He transformed the structure, which had no electricity or plumbing and no glass in its windows, into a magnificent villa. He and his wife, Kochava, called it the “Khan of Ajjur,” creating a myth that the old building was a Khan, a Turkish inn or caravanserai. In the 1990s and 2000s, the couple opened its doors to musicians, mostly from the former Soviet Union, and hosted concerts on weekends.

To the displeasure of the Israel Lands Authority, Itzhak also made the castle his home, and was engaged in a constant battle to stay. He won. He lived out his life in his Khan, dying at age 87 in October 2014. Tired of living “in the middle of nowhere,” his widow offered to rent the house to me cheaply, and I, recently divorced and seeking a home, quickly agreed.

I immediately understood that I was being confronted, face-to-face, with the uncomfortable scenario that hangs over every Israeli who today lives in a formerly Arab-owned house.

I moved in immediately and dove into maintaining the property. I dealt with the rats, the porcupines, the jackals and the occasional hyena—as well as a venomous viper that slithered up the fig tree and found a comfortable spot on the veranda. I hacked away at the overgrowth near the ancient olive trees surrounding the house and groomed them so they would bear more fruit. I farmed them for oil and uncovered an ancient gat, or olive press, carved into the limestone just below the house. I brought the grapevines back to life and with the harvest turned their juice into terrible wine, but ultimately magnificent brandy. I drank it with friends and family who helped with the harvests, and with whom I feasted on the veranda after a hard day’s work.

I also had a lot of time to ponder the Jewish relationship to this land.

Ruins of one of the remaining houses from the village where the castle remains

Ruins of one of the remaining houses from the village of Ajjur. (Photo credit: Courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; GPO; Omar Ghobariya from Palestine remembered)

And God appeared before Abraham and said: “I give to you and all of your descendants this land in which you are now a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan will belong to your descendants as an everlasting possession.” (Genesis 17:8)

Throughout our history as a Jewish nation we have been, as the Bible often notes, aware of the fact that we were not indigenous here. The father of the Israelites, Abraham, was not born here, and the Torah—which defined the moral and religious character of the Jewish nation—was given on Mount Sinai, which was, the last time I looked, outside the Promised Land.

The ancient Greeks, like many cultures, believed they came from the land and were therefore part of it. This autochthonous philosophy connects a native people to the land from which they are believed to have been born. The Bible, however, generally rejected this paganistic “motherland” view of the human relationship to the earth. God, not Earth, stood above all. In traditional Jewish thinking, the Land belonged to God, to be allocated according to divine will. And God promised it to the Jews.

If you believed in the Bible, then the land was the Jews’. The problem is that throughout history it also has belonged to others. The long journey from original nation-building, exile, and 2,000 years of longing for the Land of Israel to statehood clashed headlong with the indigenous population that was living here. To the early Zionists, the Bible was a sort of “birth certificate.” The narrative was that their historical right to the land was not based on the fact that once, in the distant past, the forefathers of the Jewish people had dwelt here, but rather that this connection had never been terminated.

It wasn’t a question of Zionists loving the homeland more than the Palestinians. It wasn’t a question that necessarily had an answer.

I found myself thinking about a palestinian civil engineer and reseacher named Salman Abu Sitta, who has devoted his life to mapping 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century Palestine. Palestinian nationalists seek to build a state in what was once Palestine and to return to it the millions of descendants of the refugees who have been in exile since 1948. Abu Sitta has proposed a plan to achieve this, which is well-known in the Palestinian world, and which on the surface sounds reasonable. According to his calculations, presented in his 1997 essay The Feasibility of the Right of Return, the vast majority of the villages abandoned in 1948 remain empty pastureland. Since Israel no longer uses them for living, or even farming or ranching, he claims that Arab refugees could return to their ruined homes and empty fields without displacing any Jews. “The return of the refugees is possible with no appreciable dislocation of Jewish residents,” Abu Sitta writes. “The original villages can be rebuilt on the same spot.”

The castle had never been intended for habitation, the Lands Authority maintained, only for “agricultural use.”

That’s true. Most of the moshavim and kibbutzim were built next to, and not on top of, the Arab villages. This contradicted common practice throughout history, where the conqueror settled on top of the vanquished. What were the early state builders thinking? That one day the Palestinians would come back?

Some years ago, before he died, I sought out Aryeh “Lova” Eliav, one of the granddaddies of the Israeli left. He was once the secretary general of the Israeli Labor Party and a presidential candidate in 1993. Back in the 1950s, he was a wunderkind who filled Israel’s empty hinterland with farming villages and frontier towns to absorb the waves of Jewish immigrants.

Eviction notice on the gate of the Khan of Ajjur

Eviction notice posted at castle gate. (Photo credit: Courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; Dr Walid Khalid)

“We had to settle them,” Eliav told me. “Remember, this wasn’t the same state that absorbed one million Russian immigrants in the 1990s and had cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon and Upper Nazareth. We were a small and poor country. We had to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Morocco and Iraq and Poland and Hungary.”

He explained that the crowded Arab villages were not suitable for the vision of the earthy and close-to-nature, “new-Jew” farming communities designed with fields rolling out behind houses. “All there were, were mud huts,” he added. “They weren’t worth anything. We didn’t need them, so we made forests out of them and built new houses.”

Author Arieh O’Sullivan with Mohammed al-Azza (left), whose ancestors once owned the castle

Author Arieh O’Sullivan with Mohammed al-Azza (left), whose ancestors once owned the castle. (Photo credit: Courtesy Arieh O’Sullivan; Dr Walid Khalid)

“But Lova,” I argued. “The Palestinians are saying that no one is living today on the rubble where their villages once stood. They claim they can come back and rebuild them, and not put out any Israelis.”

“This is feigning simplicity. It’s disingenuous. But there’s cunning in this approach,” replied Lova, who was eventually ousted from the Labor Party when he opposed Jewish settlements in the territories. “You know I am a peacenik. According to my conception, they don’t have any right of return and they never will. It would be the end of the Jewish state.”

Mohammed got back in touch with me a few months ago because he wanted to enlist my help in trying to finally take possession of the castle. I knew it was a fantasy—and even if it wasn’t, I had no more power than he did.

I had lived in the Khan of Ajjur for more than two years. When I wasn’t harvesting olives, I was working as a journalist and tour guide. I also held magnificent parties with dancing on the veranda and musicians jamming away in the salon, always with loads of food and the whiskey and brandy I made in my still, which I called my moonshine. Mohammed would often visit, too.

Then one day an eviction notice was pinned to my front gate. Alas, the Lands Authority had caught up with me. The castle had never been intended for habitation, the Authority maintained, only for “agricultural use.” While my predecessor had kept the authorities at bay for decades, I didn’t have his resources, contacts or ineffable charm—and had to leave.

Today the castle lies sealed and crumbling, its many mysteries unsolved. (At one time, I unsuccessfully tried to enlist two officers of one of the Israeli Defense Force’s commando units to blast their way into the strange locked rooms on the first floor.) But I visit it often and, like Mohammed, pine to return. I have told him that if he ever succeeds in getting the castle back, I’ll be his first tenant.

Earlier this fall, as I checked out the olive trees that I had cared for on the castle grounds, I realized that sometimes we leave postcards to the future. The Romans left their millstones. The Palestinians, their village rubble. Me, the reborn olive trees.

Israel is in the midst of its eighth decade. And as we celebrate our precarious Zionist revolution, our roots certainly grow thick. But best we remember that we are ephemeral mortals inhabiting this eternal land. What will remain when we are gone are the stones of the Khan and the haunting beauty and depth of these hills.

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