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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Burnt House and Horrific Ruins

When I was ten, I came on a family trip to Israel for the first time. My family did a lot of tourist things: we went to Ein Gedi, the Kotel, the beach, and Ben Yehuda. While touring the Old City of Jerusalem we also visited the Burnt House, which is the ruins of a house destroyed in 70 CE, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The ruins were similar to a lot of others that we had seen, so being a curious child I wandered around reading the various signs, which contained a lot of semi-interesting information about the site. This continued until I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.

On one of the signs, there was a picture of a single arm, the only human remains discovered in the structure. The sign indicated that this was the arm of a young girl, possibly a resident of the house. In my mind I pictured the girl, running from the fire and trying to climb up the stairs, grabbing for the handrail while the fire engulfed her. I wouldn't say it stir my imagination as much as it just plain terrified me, and for years after I would have nightmares. 20 years later it still freaks me out.

As a result of that one picture, I relate to the Burnt House in a completely different way than I do any other ruins I have visited. While I can study other ruins with a detached bemusement, it is much, much harder to think of the Burnt House as anything except a place of horror.

This is an important thing to acknowledge in our study of ruins. There are a great many causes of ruins, ranging from benign neglect and peaceful abandonment, to natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis, to man-made disasters and war. But as years pass, the potency of a ruin dies down and it becomes a peaceful place. Even if we know fully well the story behind the ruin, and even it many people died, there is still a calm about them. However, sometimes a single image is enough to prevent this from happening, to keep the wound fresh and breed horror. Like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, designed to send chills up your spine, certain things keep some specific ruins from resting in peace.

When I consider the various ruins of Rosh Ha'ayin, there is nothing that particularly raises the shackles of fear in me, though dozens of wars have been fought and countless people have died in and around Rosh Ha'ayin over its 7,000 years of habitation. There are ruins of Aphek, Antipatris, and the British pumping station, ruins of Migdal Zedek, Mirabel, Majdal Yaba, ruins of the British army base, of Amidar houses, of buildings that have burnt to the ground, been demolished, or collapsed, but they all seem peaceful to me. I wonder whether others view them differently, just as I will never see the Burnt House as a mere tourist attraction. In particular, I wonder about former inhabitants of Majdal Yaba, still within living memory, and the nearly-invisible ruins of that village. I wonder about the British buildings that formed the skeleton of Rosh Ha'ayin and immigrants whose children went to the hospital and were never seen again. I wonder what it is that makes a site horrific. These are sites that will, almost certainly, universally rest in peace as serene ruins or redeveloped sites in the future. For now, I wonder if there are any who still think of them in horror.


  1. jskarf wrote: "I wonder about former inhabitants of Majdal Yaba, still within living memory, and the nearly-invisible ruins of that village"

    Thanks Joshua for your thoughtfulness.

    My father is one of the former inhabitants of Majdal Yaba, he was born there in 1941 and still looking forward to go back there.

    He believes the site will never "rest in peace" until a time when it's former inhabitants willfully decide so, not through conferences, neither through representatives, nor through any other authorities.

    Redevelopment of the site won't even help, because the site has it's own spirit which is a mixture of the former inhabitants spirits and it's soil, it's stones, it's plants & it's air.

    Those same spirits are the ones which will be hunting everyone who would prevent the former inhabitants from going back there while they can, and should make the whole place quite horrific

  2. I think this is part of what I was trying to say in this post. Sometimes ruins can evoke emotional and powerfully feelings that may not make sense to to others.