Belvoir: A Castle in the Air

Carl Hoffman

Belvoir: A Castle in the Air

Some interesting things seem to have happened in this country during the 2,000 years we were away. Poor in natural resources but rich in whatever it is that generates human emotion, this beautiful land has evidently produced passion and fervor in amounts too great for any one group of people to be able to consume.

Following the burning of the Second Temple, the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of Judea and the expulsion of our people from Eretz Israel by the Romans, this land was trodden by the marching feet and galloping hoof beats of a succession of conquering armies and occupying regimes.

Each of these arrived, held sway, declined and departed -- one after the other. After more than three centuries of Roman rule, Roman power declined; and Israel became a part of the Byzantine empire in 313 C.E., before being grabbed by the Persians in 614, and then overrun by the Arabs in 640. Subsequent centuries would see the land inundated by ebbing and flowing tides of Muslims, Christians, Mameluks, Ottomans and British, before reverting to Jewish sovereignty once again in 1948. Perhaps no other place on earth has been, or ever will be, so bloodily contested by so many ardent claimants for so long a period of time.

Among the most colorful chapters in the history of this land was that of the Crusaders, a 200-year episode that began in 1095, when Pope Urban II called on medieval Europe to march to the Holy Land and wrest the sacred sites of Christianity from the hands of the Muslim "infidels." Beginning with the five week siege and conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099, the knights and assorted rabble of the First Crusade extended their control over much of the country in a series of bloody battles, establishing the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Consisting of an embattled European Christian minority surrounded by fierce Muslim enemies, this "Kingdom" had to be ruled from heavily fortified castles protected by thick stone walls, watchtowers and moats.

The impressive remains of one such fortress stand today -- moat, walls, parapets and Gothic arches -- quietly overlooking the Jordan Valley, a scant 16 km. north of Bet She'an, and 20 km. south of the Sea of Galilee. Perched high on a windy hilltop some 550 meters above the Jordan River, Belvoir Fortress provides mute testimony to the passions this land has ignited in the hearts and minds of so many different kinds of people.

The hilltop on which Belvoir was built was called Kochav Hayarden, "Star of the Jordan," by the Jews-perhaps in memory of a Jewish village named Kochav which had existed nearby during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The Arabs called the place Kaukab al-Hawa, "Star of the Winds."

In 1168, it was part of the large feudal estate of an absentee landlord -- a wealthy French nobleman named Velos, who lived in Tiberias -- when it caught the attention of the Order of the Hospitalers. The security of the Crusader Kingdom and continued Christian control of the Holy Land depended upon establishing a network of fortresses in strategic places, and the Knights of the Hospitalers knew a good strategic place when they saw one. The hilltop commanded a spectacular view of the winding Jordan River, the broad Jordan valley, and of the distant hills of Gilead in today's Kingdom of Jordan.

The Hospitalers bought the land from its feudal owner and began construction of an impregnable fortress they named Belvoir -- "beautiful view" -- from which their Knights could control the entrance to their kingdom from across the Jordan, watch the roads that led to the Galilee, see Mt. Hermon and the Golan to the north, as well as Gilboa and northern Samaria to the south. 

Finally completed in 1173, Belvoir was a masterpiece of medieval fortress design and construction. Essentially two fortresses, Belvoir consisted of one impenetrable square fortress inside another. The inner fortress, or "keep," was enclosed within thick basalt walls and covered an area that measured 50 by 50 meters.

It had two stories. The first story consisted of a huge open courtyard surrounded by vaulted structures containing a dining hall, kitchens, meeting halls, storage rooms and living quarters. The second story housed Belvoir's command headquarters for the local Hospitalers, living quarters for the knights and a limestone chapel. The Hospitalers built the inner fortress to be impregnable and able to withstand a siege of any magnitude, even if the outer fortress had been captured and overrun by the enemy.

They need not have worried. The outer fortress, separated from the inner one by a broad courtyard, was virtually unconquerable. Measuring 110 by 110 meters, it was encased within massive basalt walls held together with U-shaped iron joints. Huge watch and defensive shooting towers stood at each corner, with smaller towers between them at mid-point. A massive external tower, surrounded by a low wall, was built in front of the eastern side of the fortress, to monitor and protect against attacks from the east. These towers made it possible for the knights to protect the entire perimeter of the fortress with cross-firing arrows.

Medieval warfare was surprisingly mechanized, however, and even the strongest stone walls were vulnerable to the clever array of siege weapons in use at that time. These included enormous battering rams -- capable of punching through any kind of wall -- catapults and other forms of siege artillery --able to shoot huge stones at great distances -- and even tall attack towers from which enemy soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl spears downward into a castle or fortress. All of these siege weapons, including the enormous assault towers, could be placed on wheeled platforms and rolled right up to the walls of a fortress. The solution to this problem, of course, was to dig moats outside a fortress' walls, either wet -- filled with water -- or dry. Belvoir had dry moats along the three sides that could be approached by level ground, each moat 20 meters wide and 14 meters deep.

Belvoir's defenses were rounded out by several well-protected cisterns for the storage of rainwater, in order to guarantee a large supply of drinking water in case of a lengthy siege. As it happened, those cisterns were to come in handy in the years ahead.

Muslim forces laid siege to Belvoir in 1180, but were unable to breech its spectacular fortifications and soon withdrew, ending their attack. For the next seven years, Belvoir continued to serve as a major obstacle to a Muslim invasion of the Crusader Kingdom from the east.

Belvoirs's finest hour, however, came after the Crusader armies were defeated by the Arabs under Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, west of Tiberias, in 1187. While the Muslims went on to conquer Jerusalem, Acco and Safed, the Knights of the Hospitalers refused to yield Belvoir to the Muslims, even after most of the other Crusaders retreated to Tyre in Lebanon or returned to Europe. Belvoir continued to hold firm, provoking a Muslim siege, which it resisted for 18 months -- with even occasional sorties to attack the Arab besiegers outside the fortress. Finally exhausted, the Knights negotiated a surrender in exchange for safe passage. On the 5th of January, 1189, the Belvoir defenders yielded the fortress to Saladin and withdrew to Tyre, with their flags flying and banners waving.

Belvoir was partially dismantled in 1217 by Muslims fearing a reconquest of the fortress by the Crusaders, returned outright to the Crusaders by agreement in 1240, and handed back to the Muslims several years later. As the Crusades came to an end with a final defeat to the Mameluks in 1291, Belvoir was abandoned to the winds and rain.

The fortress remained buried in ruins until archeological excavations uncovered its amazingly well-preserved fortifications under tons of earth and rubble. Belvoir Fortress is today one of the lesser-known gems within Israel's network of national archeological parks. For further information about this and other national parks, visit the National Parks Authority's website.

And then visit Belvoir, the best preserved and most complete Crusader fortress in Israel.

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