In the blink of an eye...

Winds and waves sweep away a national treasure off the coast of Herzliya.

September 19, 2007 11:41
crusader fortress 88 224

crusader fortress 88 224. (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)


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Silently overlooking the Mediterranean, a mere 15 kilometers north of bustling Tel Aviv, stand the ruins of an ancient city. The broken fragments of centuries-old walls seem to hang almost desperately to the tops of fossilized sandstone cliffs in what is now an empty, windblown stretch of the coast in Herzliya. Known as Apollonia, the name it was given early in its history by the ancient Greeks, this lonely spot perched high above the pounding ocean waves is little known and seldom visited. The place is nonetheless a national treasure. Archaeological excavations revealing the remains of more than 1,800 years of continuous occupation were begun by Tel Aviv University (TAU) in 1996, and a national archaeological park was established by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in 2002. According to what we know so far - archaeological work continues periodically - the first people to call this starkly beautiful place home were the Phoenicians, who established a settlement in the sixth century B.C.E. Who were these Phoenicians? Related culturally and linguistically to the ancient Canaanites, these maritime people built boats and took to the sea from the coast of Lebanon, sailing and trading throughout the Mediterranean, and even establishing a colony on the coast of North Africa which they called, in their Hebrew-related West Semitic language, Karta Hadasht ("New City"), or Carthage. This was the Carthage that later challenged Rome for supremacy of the Mediterranean, and whose great general Hannibal led a mighty army equipped with elephants across the Alps. Back here, meanwhile, the Phoenicians named their settlement on the coast of today's Herzliya Arshuf, in honor of Resheph, the Canaanite god of war, plague and the underworld. The Phoenician town grew rich, fishing for murex mollusks in the nearby coastal waters and producing from those aquatic snails a rare purple dye. This dye, which could be produced in only very small quantities, was prized by royalty throughout the Aegean and mentioned in both the Bible and the Talmud. Superior to plant-based dyes which were then most common, the purple mollusk dye was permanent. It was also precious: As one mollusk secreted only a few drops of the dye, thousands were thus needed to dye one single garment - or Tabernacle cloth. Thus identified as a source of wealth, Arshuf began its long career as a prize to be fought over, died for, and passed from hand to bloody hand. The city and its environs soon became a part of the Persian Empire ruled from Sidon. A little later, it became an important sea port during the time of the Seleucid Greeks. The Greeks identified Resheph with their god Apollo, and renamed the town Apollonia. The town, along with the entire coastal plain, was later captured by the Hasmoneans. Jewish historian Josephus mentions Apollonia in his Antiquities of the Jews as one of the cities ruled by Hasmonean King Alexander Janneus. It was under the Romans, however, that the town expanded to a city, becoming the most important settlement between Jaffa and Caesarea along the Via Maris, or Coastal Road. The remains of a large, elegant Roman villa can be seen at the site today, typically constructed in the Roman style with several rooms around an atrium, or open central court. Partially destroyed by an earthquake in 113 C.E., Apollonia was quickly rebuilt as both a port and anchorage facility. During this period, the city was home to a mixed population of Christians, Jews and Samaritans. Apollonia reached its peak and heyday during the succeeding Byzantine period, when it grew to cover an area of more than 280 dunams (70 acres), becoming the second most important city in the Sharon after Caesarea, and the area's major port. Booming economically with thriving wine and olive industries and producing fine glassware, this prosperous city boasted an intricate water system using reservoirs of underground water, channels and cisterns. Parts of this water system have been excavated by TAU archaeologists and can be seen today. In the fifth century, the city - now almost totally Christian - was renamed Sozousa and served as the Episcopal See of "Palaestina Prima." A magnificent church stood at the southwestern end of the city during this time. The Muslims attacked in 640, conquered the city and restored its original name of Arshuf. The town area drastically decreased under their stewardship, shrinking to roughly 88 dunams (22 acres), while increasing in population density. Under the Muslims, the city was surrounded - for the first time in its history - by a fortification wall built to protect Muslim Arshuf from attack by sea from Christian Byzantine fleets. From this point onward, the city became a virtual ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth between Muslims and Christian Crusaders. The Crusaders made their first attempt to capture Arshuf shortly after their conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Lacking a fleet to impose a naval blockade, the Crusaders failed to take the city. However they succeeded in the spring of 1101, under the command of Baldwin I, with substantial assistance from a Genoese fleet. The Crusaders renamed the town yet again - this time to Arsour, rebuilt the city walls and dug a dry moat around them for additional protection. In the mid-12th century, the entire Sharon plain was awarded to one noble Crusader family, the d'Arsours, as their exclusive possession, with the fortified city of Arsour serving as their regional capital. In the aftermath of the Crusaders' crushing defeat to Saladin at the Battle of Hittin in 1187, Arsour fell into Muslim hands yet again. After the Crusader victory at the Battle of Arsour four years later, the city bounced back to the Christians, held again by the d'Arsour family. In 1241, the Crusaders, led by Jean d'Ibelin d'Arsour, began to construct an immense castle fortress at the northern end of the city, overlooking the sea. Shortly after Jean's death in 1258, his son Belian found himself unable to withstand the relentless attacks of the Mameluke Muslims and transferred the d'Arsour family's entire Sharon fiefdom, including Arsour, to the Order of the Knights Hospitaller. Arsour became the home of several hundred soldiers of this order, who took up residence in the fortress. The end came in 1265. A large army of Mameluke Muslims under the command of Sultan Bibars laid siege to the fortified city, a siege that lasted 40 days. Piles of "ballistas," or catapult stones from this siege can be seen at the site today. Realizing that there was no hope of victory, the Crusaders offered to surrender on the condition they could walk out of the city alive and unharmed. Bibars agreed, but then entered the city and forced the Crusaders to burn it to the ground. He then captured the Crusaders and took them away as prisoners. The city was never re-inhabited. Destroyed and laid waste, the ruins of this once great port and trading center were abandoned to the windblown sand, with the waves of the Mediterranean pounding against the lonely, rocky beach far below. Visit the site on most days and you are likely to find yourself alone. Walk the paths leading to the ruined Crusader fortress and be rewarded with spectacular views of the Mediterranean and the Israeli coastline. Apollonia is definitely worth a visit - whether you are motivated by an interest in our country's rich and varied history or the desire to be alone for a while amidst beautiful scenic vistas.

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