(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
As a boy, I was fascinated with the tales of the Knights of the Round Table and the legends of King Arthur. Some of my favorite movies were Excalibur, Robin Hood and even Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
I would also love to attend the festivals of “Medieval Times” in
upstate New York. When I got to Israel I was excited to check out the
crusader capital city of Acre and explore its ruins, secret passageways
and revel in the glory of the knights in armor, imagining their feasts
and jousting matches.
But before exploring these majestic
fortresses and castles such as Judin, Monfort or Arsuf built in the 12th
and 13th centuries, we must put these people back into their proper
context of history. The idea of the chivalrous white knight on
horseback, just, honorable, and fighting for duty & country is but a
By March of 1095 the Seljuk (Turkish-Persian) armies had
overrun most of the Byzantine Empire and were now knocking on the door
of Constantinople, the eastern gateway to Europe. Most of Spain, the
western gateway to Europe, had already been conquered by Muslim forces
centuries before. The Byzantine emperor, Alexis I was in such a panic
that he asked his theological nemesis, Pope Urban II to help beat back
this invasion of Europe, and thus began the Crusades.
Muslim empires were weakened at the turn of the eleventh century due to
rampant infighting and war. The Middle East was ripe for the taking.
Pope Urban II’s charismatic call to arms led to action by serfs and
nobility alike. His call for “liberation” with theological justification
for a violent, murderous crusade was met in return for “indulgence” or
complete forgiveness of ones sins. Of course the first victims of the
crusaders were the Jews living in Europe who were massacred, and whose
villages were pillaged and burned.
On July 15, 1099 the crusader
armies breached the northeast walls of Jerusalem, and the Latin Kingdom
of Jerusalem was established. An eyewitness reported:In
all the…streets and squares of the city, mounds of heads, hands and
feet were to be seen. People were walking…over dead men and horses….If I
described what I actually saw you would not believe me…What an apt
punishment! The very place that had endured for so long the blasphemies
against God was now masked in the blood of the blasphemers…
-Raymond of Aguilers describes the fall of Jerusalem (“The Atlas of the Crusades” Jonathan Riley-Smith).
1113, the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem was recognized
by the pope as an order of knights. By the 1130’s these former monks
had become a full-fledged military unit, who championed the Christian
poor and dying. They became known as the Knights Hospitallers. Their
grand hospital in Jerusalem could accommodate 2,000 patients, and their
order expanded its land holdings and fortresses throughout the kingdom.
The best surviving example of a Hospitaller castle stands over the
Jordan Valley called Belvoir (Fair View) or Kochav HaYarden
built in 1168.
Driving from Tiberias south on Route 90 in the
Jordan Valley, halfway between Kibbutz Deganiya and Bet Shean,
turn off to your right (west) on Route 717 up a steep, half paved,
narrow road. Drive slowly and watch out for oncoming vehicles. Herds of
gazelles roam these slopes as well as foxes, jackals, hyrax and domestic
cattle. Vultures and other birds of prey often fly overhead. In winter
and spring the hills are covered with colorful wildflowers making this
picturesque setting 500 meters over the Jordan Valley even more
After paying the fee and parking (the shop is often
closed here so bring your own water), continue down the path on the
right side of the castle ruins between the moat and the sculpture garden
until you get to an incredible view of the Jordan Valley below with the
Mountains of Moab on the other side, the Judean Desert to the south and
the Kinneret to the north. On a clear winter’s day you can see the
snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hermon. Check out the sign here which has an
excellent explanation of the Great Rift Valley.
left we enter the dry moat on its south-eastern corner which was built
first to quarry stones for the fortress and second as a line of defense.
Many of the stones to build this castle were taken from the nearby
Talmudic era Jewish village. Keep an eye out for dressed stones in the
walls of the castle that give evidence to this village. Look up and you
can make out how the walls were slanted first in and then out. This
glacis makes it almost impossible to scale, especially when arrows are
being shot out through the loopholes in the walls and from the opposite
Follow the signed arrows while inside the
fortress. Go through the main gate and notice that you aren’t in the
castle itself but walking along a massive switchback. If invaders were
able to breach the main gate they would have still come under fire here
while running up and around 180 degrees to the inner gate whose archway
is still standing today. There is no spring up here so rainwater was a
treasure. Check out the still intact cistern which is well worth a
visit. The path will take you to a feeding station where Israeli park
rangers have created a sanctuary for Griffon vultures. See if you can
catch a glimpse of one. Wind your way around the path. Notice that this
is a “concentric fortress” with an outer wall and an inner wall
protecting an inner sanctum. Mercenaries would fight from the outside
the wall but only the Hospitallers themselves could enter inside.
the kitchen, turrets, towers, laundry room, dining hall and what’s left
of the church (notice the stairway) before coming out near the
drawbridge. Do not go over the bridge but pass it. Just to the south of
the bridge is a stairway leading down into the moat. Take it and come
out of the secret sally port used by the knights to escape. Walk north
in the moat a bit. It gives you a whole new perspective down here and
then turn right into another sally port and go back up a set of stairs
to the drawbridge. On the way back to your car over the bridge check out
some of the crusader ruins lying about.
In 1182 this fortress
came under siege by Saladin and his Muslim army, who later defeated King
Guy of Lusignan in 1187 at the Horns of Hattin. Belvoir held out until
early 1189. The knights were allowed to march out of the land of Israel
and withdraw to Tyre. The crusaders did return to the Land of Israel but
they would never again retake Jerusalem.Joe Yudin
became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree
at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is
currently studying toward a PhD.