Crusader History – On a crusade

Waging a campaign of holy war sites in the Holy Land makes for a historical holiday.

antiquities (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )

As dawn broke on June 7, 1099, 40,000 weary men climbed a mountain and gazed wearily towards the southeast. What they saw in the distance brought them rapidly to their knees. Tears streaming down their faces, they thanked God for listening to their prayers and allowing them to gaze upon their hearts' desire: Jerusalem. Six weeks later, the holy city would fall into their hands and a new era in Israel's history commenced.

Local Arabs had a name for these knights, farmers and peasants who had crossed Europe and Asia to 'liberate' the Holy Land and left havoc in their wake. They were called franji, Arabic for 'Christians from the West.' Six hundred years later, someone would call them Crusaders.

Off and on, for the next 250 years, the Crusaders ruled the land of Israel. It was be an era of blood and gore along with vast prosperity and extraordinary grandeur. Fortunately for history buffs, when the Crusaders were trounced for the last time in 1291 - and departed this land never to return - they left behind magnificent structures and a treasure trove of antiquities.

Most of the impressive Crusader remains are now in national parks that require entrance fees, while those that have not been fully excavated are open to the public free of charge. You can have a great time at Crusader sites, especially at the five that I describe in this article. And if history turns you off, you will enjoy your outing nevertheless: the Crusaders built their castles, citadels and monasteries high up on hills with spectacular views of the byways, ports and fertile lands.

THE BIBLE tells us that the prophet Samuel was buried in Ramah, probably an Arab village five kilometers north of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a stubborn tradition dating back to the Byzantine era places his burial site at Nebi Samwil, the mountain from whose crest the Crusaders got their virgin glimpse of Jerusalem.

So uplifted were the Crusaders on that occasion, that they renamed the hill Montjoie (mount of joy) and members of the newly founded monastic Premonstratensian order built a monastery on its peak. Central to the monastery was a church, built in 1157 and called St. Samuel. Although Muslim conquerors eventually leveled the monastery, they turned the church into a mosque.

Nebi Samwil

Massive excavations at Nebi Samwil have exposed remains from First and Second Temple period settlement, as well as parts of a large building dating back to Maccabean rule. But most of the ruins are from the Crusader era, and belonged to structures used by the monks and neighboring farmers - none of whom were actually Crusaders.

In fact, says Dr. Adrian Boas of Haifa University, few of the Christians who lived in this region during the time of Crusader rule ever took part in a Crusade. The monks, nobles, tradespeople and farmers living in this country were either descendants of the original Crusaders, or belonged to a steady stream of immigrants from Europe.

While wandering through the excavations, look for an enormous stable complete with troughs, feed bins, and three square-topped stones from which riders mounted their horses. Numerous pilgrims stopped at the monastery, notes Boas, on a route that led from Jaffa to Emmaus, Samuel's Tomb and the holy city. The unfinished moat probably means that the monks were preparing for invasion when Muslim ruler Saladin was on the warpath in 1187. Obviously, his troops captured the monastery before the moat was completed.

Inside the building are a mosque and a hall from which you can take separate staircases for men and women down to Samuel's tomb. Afterwards, do climb to the roof of the structure. Although the view of the Old City that so stirred the Crusaders is now hidden behind thousands of new houses, you can make out at least one tower standing inside the walls. Below you, in all their glory, are the lands that Joshua apportioned to the tribe of Benjamin long, long ago.

Ein Hemed National Park

If you want to go on a picnic, head from here toward Ein Hemed National Park. Located due west of Jerusalem, Ein Hemed encompasses an estate so lovely that it was called Aqua Bella (beautiful water).

Aqua Bella belonged to the Hospitaller Order, and was run by an agent who administered the property and collected taxes. He lived in a manor that is the finest example of its kind in this country. Visitors stroll through rooms that surround a courtyard and enter vaulted halls where agents stored the livestock and crops that the local farmers used as taxes.

It is too dangerous to ascend the tower ruins for a view of the area. Nevertheless, the well-preserved manor, a lovely spring, the sparkling stream that runs through the park, and a luxuriant green landscape make a trip to Ein Hemed worthwhile.

Belmont, known as Tel Tzuba, is an entirely different kind of Crusader site. Excavated in the 1980s, it has hardly been touched since then and is overrun with weeds (and flowers, in spring). Yet there are fascinating ruins everywhere, which makes Belmont an adventure of discovery.

Belmont ('beautiful mountain') started out as a small structure, but in the second half of the 12th century the buildings were expanded into a full-scale castle that was lost to the Muslims a few decades later. While clambering around the ruins, look for a horse carved into one of the walls and chiseled symbols made by the Crusader-era residents. Stop at an overlook for a great view and an explanation (in Hebrew) of the battle for Tel Tzuba during the War of Independence.

Further south, on the ruins of the biblical city of Gath, Crusaders established a fortress that they called Blanche-Garde (white citadel) because of the cliff rocks' shiny white color. Blanche-Garde was one of a ring of strongholds built in the 12th century around the Muslim-held coastal city of Ashkelon. Its purpose, explains Boas, was to repulse Muslim troops as they left Ashkelon for an assault on a Christian city.

At first, Blanche-Garde was a small square castle 16 x 16 meters in size, built around a courtyard and graced with four corner towers. Later, after Ashkelon finally fell to Christian forces, Blanche-Garde was expanded and refortified.

It hasn't been possible so far to excavate Blanche-Garde, since a Muslim cemetery was built on its ruins, and all you will see on the top of the hill is some masonry from the fortress and the remains of one of the towers. What you do have, however, is a singular view of the coast and the Judean foothills.

Each year, below you on the slopes, volunteers from all over the world dig at the site of biblical Gath (Tel Tzafit) under the direction of Dr. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. Excavating is slow and exacting work, but spirits are high; last week, someone uncovered a piece of Philistine pottery still stuck in the earth! Excavations ended recently, but there is still plenty to see here: this is one of the largest tels in Israel and was settled almost continuously from the fifth millennium BCE until 1948. Birdwatchers take note: Tel Tzafit is mostly wilderness, and on our short trip to view the excavations, we saw two short-toed eagles, several shrikes and a couple of hoopoes.

Kochav Hayarden National Park

Nothing could contrast more completely with Blanche-Garde than Belvoir (meaning 'beautiful view') at Kochav Hayarden National Park. Originally a small castle occupied by a local knight, it was purchased by the Hospitaller Order in 1168 and completely rebuilt.

The new design consisted of a concentric fortress with two completely independent courtyard castles. Nearly identical, they differed in height: the inner castle was taller than the outer one. The result was a particularly effective defensive system, explains Boas, for if the outer walls were attacked the invaders could be repulsed by defenders in the inner castle.

And, indeed, after the rest of the Crusader Kingdom fell in 1187, Belvoir held on for another 18 months until Saladin dug a tunnel underneath the outer walls and burned their wooden supports. Then, instead of fending off the invaders, the soldiers in the inner castle decided to surrender.

Much of Belvoir has been beautifully restored, including the impressive moat, many of the rooms, and the escape tunnel. It is located in lovely grounds to which sculptures by controversial Israel Prize winner Igael Tumarkin were added in 1994 in an intriguing attempt to combine modern art and archeology.

The vast majority of sculptures were produced beforehand, but Tumarkin created a few specifically for Belvoir. When the appropriate committee refused to let Tumarkin station his statues inside the Crusader walls, he decided to bring the castle to the garden. Thus one of the works includes a diagonal piece of glass boasting a reflection of Belvoir Castle.