The Nimrod Fortress: a Crusader castle or not?

Sitting high above the Banias, Qal'at Nimrod was of enormous strategic value overlooking the road from the coast to Damascus.

nimrod24888 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Located high on the crown of a spectacular ridge, 815 meters above sea level, the Nimrod Fortress was described by Mark Twain as "one of the finest ruins of its kind in the world" - quite a compliment considering Twain was not always so generous in his praise; on his visit to the Holy Land in 1867, he famously described Jerusalem as "ugly and dirty." The Arab legends attributed the fortress to Nimrod, "the mighty hunter" of the Bible, who would sit on the ridge and stretch his hand out to grab the pure waters of Banias, located six kilometers away. For his acts of pride, he was imprisoned in the castle of his own making. Popularly known as Qal'at Nimrod, the fortress's real Arabic name is Qalyat es-Subeiba, meaning the castle on top of the cliff, which is precisely how it looks from a distance. Boldly situated to overlook the road which stretched from the coast of modern-day Israel to Damascus, the castle held enormous strategic value, and dominated the Hula and Banias plains. Despite parallels with the French castle of Chinon, in the Loire Valley, Nimrod is not a Crusader fortress. Located on the border between the Arab and Crusader empires, it was built by the tribe of Ismali'is, which had captured Banias in 1126, when the Crusaders were present in the land. Several years later, the tribe ceded its fortification to the Crusaders in exchange for protection against their enemies in Damascus. IN THE YEARS that followed, the small fortress changed hands several times, before finally falling into the more permanent ownership of Malik el-Aziz Uthman, in 1228. It was Uthman who built the original keep at the east end of the site, and later added a curtain wall around the rest of the ridge. The construction gave the castle as a whole an elongated sausage shape, 420 meters long, covering a large area of 33 dunams (8 acres), but with a narrow waist of only 60 meters. Research based on the many Islamic inscriptions found carved into the stonework has shown that most of the work was commissioned by Arab rulers. An inscription from 1240 explained that Sultan Fahr a-Din Hassan carried out extensive reconstruction, while the new work was limited to a grand chamber near the southwest tower. One of the more exciting inscriptions is also impressive for its grandeur. Measuring over one meter high and six meters long, it is written in the name of Mameluke Sultan Baybars, who ruled the fortress from 1260. The inscription relates that "in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, this blessed tower was renewed by the grace of the Sultan…..the most splendid master, the scholar, the just, the fighter of the holy war, the warrior on the border, the heavenly assisted, the victorious Rukn al-Dunya was'l-Din (Baybars)." Following another failed Crusader attempt to conquer the fortress in 1253, Sultan Baybars constructed nine mighty towers in the curtain wall of his predecessor, thus making the castle virtually unconquerable. Under Baybars the castle was at once physically impregnable and sensitive to siege. The water supply depended on rainwater stored in cisterns, while another large pool existed outside the castle at a lower level (near the modern entry gate), thus making it inaccessible during an attack. After 1260, no record exists of the castle changing hands, and in 1291 the location lost its strategic value when the Muslims conquered the city of St. Jean d'Acre (Acre) and expelled the Crusaders. Nonetheless, Nimrod remained the seat of the local governor, who was at first appointed by rulers in Damascus, and then in the fifteenth century, by the Sultan. The original early keep was protected by a fosse, or moat, which had been cut into the surrounding rock. The fortification became redundant when the walls were extended to the west, as the new entrance was protected by a narrow, angled approach which extended through an arched gateway defended by a portcullis. There one can also find a chamber for the guard, complete with a private toilet. The best way to tour the extensive castle is to follow a path along the walls, which passes all sixteen towers, each one bearing a different, elaborate, stonework design. At first glance, the architecture looks to be styled by the Crusaders, but further examination reveals that the arches do not bear the vintage pointed, gothic trademark, and the lintels over the doorways have double corbels and decorated relieving arches, which is typical Arab style. However, obvious similarities inevitably exist given that Muslim work is contemporary with that of the Crusaders, and the locals clearly absorbed some of the fine French designs of their enemies. Of the sixteen towers, the large, semi-circular structure on the southern wall - appropriately dubbed, the "Beautiful Tower" - is of particular note. The massive central pier is asymmetrical and octagonal, and reconciles the outer semicircle, composed of five sides, to the inner rectangular plan of three sides. The vaults from the pier to the outside walls, although now partly destroyed, reflect the complicated curved surfaces that had to be cut in stone to achieve the precise reconciliation between the curved and rectangular layout of the tower. Visiting the site with children can be enormously enjoyable, given the many strange and interesting staircases, as well as the stepped, "secret passage" which serves as an exit on the west end. The passage was either an elaborate postern or hidden pedestrian entrance, and was uncovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1994. Some of the towers, as well as the keep, have retained their original stone roofing, and from there one can appreciate the extensive view over the deep, adjoining valleys of the Sa'ar and Guvta wadis. Those who launched attacks against the fortress from these low points must have either been intensely brave or profoundly insane. Until recently, the castle had never been the focus of excavations. Yet in 1993 and 1998, two partial digs were conducted by Moshe Hartel, who worked on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was Hartel who finally established that none of the construction - at least in the two towers that he excavated - was the product of the Crusaders. Previously, the history of the castle was drawn from the investigative work of P. Deschamps, a French expert on Crusader fortifications. Deschamps thought that the original foundations of the castle were created by the Muslim tribe of the Ismali'is in the twelfth century, and were then enlarged by the Crusaders. Thanks to the many inscriptions which have since been uncovered, coupled with Hartel's findings from his digs on the major towers of the west wall, it is now clear that all the work is of Arab construction. One source of confusion was the fact that the castle was named as the "Banias Fortress," which is referenced by contemporary sources, but is now known to actually be a different structure in Banias itself. Qal'at Nimrod, or Qal'at es-Subeiba, is a unique fortress, not a Crusader one, but one that was built while the Crusaders were still active in the land. The castle can easily be reached by car, and can be clearly found by signs on routes 98 and 99. The facilities on the premises include good parking, clean toilets and a snack bar by the western gateway. Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Jerusalem.