Belvoir: A Crusader Fortress
Overlooking the Jordan Valley
The security of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in
the twelfth century was dependent upon a network of fortifications, mainly
along its eastern border which was vulnerable to Muslim attacks.
The Crusader fortress of Belvoir is located on a hill of
the Naphtali plateau, some 20 km. south of the Sea of Galilee and about 500
meters above the Jordan Valley. It overlooks the winding Jordan River below
and faces the hills of Gilead in todays Kingdom of Jordan. Belvoir –
Fair View – was aptly named by the Crusaders. In Hebrew it is known as
Kohav Hayarden – Star of the Jordan – which preserves the name of Kohav,
the Jewish village which existed nearby during the Roman and Byzantine
periods. The Muslims called it Kaukab al-Hawa – Star of the Winds.
The first structure on the hill was modest; it was part
of the feudal estate of a French nobleman named Velos who lived in
Tiberias. He sold it to the Order of the Hospitalers in 1168; the
Hospitalers understood the strategic importance of the site and erected a
huge fortress with impenetrable defenses. From Belvoir, the garrison could
closely watch the bridge over the Jordan which served as the eastern
entryway from Gilead into their Kingdom, as well as the roads in the valley
leading to the Galilee.
Belvoir consisted of an outer square fortress which
enclosed a smaller, inner square fortress. Its walls were built of large
basalt ashlars held together by U-shaped iron joints. Well-protected
cisterns for the storage of rain water guaranteed the water supply in times
The Outer Fortress
The outer square fortress measures 110 x 110 m. A huge,
external tower surrounded by a low wall (a barbican) was built on the
eastern side, which controlled the dead space on the slope of the hill,
both visually and with fire power. The main entrance to the fortress was
via an outer gateway from the southeastern corner. From here, one proceeded
up a paved ramp to the top of the external tower, turned back and continued
to the inner gate of the fortress. This fortified gate was closed with a
wooden door covered with metal and locked from the inside with a heavy
wooden beam which fit into slots in the doorposts. A secondary entrance to
the fortress was from the west, via a bridge suspended over the moat, which
could be raised or destroyed when the fortress came under attack.
A man-made moat, 20 m. wide and 14 m. deep, surrounded
the fortress on three sides while the steep slope and the external tower
protected its eastern side. The moat was dry and was meant to prevent siege
engines, such as battering rams and assault towers, from coming close to
Huge towers rose at the four corners of the
fortress, with additional towers between them at mid-point. The broad bases
of the towers slope towards the bottom of the moat, to prevent tunneling
under them. In the upper stories of the towers were loopholes protected by
covered recesses. The placement of the towers is such that the entire
circumference of the fortress walls could be covered by cross fire. Almost
every tower incorporated sally ports into the moat, with narrow staircases;
the steps are unusually high, undoubtedly to make enemy penetration from
the outside more difficult.
In the courtyard between the walls of the outer fortress
and the inner fortress were large halls covered with vaults. These served
as stables, storehouses and living space and gave access to defensive
positions on the roofs.
The Inner Fortress
Inside the outer fortress and separated from it by the
courtyard was the inner fortress (keep, donjon). It was a square, 50 x 50
m. structure, two stories high and surrounded by a wall with towers at the
corners. This inner fortress could withstand siege even after the main,
outer fortress had fallen into enemy hands. The main entrance was from the
west. In its center was an open courtyard surrounded by vaulted spaces
which served as refectory, kitchen, meeting hall, stores, living quarters
etc. The upper story served as the command headquarters of the fortress and
included the apartments of the the knights, as well as a small chapel built
of limestone and roofed with cross vaults.
The fortress of Belvoir served its purpose as a major
obstacle to the Muslims goal of
invading the Crusader Kingdom
from the east. It was attacked by Muslim
forces in 1180 but its mighty fortifications withstood the attack.
After the victory of the Muslim army under Salah al-Din
(Saladin) over the Crusaders at the
battle of the Horns of Hittin, Belvoir was besieged. The siege lasted a
year and a half, until the defenders surrendered on 5 January 1189.
The fortifications of Belvoir were dismantled in 1217-18
by the Muslim rulers who feared the reconquest of the fortress by the Crusaders. In 1240 Belvoir was ceded to
the Crusaders, by agreement; lack of
funds did not permit them to restore the fortifications and it returned to Muslim control a few years later.
The fortress of Belvoir remained in ruins until
comprehensive excavations were conducted in 1966. The fortifications, well
preserved under masses of rubble, were revealed and, upon completion of the
restoration work, the site was opened to visitors. It is the most complete
and impressive Crusader fortress in
The excavations were carried out under the direction of
M. Ben-Dov on behalf of the National Parks Authority.