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Archaeology in Israel: Apollonia-Arsuf

Since 1996, wide-scale archeological excavations have been conducted at the site, but mainly in the Crusader fortress, with a view of turning it into a national park. Portions of the city wall and its eastern gate were found, as were the remains of the fortress defenses and buildings. Little remains, however, besides rocks where various structures stood.

The Crusader city and fortress, now known as Apollonia-Arsuf, were built on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, some 15 km. north of modern Tel Aviv.

Excavations conducted periodically since the 1950s have revealed that a settlement was established on the site during the Persian period (6th-5th centuries BCE), known as Arshuf, after the Canaanite-Phoenician god of fertility and the underworld, Reshef. During the Hellenistic period, Reshef was identified with the Greek god Apollo and hence the name Apollonia. The inhabitants of this ancient town produced a special purple dye derived from murex mollusks and exported it, making use of the natural anchorage. During the Roman period, the size of the town increased; the remains of a large, elegant villa constructed in the finest Roman architectural tradition were uncovered. But it was during the Byzantine period that the town became very prosperous, and expanded to cover an area of about 70 acres. The remains of buildings, industrial installations and an elaborate church of this period have been exposed. In the Early Arab period, when the Semitic name Arsuf was restored to the town, its area decreased to about 22 acres and, for the first time, it was surrounded by a fortified wall with buttresses.

Shortly after the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they made their first attempt to capture Arsuf. They failed, because of the lack of a fleet to impose a naval blockade. But in the spring of 1101, after only a short battle, the city fell to the Crusader army commanded by Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem. The Crusaders rebuilt the city wall of Arsur (their way of pronouncing the name) and constructed a fortress on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

After the defeat of the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, Arsuf came under Muslim control, but on 7 September 1191, in a battle fought outside the city between the Crusader army under Richard the Lion-Heart and the Muslim army under Salah ed-Din (Saladin) the Muslims were defeated. Arsur was once again ruled by the Crusaders, who refortified it in the mid-13th century. Crusader rule came to an end in 1265, when, after a forty-day siege, the city was conquered by the Mamluk ruler Baibars and the defenders of the fortress surrendered. The Muslims razed the city walls and the fortress to their foundations, fearing a return of the Crusaders. The destruction was so complete that the site has not been resettled since, and over the next several hundred years its remains were covered by earth and wind-blown sand.

The Fortifications of the City

A portion of the city wall of Apollonia-Arsur and a corner tower were exposed in the southeaestern part of the city. The city-wall was 2.2 m. thick, constructed of well-trimmed kurkar blocks and cement. A 9 m.-wide moat protected the wall, its outer edge supported by a stone counter scarp. The city gate was located in the center of the eastern wall. It consisted of two elongated, semi-circular towers that protruded outward from the line of the wall. The towers were widened toward their bases, reaching a diameter of 4.4 m. The 2.2m.-wide gateway was probably reached via a wooden bridge, supported by an arch, over the moat.

The Crusader Fortress

The Crusader fortress at Apollonia-Arsur is located in the northwestern corner of the city. Construction began in 1241 and it served as the seat of the siegneur (governor of the country). The fortress, built to defend both town and harbor, consisted of two stories (the plan of the upper story remains unknown).

The fortress was protected by three fortification networks that included walls with towers and a moat. The walls surrounded the fortress on four sides; in addition, a 30 m.-high cliff in the west provided adequate protection. The fortress was constructed of trimmed kurkar reinforced with cement. Its water supply was assured by large cisterns built below it, in which rainwater was collected.

The outer fortification system consisted of a retaining wall, the foundations of which were laid in the bottom of the moat and five semi-circular towers, each 23 m. in diameter, with loopholes for archers. This wall created a solid, wide-based podium on which stood the middle defensive system. A particularly broad moat, up to 30 m. wide and some 14 m. deep, protected the fortification; the outer wall of the moat supported a high counter scarp. A 4.5 m.-wide pilaster protruding from the southeastern corner of the moat and another pilaster located opposite it on the inner side of the moat indicate that there was a wooden drawbridge, which provided access to the fortress over the moat.

The middle fortification and the main gate. The 4 m.-thick wall was protected by semi-circular towers. The gate facing east consisted of two elongated apsidal towers, 12 x 4.5 m. each, that widened toward their bases. One entered the towers from the inner courtyard via openings in their western side. The passageway between the towers was paved with rectangular, evenly laid kurkar slabs. Stone benches stood along the walls on both sides of the entrance. The threshold of the gate, made of a marble pillar in secondary use, was exposed in its entirety. The two wooden door wings closing the gate were mounted on iron hinges, one of which was preserved intact. In front of the entrance were pilasters with grooves used to lower an iron net to protect the door.

The inner defensive system consisted of 3 m.-wide wall segments that closed the inner courtyard of the fortress. On the western side the courtyard was closed by a sturdy tower, which served as the donjon of the fortress. The inner courtyard, measuring 28 x 10 m., gave access to parts of the inner fortress and to the arched halls beneath it. Around the courtyard were rooms and halls with vaulted roofing and staircases leading to second storeys, which served as the garrison’s barracks. Large, round grindstones were found on the northern side of the courtyard; the kitchen of the fortress (10 x 7 m.) was located in the courtyard’s northwestern corner. It was paved with stone slabs and contained five ovens, two tubs for water, a piped water system and had a small service room.

The donjon is located on the western side of the courtyard, opposite the gate. Its upper part, planned as an octagonal tower, was later converted into a square one. It was probably 10 m. high and was intended as a final refuge for the defenders of the fortress. The lower part of this tower consisted of a 4m.-wide, elongated hall, roofed with a graded vault; it opened to the subterranean spaces which led towards the harbor.

In 1261, threatened by the Mamelukes, the seigneur Belian the First, transferred the rights to the seigniory, the town and the fortress to the order of the Knights Hospitallers. Several hundred Hospitallers, or Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, a military religious order, lived in the fortress and defended the town and the access to the port. When the Mameluke Sultan Baibars, at the head of his army, laid siege on the town in the spring of 1265, some 2,000 of the townspeople and soldiers found refuge in the fortress. The town fell after 40 days of fighting and the fortress was captured three days later. Baibars forced the defeated Crusaders to raze and burn the walls of both fortress and town, which lay in ruins ever since.

Significant evidence of the Mamluk siege in 1265 and the ensuing battle to conquer the city and the fortress was found. One of the tunnels, which had been cut beneath the city’s fortifications in an attempt to topple them, was uncovered and massive stones from the collapse were found in the moat. A huge layer of ash, produced by a conflagration, covered parts of the fortress and large numbers of arrowheads and ballista stone balls were found scattered everywhere. 

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry;
Appolonia Park.

Photos: Mitchell Bard