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Archaeology in Israel: Belvoir Crusader Fortress

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 today’s 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 of siege.

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 the fortifications.

 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 Israel.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry