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Archaeology in Israel: Crusader Fortress of Tiberias

Impressive remains of the Crusader fortress from the 12th century CE were discovered in an excavation recently conducted in the old Jewish Quarter of Tiberias, near the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

On the 4th of July 1187 a defining moment took place in the history of the Middle East – the Battle of Hattin, in which Saladin and his soldiers routed the Crusader army and its leader, Guy of Lusignan, and sealed the fate of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The pretext for the battle was the siege that Saladin placed on Tiberias, seat of the Principality of Galilee, on the 2nd of July, two days prior to the decisive battle. At this time the Crusader princess Eschiva, wife of Raymond III of Tripoli, ruler of the Galilee, and a unit of loyal knights were inside the mighty fortress of Tiberias; however, Raymond himself was at that time together with the king in the Crusader encampment at springs of Sepphoris.

At the start of the siege an alarmed Eschiva sent a messenger to the Crusader camp informing them of it and the imminent danger that awaited her and the knights of Tiberias it Saladin’s intention to conquer the city were to occur. In the feverish consultations going on at the camp in Sepphoris it was Raymond, the husband of Eschiva, who advised the king not to engage the Muslim army in a conflict at this time, despite the looming danger to his wife and comrades in Tiberias. But the king decided to heed the advice of the commander of the Templar Order and attack the Muslims in order to lift the siege on Tiberias. On the way to Tiberias, in the vicinity of the Horns of Hittim, the decisive battle took place when the Crusader army, which was dying of thirst, was vanquished. After the hostilities the army of the Crusader kingdom ceased to exist and the Templar and Hospitaller knights were executed (only King Guy was taken prisoner and released after a year while Raymond succeeded in fleeing before the end of the battle). The following day Tiberias surrendered to the Muslim forces. Princess Eschiva and the knights of Tiberias were allowed to leave the city and made their way unharmed to Tripoli.

Where was the Crusader fortress of Tiberias? Until the 1970’s scholars believed it should be sought outside the walls of the Ottoman old city, perhaps in the region of the citadel built during the days of Dahar al Omar in the 18th century CE, on a hill in the northwest of the city or on Mount Bereniki rising above the city to the southwest. Based on an analysis of historical texts and drawings of Tiberias from the Ottoman period, the historian Zvi Razi suggested in 1970 placing the fortress inside the city walls, on shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the vicinity of the old Jewish Quarter.

Archaeological excavations conducted on a limited scale by Esther Dinor (1976) and Elliot Braun (1977) of the Department of Antiquities, near the promenade, west of the Sea Mosque, reinforced this supposition with the discovery of sections of massive walls that the excavators consider to be elements of the southern part of the fortress. E. Braun even suggested that a water filled moat connected to the Sea of Galilee enclosed and protected the fortress from the south and found parallels to the building style and plan of the fortress with that located at Belvoir (the only difference being that in the latter case the moat was not filled with water). But there were those that doubted this and proposed looking for the Crusader fortress of Tiberias, the heart of the seat of the Principality of Galilee in the 12th century CE, elsewhere in the old city.

During the spring and summer of 2003 archaeological excavations were conducted on behalf of the Antiquities Authority in the area adjacent to the “Etz Haim” synagogue, named after Rabbi Haim Abulafia, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and some seventy meters north of the excavations directed by E. Brown and E. Dinor. The excavations were carried out in the wake of a plan to develop the Jewish Quarter in Old Tiberias (The Courtyard of the Jews) that was put forth by the Government Tourist Corporation.

In the excavation an impressive section of a massive 3.4 m thick wall, oriented east west (i.e. perpendicular to the shoreline), was discovered and in it a three meter wide gate that was in an excellent state of preservation. The façade of the wall is built of large ashlar stones and was preserved to a minimum height of 4 m (the foundations courses that that are embedded in the water table at the level of the lake have not yet been exposed). In the wall and gate the excavators detected the quintessential characteristics of Crusader construction that left no room for doubt: here is part of the northern wall of the Crusader fortress, which indeed indicates that underneath the old Jewish Quarter is the lost Crusader fortress of Tiberias. The discovery makes it possible to estimate the size of the fortress (c. 50 x 70 m); although it is still difficult to delineate its precise plan. The Crusader characteristics that were discovered in the wall and gate are: massive construction using large ashlar stones that are carefully fitted and bonded together, some of which have drafted margins; diagonal stone dressing across the surface of several of the stones in the jambs of the gate; a V-shaped mason’s marks on the surface of one of the building stones; secondary use of ancient construction items; and a track in the form of a slot in the jambs of the gate house for raising and lowering the iron portcullis – a clearly Crusader means of defense in front of a fortress’ gate.

The ceramic assemblage also included sherds that are typical of the period; some of them are imported Crusader ware.

It seems that in front of the wall and gate there was a broad moat filled with water that protected the fortress from the north (as was discovered in the 1977 excavation at the south of the fortress). If there also was a moat on the western side of the fortress (the side that has not yet been exposed) then we are dealing with an edifice that was surrounded entirely by water, a kind of island cut off from the other parts of the city, which was probably joined to them by way of wooden bridges that could be raised. After the fall of the fortress in 1187 its ruins stood desolate for hundreds of years until they were filled over and covered with soil on which the Jewish Quarter of Tiberias was constructed, beginning from the time of Rabbi Haim Abulafia, in the middle of the 18th century CE’.

During the excavation it was discovered that probably already in the 12th century (before or after the Battle of Hattin) or in the 13th century CE, not long after it was built, the gate itself was blocked by the construction of two walls that were erected across it, thereby negating its use altogether. The archeologists were surprised to find large decorated architectural elements in the wall, the gate and in the soil fill in the moat; these comprised parts of a large lintel adorned with floral patterns and a wreath of Heracles for which there are almost exact parallels in the ancient synagogue of Capernaum (the Crusaders incorporated one such piece in secondary use in the jambs of the western gate), a basalt ashlar decorated with a crude relief of a five branch candelabrum, cornice stones and capitals, column drums, fragments of Italian marble and other limestone and basalt elements. These items almost certainly originated in an ancient and magnificent structure that was probably a synagogue from the Roman or Byzantine period. Where did these stones come from? Did the Crusaders bring them from the ruins of the Jewish city dating from the time of the Mishnah and Talmud located south of here or perhaps we are dealing with a monumental building that stood near the fortress (and perhaps below it)? These questions have not yet been answered, as well as numerous other questions concerning the function of the fortress and its plan. At the time of its existence, during the seventh decade of the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela visited Tiberias, where he found a Jewish community numbering fifty families; he also mentions the Synagogue of Caleb ben Jephunneh. In ca. 1180 the Ashkenazi sojourner, Pethahiah of Regensburg, encountered a vibrant Jewish community here, including Rabbi Nehorai who was from the “seed of Rabbi Judah HaNasi”; he also mentions the “synagogue that Joshua Ben Nun built”. And perhaps these synagogues are one and the same, none other than the building from which the magnificent architectural elements of the fortress were taken. Here too, more remains unknown than that which we have answers to.

The discovery of the fortress and the other Crusader remains inside the Old City of Tiberias (that have not been mentioned here owing to a lack of space) shed light on several riddles connected with the traditions the Jews of Tiberias in the past several hundred years. “The Large Cave that is in Tiberias” (or by its other name –“The Cave of Rabbi Judah HaNasi and the Emperor Antoninus”) that cast terror on the local residents who therefore did not dare go into it, is probably an underground cavity that was part of the Crusader fortress (perhaps a covered passage the likes of which were found in Akko recently, and we should assume still exists there today underground). The tradition of the “Domes of Shaloh” – near the Greek Orthodox monastery in the southeast of the Old City (according to the Jews of Tiberias – it is the location where Rabbi Yesha’yahu HaLevi Ish-Hurvitz used to pray, “HaShaloh HaKadosh” named after his book – “The Two Tablets”) refers to a fortified Crusader site, built with massive vaults, buried today beneath the monastery building (what we believe is the fortification of the southeastern corner of the Crusader city).

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry