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Archaeology in Israel: The Nimrod Fortress

The Nimrod Fortress (Kal’at al-Subeiba in Arabic), is situated in the northern Golan, on a ridge rising some 800 meters above sea level. It is named after a biblical hero, the hunter Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-9) who, according to local tradition, dwelt on this summit. The fortress overlooks the deep, narrow valley separating Mt. Hermon from the Golan Heights and the road linking the Galilee with Damascus (in present-day Syria). The fortress was founded in the Middle Ages, probably by the Crusaders, to defend the city of Banias in the valley below against Muslim incursions. Later, the Muslim rulers of Damascus rebuilt it to defend their border against the Crusaders. During the 12th-13th centuries, it changed hands several times, but it was maintained and strengthened mainly by the Muslims, as attested to by the numerous Arabic inscriptions found incorporated into the building.

The fortifications follow the contours of the long, narrow ridge and are visible to this day. The fortress measures 420 m. in length and 60-150 m. in width and is built of large, carefully squared stones. Along the walls, particularly on the southern side where extra strength was required, numerous rectangular and semi-circular towers, roofed with pointed cross-arches, were erected. Water was stored in rock-cut plastered pools below the fortress, accessible via protected staircases, thus guaranteeing the supply of water in times of siege.

Overlooking the high, eastern edge of the fortress stood a large keep (a dungeon-fortress within a fortress), measuring 65 x 45 m. and protected by massive rectangular towers. In the west, it was separated from the main fortress by a moat, access being provided by a bridge. The keep served as living quarters for the commander of the fortress; in time of siege it became an additional inner defense position.

During 1993-94, the debris which blocked the tower-gate on the western side of the fortress were cleared. On this side, a deep moat cut into the rock, probably with a drawbridge, protected its entrance. The gate-tower, according to an inscription inside it, was built by the Ayyubid ruler al-Aziz Othman in 1230. The double-paneled entrance doors were locked with wooden beams inserted into grooves in the doorjambs. Also well preserved is the narrow groove for lowering the defensive iron net (portcullis).

Fragments of a monumental Arabic inscription of considerable length indicate that the Mamluk sultan Baibars restored the gate-tower in 1275. This new gate house was constructed of particularly large, well-trimmed stones weighing several tons each; it measured 29 x 23 m. and was 30 m. high.

A large cistern was hewn in the rock beneath and a narrow staircase connected the tower’s different stories. A 27-meter-long stepped, secret passage led from the gate tower to the outside. It would have enabled the defenders of the fortress to launch a surprise attack on besiegers, or if necessary, to flee from it.

At the end of the 13th century, the Muslim conquest of the port city of Acre on the Mediterranean signified the end of Crusader rule in the Holy Land. The Nimrod fortress lost its strategic value and fell into disrepair; the ruins visible today bear silent witness to its past might.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs