As dawn broke on June 7, 1099, 40,000 weary men climbed a mountain and gazed wearily towards the southeast. What they saw in the distance brought them rapidly to their knees. Tears streaming down their faces, they thanked God for listening to their prayers and allowing them to gaze upon their hearts’ desire: Jerusalem. Six weeks later the Holy City would fall into their hands. And a new era in Israel’s history would commence.

Local Arabs had a name for these knights, farmers and peasants who had crossed Europe and Asia to liberate the Holy Land, leaving havoc in their wake. They were called franji, Arabic for “Christians from the West.” Six hundred years later, someone would call them “Crusaders.”

Off and on, for the next 250 years, the Crusaders would rule the land of Israel. It would be an era of blood and gore along with vast prosperity and extraordinary grandeur. Fortunately for history buffs, when the Crusaders were trounced for the last time in 1291, and departed this land never to return, they left behind magnificent structures and a treasure-trove of antiquities.

The Bible tells us that the prophet Samuel was buried in Ramah, probably an Arab village 5 kilometers north of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a stubborn tradition dating back to the Byzantine era places his burial site at Nebi Samuel, the mountain from whose crest the Crusaders got their virgin glimpse of Jerusalem.

So uplifted were the Crusaders on that occasion, that they renamed the hill Montjoie (mount of joy) and members of the newly founded monastic Premonstratensian order built a monastery on its peak. Central to the monastery was a church, built in 1157 and called St. Samuel. Although Muslim conquerors eventually leveled the monastery, they turned the church into a mosque.

Massive excavations at Nebi Samuel have exposed remains from First and Second Temple period settlement, as well as parts of a large building dating back to Maccabee rule. But most of the ruins are from the Crusader era, and belonged to structures used by the monks and neighboring farmers – none of whom were actually Crusaders.

In fact, experts say that few of the Christians who lived in this region during the time of Crusader rule ever took part in a Crusade. The monks, nobles, trades people and farmers living in this country were either descendants of the original Crusaders, or belonged to a steady stream of immigrants from Europe.

Among the excavations are an enormous stable complete with troughs, feed bins, and three square-topped stones from which riders mounted their horses. Numerous pilgrims stopped at the monastery on a route that led from Jaffa to Emmaus, Samuel’s Tomb and the Holy City. The unfinished moat probably means that the monks were preparing for invasion when Muslim ruler Saladin was on the warpath in 1187. Obviously, his troops captured the monastery before the moat was completed.

Inside the building are a mosque and a hall from which separate staircases for men and women lead down to Samuel’s tomb. But the best part of any visit is a climb to the roof of the structure. Although the view of the Old City that so stirred the Crusaders is now hidden behind thousands of new houses, you can make out at least one tower standing inside the walls. Below you, in all their glory, are the lands that Joshua apportioned to the tribe of Benjamin long, long ago.

There are two tables, drinking water and restrooms on the grounds. However, if it’s a picnic you want, you should really visit a different Crusader site: Ein Hemed National Park, located due west of Jerusalem.

Ein Hemed encompasses an estate so lovely that it was called Aqua Bella (beautiful water).

Aqua Bella belonged to the Crusaders’ Hospitaller Order, and was run by an agent who administered the property and collected taxes. He lived in a manor house that is the finest example of its kind in this country.

Visitors stroll through rooms that surround a courtyard and enter vaulted halls where agents stored the livestock and crops that the local farmers used as taxes.

Ein Hemed (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Ein Hemed (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

It is too dangerous to ascend the tower ruins for a view of the area. Nevertheless, the well-preserved manor house, a lovely spring, the sparkling stream that runs through the park, and a luxuriant green landscape make a trip to Ein Hemed eminently worthwhile.

Further north, Belvoir (“beautiful view”) at Kochav HaYarden National Park is worth a special visit. Originally a small castle occupied by a local knight, it was purchased by the Hospitaller order in 1168 and completely rebuilt.

Belvoir, at Kochav HaYarden National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Belvoir, at Kochav HaYarden National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The new design consisted of a concentric fortress with two completely independent courtyard castles. Nearly identical, they differed in height: the inner castle was taller than the outer one. The result was a particularly effective defensive system, for if the outer walls were attacked the invaders could be repulsed by defenders in the inner castle.

And, indeed, after the rest of the Crusader Kingdom fell in 1187, Belvoir held on for another 18 months until Saladin dug a tunnel underneath the outer walls and burned their wooden supports. Then, instead of fending off the invaders, the soldiers in the inner castle decided to surrender!

Much of Belvoir has been beautifully restored, including the impressive moat, many of the rooms, and the escape tunnel. It is located in lovely grounds to which sculptures by Yigal Tomarkin were added in 1994 in an intriguing attempt to combine modern art and archeology.

Nebi Samuel is located on Route 436 between Givat Ze’ev and Jerusalem. There are restrooms on the site.

National Parks are open daily from 8:00-17:00 in the summer, except for Fridays, when they close one hour earlier.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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