Israel travels

Apollonia, a fortress transformed

On a cliff-top high above the Mediterranean sits a last-line-of-defense dating back two-and-a-half millenia

Apollonia, with the Mediterranean Sea in the background (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Apollonia, with the Mediterranean Sea in the background (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Only a few decades ago, the best thing about Apollonia was the view from its hovering cliffs. A small collection of Crusader ruins peeking out from within the weeds, Apollonia was located high above the Mediterranean Sea about 10 miles north of Tel Aviv and offered a great venue for a romantic outing. Indeed, over the years we often shared a picnic while watching waves crash against the rocks below.

We always walked down to the shores, as well, having a wonderful time climbing on and around huge blocks that had tumbled down from the Crusader fort above. One unforgettable day we even stumbled upon a man soaking up the sun while lying on his back stark naked – except for a hat.

At the beginning of the current millennia, however, we discovered that Apollonia of the crumbling walls and barely recognizable ruins had been transformed into a splendid national park. Overnight, it seemed, there was something more to Apollonia than a fabulous view: there were citadel walls, a medieval gate, a kitchen, a banquet hall, and the all-important citadel keep. Remains of a Roman villa had been discovered near the entrance to the national park, and workers had cleared out and reinforced the moats that surrounded the citadel and the crusader city.

Apollonia dates back to the seafaring Phoenicians, who called the settlement that they founded in the sixth century B.C.E. Arshaf after their war god Reshef. The place was perfect for their needs, since not only was there a small natural harbor in the sea, crucial for the commerce they carried out, but there were also masses of murex snails readily accessible on the shore. That spelled money to the Phoenicians, who used crushed snails to produce purple dye for royal robes.  Besides, the weather was wonderful at Apollonia, where a breeze from the sea meant it was cool even in summer.

Crusader remains at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Crusader remains at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During the Hellenistic period, residents of Arshaf renamed their city Apollonia. In the first century B.C.E. Apollonia was captured by the Hasmoneans (Macabbees) and came under rule of the Jewish King Alexander Janneus.

Next to occupy the site were the Romans, then the Byzantines, who greatly expanded the city. Moslems appeared in the seventh century, changing the name to Arsuf, and the Crusaders came along a few hundred years later.

Some of the numerous explanatory signs at the site are accompanied by spear-carrying knights. Shaped like a medieval shield and topped by a fleur de lis that helps put you into an heraldic frame of mind, each sign illustrates what lies before you as if you were visiting the site in the 13th century. One particular sign includes a 3-dimensional model of what experts imagine the Crusader city before you would have looked like at the time.

Patches of plaster and pieces of ceramic tiles are seen on the walls of the excavated Roman-era villa. Plaster was necessary since the villa was located on sea limestone that is easily penetrated by water.

Crusader remains at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
Crusader remains at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

The first Crusaders to try capturing Arsuf failed dismally. They couldn’t even besiege the city, because it was well supplied from the sea. So in 1101 they decided to blockade the port, enlisting the help of the Genovese fleet that ordinarily traded with Arsuf. In return, the Crusaders agreed to give the Genoese an entire commercial street in the middle of the city. The Crusaders succeeded in conquering Arsuf, renamed it Arsour, and made it the capital of the southern Sharon region.

A statue of a crusader at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A statue of a crusader at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Plastered pits along the paths above the sea were used by Byzantine residents both for storing water and perhaps in glass production. They were cleaned out by three men on a special government program for the unemployed. While working on the pits the men discovered buttons, a weird helmet, and bullets from a Mauser pistol. It is highly likely that the cisterns were used as a German position during World War I.

Settlement at Apollonia was based on the rocky reef that breaks the current, below the citadel – a natural harbor. The harbor right below the citadel was built by Apollonia’s inhabitants.

A view looking up to Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
A view looking up to Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

The citadel at Apollonia was designed like a clover, with semi-circular towers. A fleur de lis sign nearby illustrates what it looked like. It also has a copy of a seal that belonged to Belian the first, Seigneur of the southern Sharon country, who reigned from Arsour. Interestingly, all of the fortifications pictured on the seal were uncovered during excavations: a gate flanked by two semi-circular towers, two corner towers and a tall keep.

Apollonia’s enormous moat, 30 meters wide and 14 meters deep, encircled the citadel. A bridge spanned the moat, and ended in a main gate.  You enter the gate into a courtyard that was the citadel’s second line of defense; if the city walls were breached whoever survived would rush in here for protection. Niches on either side of the gate held a bar that closed behind the heavy door – just as it did in movies of Robin Hood. Like the rest of what is on view in the courtyard, the floor hasn’t been touched – except to remove thousands of arrowheads that were stuck in the ground.

Inside the citadel at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Inside the citadel at Apollonia (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Although the city’s first buildings were erected right after the conquest, the citadel wasn’t constructed until 1241. It remained standing less than 25 years, for the Mamaluke sultan Baibars attacked in 1265. The city fell after 40 days of fighting; and after another three-day battle so did the citadel.

Arsour surrendered after Baibars promised to release the defenders. But he went back on his word, took them prisoner and forced them to destroy both the city and the citadel. Afterwards, he paraded them through the streets of Cairo and sold them as slaves.

From the top of the keep there is an absolutely gorgeous view of the water. In its heyday the keep was an octagonal stronghold tower 10 meters high. It was also the last line of defense: once the enemy had stormed the gates and entered the citadel, survivors climbed to the top of the keep.

Some of Apollonia's 2,6000 ballista stones (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)
Some of Apollonia’s 2,6000 ballista stones (photo credit: Shmuel Baram)

The area below is fun to explore. It features ovens, a grand hall, a grinding floor, and dozens of the 2,600 ballista stones discovered at Apollonia.

At the entrance/exit to the National Park there is an old building. This grungy edifice served as a British police post during the Mandate (1920-1948). Near the end of that period, the British that were stationed here used radar to detect illegal immigrants trying to reach Israel by sea.

On November 23, 1945, the British seized and confiscated a ship of refugees trying to reach the Land of their fathers. Jewish forces retaliated two days later on the Night of the Police Stations by bombing British radar at Apollonia and leaving a gaping hole in the building.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

Most Popular
read more: