When Pope Urban the Second called in 1095 for volunteers to save the Holy City of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers, the response was fanatical, to put it mildly.
True, His Holiness promised some fantastic rewards: money and property as well as “indulgences” — a reduction of after-life punishment for their sins. But it was also the chance to save holy Christian sites from Muslim infidels that caught the imaginations of the future warriors. With deep religious conviction and immense fervor, peasants and kings set off for the Holy Land.
When they reached the Holy City of Jerusalem they expected the walls to tumble down. Circling seven times, like Joshua of Jericho, they found the walls still standing. Finally the crusaders attacked — and mercilessly murdered every Jew and Muslim they found inside.
Jerusalem now became the capital of a Crusader Kingdom, and Godfrey Bouillon — a cruel and ruthless man — was elected its ruler.
Most of the people who participated in these crusades left for home.
Those that remained began to form brotherhoods to defend both the new Kingdom of Jerusalem (which eventually was larger than the modern State of Israel) and keep the roads safe for pilgrims swarming into the Holy City.
First of these societies was the Order of St. John, a group of monks who operated a hospital in the Holy Land even before the crusades. In 1099, along with their religious vows, they swore to both defend the kingdom and to treat the sick and wounded. (Not surprisingly, they became known as the Knights Hospitaller.)
Next, nine crusaders bonded together to found a second band of fighting monks. They were the Templars, invited by the ruler of the Kingdom to establish their headquarters in the al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. The Teutonic Order, a third group of fighting monks from Germany, only appeared around 1190. All three amassed great wealth, but the Templars, in Acre, created the first modern banking system in the world.
These pious warriors set up dozens of small citadels over the main roads traveled by European pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem. Over time, the fortresses were incorporated into large castles.
One of the loveliest was Montfort, which began as a fortified farm. It was located on a steep hill above a deep valley and surrounded with rich green trees all year round.
In 1228 the Teutonic Order bought the farm/fortress and turned it into its headquarters, complete with treasury and archives. But it was still small for the Order’s needs, and with the help of contributions from Europe they spent 50 years giving it a major face lift with a European flavor. The resulting castle included massive towers, an enormous dining hall with stained glass windows, and an elegant chapel. Montfort (strong mountain) had been transformed into one of the loveliest fortified castles in the Crusader kingdom.
Mameluke invaders laid siege to Montfort in 1266, but were unable to penetrate its defenses. When they returned five years later, soldiers dug a tunnel under the southern wall, burst inside and gained control of the inner courtyard. Resisting Crusaders holed up in the stronghold but soon surrendered to the enemy. The Mamelukes granted the Crusaders their lives and allowed them to take their archives and treasures with them when they left.
When people talk about the fortress at Latrun, they generally don’t mean the castle built in the 1130s by a Spanish count and entrusted to the Templars. What they remember, instead, is the heavily fortified police station that the British erected nearby during their Mandate in Palestine. Known to Israelis as the Latrun Fortress, it played a huge part in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Located strategically above the only road that, at the time, linked Jewish Jerusalem with the coastal cities, the modern-day Latrun Fortress was handed over to the Arabs when the British left the country. And despite repeated and desperate attacks by troops of the newly formed Israeli army, it remained in Arab hands until the 1967 Six-Day War.
Only a very few ruins remain from the Crusader fortress, called La Tour des Chevalliers (the castle of the knights) although it was fully operational until 1187. But that was the year that Saladin — a military leader who would ultimately become Emperor of Syria and Egypt — trounced crusader forces during the battle at Karney Hitin. Following that success, Saladin conquered most of the country, including Latrun, and Jerusalem. During the Third Crusade, that took place from 1189 to 1192, Saladin demolished the Latrun Fortress.
For over a hundred years, a second Templar citadel was thought to have been so devastated by Muslim forces that not a stone remained standing. Indeed, when Saladin captured the fortress, he is said to have supervised its total destruction. In 1993, however, archeologists discovered whole parts of the outer wall surrounding Chastellet, along with portions of the inner fortress.
Chastellet is only one of the citadel’s names. In Hebrew it is metzad (fortress) Ateret, for local Arabs named the site a-atara. Muslims have been known to call it Bayt al-Ahzan, or House of Sorrow. That’s because, in some Islamic traditions, this is the site at which Jacob heard that his son Joseph had been sold to passing merchants.
Together with Chateau Neuf (also called Hunin, and located in the upper Galilee) Chastellet was supposed to guard the main northeastern routes into the country during the Crusader period. But only a few months after its completion in 1177, Saladin’s Muslim forces stormed the citadel.
Unable to conquer it in a frontal battle, the soldiers laid siege to Chastellet and at the same time quietly dug a tunnel under the main tower, filled it with dry wood, and set it on fire. The main tower collapsed and Muslim troops poured into the castle. Before destroying Chastellet the soldiers massacred its 1,000 inhabitants and stuffed their bodies into its cistern.
Situated in the center of the Galilean town of Safed are the well-kept remains of the largest Crusader castle in the Middle East. It was built upon ancient Jewish, Byzantine and Muslim ruins, for throughout history many had vied for the hill upon which it stands in order to control the entire northern Galilee.
Crusaders took the Galilee from the Muslims in 1101 and Templars set up a fort on this very site, but abandoned it when Saladin laid siege to Safed in 1188. Upon their return in 1240, the Templars erected a massive citadel surrounded by three concentric defensive walls.
Mameluke general Baibars laid siege to Safed in 1266, but he was unable to take the fortress. Instead, he offered everyone in the castle safe passage in exchange for their surrender. When they did so, he slaughtered almost every single person there.
The castle was not destroyed by the Muslims, who used it for themselves, but was demolished in part during an 1837 earthquake. However, its foundations were preserved by the British, who converted the large halls into the city reservoir.
What remains is part of Citadel Park, a must-see for visitors to the area. Indeed, the view from the top of the mountain on which they stand is spectacular and includes a sight of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
Before Israel was declared a State, Jewish intelligence had learned that the Jerusalem Mufti, a very powerful religious cleric who was in Lebanon at the time, planned to set up temporary headquarters in Safed to prepare to attack Jerusalem. Pre-state Jewish leaders decided to send forces to attack the fortress in order to gain control of this strategic site. The assault was a success, and Jewish command of the city was assured.
So in addition to exploring the extensive ruins, letting the kids run free, and picnicking in Citadel Park, visitors can stop at a touching memorial for soldiers who lost their lives during the precarious night-time attack on the castle.
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.
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