Castle of the Week 62 – Belvoir Castle – ‘Star of the Jordan’

The Hospitaller castle of Belvoir (‘Fair View’ in French), a few miles south of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee), is the first datable true concentric castle, built shortly after 1168. Atop a basalt plateau, twelfth century Muslim historians refer to it as a ‘nest of eagles and the dwelling place of the moon’. In Hebrew it is known as Kochav Hayarden – Star of the Jordan – which preserves the name of Kochav, the Jewish village which existed nearby during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The Muslims called it Kaukab al-Hawa – Star of the Winds. It remains one of the most complete Crusader castles in Israel.

The first structure here overlooking Jordan valley was modest; it was part of the feudal estate of a French nobleman who lived in Tiberias, a small fortified agricultural settlement. He sold it to the Order of the Hospitallers in 1168; the Hospitallers understood the strategic importance of the site early on. Due to the possibilities of protecting and controlling trade routes in the area, in keeping with so many of the Crusader castles under the Religious Orders, they erected a huge fortress with impenetrable defences. It took in the region of 5 years to complete and hundreds of workers were involved in the construction. From Belvoir, the garrison within could closely watch the bridge over the Jordan, which served as the eastern entryway from Gilead into their Kingdom, as well as the roads in the valley leading to Galilee.

In terms of architecture, Belvoir was about as complete a fortress as you could imagine. Whilst not the largest of castles, the outer walls covering 110 x 110 metres, it was built in such a way that it could cover attacks from all sides. It is this feature above all else that makes concentric design so effective. An external tower surrounded by a low wall (a barbican) was built on the eastern side, which controlled the dead space on the slope of the hill, both visually and with firepower. The main entrance to the fortress was via an outer gateway from the south-eastern corner. From here, one proceeded up a paved ramp to the top of the external tower, turned back and continued to the inner gate of the fortress. A secondary entrance to the fortress was from the west, via a bridge suspended over the man-made moat, 14 metres deep and 20 metres wide, which could be raised or destroyed when the fortress came under attack. The moat was dry, and prevented siege engines from coming close to the fortifications.

Within the inner walls lies the inner fortress (the Keep or Donjon). Another square design, measuring approximately 50 x 50 metres, this could also sustain a siege should the outer walls fail. Well-protected cisterns allowed a plentiful supply of rainwater for those within the walls in times of siege. Standing two storeys high, there was an open courtyard at the centre, as well as a chapel within the walls themselves. The main entrance through the outer walls lies on the eastern side, but the entrance to the Keep lies on the Western edge, forcing attackers to battle through heavy fire through the castle.

The security of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was dependent on a network of fortifications, mainly along its eastern border, themselves vulnerable to Muslim attack. One day in 1187 saw such an attack develop. Following the crushing defeat of the Crusaders at Hattin, 12,000 Muslim soldiers led by Saladin marched across the Yarmuk River (which joins the Jordan River south of Galilee), heading into the hills and approaching Belvoir. The network of fortifications that the Crusaders so depended on was already in collapse; Sidon, Beirut, Acco, Jaffa, Nazareth and Jerusalem were all captured or surrendered. The Crusaders retained control only over Tyre, Safed, and Belvoir. And, after Safed fell, the isolated fortress of Belvoir became the only spot in Israel where a Christian banner waved.

Saladin’s forces attacked, attempting to undermine the barbican and walls with tunnels. Whilst some of the walls did collapse, the strength within the masonry held, due to a clever ploy when the stonework was laid. The joints were filled with iron or lead, linking the basalt stones together and increasing the structural strength of the walls as a result. Saladin’s losses were heavy, and the siege went on for an incredible year and a half. Even after this time, the fortress was never taken or overrun. Belvoir did fall, though only by surrender. The knights were granted free passage to Tyre and Saladin ordered that the fortress gates were pulled down, for fear that the Crusaders might return. The Crusaders did return to the area in force a few years later under Richard the Lionheart, albeit briefly. But the Crusaders never recovered from the stunning blow of the Horns of Hattin and its aftermath. The knights of Belvoir had held out bravely as the lone outpost of a kingdom that was already a phantom.

Belvoir was dismantled in 1217, by Muslim rulers who feared the reclamation of the fortress. In 1240 it was ceded to the Crusaders by agreement, although lack of funds did not permit them to restore the castle and it returned to Muslim hands shortly afterwards.

Write-up by Sulis.


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