Kohav Hayarden (Belvior Castel)

The Crusaders knew how to build castles. One could say they had plenty of practice in Europe. However, this castle which they named Belvoir was built by the Hospitaller Knights in 1168 BCE and is considered one of their best architectural achievements. It has been partially restored and is considered the best-preserved Crusader castle in Israel. For this reason alone, it is worth visiting. They chose this location because from its height it overlooked the Jordan crossing at Gesher and the road from Damascus to Beit She’an and thus to Jerusalem. As one might expect, the view over the Jordan Valley from the Observation Point is impressive.

The fortress is located on the plateau Ramat Kokhav at the edge of a steep slope in eastern lower Galilee 550 meters above the Jordan Valley. This plateau of basalt volcanic rock was part of the tribal inheritance of Issachar and was settled as far back as the ancient Israelite period. There was a Jewish settlement here during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods known as Kochava. This accounts for the current name of the castle and park. The volcanic rock is older than that in the Golan and the soil is therefore deeper because of erosion, making it excellent for agriculture. Most of the basalt building blocks for the castle were taken when its moat was carved out, but the Crusaders also used stones from the ruins of Kochava. A stone with a carved design of the seven-branched menorah was found in the fortress wall and was obviously taken from the ruins of its synagogue ruins.

 

The castle was built using a concentric plan and this was used extensively in later Crusader castles.  There were three levels of defense, and you can see all three when walking through the castle. The first was a moat which encircled the fortress on three sides other than its steep eastern aspect. Interior to this was a rectangle whose outer wall had square towers at each corner and on each side. Interior to this was a square whose walls also had corner towers and a tower on its western wall. This inner square had two stories and contained the living quarters of the knights.

Directions: Enter “Kochav Hayarden” into Waze and click on search. The entry “To Kochave hayarden” is what you want. Alternatively enter “כוכב הירדן “ and click on “ כוכב הירדן גן לאומי“.

Entrance: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The park is open from Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am to 4.00 pm. The site closes one hour earlier in the winter. Their phone number is 04 658-1766. This is their website.

There is a store that sells drinks and snacks. There are WC’s. There is a large area with picnic benches under trees providing shade. Make sure to get a brochure as it contains a valuable map and guided tour. It is available in English.

Castle.jpeg

Who were the Hospitallers?

 

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was the most important of four Crusader states in the Middle East that were collectively known as the Outremer and that were established by the First Crusade. Its capital and most important city was Jerusalem which was captured in 1099 CE. The Crusader fighters were European volunteers who were in the Levant for only a limited time, and it was realized that more professional and permanent forces were needed to maintain control of their kingdoms. This task was taken on by two religious orders, the Hospitallers and Templars, whose members combined the ideals of knighthood and monasticism. They took upon themselves the obligations of poverty, charity and discipline, and they remained in the Crusader kingdoms to fight and do good deeds. They were formidable forces and were given the most important fortresses and passes to defend. However, they owed allegiance to no one but themselves.

The Crusaders were able to maintain control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for just under ninety years. Belvue castle, which was at the north east of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, saw no action for 12 years. However, in the latter part of the 12th century, the Kurdish warrior Salah a-Din (known in English as Saladin) established a Sunni Muslim caliphate stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, and in 1180 and 1182, he attacked the castle, although this was resisted by its defendents. However, in 1187 Saladin routed the Crusaders in the Battle of Hittin in the Lower Galilee. He then went on to conquer all the fortresses of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which were now depleted of forces as most of its knights had been either killed or taken captive at the Battle of Hittin. Nevertheless, the fortresses at Kohav Hayarden, Tzfat and Tyre remained under Crusader control.

Saladin was determined to take over this castle, and after 1½ years he succeeded in undermining a tower of the outer wall. To achieve victory, he would now have had to penetrate the inner fortress. Both sides were exhausted. However, since the kingdom was finished, the Christians capitulated after the promise of safe passage to Tyre.

The ruler of Damascus destroyed the fortress in 1220 to prevent it being annexed again by Crusaders in later crusades, and this is how the fortress was found in the modern period. However, all the building blocks were still there, and it was possible to restore it.  There was an Arab village here from the 18th century, and this was conquered by the Golani Brigade.

Discovering the fortress:

The map and guided tour around the castle from the brochure is very explicit and not complicated and it is recommended to follow it in the directions indicated. There is first a fortress path that passes a sculpture park of Yigal Tumarkin and this leads to an Observation Point just before the main gate. You then enter through the main gate and follow the arrows.

Fortress.jpeg
Overlooking Jordan Valley.jpeg

View of the Jordan Valley and Gilead from the Observation Point

Dining room.jpeg

Looking into the Dining Room of the inner fortress

Moat.jpeg

A deep moat surrounded the fortress on three sides.