The impressive Belvoir Fortress at Kohav Hayarden National Park

The Crusaders knew how to build castles. They had plenty of practice in Europe. Nevertheless, Belvoir Fortress, built by the Hospitaller Knights in 1168 BCE, is considered one of their best architectural achievements. It has been partially restored and is now also the best-preserved Crusader castle in Israel. The location was chosen because it overlooked the Jordan River-crossing at Gesher as well as the road from Damascus to Beit She’an and thus to Jerusalem. As would be anticipated, the view from the Observation Point over the Jordan Valley is quite impressive.

This fortress in the eastern Lower Galilee is located on a plateau of basalt volcanic rock, called Ramat Kokhav, at the edge of a steep slope 550 meters above the Jordan Valley. It 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 name of the park. There was an Arab village here from the 18th century, which was conquered by the Golani Brigade.

 

The volcanic rock here is older than that in the Golan. Because of the greater period of erosion, the soil is deeper, making it excellent for agriculture. Most of the basalt building blocks for the castle were made at the time that its moat was carved out. However, the Crusaders also used stones from the ruins of Kochava. A stone with the carved design of a seven-branched menorah was found in the fortress wall and would have been taken from the ruins of its synagogue.

 

The castle was built using a concentric plan, a design used extensively in later Crusader castles. There were thus three levels of defense, and these are readily apparent 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 the search function for "גן לאומי כוכב הירדן."   

Admission: 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 with shade. Make sure to obtain a brochure as it contains a valuable map and guided tour. It is available in English.

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Who were the Hospitallers?

 

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was the most important of the four Crusader states established by the First Crusade in the Middle East and were known collectively as the Outremer. Its capital and most important city was Jerusalem which was captured from the Muslims in 1099 CE.

 

The Crusader fighters were volunteers from Europe 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 these 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 they were therefore 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. Belvoir castle, which was in 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 this castle. This was successfully resisted by its defendants. However, in 1187 Saladin routed the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin in the Lower Galilee and then went on to conquer all the fortresses of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These were now depleted of forces as most of its knights had been either killed or taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. However, the fortresses at Kohav Hayarden, Tzfat and Tyre remained under Crusader control.

 

Saladin was determined to capture 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. Since the Kingdom of Jerusalem no longer existed, the Christians capitulated with the promise of safe passage to Tyre.

 

The ruler of Damascus destroyed the fortress in 1220 to prevent it being used again by Crusaders in later crusades, and this is how the fortress was found in the modern period. However, all the building blocks were there, and it was possible to restore it.  This work is ongoing.

TOURING THE FORTRESS

 

The map and guided tour around the castle described in the brochure are very clear and it is recommended to follow the route indicated. You will take first a fortress path that passes the sculpture park of Yigal Tumarkin and this leads to an Observation Point just before the main gate. Then enter through the main gate and follow the arrows.

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View of the Jordan Valley and Gilead from the Observation Point

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Looking into the Dining Room of the inner fortress.

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A deep moat surrounded the fortress on three sides.