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Belvoir Fortress at Kochav Hayarden National Park

The Crusaders certainly knew how to build castles. Belvoir Fortress 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 now the best-preserved Crusader castle in Israel. The Crusaders chose this location because it overlooks the Jordan River-crossing at Gesher, plus the road from Damascus to Beit She’an and thus to Jerusalem. The view from the Observation Point over the Jordan Valley is extremely impressive.

This fortress was built on the edge of a plateau of basalt volcanic rock 550 meter above the Jordan Valley, which is known as Ramat Kochav. This area was once part of the tribal inheritance of Issachar, and Jewish settlement here dates as far back as the ancient Israelite period. There was a Jewish village during Mishnaic and Talmudic times known as Kochava. An Arab village from the 18th century was conquered by the Golani Brigade during the 1948 War of Independence.


The volcanic rock here is older than that of the Golan Heights, and because of the greater time for erosion, the soil is deeper, making it excellent for agriculture.


The castle was built using a concentric design, a plan used extensively in later Crusader castles. Thus, there were three levels of defense, and these are readily apparent when walking through the castle. First was a moat that encircled the fortress on three sides other than its steep eastern aspect. Interior to this was a fortified rectangle, whose outer walls had square towers at each corner plus on each side. Interior to this was a square with corner towers and a tower on its western wall. This inner square had two stories and contained the living quarters of the knights.


Most of the basalt building blocks for the castle were quarried when its moat was carved out. 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 borrowed from the ruins of its synagogue.

Directions: Enter “Kochav Hayarden” into Waze and click on "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 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. The site closes one hour earlier in the winter. A store sells drinks and snacks. There are restrooms. There is a large shaded area with picnic benches. Be sure to obtain a brochure, also available in English that has a map and describes a tour. There is an admission charge. Their phone number is 04 658-1766. This is their website.

Public transport: There is no convenient public transport.


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Who were the Hospitallers?


The Kingdom of Jerusalem was the most important of the four Crusader states established in the Middle East during the First Crusade. They 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 the Crusaders soon appreciated that more professional and permanent forces were needed to maintain control of their kingdoms. This task was undertaken 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, while remaining in the Crusader kingdoms to fight and do good deeds. They were formidable forces and they were used to defend the most important fortresses and passes. On the other hand, they owed allegiance to no one but themselves.


The Crusaders were able to maintain control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for just under 90 years. Belvoir castle, which was in the north-east of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, saw no action for 12 years. In the latter part of the 12th century, the Kurdish warrior Salah a-Din, more commonly known 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 depleted of forces, as most of their knights had been either killed or taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. Nevertheless, the fortresses at Kochav Hayarden, Safed 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 have had to penetrate the inner fortress. By now, 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 was the state in which it was found in the modern period. However, all its building blocks were still present and its structure could be restored. This work is still ongoing.


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

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