July 3, 1187 was a scorching midsummer day at the Horns of Hattin, on the plateau above Tiberias. The Arab leader Saladin outwitted and crushed a parched and ill-led Crusader army, and the 88-year-long Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem began disintegrating almost overnight. Exactly three months later, Saladin entered the Holy City of Jerusalem in triumph. By the end of the year it was all over, and the Crusaders abandoned the Holy Land with their tail between their legs.
Only one powerful castle remained to fight a defiant rearguard action: Belvoir – “beautiful view” – on a ridge 500 meters (1,600 feet) above the Jordan Valley.
The Knights Hospitallers, one of the Crusader orders of “fighting monks” (the Templars were another) had bought the site from a French nobleman in 1168 and constructed one of the dominant castles in the kingdom, designed to guard the Holy Land against invasion from the east.
Belvoir’s building stones and bedrock foundations are basalt, the region’s immensely hard volcanic rock: undermining the battlements was virtually impossible. The outer walls of the castle form a pentagon, with the main defensive towers at each of its four corners, a massive one at the eastern point facing the steep slope and the valley below, and smaller ones midway along each wall.
The fortress was protected by a dry moat excavated out of the bedrock, 20m (65 ft.) wide and 12m (39 ft.) deep, and crossed by a drawbridge (now a permanent pedestrian bridge) on the west.
The ruined north-western and south-western corner towers still have parts of the steep stairwell leading down to postern gates, used for secret access to and from the castle, or for sudden attacks on besieging enemy soldiers in the moat.
Ignore the directional arrows. The best route to take is the wide gravel path directly from the parking lot to the overlook, keeping the sculpture park on your right and the castle on your left. What awaits you is a stunning view of the quilted farms in the valley, the biblical Gilead range (now Jordan) to the east, and the edge of Lake Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee, way off to the north (your left).
The straight line that joins the lake, the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea is part of the approximately 6,000 km-long (3,700-mile) Great Syrian-African Rift, the world’s longest open fault.
The Arabic name for the site is Kaukab al-Hawa, the “Star of the Wind,” because of the strong breezes that often sweep the plateau. In Hebrew it is known as Kochav Hayarden, the “Star of the Jordan,” recalling the ancient Jewish town of Kochav nearby.
Both names are consistent with the description of the site by a medieval Arab writer. Belvoir, he wrote, is “set amidst the stars like an eagle’s nest and abode of the moon.”
Left, across the moat, steps enter the castle through a massive gate and a corridor dominated by shooting niches above your head. The corridor doubles back on itself before entering the central courtyard through another gate.
Kids usually get a charge out of “attacking” the castle this way – but keep smaller children close to you.
In the center of the courtyard is another fortified square – a fort within the fortress, so to speak. Within it are the essential elements of barracks life: sleeping halls, a kitchen, a cistern for collecting run-off rainwater, and a hint (fine-cut white stones) of what might have been an upper-floor chapel.
Belvoir endured a long siege following the disaster at the Horns of Hattin; but the knights took advantage of the occasional hiatus to replenish their supplies by attacking and plundering passing Muslim caravans. After 18 months, Saladin’s men had only managed to undermine the large eastern tower. The Hospitallers, on the other hand, were isolated and in despair; further resistance seemed futile. They parlayed with Saladin: surrender in return for safe passage out of the country. He honored the bargain, and with characteristic chivalry allowed them to ride to the coast with flags proudly unfurled in recognition of their heroic defense.
Rte. 717 (road climbs 5 kms), off Route 90, 12 km north of Beit She’an
Open Apr.-Sep. 8am-5pm (Fri. and holiday eve 8-4), Oct.-Mar. 8am-4pm (Fri. and holiday eve 8-3)