Israel's Good Name

Beit Guvrin: Crusader Castle

In Israel, Judea on September 24, 2017 at 6:20 AM

Whilst participating in Hebrew University’s excavation of Horvat Midras in early August, I took a short trip to the Crusader fortress that I had missed in my previous trips to Beit Guvrin. Since I was staying at the nearby Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, I did not have far to go and set out on my excursion in the late afternoon of my second dig day. On my way out of the kibbutz I stopped to examine the display of ancient millstones and columns that adorn the entrance and then made my merry way to the main road.

Beit Guvrin’s Crusader ruins

Seeing the alluring ruins on the right of me, I looked despairingly at the fence barring my way and walked along Road 35 until I saw a place to slip in. Because the road divides this part of Beit Guvrin from the more expansive national park that includes Tel Maresha, this part has no entry fees. As I entered, I noticed that the Roman amphitheatre was decorated for a concert that evening, and two young Arab men were standing watch. They hollered at me and a curious discourse followed in which I was threatened with my life and then allowed entry–an interesting episode, to say the least. Passing the amphitheatre, which I had already visited twice, I made my way towards the complex that awaited my visit for years.

The castle from above

Just to give a brief overview of this part of Beit Guvrin: I was visiting the Roman and Crusader ruins which include a bathhouse, a fortress, and even the remnants of a mosque from the Muslim period. Sometime around the year 200 CE the Romans gave a Greek name to the city, calling it Eleutheropolis (meaning “City of Free Men”). Later, when the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, they built the Bethgibelin castle atop Roman ruins. The church, built on the south side of the fortress, was converted into a mosque when the Mamluks overthrew the Christian rule in the 1200s.

Regal banners

First passing a small agricultural installation I found myself at the columned and vaulted entrance to the fortress area, the aforementioned church/mosque. Standing beneath the tall vaults I noticed the mihrab (Muslim prayer niche) in the southern wall and gazed upwards to admire the Gothic architecture that the Crusaders introduced to the Holy Land.

Looking up at the Gothic construction

Spotting a narrow staircase built into the fortifications, I made my way up to the roof of the ruined fortress where I had a great lookout over the site. When I had my fill of sweeping vistas I returned to ground level, entering the fortress. Because the site is still being excavated and restored, I basically roamed around freely, examining and photographing as I saw fit. One interesting feature that caught my eye was an etched version of the game Nine Men’s Morris, which has been popular since before Roman times. After very briefly researching this particular specimen, it appears as though this game was scratched into the stone by individuals of the Crusader inclination. I find this glimpse into the past to be very interesting.

Nine Men’s Morris

I noted the clay piping, reminding me of Montfort Castle up near my home in the Galilee, as well as many stone creations that I have yet to learn to identify. I circled the inside of the ruined castle, and wondered what a particular gap in the construction was, a veritable hole in the ground. I naturally assumed it was a water reservoir, as is common with fortifications. But I soon found that I was wrong, as there were stairs leading down to a Roman bathhouse. Within its dark, vaulted chambres I found my answer, and gazed up at the sunlight streaming in through the very hole I questioned. Illuminating my path with my cellphone’s flashlight I toured the underground ruins, having a brief run-in with a startled pigeon.

Section of the bathhouse

Leaving the bathhouse, I exited the castle and stumbled into the workplace of the current excavation. I found crates and crates of interesting pottery, and, poking around a wee bit, got myself excited at the possibilities of discovery, for I hope one day to uncover some nifty Crusader finds. With the sun sinking into the horizon, I returned to the path from which I came walking alongside the moat, and exited the park with a wave goodbye to the men-at-watch still camped out at the amphitheatre.

A happy explorer

Before returning to the kibbutz I nipped across the road and explored a long stone building mostly overgrown with vegetation. Inside I found a singular, tunnel-like room with a small mihrab and a lonely minbar (stepped pulpit). I read that this building was later used to store cotton for feeding livestock, but today it’s surely empty, save a mountain of guano in one corner. At last I retraced my steps back to the kibbutz and headed straight for dinner in the delightful blue-framed stone building. My short excursion was over but I had yet another day of adventurous digging at Horvat Midras.

  1. That Gothic vault is fascinating, how it holds up despite transitioning upwards from brick to rubble. Any thoughts on the workforce that built crusader castles? Barely a thousand fighting men had an engineering and a human resources/hiring departments?

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