Israel's Good Name

Ashdod Sea Fortress

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 16, 2020 at 12:09 PM

A month or so ago I went on a third Crusader ruins trip with my friend and fellow Medievalist, Avner Touitou. After visiting Khirbet Luza and other sites in the Jerusalem area in December, and then Le Destroit and other central coastal sites in June, it was time to visit the southern coastal site of the Ashdod Sea Fortress, also known as the Ashdod-Yam Fortress. Avner picked me up in the morning and we drove straight down to Ashdod, eager to see this fascinating coastal castle right on the sandy beach. I was surprised at myself that I had never gone to explore this most intriguing site, having somehow mistaken it with the Yavne Yam Fortress which I did indeed explore back in March of 2018. As such, it was high time to visit this Ashdodian fortress, and our timing was impeccable.

Ashdod Sea Fortress from above (photo Ashdod Municipality)

Little did we know but when we arrived on-site there was a little surprise awaiting us. This ancient fortress, wind-whipped and swept over by centuries of drifting sand, had undergone a facelift in recent months. In fact, the newly fixed-up site was reopened to the public a mere month prior to our visit, and looks very well taken care of. While I was rather looking forward to exploring the charming natural-looking ruins with the deep sand drifts, it was also pleasing to be able to examine the ruins in their new state of organised upkeep, harkening to the days of old when the castle was in operation.

Within the fortress

Spraying on some much-needed sunscreen, Avner and I approached the newly fenced-in site and gained entrance. We began our exploration of the site via modern steps over the low northern wall – the original main entrances facing both east and west out to sea. This impressive beachfront property was first constructed as Minat al-Qala in the Early Arab period, sometime around the end of the 600s, on the foundations of Byzantine ruins. Its purpose was to be a part of a string of coastal fortresses aimed to ward off a Byzantine invasion-by-sea and seemingly served its masters well.

Seeking shade in a vaulted chambre

Following a devastating earthquake in 1033, the destroyed fortress was abandoned and only resettled in the Crusader period. Refortifying the castle in 1153, the Crusaders renamed it Castellum Beroart or Castrum Beroardi. Oddly enough, information about this fortress is extremely hard to come by, and despite scouring numerous books as well as the usual online database searches, I still know very little. Apparently the ruined Arab castle was gifted to a Frankish nobleman by the name of Beroart, although he himself isn’t mentioned in any surviving records from the time. According to researcher Joshua Prawer, as published in 1958, the castle belonged to the “Duchy of Ashkelon” (or Ascalon) and was situated on the border with Yavne, or Ibelin. While this certainly is a fun fact, I wish there was more historical information available about the enigmatic fortress.

Three vastly different building materials

What naturally seized my attention were the vaulted rooms on the eastern side – a shape that serves as a lovely reminder of Gothic architecture. A closer look at the weather-worn building blocks, even within the chambres, revealed such a diverse variety of material quality. Three random ashlars, divided by mere mortar, were so vastly different from one another: the first looked like countless bivalve shells pressed together, sandy adhesives somehow keeping it all together; the second was shell-free, but a very porous, sponge-like eroded block of sandstone; the third was a host of tiny shell fragments, held together by sandy material to form a relatively uniform-looking block, albeit textured wildly. Needless to say, this ashlar inspection kept us greatly entertained for a brief period of time.

The mosque ruins within the fortress

Wandering around the fortress, we took note of several of the architectural features, including the bathhouse and the mosque, which featured a mihrab and covered courtyard. Yellow-blossomed evening primrose decorated the old mihrab floor, a common wildflower on the coast. Next, we found the narrow stone staircase which took us up to the modern observation platform. What pleased me greatly was the realisation that there was another staircase mirroring our own – in fact, the main structure layout was nearly symmetrical and therefore righteously pleasing to the critical eye.

Looking down at the encroaching waves

Up top, looking out over the castle floor, we imagined what it would be like to live there back in Crusader times, keeping a watchful eye out for seagoing vessels. The gentle waves crashed on the surf just tens of metres away from the fortress’ front door, which made us wonder what the sea level was back then – something that was actually researched on-site back in 2012-13 (see HERE). There was something downright magical about the correlation between castle and sea that I had never yet felt; whereas many fortifications are built on the coast, almost all are building atop natural ridges, such as Arsuf, or pre-existing city foundations, such as Akko.

The northwest corner

Spellbound as we may have been, the sun’s unforgiving rays forbade us from standing much longer on the shadeless platform and seeking refuge became an utmost importance. We trotted back down the stone stairs to the welcoming shade below and enjoyed reading about the castle’s structure, a symetrical 40×60 metre rectangle crowned with eight towers. We explored the exterior eastern wall and were pleased to see fine masonry that has suffered far less from the ravages of the coastal winds. Examining the craftsmanship of Crusader ashlars is always a joyous pastime, especially when cryptic mason’s marks can be found. Unfortunately, perhaps due to weathering, we were to find no such marking on any of the hewn sandstone ashlars.

Avner inspecting the golden arches

Our exterior walk brought us around to the seaside front of the castle, where we gladly re-entered the charming building. We finished up our little tour with closer looks at the wells and drainage pipes, as well as a handful of marble columns resting on their sides. There were some structures that were unidentifiable and an area that is believed to be the dining hall. Feeling like we saw all that we could, we exited via the northern wall and wandered into the nearby trees to change into bathing suits.

Evening primrose along the eastern wall

With the cool sea waves crashing so tantalisingly close we had no option but to enter the waters, jellyfish be damned. Sure enough, just like our last trip, the sea was full of jellied bodies with dangling stingers trawling the moving waters around them. However, there was one quite noticeable difference: whereas last time they were nomad jellyfish, this time there were two other species taking the limelight. The gaudier of the two was the barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo), with its strikingly blue body and mediocre stinging capabilities, and the other was the floating bell jellyfish (Phyllorhiza punctata), a drab brown with little white dots and a weak stinger. Even though these species have less potent stingers, there were still some nomad jellyfish in the water, and consequently we were stung, although we do not know by which of the three.

A beached barrel jellyfish

A particularly amusing jellyfish episode occurred once we had left the jellied waters and were in the process of air-drying. Good Mr Touitou was in the midst of talking when suddenly he felt something unusually solid in his shorts’ left pocket. He reached in and pulled out the most unexplainable object – a chunk of jellyfish flesh, seemingly of the nomad variety. I laughed heartily at the unusual site yet, unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture.

Indian food galore!

We headed back to his car and decided that it was time to eat lunch. He had intentions of finding a brewery but, as we soon found out, open breweries can be hard to find sometimes. We settled on scouring Ashdod for an interesting eatery and chanced upon Namaste, an authentic Indian restaurant located inside the whimsical Blue Castle on the boardwalk. Neither of us had ever been to an Indian restaurant so it was an interesting experience for us both. I particularly enjoyed eaten bites of tender skewered chicken with the delicious naan bread, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Avner approves of Indian-made Kingfisher beer

Satisfied with our delicious ethnic lunch, we got back into his car and decided to drive over to the Yavne Yam fortress at Palmachim Beach for a quick gander. However, the parking fare was rather steep especially considering the fact that we only wanted to spend a few minutes there so we left feeling dejected. There wasn’t any other Crusader site in the area that came to mind so we figured we’d bring the thus-successful trip to an end. A quick attempt to visit the nearby Ariel Sharon Park, a repurposed garbage dump, proved a failure as the guard insisted that they had closed for the day a mere eighteen minutes prior to our arrival. Feeling just a tinge more dejected, we culminated our excursion with intentions to plan another trip soon, which we did with great gusto.

  1. Thank you for this tour!
    Long years ago I got off the bus in Ashdod and loved the place. If I ever get back, I hope to ask around for Namaste and order a Kingfisher beer with chicken and naan bread.

  2. Thanks for another great post. I stayed at Ashdod last August and had the chance to explore the castle. From your photos it seems to have been “tidied-up” a bit in the last 12 months. Is it undergoing some work?

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