Israel's Good Name

Qaqun

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 24, 2021 at 2:41 PM

In the beginning of June I was fortunate to embark on yet another adventure with my friend Avner Touitou, fellow Medievalist and MA student at BIU. Following our theme of visiting lesser-known Crusader sites, such as Khirbet Luza, Ashdod Sea Fortress, Le Destroit and others, this trip focused on the old Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Yet, after Avner picked me up from a pre-designated junction, we had a few places to visit before we made our way to the ruined castle.

Qaqun fortress

Qaqun fortress

Our first destination was Nachal Alexander, which I already visited in 2018 and 2019, but this was Avner’s first time. We took a temporarily redirected route along the Israel National Trail from the mouth of the stream towards Khirbet Samara, a house built in the end of the 19th century by the Samara family of Tulkarem in order to oversee their watermelon fields in the nearby land. From there we continued on to Mikhmoret, a coastal moshav, where we enjoyed the warm waters of the Mediterranean. From there we headed to get lunch at the chic Haoeh Bacafe café, in Kfar Haroeh, a moshav named after the late Rabbi Kook of religious-Zionist fame.

Having a bit of lunch

Having a bit of lunch (photo Avner Touitou)

After some artisanal pizza and iced coffee with ice cream we gathered ourselves up and made our way to the star destination of the day, the Crusader ruins of Qaqun. Upon parking, we made note of a large war memorial dedicated to the 1948 battle for Qaqun. The Alexandroni Brigade attacked, conquered and then held off a small army of approximately 200 local Arab troops, as well as Iraqi tanks and infantry. It was a bloody battle; it was the greatest Iraqi loss in the war, and sixteen Israeli soldiers were killed as well. We read the story as inscribed on the memorial stone, paid our respects and then began our ascent of the fortress-crowned hill.

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The Battle for Qaqun monument

The first structure we came across was what is believed to have been a mosque, a two-story stone building which was built where a church once stood. Inside, we found a nice square room complete with a mihrab, a prayer niche in the wall facing Mecca, and three smaller niches of unknown purposes. A fruit bat skeleton and a lone grasshopper – which posed beautifully for me in the dark room – were the only other life forms of interest within the structure. With the main attraction up ahead, we climbed out of the mosque ruins and made our way to the fortress just a few dozen metres away, passing a buzzing beehive tucked into a recess in the ashlar wall.

Peering into the church/mosque

Peering into the church/mosque

Aided by the excellent, if brief, overview of the fortress from Pringle’s fantastic handbook entitled Secular Buildings in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, we digested the relatively brief history of Qaqun. While remains from earlier periods have been found on-site, the Crusader fortress was first mentioned in 1123, and then referenced again in 1253 as being controlled by the lord of Caesarea. Just twelve years later it was conquered and refortified by Baibars, of Mamluk fame.

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A calm grasshopper within the ruined church/mosque

A subsequent attempt to recapture it by King Hugh of Cyprus and Prince Edward of England failed, and the fortress remained in Mamluk hands, becoming a regional headquarters to replace the role of nearby Caesarea. The exceptional and trustworthy BibleWalks website shed more light on the later history, stating that Qaqun was the site of a desperate battle between the defending Ottomans and the French military expedition under Napoleon in 1799, which resulted in a French victory. The fortress saw violence and destruction again in 1834 when a local uprising was quelled by the Egyptian Governor Ibrahim Pasha.

Fine Crusader masonry

Fine Crusader masonry

Most recently, the site was surveyed in 1983 by the aforementioned Pringle, and then, in 2007, the Israel Antiquities Authority (or, IAA) launched a conservation project to clean up and somewhat reconstruct the fallen ruins. Naturally, Avner and I fantasized about excavating the fortress ourselves, and we discussed where we would start and what we thought we might find where. But first, before we entered the impressive stone structure, on a wood platform that overlooked the green fields to the east, there was another sign about the 1948 battle with a more in-depth look at the fallen Israeli soldiers.

Remains of the fortress' outer walls

Remains of the fortress’ outer walls

Turning to the ruins, we entered the fortress via a narrow opening in the thick stone walls. Within, we found an overgrown “secret garden” scenario, where the ruins themselves were often hard to see. We scoured the inner chambers, and wondered out loud what lies buried deep below the surface buildup. The two-story interior had been reduced to one uneven layer, but the tops of the arched rooms below still showed, offering glimpses to hidden and long-forgotten chambers filled with decades, and even centuries, of dirt.

Within the ruined fortress

Within the ruined fortress

One notable addition to the sturdy stone construction was a ceramic pipe connecting between the two floors. According to BibleWalks, this pipe served as an archaic telephone of sorts – providing a way for people within the fortress to communicate with each other in an easier, more efficient way. I wonder if the ceramic pipes in Montfort Castle, another Crusader ruin, were installed for the same purpose. At any rate, we continued on through the interior and exited via a small staircase that took us to the outside, this time at the north side of the building. We found that the entire western side of the fortress – a series of large vaulted rooms – was a relatively inaccessible mess of displaced stone blocks and more overgrown vegetation.

The western side of the fortress

The western side of the fortress

With that our tour of Qaqun was essentially over, so we headed back down the hill to Avner’s parked car. Scouting the area around us, we briefly contemplated making a quick detour to check out the lone standing Crusader fortress wall at Khirbet Bergth (or, Bourgata), but decided not to due to the developing traffic on the main roads. So, we made our way back down to our respective homes, bringing an end to yet another successful Crusader-themed adventure with Avner Touitou.

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