Belvoir Castle

Belvoir Castle ruins

Belvoir Castle, Israel – other names: Belvoir Fortress, Coquet Castle; Arab: Kawkab al-Hawā, Kaukab el Hawā; Hebrew: Kokhav ha-Yarden, Kôkhov ha-Yardēn, Kokhav Hayarden.

Belvoir Castle History

Belvoir Castle yard

Belvoir Castle is a crusader castle in Israel built by the Knights Hospitaller around 1168 and occupied until 1219.

Some form of castle already occupied the site before 1168, when it was sold to the Hospital of St John. All trace of this early structure, however, seems to have been removed by the Hospitallers, who almost at once began to build there the Belvoir castle.

Belvoir Castle ruins detail

The Hospitallers surrendered to Salah al-Din on 5 Jan 1189, after his troops had broken into the barbican and begun to undermine the castle walls.

Although Salah al-Din considered dismantling the castle, there is no evidence that he did so, and a Muslim garrison and governor seem to have occupied it until 1219 when the castle was finally slighted on the orders of the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus.

The area was again in Frankish hands between 1241 and 1263, but the Hospitallers do not appear to have reoccupied Belvoir. The Arab village of Kawkab al-Hawa was sited in the ruins of the once mighty fortress, but during the war of 1947–1948 the inhabitants fled; between 1963 and 1968 the site was cleared by the Israel Department of Antiquities and the National Parks Authority.

These excavations, directed by Meir Ben-Dov, have revealed that the Crusader castle had a design considerably more advanced than had previously been thought likely for a building of this date.

Belvoir Castle Architecture

Belvoir Castle inner gate

The Belvoir Castle is built mostly from the same black basalt upon which it stands, with limestone employed as freestone as well as for much of the inner and upper parts of the inner ward. It consists of two almost square enceintes, one inside the other, both defended by projecting rectangular towers.

The outer enceinte (100×110 m) is surrounded on three sides by a rock-cut ditch, 20–25 m wide and 12 m deep, from the bottom of which the walls rise on a battered base.

The east side, however, was protected by the natural scarp and by a projecting barbican, roughly 30 m square and probably no more than two stories high, which commanded the otherwise dead ground below and contained the main entrance.

Belvoir Castle detail door

The principal route into the castle led from an outer gate at the foot of the south-eastern tower, up a ramp, and into the barbican, before doubling back and up again to reach an inner gate next to the same corner tower.

The inner gate is 2.35 m wide and was closed by a pair of wing doors, defended above by a slit-machicolation between two pointed arches and from either side by enfilading embrasures.

A secondary gate, more conveniently sited for peacetime use but easily decommissioned in time of war, lay on the west of the castle and was probably reached across a level timber bridge spanning the ditch.

The outer walls would originally have stood some 12–16 m high (or 25 m within the ditch) and 3 m thick, but the destruction has left no more than 3 m standing. From their outer face, at the angles and mid-way along the sides, massive rectangular towers project; the three towers at the southwest contained staircases leading down to narrow posterns concealed in the angles where they met the curtain wall.

The inner face of the wall was lined with a continuous barrel vault, 8 m wide internally, which, besides providing covered accommodation for the personnel, stores, stables, smithies, and other services of the castle’s outer ward, in wartime would have also given protection to those firing from the embrasures in the outer wall and created another tier of defense on the terrace above.

Belvoir Castle detail stones

Enclosed by the outer enceinte, like a castle within a castle, stood the inner ward, some 50 m square with a tower of 10 m square projecting at each corner. The inner ward had two entrances, a small postern on the east and a wider gate on the west, to which was later added a projecting rectangular gate-tower with an outer gate set in its southern flank, forming a bent entrance.

Both gates in the gate tower have slit machicolations above them; but while the outer one is set between two pointed arches, the inner one is placed behind a flat arch with decorative joggled voussoirs of a type probably derived from contemporary Islamic architecture. There is also a postern on the north wall of the gate tower.

In the center of the inner ward, a courtyard of some 22 m square is enclosed by barrel-vaulted ranges. The undercrofts seem to have contained stores, stables, and, on the southeast, a kitchen, while the living area of the knights seems to have been on the floor above, with access by a stone staircase on the south side of the courtyard.

Belvoir Castle ruins detail

On this piano nobile were to be found the chapel above the western gate and probably the dormitory and refectory; but all that remains of these more finely built apartments are some fragments of corbels, capitals, pilasters, and sculpture, including the head of a youth and an unfinished flying angel (both Jerusalem, Rockefeller Mus).

Belvoir occupies a significant place in the history of medieval military architecture.

Before its excavation, there was no physical evidence that the regular ‘concentric’ planning that it exemplifies, which can be derived ultimately from Hellenistic theory and practice, was employed by the Crusaders in the Levant before the 13th century.

Belvoir demonstrates that in the 1170s the Franks of Outremer were already building rectangular concentric castles, anticipating by half a century or more the appearance of such buildings in western Europe.

Belvoir Castle Location

Belvoir is situated about 12 km south of the Sea of Galilee, on the eastern edge of a plateau from where it overlooks the Jordan Valley and the site of what in the 12th century would have been the principal river crossings between the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Muslim neighbors.

Belvoir Castle Map

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