There are few things Israelis (both native-born and immigrants) love more than a tiyuul (TEE-ool), a day-trip, tour or hike. We had hiked up to Montfort Castle, six miles south of the Lebanese border, twice before – from different angles and with different tour-guide friends. Each time we got a different view of the majestic ruins of this Crusader fortress – and each time we got a different story. Each story was fascinating and mysterious, full of romance and military moves. And each had elements of historical truth and fact; but all three stories varied wildly.
How does one piece together truth from ruined antiquities? Each person telling the stories of the past has his or her own bias and own historical interests and specialties. Add to that a host of unsolved murders, ghost stories and tales of hauntings that have crept into the retellings, and you have quite the mix to sort out. Such is the case with Montfort Castle. The first time we made the hike was four years ago, with Shabtai, an Israeli who loved history and loved a good yarn. It was a beautiful spring day, in the times before COVID, when the trails were jam-packed with hikers of all ages. Those intrepid Israelis: babies and musical instruments on their backs, navigating the steep mountain trails like the Israeli deer one can see on the cliffs.
Shabtai had told us about this Crusader Fortress, one of several built during the 12th century by the Christian conquerors of the Holy Land – Christians bent on establishing an enduring presence in Terra Sancta. These Europeans traveled to Israel – some for religious pilgrimage; some for adventure, fame and fortune; some for conquest – to rid the land of infidels, Muslim and Jew alike; some to set up missions and colonize the area for the Church. On a steep ridgeline in the center of a wadi overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, eight miles northeast of the ancient Akko port, these French Crusader knights decided to build a fortress. It was hidden from plain view, but afforded excellent views from all directions. It was the perfect and most strategic spot for a military installation. And because it was so hidden it was the perfect location to store hidden treasure – everything from Biblical antiquities from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (think of the movies, National Treasure or Indiana Jones) to plunders of gold and silver artifacts from the Muslim sheiks to religious relics of various saints. It was all stored and buried there or in caves in close proximity to the fortress. I remember the tale he told of a handsome Christian knight who fell in love with a local Galilean Jewish girl, both young and beautiful. It went against religious practices for either of them to marry each other. As the story goes, they had a secret rendezvous at the castle on a moonlit night and fling themselves over the parapet into the cavernous wadi below rather than to live apart. Their ghosts still linger as mists on the walls on nights with a full moon.
Our friend, Shabtai, is a grand story teller. We could listen to him all day, but have learned to take much of what he says with a few grains of salt. About 45% is actual historical fact, the rest….well, it makes us want to research the true histories of the land. I’ve learned to check my old history books (from the days of homeschooling) and look for first-hand documentation, if it can be found. The histories of Josephus Flavius, the Scriptures – a working knowledge of both Tanach and New Testament are important in this land; diaries and letters from ancient Romans, Jewish rabbis and European Crusaders; old maps; and speaking with archaeologists and historians are all part of putting together the puzzle pieces.
The next time, we hiked up the wadi following the Katziv Stream. It was an early autumn hike, and the stream bed had long dried up. Avigail, our guide for this one, gave us a history lesson that seemed much more factual than our first introduction. Archaelogical excavations had revealed this was once the site of an ancient Roman fortress, as coins and Roman spear tips had been found in situ. After the Romans, the Muslim invasions of Israel swept down from the North and the East in the 700s-800s. French Crusaders first conquered the Holy Land from the Islamists in 1099. As a reward, large swaths of Israel, were gifted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe to royal families. This whole northern area was given to the DeMille family of France to settle and farm. They built a castle atop this mountain and planted vines for the cultivation of wine. In the late 1100s, SalahDin, the Kurdish Muslim general, took the land and the castle from the French settlers upon his brutal retaking of the land. Enter the English and French together, who vanquished SalahDin under Richard the Lionheart. These Crusaders resettled the coast of Israel from Jaffa to Caesaria and Akko, their new capital(also known as Acre). The land where the DeMille estate was located was sold to the Knights of the Teutonic Order (Germans).
There was a great rivalry between the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller over Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Akko. Who would have control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holy sites and the strategic sites? The Teutonic Knights were formed as a German military order of the Holy Roman Empire to secure territory and aid pilgrims from Europe traveling to the Holy Land. They gained control of Akko, but moved to the abandoned Montfort Estate in 1229, fortifying the property with outer and inner walls and guard towers. The Teutonic Knights added a second story as well as magnificent archives and a treasury, renaming it Castel Starkenberg. In 1266, the fortress was overtaken by the Mamaluks (Muslim mercenaries from Egypt who were first enslaved by the Sunnis, but proved to be an excellent asset for their military and engineering prowess). Sultan, Baybars conquered much of the territory of the Northern Galilee, including Montfort. A siege ensued. The Crusaders were forced out and the much of the remote mountain fortress was razed. Fortunately, the Teutonic Knights were able to take the contents of the great library and the most of the treasury with them as they fled back to the Germanic territories in Europe in 1271.
Last week was another beautiful week in the Northwest Galilee. We planned a tiyuul with friends to some of the border villages and to Park Goren, a JNF sponsored park. Goren is gorgeous!!! It reminds me a tiny bit of Yosemite with spectacular views of cliffs and canyons. It’s a favorite place for hikes, picnics and campouts. Fortunately for us, the area was rather deserted and very peaceful. This time, John and I looked over the wadi to the mountain ridge opposite for the most spectacular view of Montfort Castle (see above). People are able to take the steep, almost vertical, steps to the bottom of the wadi (to the Katziv Stream/Nahal Kziv). From there it is an hour or two hike up to the ruins.
This trip found us in the company of an amateur military historian and fascinating story teller. He explained to us that Montfort is the site of one of the greatest military mysteries of all times. The way Avi tells it, during the Second Crusade, the French wanted to establish a hidden and strategic military outpost. As soon as they saw the ridge of the Beautiful Mountain, they knew they had found their spot. It was perfect for defense: an arrow shot right into the wadi below, a rolling stone down the cliff, the high ground easily kept. From Montfort, one could watch for invading armies sweeping down from the North in what is now Lebanon. It was the perfect site for an ambush! They would also have a fairly unobstructed view down the wadi to the coast. It was decided at once to start the massive building project at any and all expense. Slave labor was recruited from both the remaining Jewish population and the Bedouins that lived in the area. Three years spent hewing massive rock and constructing the fortress, many lives lost in the process. It was only during the third year of the great building campaign that the French decided to send their scouts further up the wadi. These Crusaders had been waiting in vain for an imminent attack from the North for all those years but none had come. It didn’t take the scouts long to return. Not four miles to the north, the twisting path of the wadi became a dead end, completely blocked by the mountains, cut off at the pass!
Now why would the French build without first thoroughly scouting out the land in all directions? Who would give the orders and who would procure funds from the Pope and the French monarch? Who would release the fortune required to undertake such an endeavor? Avi says it is one of the unsolved military mysteries of all time. After the tragic discovery, he informed us that it remained a type of resort for retired military generals – that they could finish up their tours of duty with mountain breezes and gorgeous vistas without fear of enemy invasion.
As for us, it was a great tale, but will stick with Avigail’s more factual rendition.
We did learn that with advance permission, you can spend the night camping out at Montfort Castle. It is a popular spot for school trips and summer camps (although not this summer). The stream below is known for its natural beauty as well as a great shady walk for families on hot days. In the spring, the entire hillsides are covered in wildflowers. And there is a stable in the village of Hila which offers horseback rides both to the castle and through the wadi. All in all, it makes for a beautiful day trip – take your pick on the stories.