Last week took me to Nahal Kziv with a group of friends. We parked near Moshav Hila, home to the returned soldier, Gilad Shalit and descended to the stream bed. After playing in the clear, cool waters, we walked along the nahal for a long bit enjoying the shade. We came across a confluence of paths – this was our sign to leave the stream bed and start the ascent to the Montfort castle (and the cars waiting beyond it).
As we crossed the nahal to leave it behind, we were met by a large wall. Certain elements seemed Crusader, but I did not remember learning anything about the structure beforehand. Turns out that my intuition was correct – Crusader period.
But let’s take a step back. The Crusaders arrived in Israel in 1099. As part of their compensation for taking part in these campaigns, territory in the Levant was granted to and purchased by Christian European Crusader families. These landholdings were used as residences and farms, and usually made their owners very rich. Once there was wealth, castles were built to store and protect that wealth.
Salahadin, a Moslem Ayubbid emperor, retook the countryside and captured the castles in 1187 in one massive campaign, lasting only a few months.
But the Crusaders were nothing if not tenacious. They came back only 4 years later and were successful in recovering most of their territory (with the notable exception of Jerusalem). The landholders, however, never recovered their former glory and became strapped for cash. At around the same time, the Military Orders were established and were looking for centers for their operations and for their pilgrims. The Hospetallers, the Templars, and the Teutons began purchasing lands that had previously been owned by individual families.
Each order had their own specialty; but all strove to combine a monastic lifestyle with defense of Christian sites and pilgrims. An earlier castle existed in the current-day town of Me’iliya called Castellum Regis. This castle was seat of the Galilean Crusader kingdom dominated by the Franks. It was in the territory of the De Milly family until the
knight, Joscelin III of Courtenay, married into the family and inherited the castle and the surrounding countryside.
In 1220 the entire area was sold to the Teutons who began construction on the Montfort castle in 1226 – leading to the decline of Castellum Regis. The Teutons, who had started in Akko, decided to build in the surrounding countryside a spur castle. It is not known exactly why the location of Montfort, on a mountain spur, not on a major road, not near lush farmland, was chosen for the main castle of the order. It could be that the knights wished to distance themselves from the competing (and sometimes hostile)
Templars and Hospitallers. It could be that they wanted to have a remote location for their archives and treasury. It could be that it was simply built as a lavish retreat for the Grand Master, who, it seems was a permanent resident, much in the sense that Masada was built as a refuge for Herod.
The castle was built with all the normal elements, donjon, moat, watch tower, 3 surrounding walls, and also with some creature comforts such as a waste chute.
The structure below in the Nahal which I happened upon last week is thought to be a guest house and a mill. The streambed of Nahal Kziv forms part of the Sea-to-Sea hiking trail of today. (I hope to hike this trail next summer with some friends/kids.) Most likely, the path also served Crusader pilgrims trying to get from the coastline to the Christian sites in the interior. They would not have wanted to make the arduous climb up to the castle (as my companions and I did last week – all 1200 steps up!). It would have been much more comfortable for them to seek shelter close to the stream.
The fate of Montfort was similar to that of all the other Crusader castles of the Second Crusader kingdom. On the 8th of June, 1271, Baybars lay siege on the outpost. Ten days later after Baybars breached the outermost wall, the parties signed a truce which allowed the Teutonic knights free passage to Akko in exchange for the fortress. The Mamelukes destroyed the castle and pushed remnants into Nahal Kziv. It is thought that approximately two-thirds of the stones from the complex are now in the Mediterranean.
After hiking for 7 hours, we returned to our cars, tired, sweaty and hungry, with a bit more of Eretz Yisrael under our feet and in our souls.