This magnificent fortress guarded the Mediterranean coast in splendid isolation 1,000 years ago. Located about 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, just over the rise at the end of the mansion-lined streets of Herzliya Pituah, the Apollonia National Park is anything but isolated today. But its proximity to town makes it the perfect afternoon adventure.
Walking along the Sea Path to the fortress (suitable for wheelchairs and strollers), through beds of purple and white everlasting flowers interspersed with cheery daubs of yellow evening primrose, it’s hard to imagine that in the spring of 1265, Crusader defenders of the castle endured a doomed 40-day siege at the hands of the Mamluk Sultan Beybars.
Archaeologists have uncovered mute evidence of those days, such as two glass goblets, gilded with enamel in delicate floral patterns, found unceremoniously tossed in a refuse pit. Perhaps, according to Prof. Oren Tal, who excavated the site for Tel Aviv University, even the lord of the manor considered such luxury items unseemly given the dire circumstances. When the Crusaders realized the sultan had them over the proverbial barrel and the wine had run out (no doubt along with water and food), the Crusaders negotiated their surrender on the condition they be allowed to leave freely. But when the gates were opened, Beybars took the defenders prisoner, forced them to demolish the fortress with their own hands, and burned the rest to the ground.
Quite a dark tale, you might say, for a sunny afternoon’s walk. The Crusaders are commemorated at the site with life-sized, cardboard figures brightly painted like they’ve never seen a moment’s distress, their arms raised in invitation. Some of the 2,700 ballista balls (the ancient version of cannon balls) shot over the moat and into the castle by the Mamluks, are also on display, along with the site’s history.
If you visit in July or August, ask the Israel Nature and Parks Authority about their series of late afternoon concerts on Fridays. Then stay to catch the fiery sunset over the Mediterranean, romantically framed by the fortress’ Gothic arched gateway that have defied the ravages of time and war.
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