Massive Ceremonial Hall Discovered Under Crusader Castle in Northern Israel

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The Gothic Hall that once stood above the barrel-vaulted basement
The unexpected and newly unearthed Gothic Hall that once stood above the barrel-vaulted basement at Montfort CastleCredit: Prof. Adrian Boas
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The German crusaders who built Montfort Castle lived in comparative luxury for a monastic-based brotherhood, with board games and sumptuous dining, archaeologists revealed in 2017. Now renewed exploration of the massive stone edifice in the northern Galilee, carried out by Prof. Adrian Boas, has found a previously unknown, massive Gothic hall decorated with grisaille-decorated stained glass that was possibly used by the Teutonic Order's Grand Chapter (the governing body of the Teutonic knights) for ceremonial meetings.

The unexpected and newly unearthed Gothic Hall that once stood above the barrel-vaulted basement at Montfort CastleCredit: Prof. Adrian Boas

"This is further evidence of the wealth and the luxury of the Teutonic Order that resided in this isolated castle on the outskirts of Christianity," said Boas, president of the Society for the Study of the Crusaders and the Latin East.

Floor of the cistern and lower parts of the Gothic hall. Note the fine, thick hydraulic plasterCredit: Adrian Boas

The original founders of the Teutonic Order were German knights from Lübeck and Bremen who had joined the Crusader army that the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa put together in 1188 for the Third Crusade, which he pursued in alliance with the French under King Philippe Auguste, and the English under King Richard the Lionheart.

Barbarossa himself drowned in today's Turkey, after which most of his army dispersed. The two groups of German knights forged on and joined the forces of Guy of Lusignan in besieging Acre in 1190-91 C.E.

The knights had sworn an oath to establish hospitals and protect pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. In 1190 or the following year, during Richard the Lionheart's siege of Acre, they set up a field hospital using sails from ships to make tents.

Fallen masonry of the Gothic hall: half-octagonal pier section, decorated cornice, tas-de-charge with vault ribsCredit: Adrian Boas

When the Crusader army took the city on July 12, 1191, the lionhearted one rewarded them with land in Acre’s east, not far from were their camp had been, for the establishment of a permanent hospital and headquarters.

Some 800 years later, the Teutonic Orders Headquarters was unearthed by Boas and George Philipp Meloni of Deutsche Ordern (the continuation of the Teutonic Order). In 1198 they were officially elevated to a military order of monastic knights, and adopted the rule and clothing of the Templars and Hospitallers.

Within a few years, however, Teutonic Order found itself under pressure from the Templars and the Hospitallers in Acre, who had designs of taking it over. The Hospitallers for one felt they had special claims, having been charge of the German hospital in Jerusalem in the previous century.

That may explain why they built Montfort so far from Acre, in a place where it protected exactly nothing. It was nestled within higher surrounding hills, enabling the Teutonic Order's knights to conduct their daily life out of sight and out of mind of the Templars and the Hospitallers.

Montfort became the Teutonic knight order's principal castle and showpiece in the Holy Land. It was built on land that the order purchased in the 1220s, but construction only commenced in 1227 or 1228.

Finding the Gothic Hall

Excavations at Montfort have been carried out by the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa since 2011. At the castle's western end, the team excavated in a three-storey structure which had cellars at the lowest level, a Great Hall in the middle level and on the top level, highly decorated, luxurious domestic apartments featuring vaulted rooms, glided wood, stained glass and richly painted walls. It possibly served as residence of the Hochmeister (Grand Master), who was the Supreme Commander of the Teutonic Order.

Then, during further exploration of the castle's western end, the archaeologists noticed, above a cistern, the outline of a barrel vault extending from the wall about 8 meters high.

“We knew there was a structure extending out here but did not suspect it was a major building," Boas said. "But when we excavated beyond it, we found in the debris evidence of a two-storey building with Gothic architecture and grisaille-decorated stained glass, obviously highly beautiful and decorated."

The Great Hall at the Teutonic Order's Galilee stronghold, Montfort Castle: Built to replace the smaller Gothic Hall discovered in 2018.Credit: Prof. Adrian Boas
Montfort Castle, which Teutonic crusaders built on top of a hill, but protecting nothing. It was destroyed in 1271 by the Mamluk leader Sultan Baibars.Credit: Adrian Boas

They turned out to have discovered a Gothic hall with walls were about two meters thick that once stood above the barrel-vaulted basement and cistern. It was approximately half the size of the Great Hall, with two rib-vaulted bays supported by half-octagonal columns in the middle of its north and south walls. It had a plastered floor and elaborate grisaille-decorated stained glass windows. 

The discovery further underscores the order's material wealth. In fact the entire upper level of the castle stands out among Crusader Castles in the Holy Land, featuring lavish Gothic architecture on par with or finer than other major crusader castles, Boas explains.

Stained glass from the Grand Master's apartments, Montfort Castle.Credit: Adian Boas

However, all good things come to an end. In 1271 the castle fell to the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baibars.

Although Baibars had something of a brutal reputation, after conquering Monfort, he spared its garrison. The knights were escorted safely back to Acre, with their archive and treasury. Shortly after, however, the sultan had the castle torn down.

Horseshoes from the stables, Montfort Castle.Credit: Adrian Boas

The newly discovered Gothic Hall predates the castles Great Hall, which had a  similar architectural layout, but is half its size.

“It may have been the original ceremonial hall, and as money poured into the order they built the grander Great Hall,” Boas suggests.

The ceremonial hall would have been used for official business and as a reception hall for guests and for banqueting. It may also have served as a chapter house where the brothers in the castle assembled with the priests, held meetings and lessons, and discussed issues relating to the monastic life in the castle.

The Grand Master gets expelled

The hall could also have been used for the Grand Chapter, which was a worldwide meeting of the Teutonic Order in the Holy Land. 

Barbarossa in bronze, dated to about 1160Credit: Montecappio

Although we know little of what actually took place in the Grand Chapter, we know that it convened several times. A memorable such Grand Chapter took place in 1244: the Grand Master was removed from office and expelled from the order.

Gerhard von Malberg had served as Grand Master from 1240 or 1241 until his expulsion on July 7, 1244. No record survives of why, though possibly it involved discord over values and finances. The knights' core mission was to protect and care for pilgrims on route to Jerusalem, not to live like Oriental kings. Alternatively, his disgracing may have been because he was too close to papal policy at a time of rift between the Papacy and the Order, Boas explains. 

In any case, von Malberg's removal from office was effected at the Grand chapter held at Montfort; he later joined the Knights Templar in Acre. Back at Montfort, a new Grand Master, Heinrich von Hehenlohe was elected in his place. 

Water channel passing through the thickness of the Gothic Hall wall.Credit: Adrian Boas

By 1271, Crusader rule over the Holy Land was drawing to an end. Much of the coast had been taken by Sultan Baibars, and the Crusaders no longer controlled most of the interior.

"Montfort was increasingly becoming an isolated island in Muslim territory," says Boas and adds, "There was not really any point for the Teutonic garrison to remain, since there seem to have been no prospect of anyone coming to save them." The Crusades were, by then, past their peak. 

When the castle fell on the 23rd of June 1271, after a mere 15 days' siege, Baibars personally escorted the brothers to Acre, then returned, and in keeping with his scorched-earth policy, destroyed the castle. He finished destroying it on the 4th of July. The castle was then abandoned and, left in glorious isolation, was never reoccupied.

The Order's continued existence in the Holy Land would be short-lived.

Before Acre fell into the hands of the Mamluk Sultan in 1291, the Grand Master withdrew to Venice along with the archive and treasure, from where he continued to direct the crusade against the Muslims. Only in 1309 did he abandon the war in the East and move to Prussia, bolstering the Teutonic kingdom in Europe. As the order grew in size and importance, estates and castles such as Ordensburg Marienburg was built near the town of Malbork in Poland. Malbork replaced Montfort as the principal castle of the Teutonic Order and is the largest castle measured by land area in the world.