Massive Mamluk Destruction Found at Crusader Castle in Israel

Debris layer discovered at Montfort Castle in the northern Galilee is first evidence of Sultan Baybars' Muslim campaign in 1266, archaeologists say

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Montfort Castle, aerial view
Montfort Castle, aerial viewCredit: Professor Adrian Boas
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

A layer of debris discovered at Montfort Castle in northern Israel is the first solid evidence of the massive destruction caused by a Mamluk siege in 1266, that had been known until now only from medieval sources, says Prof. Adrian Boas of Haifa University.

The debris were found during his ninth season of excavations at the Crusader fortress nestled in the Western Galilee hills.

The German crusaders who built Montfort, a massive stone edifice in the Western Galilee, had lived in comparative luxury for a monastic-based institution, with board games and sumptuous dining, previous excavations found. But in May 1266, the Mamluk leaders Badr al-Din al Aydami and Badr al-Din Baysari attacked, using catapults either built on site or brought to the hillside south of the Teutonic castle.

The German knights managed to withstand that assault and cling on. But this summer’s excavations reveal the full extent of the damage the slave-warriors from Egypt had managed to inflict.

Stone projectiles hurled at the castle caused the apartments of the Teutonic Order’s Grand Master and the vaults of the ceremonial hall below it to collapse. Stone ashlars, wooden beams and stained glass buried in the rubble have now come to light, for the first time in 700 years.

Stacked ashlars facing south with collapse in backgroundCredit: Professor Adrian Boas

Secrets of the knights brotherhood

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 has been excavating the remains of a three-story structure with cellars at the bottom, a Great Hall in the middle and luxurious domestic apartments at the top level. This domicile featured vaulted rooms, what may have been gilded wooden furnishings, stained glass windows, and richly painted walls.

Firewood found in the rubble at MontfortCredit: Prof. Adrian Boas
Vault facing south with large pilaster cornice in foregroundCredit: Professor Adrian Boas

The elaborate trappings indicate that it may have been the residence of the Hochmeister (Grand Master), who was the Supreme Commander of the Teutonic Order.

While examining one of the two basement halls beneath the Great Hall during the 2019 summer excavation season, the archaeologists found that the siege of 1266 damaged the upper stories far more seriously than originally supposed.

Among the finds were stacks of large, finely cut stones that had once comprised the rib segments of the Gothic vaulting from the Great Hall. The stones were apparently carried from the destroyed hall by the German garrison following the siege and stacked in the cellar, probably in the fond hope of reusing them later to repair the damaged building.

That hope was in vain, though: The castle was and destroyed just five years later, in the year 1271, by the Mamluk sultan Baybars.

The vault with stacked ashlars from the collapse: View to the westCredit: Professor Adrian Boas

Among the debris from the ceremonial hall and the residential quarters above it the archaeologists also found large quantities of animal bones, possibly from livestock or carcasses housed in the ruins of the Great Hall after its destruction in 1266. The animals may well have been cooked there too: It appears that when the hall could no longer fulfil a ceremonial function, it was used as a kitchen area.

Monastic order in the service of God

The Teutonic Order had been founded by German knights from Lübeck and Bremen, remnants of an army under the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa that in 1189 participated in the Third Crusade. The German knights allied for the purpose with a French force under King Philippe Auguste, and an English army under King Richard the Lionheart.

Barbarossa himself drowned in a river in Cilicia, today southern Turkey, after which most of his army dispersed. However, some German knights forged on and joined the forces of Guy of Lusignan in besieging Acre in 1190-91 C.E. During the siege of Acre, the knights set up a field hospital outside the walls, using sails from ships to make tents.

When the Crusader army took Acre on July 12, 1191, King Richard rewarded them with land in the east of the city, not far from were their camp had been, for the establishment of a permanent hospital and headquarters. Eight hundred years later, the Teutonic Order’s headquarters in Acre was unearthed in 1999 and 2000 by Boas and George Philipp Meloni of Deutsche Ordern (the continuation of the Teutonic Order).

In 1198 the Teutonic Order was officially elevated to a military order of monastic knights, and adopted the rule and costume of the Templars and Hospitallers. But within just a few years, the Teutonic Order found itself under pressure from the Templars and the Hospitallers in Acre, who had designs of taking it over. The Hospitallers felt they had special claims, having been charge of the German hospital in Jerusalem in the previous century.

That may explain why the German knights built Montfort where they did: not on a trade route or coast, and near no major cities. It was built on land that the order purchased in the 1220s, but construction only commenced in 1227 or 1228 and the choice may have been governed chiefly by where it wasn’t – namely, anywhere near Acre. The huge castle graces a hill in isolation, and is nestled between higher hills.

Arrowheads found at MontfortCredit: Adrian Boas
Stone projectile from the upper wardCredit: Adrian Boas

That remote location, otherwise inexplicable, enabled the Teutonic Order’s knights to conduct their administrative activities out of sight and out of mind of the Templars and the Hospitallers. And despite its distance from Acre, Montfort became the Teutonic Order’s principal castle and showpiece in the Holy Land.

The Mamluks attack again

Five years after the initial assault on Montfort, come June 1271, Sultan al-Zahir Baybars al-Bunduqdari was busy expanding the Mamluk empire. Fresh from the successful siege of the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, he travelled southward to Safed with a vast army.

Armed with huge siege weapons, the force continued onto Montfort and laid siege. Despite the shower of projectiles hurled from trebuchets, a specific type of catapult, the Crusader defenders held out for 15 days.

Burnt wooden beams, nails, and hundreds of arrowheads and some arrow shafts, spearheads, crossbow nuts (the mechanism that captures the cord of a crossbow and releasing by pressing like a trigger), bear witness to the castle’s bloody last days in 1271.

On June 23, the Germans surrendered, and were given safe conduct to Acre.

Baybars personally escorted the knights to Acre, then returned and in keeping with his scorched-earth policy, dismantled the castle. He finished the destruction on the 4th of July. The castle was then abandoned and, left in glorious isolation. It was never reoccupied.

“In 1271, Crusader rule over the Holy Land was drawing to an end. Much of the coast had already been taken by Baybars and the Crusaders no longer controlled most of the interior,” Boas explains. “Montfort had become increasingly isolated in Muslim-held territory and there was no prospect of anyone coming to save them.” The Crusades were, by then, past their peak.

And thus after almost 50 years of relative peace and prosperity in the 13th century, the castle fell, and two decades later, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the northern Crusader states in Syria also came to their end.

View to the east from the vaultCredit: Professor Adrian Boas



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