The German Crusaders who built the enigmatic Montfort Castle, a massive stone edifice in the Upper Galilee that defended absolutely nothing, lived in comparative luxury for a monastic-based institution, recent excavations have demonstrated.
In June 1271, Sultan Baibars was busily expanding the Mamluk empire. Among his campaigns, led from Egypt, he brought a vast army to lay siege to the remote Teutonic castle in the western foothills of the Galilee. It would be the second siege he had mounted against the mighty castle.
Under a shower of projectiles hurled from trebuchets, the Crusader defenders held out for 15 days before surrendering. Now excavations headed by University of Haifa's Prof. Adrian J. Boas reveal how life looked inside the Crusader castle some 800 years ago, in the 13th century C.E.
Finds inside the castle this year include fragments of chain mail, scale armor, and arrowheads, as well as 13th-century coins, a large quantity of glass vessels, and iron slag from a forge.
The Crusaders had time for leisure: the archaeologists also found a game board of Nine Man’s Morris, game pieces, as well as a workshop to make buttons, crossbow nuts and other objects from bone. And among the things that evidently never change is the European appetite for pork. The archaeologists discovered bones from domestic European-type pigs inside the castle, as well as remains from turtles, deer, sheep and cattle.
Also, the discovery of belt buckles and round tunic buttons yield information about Crusader dress and grooming habits in the 13th century C.E.
The monastic life
Montfort was the principal castle of the military Teutonic Order, which was founded in the late 12th century in the port city of Acre, and still exists to this day (the park is run by the Israel National Park Authority). Its founders were German knights from Lubeck and Bremen who had participated in the Crusader army of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1155- 1190: he drowned to death in today's Turkey).
Following Barbarossa's demise, most of his army dispersed. But two groups of the Teutonic knights forged on and joined the forces of Guy of Lusignan in besieging Acre in 1190-91 C.E. They set up a field hospital, using sails from ships to make tents, and when the city was taken, on July 12, 1191, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, rewarded them with land in Acre's east for the establishment of a permanent hospital.
Seven years later, in 1198 the Teutonic knights officially became a military order of knights living a monastic life. Adopting the rule and clothing of the Templars and Hospitallers, their purpose was to establish hospitals and protect unwary Christian pilgrims en route to Jerusalem from being picked off by raiding Muslims.
However, it does not seem that Montfort was built with protecting anybody in mind.
At the time, the Teutonic Order was coming 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.
“The purpose of building this castle seems to have been to move some of the order's administration, such as the archives and perhaps the treasury, from Acre to a more isolated location,” speculates Boas.
Ultimately, built on land that the Teutonic Order purchased in the 1220s, it would serve the order for less than 50 years, falling to the Mamluks in the summer of 1271.
Christians pitted against one another