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
Although they had a common enemy and purpose – the Muslims, whom they aspired to oust from the Holy Land – the Templars, Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights existed in a state of mutual antagonism. Their hostility is documented in medieval manuscripts, although its origins are obscure.
That may explain why they built Montfort: it served no real strategic purpose since it neither overlooked farmland, settlement or road. On the other hand, it was hidden by higher surrounding hills, and enabled the Teutonic Order's knights to conduct their daily life out of sight and out of mind of the Templars and the Hospitallers.
That the Teutonic order poured money into building Montfort Castle is evident by the rich trappings such as gilded furnishings, stained glass windows, frescoed walls and beautiful sculptural decorations. Two large structures at the castle feature huge ashlar blocks, some of which are up to 3 meters in length.
Although Sultan Baibars had a somewhat brutal reputation, after conquering Monfort, he spared its garrison. The knights were escorted safely back to Acre, with their archive. Shortly after, however, the sultan had the castle destroyed.
In 1877 the castle was surveyed by Horatio H. Kitchener for the British Survey of Western Palestine. Come 1926, an expedition headed by medieval armor expert Prof. Bashford Dean, was sent out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to dig at the castle, in the hopes of finding a suit of 13th century armor for the museum's Arms and Armor collection.
Whatever misconceptions Dean had of the nature of medieval archaeological sites and the fate of bodies after siege, his nave idea seems to have been shared by the British archaeologist Philip Langstaffe Guy, who wrote after visiting the Castle in 1925: “One might even expect that bodies of some of the defenders or attackers in the last siege still lay buried, with their armor, below the stones in the moat itself" from his survey report, November 26, 1925).
Well, none were found. Nor were any suits of armor, just a few bits of rusty chain mail. But while about it, the excavators exposed the central part of the castle and made many other impressive finds.
Finding the Great Hall
The renewed excavations that began in 2011 started in the upper castle, where the excavators uncovered the castle's Great Hall.
The Great Hall was located in a three-storey structure at the western end of the castle that probably rose well over 30 meters in height. Part of this structure still exists.
The lowest level of the western building contained the cellars, the middle level contained the ceremonial hall and the top level contained highly decorated, luxurious domestic apartments, featuring vaulted rooms, gilded wood, stained glass and richly painted walls. This was probably the living quarters of the castellan, who was in charge of the castle, and, when he was resident, the Hochmeister (Grand Master), who was the Supreme Commander of the Teutonic order.
“The Grand Master was probably very rarely in residence there, perhaps once or twice, we have very little on record," says Boas. "The Grand Chapter (the governing body of the Teutonic knights) of 1244 is the only recorded instance where a grand master was present at Montfort."
Most of the time, the apartments were probably occupied by the castellan.
The latest excavations also found the castle stables near the outer gate to the north. The stables featured flag flooring, and a beam-supported roof. Other finds there included mangers, spades and axes, horseshoes, horseshoe nails, saddling buckles, and bells.
Under siege, again
The first siege of Montfort began in May 1266, by two Mamluk amirs, Badr al-Din al Aydamri and Badr al-Din Baysari. The Germans managed to withstand the attack and retain their hold on the castle.
It seems however that they lost control over lands in the vicinity of the castle, and unable to produce food for the garrison, the Crusaders leased other rural properties still in Crusader hands such as nearby Manot (aka Manueth) from the Hospitallers.
Five years later, in June 1271, the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baibars al-Bunduqdari, fresh from a successful siege of the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, travelled to Safed. From there he took siege machines to Montfort.
On the 8th of June, he laid siege to the castle.
No less then 42 mangonel stones were found around the outer ramparts, and it is clear from the context that most had been hurled at the castle.
Burnt wooden beams, nails, as well as hundreds of arrowheads (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. It would last just 15 days. On the 23rd of June, the Germans surrendered, and were given safe conduct to Acre.
“In 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.
Baibars personally escorted the monks 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.