Crusader Princess' Escape Tunnel From Muslim Armies Found in Tiberias

Unable to defend the city, Princess Eschiva fled the approaching Saladin forces into the lake, but after not being rescued, came back – and was allowed to go free

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The Crusader escape tunnel in Tiberias
The Crusader escape tunnel in TiberiasCredit: Joppe Gosker, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A tunnel that a Crusader princess apparently used 800 years ago to flee attacking Muslim armies besieging Tiberias has been found by archaeologists.

“I found the tunnel about two weeks ago,” says Joppe Goskar, head of the dig for the Israel Antiquities Authority, who has been working at the site for about a month.

The section discovered is just 7 meters in length, he told Haaretz, which is not enough to determine the tunnel’s path – whether it led along the walls of the Crusader fortress in the lakeside city, or just bisected them. What’s certain is that it connected the Crusader stronghold and the Sea of Galilee, and could have been used to slip secretly between the two without anybody noticing aboveground.

Goskar says the tunnel ended at a door, which they didn’t find, but hey did discover the doorpost. The structure is by the fortress wall next to the Karlin-Stolin synagogue in the “Courtyard of the Jews” in the heart of the Old City of Tiberias.

In fact, the Muslim assault on Tiberias marked the beginning of the Crusaders’ end in the Holy Land, which began with the departure of the First Crusade from Europe in 1096 C.E. and continued for two centuries.

Throughout that time, Christian and Muslim forces vied for control of the land. Meanwhile, one of the many castles the Crusaders built locally was in Tiberias, a town on the shores of the freshwater lake Kinneret, a.k.a. Sea of Galilee.

Erected in the 12th century, the Crusader citadel in Tiberias is known from ancient records, though its location had been hotly debated. It was excavated in modern times, exposing its gate and walls. It’s just that nobody thought to explore just where the tunnel is, explains Gosker, who began his exploration on behalf of the IAA.

Built cleanly of dressed basalt stones, the tunnel was found near the promenade of the Old City and linked the citadel to the Tiberias harbor, Goskar says. The diggers also found a number of other artifacts, including an impressive number of pipes for smoking.

The fateful princess

Tobacco pipes dating to the Ottoman period that were exposed in the excavationCredit: Joppe Gosker, Israel Antiquities Authority

Whoever else used the tunnel to sprint between the harbor and the castle, one such was reportedly Princess Eschiva of Bures.

The princess had remained in Tiberias while her husband, Sir Raymond III of Tripoli, was off fighting the Muslims in Zippori (which the Romans called Sepphoris and others called Saforie) in uneasy alliance with Guy of Lusignan, the Crusader king of Jerusalem.

The Crusader era in Israel was a messy one, rife with rickety alliances and rivalries between the Crusader leaders themselves. Be that as it may, the infamous Battle of Hattin in Tiberias on July 4, 1187, where Saladin crushed the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was a direct outcome of the princess’ flight and the developments in Tiberias, which had been controlled by Raymond III until then.

The year before, 1186, Saladin turned belligerent again, for reasons that included attacks on Muslim traders. Negotiation efforts went nowhere – at least nowhere good.

On July 2, 1187, the Princess Eschiva urgently wrote to her husband that Saladin was besieging Tiberias.

IAA archaeologist Joppe Gosker in the Crusader tunnel in TiberiasCredit: Michael Peleg, Israel Antiquities Authority

At this point, the differences between the Crusader commanders rose to the fore anew: Guy, the king of Jerusalem, and Raymond III, the lord of Tiberias, agreed to ally their forces, but could not agree on a plan of action. Leaving aside their motives, the king voted for rescuing the princess from the Muslim armies; her husband voted against.

“Because of the nonstrategic decision by Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, to rescue the lady, the crusaders lost all,” Goskar remarks. The Christian force was defeated by Saladin, reportedly also thanks to defections by Christian knights.

Although he had led an army against the Muslim chief, and she had been in the city Saladin besieged, Raymond III and Eschiva would oddly survive the carnage.

Eschiva apparently fled to the lake through the tunnel now rediscovered after 800 years. However, upon eventually realizing that the succor promised by her husband was not forthcoming, she returned to the city.

On July 5, 1187, Eschiva surrendered the fortress. After that, “Saladin let her go back to Tripoli,” says Goskar. “Her husband is also one of the ones who managed to survive. Some think Saladin let him flee intentionally.” Saladin went on to conquer Jerusalem on October 2 of that same year, at which point the port city of Acre, west of Tiberias, became the local Crusader capital until the Christian movement’s final expulsion from the Holy Land.

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