Beyond Masada / A Short Climb Up to Fortress Tzuba

Revel in history at this off-the-beaten-path Crusader stronghold, where the subjugation of Israel to medieval Europe looms large.

Fortress Tzuba is a nice little bonus that transforms the otherwise ordinary Tel Aviv-Jerusalem drive into an excursion. Find it by accident, and you’ll gasp – “Am I suddenly on the wrong side of Europe?” You won’t be completely wrong, either. Fortress Tzuba looks like a medieval Scottish Border castle that somehow missed the attention of restorers.

To get to Fortress Tzuba by road, exit Route 1 at the junction to Beit Shemesh and then turn left up the scenic ascent along Route 395 at Eshtaol Junction. Kibbutz Tzuba is about 10 kilometers ahead.

The site can be comfortably explored on foot in about an hour. While you revel in medieval history and expanses of ripening grapes, it may be a good idea to leave your kids under their grandparents' supervision at the adjacent Kiftzuba Adventure Park, where they'll be entertained by the bouncy castles, miniature railway and bumper cars.

Part of what makes a visit to Fortress Tzuba so interesting is that it emphasizes the previous subjugation of Israel and the Middle East to medieval Europe. Indeed, the Scottish castles and Crusader fortresses in the Levant are similarly designed and once served similar functions – to control a frontier or newly conquered area, and keep the enemy at bay.

Jerusalem was the ultimate target of the fanatical Crusader armies. With their fervent messianic sense of destiny, they pushed through Nebi Samwil and conquered the holy city in June 1099. The local Muslims and Jews who didn't get out in time were massacred by the Crusaders.

But as the Crusaders soon found out, it was one thing to get to Jerusalem, and quite another to make their power and presence felt in the region. Their solution was a network of citadels that served simultaneously as their knights’ watchtowers over the region, their places of prayer and their residences. They also gave much-needed rest to the weary Christian pilgrims.

This fortress – which they named Belmont – controlled the key route between Jaffa and Jerusalem. As you explore, you can identify features common to citadels built during this period in Israel – and all across Europe, for that matter – such as the double walls that protect the inner keep, and the outer vaulted chambers with their herringbone ceilings. This structure is likely to have been erected toward the end of the reign of Baldwin III (1131-1174), the king of the Crusader Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which in its heyday extended from Eilat to Beirut.

The word "explore" is the operative word here. Unlike the Crusader citadels of Monfort and Belvoir farther north, Belmont has not been restored. Entrance is free, but you'll have to be your own guide, especially in working out which parts of the recently excavated site are from the age of the Crusaders, and which belong to the later Muslim Period. (This is part of what makes the site such a curiosity – to be sure, there are no detailed, multi-lingual signs to lead you.) As a general rule, the structures made of larger, rougher-cut stones that fit together like a 3-D puzzle are from the Crusaders. Those made of smaller, pebble-like stones held together by mortar come from the later Turkish Period, when the fortress accommodated generations of village leaders.

A walk through the kibbutz, with its fortress-domed hill right in front, narrows to a paved path that leads up to the grounds of the Crusader stronghold. It features superb 360-degree views of Abu Ghosh, Mevasseret Zion, Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, and the traffic-clogged Route 1 into and out of Jerusalem.

Follow the rather neglected blue-marked path around the summit in a clockwise direction. You will encounter two superlative viewpoints where the Crusaders kept a close eye on the entrances to Jerusalem, one to the north and the other to the south. Near the end of the circuit are a couple of vaulted chambers, with the trademark Crusader herringbone ceiling. Their scales have been worn away at the point where they once joined together to form the cross. Infested with mosquitoes, the mattress on the floor suggests temporary occupation by squatters from a rather more recent period.

After the Crusaders were forced out of the region, Belmont became part of the Arab village of Suba. It had a population of about 600 before its destruction in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Egyptian forces of the Muslim Brotherhood were occasionally stationed in Suba, which then was on the Jordanian front, attacking Israeli traffic on the route to Jerusalem. It was conquered by the Palmach in June 1948.

The immediate area has retained its population of about 600, at the kibbutz renamed Tzuba, slightly to the south. Apart from supplying much-needed recreation at Kiftzuba, the kibbutz also has a very high-quality winery, some of whose red and white wines have been internationally recognized with gold and silver medals. These come from premier vineyards including the ones you'll pass on your way to the kibbutz.

Detours may also be made on foot to more ancient sites, including the recently excavated cave of John the Baptist, winepresses dating from the Second Temple period, and the localities' natural water supply at the ancient spring of Ein Tzuba.

Finish your visit at the entrance of the kibbutz with a well-earned giant-sized vanilla-flavored iced coffee, served to you personally in the deep arm-chaired luxury of the Belmont Hotel.

Kibbutz Tzuba may be reached by Superbus 183 from Binyamei Hama (International Convention Center), Jerusalem. The Kiftzuba Adventure Park, at the kibbutz entrance, charges a fee. The park can be reached at 054-563-7068. 

Jacob Solomon