A Frankish Fort

by Mark Ziese on October 18, 2013

Gwuf . . . gwuf . . . gwuf . . .

My walking shoes exhale as they press against the stairs. The pitch is steep, the steel rail, helpful. The passage is constructed of creamy limestone, glossy from the rub of countless hands and feet. I reach out to touch the wall. The surface is cool under my fingertips.

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The way in. Image from here. Note how the doorframe is not symmetrical but is pieced together by recycled architectural fragments. An archer’s slit (loophole) is visible above a relieving arch that protrudes forward as a hood mould. The hood mould is ornately decorated (“gadrooned”) by radiating lines. Compare it with better executed entryway at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem here.

I make one more turn to the right and collide with the sun’s blast. I shield my eyes. My walkers protest with a few more gwufs . . . and then I am out of the stairwell, spewed into the sky.

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The passage.

As my eyes adjust, I take in the view from the roof. It is the highest vantage point around, and yet the bulk beneath me does not feel like a tower. What mounts underfoot, block by painful block, is more like a stout donjon. It is skyworthy only because of its squatting mass.

The fort has a complex history. Much is unknown. I try to sort it out.

When Leroy Waterman initiated excavations at Sepphoris in the summer of 1931, he opened a field in the fort’s shadow. There, he discovered remains that reach to and beyond the time of Christ. These align with literary evidence asserting that Sepphoris was a centerpiece of Galilean life at the beginning of the present age. Josephus counted Sepphoris as not just a large and affluent community in Galilee, but among its “strongholds” (e.g., Josephus, War 2.511; 2.574). Sepphoris was fortified, destroyed, and fortified again. This attraction was undoubtedly due to its elevated position. It was the proverbial “city on a hill” (See our comments on this here).

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The south face of the fort. Note the many different sized stones used in successive rebuilding efforts. These produce a pleasing patchwork look. On the right corner of the building in this shot, the edge is rounded. The same is true of a second corner not visible here. It suggests the original structure may have had a different profile.

The fort that dominates the hill today, however, is from a later time. It is largely the work of Western Europeans, or Franks, from the 12th century. In this tumultuous period, fortified rural villages served as residences for Christian lords. They also offered storage points for goods and control points for the wider countryside. Beyond these, the Franks introduced social structures from their homelands where serfdom was a way of life.

At la Sephorie, as the site was called by these Crusaders, architectural fragments from earlier periods were assembled to erect the fortified tower. Large stones of all sizes and shapes were used. Some of these were marginally drafted in a previously life; these stacked comfortably. More awkward was the occasional column drum. These required wedging to keep them in place. Even Roman sarcophagi were scavenged and given new duty. Rocks filled the hollow that once held human remans. These coffins were used to buttress corners. Faced on both sides and infilled with rubble, the resulting exterior wall was substantial: almost two and a half meters thick. The resulting fort was shaped like a cube, nearly 15 meters each side.

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Sarcophagi were used to anchor the corners of the fort.

The structure was dedicated to Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary (according to the Gospel of James). The Crusaders connected this apocryphal memory with the place. For this reason, and because of its strategic place along the natural route between the Mediterranean coast and the Sea of Galilee, la Sephorie appeared in the pilgrim routes of early Christians travelers. A church to Saint Anne was erected nearby and legends accumulated.  Not only Saint Anne (curiously, Hanna (Heb) > Sant Anna > Santanna!) but her famous daughter, the Theotokos, were claimed to be born here.

Downslope from the fort, the traces of a Crusader wall system have been encountered. These suggests that the Crusader acropolis at la Sephorie was approximately 180 long by 90 meters wide. The tower served as the stronghold (Miller 1984: 5).

My climb to the reconstructed roof of the structure is rewarded by a spectacular view. Behind me on the ridge rise the buildings of Nazareth. In front of me spreads the largest valley of Galilee. For the Crusaders it was the Vallée Battof. In Arabic today it is the Sahl al Battuf.

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View to the Sahl al Battuf. An ancient mound (Tell Bedeiwiyeh) believed to be Hannathon from the Bible and the Amarna Letters is visible between the two water reservoirs. A fortified farmstead from the Crusader period rests atop the tell.

Daher al-Omar ez-Zeydani, a famous 18th century governor, built at Seffuriyyah, as well as nearby Acco and Tiberias. The Crusader fort was converted to a school. Less than a century later, it presented a sad (and roofless!) appearance to the British mapmakers, Conder and Kitchener. In their monumental Survey of Western Palestine, the fort is carefully described and drawn.

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The fort as it appeared in an 1881 publication by Conder and Kitchener. For this image and a careful description, see here.

The structure functioned as a school until 1948 when the village of Suffuriyyah was depopulated. Today it serves as a centerpiece to the Zippori National Park. A small but interesting collection of artifacts are on display inside. The roof is open to those seeking a panoramic view.

 

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The fort is the most prominent of the remains of Sepphoris (or Suffuriyyah). Of course, there is much more to see!

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