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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Byways and Gateways

The valley road to Montfort (18 August, 2019)

The path down to the castle is partly the workmanship of winter rains, partly of man. On either side the forest rises, low, dark, dense, a mystic green of beauty and menace, a living thing, constantly but ever so slowly moving in its shadows. Every morning there are new rocks on the path, fallen perhaps by the furrowing of a wild pig seeking acorns, or by the sudden, swift movements of a snake or lizard upsetting the fine balance of stones washed down in the previous winter to where they had stopped precariously positioned until disturbed in this ever so slowly descending landscape.

A fortress obviously cannot exist without roads leading to it, and without gates. Roads are like blood vessels leading to and from the heart, but gates, though essential, are weaknesses, like open wounds through which disease can enter, and as such, they are generally kept to a minimum. And yet, Vadum Iacob, the Templar castle on the upper Jordan River, although it was by no means a large castle, had at least five gates. We explained this oddity, after much deliberation on the topic, by the possibility that this unfinished castle was intended to possess outer fortifications, perhaps with only a single gate, and that the excess of gates that we had found in our excavations would have eventually served as inner gates giving access from an outer into an inner courtyard. As such, they would not have constituted a weakness in the castle's defences. But no outer defences existed when Vadum Iacob fell to Saladin in 1179, a mere eleven months after construction had commenced.

Montfort - the north-western outer gate leading to the stables and the inner gate tower in the background (photo by Rabei Khamisy)

Montfort too seems to have had more than its share of gates, and these cannot be so easily explained. On the outer walls, four can still be traced, and there were at least three more into the inner (upper) ward. Perhaps it was just a matter of convenience. Castle defences do sometimes appear to have been a balancing act between security needs and convenience. Take, for example the case of Belvoir Castle. It was brilliantly designed in a manner that forced an attacker to use a highly convoluted and strongly defended route in order to reach and enter the inner ward of the castle, passing through no less than three well-defended gates. But a ludicrous (I cannot think of a more appropriate term) undefended door next to the kitchen in the east appears to have enabled the attacker to avoid the third gate and to enter directly into the inner ward with hardly any trouble at all. It would seem to be a clear case of convenience at the price of security, for, although it completely negated the brilliant defensive system, it at least would have made the life of the cooks so much easier. Coming from the bakery, or wherever else they might have been, they would not have had to walk all the way around!*

*This door is indeed so out of place in the design that I cannot help but suspect that it is an invention of the castle's restorers, but perhaps there is after all some logical explanation for it that has so far evaded me.

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