On the Elusive Past
Updated: Sep 14, 2019
Some memories are so ethereal that to recover them is like trying to grasp hold of vapour. My father once took my brothers and me on a drive into the countryside. Of the drive itself I recall nothing at all, and nothing before or after. But I remember clearly the place we arrived at; a gentle slope of land formed from large boulders of black basalt, smooth and rounded like giant river pebbles, and between them tiny converging streams. I recall leaping over the boulders from one to the other. It was a perfect day so I imagine that there must have been a deep blue sky and a pleasant breeze, and I can hear the water around the boulders, trickling and gurgling over tiny waterfalls. These things: the slope, the boulders and the water, particularly the water, are the heart of this memory. Almost everything else is lost.
In the hills around Jerusalem are numerous remnants of a past that have been all but forgotten. For four or five decades the Frankish presence in the countryside was almost exclusively of administrators; stewards in towers and rural estate centres, collecting rents and taxes, overseeing agricultural activities and rural industries, and dealing with disputes in rural courts. Then everything changed. With the building of castles in the frontier regions and the decline and eventual end of incursions by Muslim raiders, travel on the roads became safer. The countryside seemed safe. It was perhaps an illusion, but one that was real enough to change the perceptions of two generations of European settlers and to encourage a movement of people into the countryside. From the middle of the twelfth century and until the third from last decade, the hills and valleys that surround and enclose the Holy City were as intensely settled as in any period. Farms were established, monasteries, tiny hamlets and Europeans-type street villages. Industrial installations, bakeries, wine and oil presses, were set up, cisterns, reservoirs, byres and columbaria were constructed, new roads were laid and old ones restored, pilgrimage sites were enhanced, orchards and vineyards planted, terrace walls were rebuilt. The stewards expanded their towers and hall-houses into large courtyard buildings to cope with the growth.
And then everything changed again. With the incursions of Saladin from 1170 on, the estate centres, monasteries and towers began to undergo a transmutation into large and well-defended fortresses, as if they had been larvae, waiting for twenty years, and now had evolved into something else. And as they changed, the growth and the lively activity of the Frankish population in the countryside slowed down and stagnated. Probably, as the dangers grew many rural settlements were abandoned and the movement of population reverted to what it had formerly been - one that sought asylum behind fortified walls.
Belmont Castle on its breast-shaped hill next to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway displays these developments in the changing conditions of the countryside around Jerusalem. Its origins were probably at the time of expansion in the 1140s, when it appears to have been set up as a small courtyard administrative centre, very similar in its layout to Aqua Bella in the adjacent valley. But unlike the latter, it occupied a fine strategical location on a high hill overlooking the surrounding countryside and the road to the Holy City, and so, when conditions changed it was not abandoned, as had almost certainly been the case with poorly positioned Aqua Bella. Instead it was converted from an unfortified and mainly domestic building into a fully-fledged fortress. Its Hospitaller owners enclosed the original building with massive polygonal defences; vaults, solid walls, a glacis and a strongly fortified gate. Belmont had adapted to the changing situation.
Today it is not easy to make out the remains of the castle. It was probably dismantled by Saladin in 1190, and like so many other ruined castles, it was built over by villagers who sought to make use of the ready supply of worked stone. The village named Suba is recorded already in the thirteenth century.* During the war of 1948 the village was abandoned and dismantled, and so it has remained until the present, all but forgotten until excavations carried out by the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in the 1980s and a fine and detailed publication that followed** revealed something of its past. But to view the site today, its ruined walls buried under scrub and thorn, one might easily be excused in not noticing that there are here the remains of a large fortress that once dominated the landscape over the road to Jerusalem.
*Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems: A Description of Syria and the Holy Land from A.D.650 to 1500, London, 1890, p. 538.
** Richard P. Harper and Denys Pringle, Belmont Castle. The Excavation of a Crusader Stronghold in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, 2000.