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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Undeground Activities

Tunnel from the citadel of Tiberias leading towards the sea. Joppe Gosker, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

It must be different for those who spend much of their time below the ground. Coalminers for example, would not experience the sensation that the average person feels on entering a deep tunnel, but for most people it involves an element of excitement and trepidation. We are by nature creatures of the surface, and entering the ground, almost like flying, is an unnatural state that arouses mixed sensations. If our fears on entering the dark are mitigated somewhat by the fact that we have at least not opposed the laws of gravity, which is what makes flying so unnatural, there is often instead a mild anxiety, the phobia perhap of being buried alive. For we are intruding into a place that we should naturally enter only when we are dead and buried. We are stepping out of the world and into the underworld.

I recall a childhood trip to an abandoned goldmine of damp and mouldy passages, and a fear of the dark that we held back with our lanterns, the dark that was waiting only for our passing in order to recover its lost ground. Occasional descents into subterranean depths in adult life have always reawakened those early sensations: the dank, closed air, the imagined presence of repugnant creatures, the drip, drip, drip, the pervading immortal darkness and the fallacy of being surrounded by a void. Even for those more intrepid, entering a tunnel must evoke at least a mild exhilaration. For me, on that remembered occasion, there was not only fear but a sense of wonder in this passage cut in yellow rock that in the light of our lamps appeared indeed a glorious gold - wonder and anticipation of what we would find at the end of the tunnel.

Tunnels were frequently excavated in Crusader towns and in fortresses. Many of these were intended for use during sieges; mines and countermines, passages to sallyports; but there are those that have a less romantic but equally utilitarian purpose. Certainly, the finest of these and the best-known today is the so-called Templar Tunnel in Acre, a remarkable feat of engineering constructed under the city and traversing it from the Templar Palace at the southern end of the western shore to the harbour in the east. It enabled the Templars secure and defendable access to and from the port. Other examples of serviceable tunnels are the beautifully constructed sewage passages of the Hospitaller compound in Acre, and rock-cut tunnels under the fortress of Saranda Kolones in the Cypriot port town of Paphos.

Templars Tunnel (Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

There is in fact a network of tunnels under the city of Acre. Beneath the compound of the Hospitaller of St John are escape tunnels, partly excavated in the sandstone, partly constructed. Such tunnels were probably present under many of the larger institutions in the city and in other towns and fortresses, and in times of conflict would have been invaluable. We know of the presence of at least a few other such tunnels in Acre. One was discovered in the eastern part of the town, in what is now the Israel Nautical School, and another a little further to its east. Outside of Acre, an underground passage, no doubt intended as an escape route, is reported in the Templar fortress of Safed, and there is one in the castle of Tiberias, leading towards the sea, a well-constructed tunnel of local basalt and white mortar. In the coastal town of Arsuf (Apollonia) there is a network of passages running beneath the fortress. These were mainly mines and countermines that had been excavated by both the Mamluks and the Hospitallers during the siege of 1265, but one of them, a well-built tunnel of about 70 meters in length, most probably of Frankish construction, appears to have predated the siege. It ran along the south wall of the citadel, and under the southern barbican and had a hastily dug branch, about 10 meters long, that may have been added during the siege as a means of launching a sortie against the Mamluks.

Sewage tunnels under the Hospitaller compound in Acre excavated by Eliezer Stern of the Israel Antiquities Authority

When I began work at Montfort Castle in 2006, I heard for the first time, stories of an underground passage leading from the castle down to the base of the valley on the north. Villagers from nearby were persuaded of its existence, but in this case the passage appears to be an imagined one, and it is easy to see where such a belief originated. On the bank of the Kziv Stream, 200 metres below the castle are the remains of a two-storey building, a mill and a Gothic hall and tower, perhaps a guesthouse, on the upper level. In the ruins, on the inner, southern wall against the hillside slope are some doorways that now lead nowhere. One of these, no longer extant, was in the remains of a tower that collapsed in 1941. The other two can still be seen in the surviving parts of the building. One is blocked, the other opens onto a staircase rising in the southern side of the hall. It apparently led up to the tower and onto the roof of the hall. As these doorways are against the side of the hill far above which rises the castle, it is easy to see how they might be thought to have led into an underground passage, an escape route descending from the castle. How sad that their purpose is much more prosaic.

The doorway and staircase below Montfort Castle

Section of the mill and "guesthouse" below Montfort Castle - after Denys Pringle, "A Thirteenth Century Hall at Montfort Castle in Western Galilee, Antiquaries Journal 66, 1986.

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