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Hermon: Hazori to Hula

Golan: Devora &  Gilbon

Golan: Nahal Meitzar

Galilee: Nahal Kziv

Galilee: Nahal Amud

Galilee: Nahal Rosh Pina

Galilee: Ramat Adamit

Coast: Dor to Caesarea

Judean Hills: Ela Valley

Judean Desert: Masada

Judean Desert: Peres

Negev: Mount Zaror

Negev: Hatira Coxcomb

Negev: Ramon Ridge

Negev: Hatzra Ascent

Negev: Nekarot Hike

Negev: Ada Canyon

Arava: Barak Canyon

Arava: Maok & Nekarot

Eilat: Israel Trail Finale

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Monfort Castle in a New Light

A few "minor" changes has made a world of difference in a Western Galilee hike that includes the riverbed of Nahal Keziv, the spring of Ein Tamir, and Monfor Castle.

Every time a new edition of a trail map comes out, I approach it with mixed feelings. On one hand, I look forward to seeing additional trails that open up fresh hiking possibilities. On the other, I’m afraid I might discover that trails I happily hiked upon for many years have been sacrificed on the altar of development.

As I studied the latest Upper Galilee trail map, I noticed a change in the route of the black-marked trail that leads down to Keren Bartot and Ein Tamir. “The community of Hila expanded westward,” Dani Gaspar, coordinator of the Israel Trails Committee, explained apologetically. “About two years ago, they built a new neighborhood that covered the top of the trail. Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) ranger Sayid Hamud helped us re-route the trail and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) cleared the new segment and added curbstones and stairs where necessary.”

But that wasn’t the only change. Many hikers have been shocked to learn that the INPA has shaven away the forest of oaks that enveloped Montfort Castle.

I decided to take a 10-kilometer hike along the trail and get my own impressions of the changes. Dani Gaspar accompanied me.

Keren Bartot

We started walking down the black trail from its beginning. On our right was a fence that ran along the perimeter of an agricultural field. The woods on the left eventually gave way to fruit trees, among them a lone Syrian pear tree.

Some say that at the beginning of summer, just when the tree’s nearly spherical pears, up to 4 centimeters in diameter, have ripened, you can chew the fruit and even swallow it, but the flavor is nothing to write home about.

The trail then leads down to the shallow upper segment of the riverbed of Nahal Bartot. A lovely wood grows in the gorge. Since it is in a spot that faces north and is therefore less exposed to the sun, it is the home of true laurels, which need more humid conditions. But most striking are the Eastern strawberry trees, whose red branches glow among the green trees. In summer, the red bark peels off and each tree becomes a work of art.

The trail crosses Nahal Bartot and soon reaches a junction. We took the turnoff to the left (blue marking), adding another kilometer and a half of walking on Keren Bartot – a mountain horn that rises about 200 meters above a large bend in Nahal Keziv. The scenery is gorgeous.

At first, the blue trail runs beside Nahal Bartot, with several little olive trees growing among the rocks. And then, suddenly, we saw Montfort Castle, on the horn of the mountain between Nahal Bartot and Nahal Keziv – hence Montfort’s local Arabic name, Qala’at Qurein (Castle of the Little Horn). Without the trees that used to loom over it, the castle looked strange and even a little poignant. But when we got used to it, we had to confess that Montfort is now much more impressive.

The trail continues to wind along the periphery of the ridge, to a bend in Nahal Keziv between Mount Ziv and the Nakar Horn. The landscape is a combination of a deep valley and rocky, wooded slopes. In the first two weeks of May, there’s a bonus at the bend: the blooming of Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum, or shoshan tzahur – white lily – in Hebrew). After that, the lilies are replaced by the tall stalks of the rough-leaved michauxia (Michauxia campanuloides, or mishoya pa’amonit in Hebrew), which have strange-looking white flowers.

Nahal Keziv

The Keren Bartot trail returns to the black trail, which descends to Nahal Keziv. The black trail then leads down the riverbed, but we made a quick detour to the spring of Ein Tamir, located about 300 meters up the riverbed (to the east). On the way, we encountered a tempting pool that is a nice place to take a little dip.

The spring flows out of a split rock in a clear stream that runs through an expanse of gleaming limestone. Unfortunately, the smooth surface has become a magnet for graffiti. The plastic bags, forgotten socks, and leftover food strewn around the area are equally infuriating.

We fled to a prettier part of the riverbed, where we found some pools shaded by plane trees. But then, at the junction of the trail leading to Moshav Goren, we discovered that the large trash bins placed there with good intentions by the INPA have become a focus of filth. From here on, the trail becomes a wide dirt road, accompanied by numerous Syrian maple trees. This segment of the riverbed is dry in summer up to Ein Matzor, a spring whose water emerges below the ruins of a two-storey stone building and dam on the southern bank, at the foot of Montfort Castle. The building and the dam date back to the Crusader period.

Archaeologists who explored the site determined that the dam created a lake whose water was used for irrigation. The building initially served as a flour mill, but a more elegant upper floor was later added, and apparently the building was then used to house pilgrims and guests.

Montfort Castle

We followed the red trail up to the castle. Montfort Castle, which rises 180 meters above Nahal Keziv, has always been considered a jewel in the landscape. A Crusader castle surrounded by a dense wood amid the cliffs of Nahal Keziv can’t help but be a winning combination.

Excavations conducted at the site in 1926 by a team from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art uncovered the remains of buildings, coins, and other objects from the Roman and Byzantine periods. Some of the stones of the donjon, the massive inner tower that is the castle’s largest and tallest structure, may have been part of the Roman citadel that stood here. The stones of the castle were hewn in Horvat Nahat, about 200 meters up the trail ascending from the castle.

In the twelfth century, there was a much smaller castle in this area, meant to defend the estates of the local feudal lords; its remains lie in what is today Mi’ilya. In 1220, Hermann von Salza, head of the Teutonic knights, purchased a large tract of land in the Western Galilee, encompassing Montfort. The knights called the place Starkenburg (Strong Mountain), a German translation of the French Crusader name Montfort.

In 1226, the knights began building one of the most beautiful Crusader castles in the Land of Israel. It is not clear why they built it in this location, which lacked any special strategic value. It may have been meant as a defense against the local residents, who were not particularly fond of the Teutonic knights.

Pope Gregory IX, calling for donations for the citadel’s construction, said, “It is located on the border of the idolaters and therefore its construction will bring much benefit to Christians in those areas, since it restrains the Saracens and gives believers safe freedom from the usual troubles.” The pope promised donors partial release from religious penalties that had been imposed upon them for their trespasses.

The Teutonic knights may also have chosen this location to keep their command headquarters far away from the eyes of the other knightly orders, which were mostly French and were suspicious of the Germans.

In 1266, at the beginning of Mameluke sultan Baybars’s drive to conquer the Galilee, one of his commanders tried to take Montfort and failed. Five years later, the sultan himself stood opposite the castle walls. The siege began on June 8, 1271, and the outer fortifications were conquered three days later. The sultan promised a large sum for each stone plucked out of the wall.

The fighting was fierce. Eventually, the castle’s defenders laid down their arms, after it was agreed that they would leave as free men but without their possessions and weapons. They moved to Acre, managing to take with them the castle’s archive and treasures, which were subsequently transferred to Venice and then to the Teutonic fortress in Marienburg, Poland (they remain there to this day.) Montfort Castle was never inhabited again.

Now that the trees have been removed, the castle is visible even from a distance and it is easy to distinguish the three lines of fortifications. The internal wall has been exposed, including its gate tower and opening for pouring boiling liquids on invaders. The ceremonial hall is also very impressive. The large cisterns and clay pipes that collected water from the roofs of the castle can now be seen as well.

Conclusion of the Route

Still on the red trail, we walked through the castle and made our way up via the outer wall on the northern side. Several courses of the wall’s huge stones are still in place. The trail passes through the moat, which borders the castle on the east. Some 50 meters further on, it passes through a rock crevice, about a meter wide, with steep, 8-meter-high walls. The crevice appears to have been widened for use as an external moat.

At exactly 6 p.m., the jackals burst into a symphony that echoed throughout the Western Galilee. While we were walking up the trail to get to the car, we glanced back at the landscapes of the Sulam Ridge, which forms Israel’s northern border, the Galilee coastal plain, and the sea – a wonderful backdrop for a castle.




Useful Information: 

Distance: Approx. 10 km

Duration: 5-6 hours

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting there: To reach the trail described in this article, drive from Mi’ilya toward Hila, pass Hila, and continue on the good dirt road (marked in red) that leads to Montfort Castle. After about 600 meters, having passed a turnoff onto a black-marked trail (left) and a blue dirt road (left), you’ll come to “our” black trail (on the right, 60 meters after a square area surrounded by a low concrete wall).

Logistics: Any vehicle can be parked beside the beginning of the trail. The route is a ring route, taking you back to the starting point.

Map: Upper Galilee Trail Map (No. 2; Hebrew only).

For map click here








© ERETZ Magazine 2016