The history of the Jewish, Medieval Catholic and Muslim rule in the Holy Land and the ongoing fight for control is encapsulated by one site perched on the shore in the Town of Tiberius in the Upper Galilee.

Dr. Yosef Stepansky, former inspector of antiquities in the Eastern Galilee for the Israeli government, discussed his discovery of a Crusader citadel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee – the fall of which is crucial for understanding the story of the deterioration of Crusader rule in Israel.

An expert on Christian archaeological sites, Dr. Stepansky wrote the archaeological chapters of the nomination dossier for the Israeli government on early Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee that will soon be declared World Heritage sites.

It remains to be seen if his services will be used during Pope Benedict XVI’s May visit, but were his services to be called upon, it would not be without precedent, as he was called upon in 2000 to write a briefing for Pope John Paul II during his visit.

In his brief, Dr. Stepansky discussed the Galilean Dolmens – megalithic stone tombs dating from the Middle Bronze Age – which he identifies with the biblical narratives regarding giants called “Refaim” and with the giant bedstead of Iron, mentioned as the resting place of Og King of Bashan.

He has made important discoveries pertaining to early Christianity in the Galilee, including a stone lintel, inscribed with the names of the Christian Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his sons.

This lintel, currently in possession of a Druze man in the village of Maghar, is the only known inscription referring to the emperor in all of Israel.

Tiberius Crusader Castle: Time Capsule Of The Galilee

In 1187, Christian rule, which had lasted for the better part of a century, was about to end. The Christians and Muslims had been fighting over the same ground over and over, and Saladin, the Muslim ruler of Egypt and Syria wished to make his territory contiguous. This of course meant conquering Israel. Soon, he was provided with a cause for war in the form of Renaud of Chatillon, the Crusader prince of Antioch.

“The Crusaders and the Muslims played Ping-Pong for years, each invading the other’s territory, moving their borders back and forth. That was until Renaud of Chatillon started harassing Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca,” Dr. Stepansky said. “The final straw was when he set out from Aylah to raid the holy city. Saladin organized his forces and moved over the northern Jordan into Galilee.”

It was the Crusader citadel in Tiberius, perched on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that brought about the defeat of the Crusaders in the most significant battle in Israel in the past 1,000 years, the Battle of the Horns of Hittin.

When Saladin began to move into Israel, Raymond of Tripoli, the ruler of the Galilee, reported to King Guy of Jerusalem in Sepphoris, seeking his defending against the Muslim incursion. He left behind his wife Eschiva with a small garrison to defend his castle in Tiberius.

On July 2, 1187, Saladin broke through the walls of Tiberius and put siege to Raymond’s castle. Eschiva sent a messenger with a call to her husband and King Guy of Jerusalem. They now had a quandary. Should they march on Tiberius to break the siege or should they wait for Saladin to arrive, and meet him on ground of their own choosing?

Ultimately, the order of the Knights Templar, formed to protect Christian pilgrims from Muslim attack, ventured the opinion that it would be unbecoming of Christian knights to not attempt to rescue a princess, and they should march on Tiberius immediately. The king agreed.

He began to move on Tiberius in order to retake the town along with over 1,000 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers. They marched through scorching heat and blazing sun, suffering greatly from thirst and dehydration. Two days later, on July 4, the Crusaders set up camp at Maskaneh on the slopes of the Horns of Hittin, near the modern day Golani Junction.

It was then that Saladin made his move. In the morning, the Muslims attacked. Amid great blood and suffering, the mostly Frankish knights, suffering greatly from their lack of water, were defeated. King Guy was taken prisoner and brought before Saladin, where he was shown mercy, though Saladin personally killed Renaud of Chatillon by the sword.

There were to be other Crusades and the Christians maintained a presence in the holy land until 1291, but it was the beginning of the end. Christian rule in the holy land had been shattered in one decisive battle.

In the years following, the exact location of the Tiberius Citadel was lost.

Beneath Grandmother’s House

In 2002, Dr. Stepansky uncovered the citadel’s gate and moat, ending years of scholarly debate.

Until his discovery, the prevailing view was the castle had been built uphill, away from the water. There had been some who started arguing in the 1970s that a lakeside location was more probable, but it was impossible to verify without actually finding and uncovering the structure.

In the 1950s, the nascent Jewish state, in an attempt at urban renewal, bulldozed the Old City of Tiberius. The Old City could more accurately be termed the “renewed city,” having been built up and settled by Sepharadi (Eastern) Jews in the 18th century.

One of the structures destroyed was the house in which Dr. Stepansky’s grandmother had been born.

In the early 2000s, the Israeli government again decided to embark on a project of urban renewal. The tourism ministry put plans on the table to develop the area, but was forced to wait while the antiquities authority carried out a pre-development survey, a practice very common in Israel.

This is where Dr. Stepansky came in. Doing a routine dig at the site, he discovered one of the most significant archaeological finds of the early 21st century, right below the location of his old family home.

Because of this discovery, which is an integral part of the story of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, he was invited to lecture in Germany and his scholarly article on the Citadel was translated and included in the definitive work on Crusader castles, “Burgen und Stadte der Kreuzugszeit” (Castles and Cities in the Crusades).

“When I lectured in Germany, people were most interested and jealous of the castle I found, even though it still has yielded small remains relative to the other castles found so far. Yet it was a source of jealousy that I could do what is rare and excavate underneath the house that my grandmother was born in.” Dr. Stepansky said.

Cycle Of History

There were stones used by the Crusaders in building their citadel that were originally part of an ancient synagogue. What one can discern if they look carefully is a window into the history of Israel itself. One can see a Crusader castle, built on the ruins of an independent Judea, conquered by the Muslims and later excavated by a reborn Jewish nation in its homeland, all of this underneath a little lot where the grandmother of the man who discovered the site lived.

As Dr. Stepansky put it, “[This] is the climax of this series of history.”