Beaufort crusader castle, a unique witness to Lebanon’s history

Friday 30/10/2015
Lebanese security officer on perimeter of newly restored Crusader Beaufort castle in Arnoun village

BEIRUT - Bearing witness to Leba­non’s history since me­dieval times, the hilltop Beaufort Castle in south Lebanon has recovered its place as one of the country’s majes­tic touristic sites.
From the Crusaders to the Ma­melouks, the Ottomans, Palestin­ian guerrillas and the Israeli army, the fort has served the purpose for which it was originally built — a strategic military structure, which overlooks the Litani river, the Go­lan Heights, the slopes of Mount Hermon, northern Israel and the Mediterranean coast.
“It provides one of the few cases where a medieval castle proved of military value and utility also in modern warfare,” said Ali Badawi, the official in charge of archaeologi­cal sites in southern Lebanon.
“Its strategic position gave it such a historical importance. Its history goes back before the Crusaders, to 1000AD when it was an Arab tower that Frank kings replaced by a cita­del,” Badawi said.
Built on a rocky crest at 700 me­tres above sea level, amid enchant­ing countryside, Beaufort Castle — French for “beautiful fortress” and in Arabic Qala’at el-Shaqif (“Castle of the High Rock”) — is a mighty fortress that Crusaders built in 1139 as a military stronghold defending the extreme north of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
The fort, which has changed hands countless times over the cen­turies, is seen as a symbol of shift­ing power in southern Lebanon.
It was occupied by Saladin and the Muslims from 1190-1240, then again by the Crusaders. In 1610 Fakhredin II, emir of Lebanon, strengthened its fortifications and made it a storehouse for his treas­ures. The site was successively used by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s, Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon in 1982 and Lebanese re­sistance fighters who forced Israel to withdraw in 2000.
Deep and wide excavations were dug into the rock to isolate the fortress, which has many passage­ways, impressive underground rooms and towers from which de­fenders could attack from above. It has a storage room, an inside water reservoir dug out of the rock.
The site sustained a lot of dam­age over the centuries but the big­gest destruction resulted from military operations under Israeli occupation, Badawi said. “The Is­raelis buried the trench around the castle and built military barracks to fortify their forces,” he said. “Be­fore withdrawing, they blew up the barracks, a move that left the castle in disarray.”
After centuries of war and occu­pation, the castle was returned to the Lebanese state and opened to the public in 2007.
Restoration works started in 2011 with a joint $3.5 million Kuwaiti- Lebanese fund.
The project for restoration is di­vided into three stages, Badawi pointed out. “The first stage includ­ed archaeological excavations that are important to learn more about the history of the castle,” he said.
“We found pieces matching the military history of the fort since the time of the crusades and even before that. These included arrow­heads, stone projectiles that were used in medieval times in attacks on forts. We also found pieces from the 16th century like metal projec­tiles, in addition to empty shells that the Israelis had left behind.”
“As well, a large number of pieces that highlighted daily life inside the castle, such as pottery, glass pots and coins, were excavated,” Badawi added.
Part of the fort was not excavat­ed. “We left it to future generations to discover, maybe with more ad­vanced and accurate techniques,” he noted.
For the sake of preserving the castle’s authenticity, similar materi­als were used in the reconstruction, which included rebuilding vaults and cellars, reinforcing the castle’s crumbling walls and fortifying the roof. Stone and metal staircases with handrails were installed to make exploration easier for visitors.
The Beaufort Castle is among more than 20 citadels, dating from the Crusaders and Mamelouk pe­riods, found across Lebanon. “We have a huge cultural heritage and a big number of monuments but little funding to do the restoration,” com­mented Jean Yasmin, an archaeo­logical engineer with the govern­ment’s Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
“The conservation of the cultural heritage is unfortunately not a pri­ority for the government. It is some kind of a luxury in a country that has so many basic problems to deal with,” Yasmin said.
He argued that a comprehensive strategy for the conservation of his­torical military structures should include the network of forts exist­ing in a particular area, to make it more attractive to tourists. In southern Lebanon, the network in­cludes Beaufort, the Crusaders’ sea and land citadels in Sidon and the Tibnin, Shamaa, Shakra and Deir Kifa forts.
“Can you imagine offering tour­ists a network of forts, whereby they can visit one after the other with explanations about their past, their historical value and how they were connected to one another?” Yasmin asked.
“We have the vision but not the means,” he added.
Nonetheless, the CDR has re­vamped several sites that it handed over to the ministries of Culture and Tourism once completed. “The ministries are in charge of managing and exposing these sites for tourism purposes as well as to raise aware­ness among Lebanese about their common heritage, which is key to building a culture of peace,” Yasmin said.
Beaufort and other cultural ves­tiges are a storehouse of Lebanon’s history, which should be definitely preserved, he concluded.