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