Israel's Good Name

Apollonia (Arsuf)

In Central Israel, Israel on October 1, 2017 at 4:52 PM

A week after I finished volunteering at the Horvat Midras archaeological dig, where I participated in clearing Israel’s only pyramid, I took a fun trip with my friend Adam. In the morning we headed to a coastal Crusader castle Apollonia (or Arsuf) at the northern end of Herzliya, busing our way via Tel Aviv. We made our way to the park after disembarking a few blocks away, noticing a large piece of glass laying on display at the entrance, testimony of Apollonia’s ancient glass industry.

City ruins

In Apollonia’s earliest years, when the so-called Phoenicians ruled the coastal area, a small port city was founded. They called this city Arsuf after their god of war and storms, Reshef. When Hellenistic influence overrode the locals, the city’s name was changed to Apollonia, in honour of Apollo, the Greek equivalent of Reshef.

Ice plants decorating the scenery

The Roman times saw an enlargement of the city, with several different communities of inhabitants. During the Byzantine era the city became important, reaching its height of development and a sizable glass industry was created. We noticed lots of ancient glass bits littered about the path area towards the end of our visit, which brought us great excitement.

Details of the castle moat

But it was the Crusader times and ruins that intrigue me most about Apollonia, when the site was renamed to Arsuf or Arsur by the Muslim and Christian forces, respectively. Thankfully there are ruins of this period still standing for us to see, the centerpiece of the park.

Crusader castle of Arsuf

I had read a lot about the battles that took place in and around Apollonia, as well as learned about modern techniques in research to verify theories with archaeological findings. Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University explained to me one evening his process towards identifying the battleground location of the Battle of Arsuf between the Ayyubids under Saladin and the Franks under Richard the Lionheart, which was described as being partially fought at the edge of a forest. Unfortunately, the Ottomans cut down most of the trees in the Holy Land to fuel their impressive rail system, so the forest is no longer. However, a veritable line of medieval arrowheads was found and, using a clever method of using data gleamed from shooting recreated Ayyubid bows, the arrow flight distance was calculated. Measuring the length of the flight backwards from the arrow line gave an approximate location for the place where Ayyubid archers hid in ambush to cut down the Frankish troops. I found that to be absolutely fascinating and, since then, yearned for the day to visit Arsuf.

Path along the sea

Returning to our adventure, we entered the park and began along the paved path. We gaze upon the southern moat and wall of the Crusader city and then the excavated remains of a Roman villa as we headed in the direction of the sea. The Mediterranean looked mighty fine that day, with a scattering of wispy white clouds in the rich blue sky. Walking along the sea cliff, parallel with the beach down below, we passed Byzantine water cisterns and reservoirs.

Adam at a cistern

We continued north until we reached the Ottoman lime kiln, a stone-lined furnace, and then swung inland a tad to walk around the Crusader moat. With moats come castles and this time was no exception. We gazed upon the stony ruins, imagining a time long since passed. The castle at Apollonia was built in the mid 1200s after the city had been in and out of European rule since 1101 when it was conquered by King Baldwin I with Italian naval support. When the city was gifted to more private hands, those of a noble family, the castle was built. However, this was short-lived because the Mamluks were on their campaign from the south and, in efforts to save the region, Apollonia was given to the Hospitaller Order. But even the famous knights couldn’t stem the tide of Muslim conquest under the leadership of Baibars and the castle fell in 1265 after a forty-day siege.

Artist’s rendition of the Mamluk siege

Since then, no locals or conquering forces have made attempts to rebuild the coastal fortress and so it stands today, a bastion of ruin surrounded by a deep dry moat. We then passed the site of the original bridge, long since fallen, and crossed via the “new” land bridge on the bright, paved path.

Greetings my lords

A smartly dressed Crusader knight greeted us on approach, bidding us entrance to his home. Inside, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the fortress, surrounded by different rooms. We chose to visit the ground floor of the keep first, and to gaze out towards the sea from within the vaulted room. Continuing on in a clockwise manner, we visited the kitchen next, and then the dining hall and adjacent food-related chambres. I noticed how small the dining room was, say, in comparison to the Crusader castles at Akko and Belvoir.

Within the keep

Heading from the north end of the fortress’ interior to the south end, we entered the Burnt Room, named such after the visible burn marks from the Mamluk acts of destruction. Within the rooms at the south end we found many piles of ballista stones, which were used by the knights to counter the siege, as well as marble Corinthian column capitals.

Looking north

We climbed to the highest ruins of the keep and admired the view, looking down at the shore below to see the remains of the Crusader port. After some relaxation time in the shade we left the castle and made our way to the far northern end of the park. There we sat on a bench and talked about life’s complexities, losing a whole bunch of sandwich cookies to the sand below us. We watched the sea and its guests, and the military helicopter that flew over us. At last we took to the path once more and explored an unmarked excavation area with a simple mosaic floor.

Ancient piece of glass

On and around the path we found tons of ancient glass shards, even the rim of a small bottle, as well as an adult antlion flying through the dry vegetation. With that we walked our way back to the park’s entrance and left, briefly exploring the high-tech area of Herzliya before parting ways, bringing an end to yet another successful trip.

A special thank you to the talented Rebecca Zami who has been skilfully editing my blog for the last couple months!

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  1. The man who faked several artifacts like the ancient pomegranate and the ossuary used to get stone with real patina for the verisimilitude, from these very ruins.

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