Much has been talked about the past foreign invasions in the Holy Land – invasions by the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, and British, among others. But apart from the Romans and the Muslims, European Christians also invaded and ruled the Holy Land. They were the Crusaders, who first captured Jerusalem in 1099 from the Muslim caliphate, ending the early Muslim rule over Jerusalem and establishing a Christian kingdom there.
From their initial siege of Jerusalem, the Crusaders went on to rule the Holy Land for more than 250 years before ultimately losing control of the territory to the Mamluks in the late 13th century.
An 800-plus-year-old fortress called Château Pèlerin is one of the few vestiges of Israel’s Crusader past. Unfortunately, Israel’s navy currently uses the old castle as a base. This means it’s not open to the public and cannot be visited by tourists for the time being. But it’s still worth looking back at its history – who knew, there might be a chance for you to see and visit the fortress ruins one day.
Château Pèlerin (Chastel Pèlerin in Old French, Castrum Perigrinorum in Latin) is located in Atlit, a coastal town about 13 kilometers (8 miles) south of Haifa. It is also known as the Pilgrims Castle in recognition of the work done by the pilgrims who helped build it. Its other name is Atlit Castle.
This Crusader fortress was built by the Knights Templar, a religious military order of knighthood established during the Crusader era. Construction began in 1218 during the Fifth Crusade (1217 – 1221), replacing the earlier fortress, Le Destroit, which was located slightly back from the coast. The fortress’s location – the top of a promontory – offered it protection from three sides by the sea.
In its original state, Château Pèlerin could support more than 4,000 troops in siege conditions.
The Knights Templar took control of the fortress, which was never placed under siege due to its excellent design and strategic location.
Ayyubid troops, following the orders from emir al-Malik al-Mu’azzam, besieged the fortress in 1220. It came under siege again in 1265 by the Mamluks under Sultan Baybars.
The Siege of Acre in 1291 led to the Crusaders losing their control of Acre (Akko) to the Mamluks. The siege is considered one of the most pivotal battles during the period, and the Crusaders’ defeat permanently marked the end of their rule in the Holy Land. Shortly after the siege, the fortress was evacuated and then taken over by the Mamluks. Despite the Mamluks besieging the fortress, they did not destroy it, as it was their custom of leaving a captured fortification in good condition.
The fortress remained intact until it suffered damage from the Galilee earthquake in 1837. Three years later, it suffered further damage by Ibrahim Pasha, who used the fortress as a source of stone for building Acre (Akko).
During the British Mandate era (1917 – 1948), a Mandate-sponsored major excavation was conducted at Château Pèlerin from 1930 to 1934. British authorities later used the fortress to imprison illegal refugees during the late Mandate period.
Château Pèlerin as an IDF naval base
In the 1950s, the old castle was seized by the Israel Navy, the naval arm of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which made it into a secret base for its commando unit, the Shayetet 13. Since then, Château Pèlerin has been part of the IDF’s Atlit naval base.
In 2017, Château Pèlerin appeared briefly in the national news as it was the subject of a controversy between the IDF and Atlit locals. The IDF wanted to keep Château Pèlerin as part of the naval commando’s base of operations. But Atlit residents demanded to open the old castle for tourism, which would generate millions of shekels. Researchers, on the other hand, were mum on the issue, hoping to keep the site intact.
Despite repeated pleas and protests by the locals, they have still failed to open the site for public access and tourism. So, the fight over the old fortress’ control is still ongoing for the time being.
However, the Israel Navy makes an exception to scientists, archaeologists, and state-sponsored researchers by granting them access to Château Pèlerin to work and excavate there, as long as they comply with field security protocol.
Château Pèlerin’s island-like location is situated on Atlit beach, which offers magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea. For sure, it would be Atlit’s top tourist draw if opened to the public. It would generate significant income and provide jobs for the locals.
However, some people claim that Château Pèlerin (and the beach surrounding it) is better off in its present state. They reason that without tourists, the site can be well maintained and the natural beauty of the place will remain intact.
Someone working for the Israel Antiquities Authority offered a peek at what’s inside the old castle: “When you visit the site you can even see the halls and facilities used by the Knights Templar, like baking ovens and remnants of the church.” It sounds like a wonderful place to explore, doesn’t it?
Do you think it’s time that Château Pèlerin should be finally opened to the public? Or should it remain under military control? Send us your opinion here – we will highly appreciate it!