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The Battle of Jacob’s Ford was fought in 1179 between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the forces of Saladin. The site is also known by the Latin name of Vadum Iacob and in modern Hebrew as Ateret.
In October 1178, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and the Knights Templar began building the castle of Chastellet at the site of Jacob’s Ford, the only crossing place of the Jordan River and the main route from Saladin’s Empire to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The castle was only a day’s march away from Damascus, Saladin’s capital, and would severely undermine his authority there. At the beginning of construction Saladin was away quelling a rebellion in Lebanon. The castle was set to rival the size of Crac des Chevaliers but when Saladin returned, only the castle’s first ring of walls was finished, standing ten metres high and only one tower was completed with the rest of the castle still unfinished.
In the Spring of 1179 several skirmishes took place, mainly with Saladin victorious. Baldwin retreated to Tiberias and later Jerusalem to regroup, while Saladin summoned reinforcements from northern Syria and Egypt. By August 1179 Saladin was ready to assault Jacob’s Ford. Baldwin was now stationed at Tiberias, only a half-day’s march away. Saladin began by bombarding the castle with arrows from the east and west and then sending specialist miners to sap the walls by filling a tunnel under the wall with brush and setting a fire to cause the roof to collapse bringing the wall down with it. The tunnel was completed on the fourth day of the seige but the fire failed due to the tunnel not being directly under the wall. Saladin was now expecting Baldwin to arrive soon and force his retreat so he needed to continue the sapping immediately but with the fire still raging it was now impossible. Saladin offered a gold coin for each man who volunteered to put the fire out which they did by carrying buckets of water from the Jordan river. The volunteers suffered heavy casualties due to the Crusaders concentrating their fire on them in an attempt to buy time for Baldwins arrival. With the fire out, the tunnel was extended and set afire again on the fifth day causing a breach through which Saladin poured his men, killing 800 of the garrison and taking a further 700 captive who he then had executed. Saladin ordered his men to fill the castle well with the bodies of slain men and horses, spoiling the water source for many years to come and deterring reconstruction on the site. Baldwin arrived six hours later and, seeing his castle in flames, turned back. Saladin dismantled the castle, but not before a “plague” ravaged his army killing ten of his commanders.
Development of Jacob’s Ford
Reconstruction of the fortress of Jacob’s Ford In October 1178 Baldwin set out to construct a castle which would destabilise Saladin’s nascent empire and shift the balance of power in his own favour - the fortress of Jacob’s Ford.
He began fortifying a strip of raised ground on the west bank of the River Jordan, beside an ancient ford north of the Sea of Galilee. With swamps upstream and rapids to the south, this ford was the only crossing of the Jordan for 50 miles and, as such, acted as a gateway between Latin Palestine and Muslim Syria.
‘It stood in a frontier zone contested by both Baldwin and Saladin - a kind of no-man’s-land between their respective realms’
But Jacob’s Ford did not lie on the Crusader’s side of a literal border line. Instead it stood in a frontier zone contested by both Baldwin and Saladin - a kind of no-man’s-land between their respective realms. Add to this the fact that Jacob’s Ford was just one day’s march from Damascus, and it becomes clear that Baldwin was, in 1178, adopting an audacious, even visionary, strategy.
His new castle was designed to be a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon, to severely inhibit Saladin’s ability to invade the Latin kingdom while simultaneously undermining the sultan’s security in Damascus. If completed, this fortress could thwart Saladin’s ambitions for an empire stretching into northern Syria and Mesopotamia.
Baldwin took his new project at Jacob’s Ford exceptionally seriously, committing practically the entire resources of his realm to its construction. Between October 1178 and April 1179 he actually moved his seat of government to the building site to be on hand as supervisor and protector. He also enlisted the aid of the Templars, a military order that combined the ideals of knighthood and monasticism in the sacred pursuit of the Holy Land’s defence
The Battle at Jacob’s Ford
Reconstruction of Muslims and Crusaders fighting at Jacob’s Ford At dawn on Thursday 29 August 1179, the great Muslim sultan Saladin launched a deadly assault on the Crusader castle of Jacob’s Ford in the Holy Land. As his troops poured through a burning breach in the walls, the Christian garrison of elite Templar knights made a bloody, but ultimately futile, last stand.
In a final act of bravery the Templar commander mounted his warhorse and charged into the fray. One of Saladin’s lieutenants later described how ‘he threw himself into a hole full of fire without fear of the intense heat and, from this brazier, he was immediately thrown into another - that of Hell’.
‘He threw himself into a hole full of fire without fear of the intense heat...’
On that day 800 of the garrison were butchered, and a further 700 taken captive. With the stronghold overrun, Saladin set about razing it to the ground, later claiming that he ripped the foundation stones out with his own hands. The site was then abandoned and for eight centuries it lay untouched, its story all but forgotten.
The true significance of Jacob’s Ford, around 50 miles north-west of Jerusalem, is only now becoming apparent. With its location rediscovered and archaeological excavation underway, it now appears that the fall of this seemingly obscure fortress was actually a pivotal moment in the history of the Crusades as well as the wider struggle between Islam and the West.