Nimrod Fortress National Park on Golan Heights has the biggest Middle Ages castle in Israel. Let’s begin our visit!
Nimrod Fortress is located in the northern Golan Heights, on a mountaintop about 800 meters above sea level.
The Nimrod Castle National Park lies at the foot of Mt. Hermon southwest of the village of Neveh Ativ on the Banyas extension, at an elevation of 760 meters, surrounded by cliffs. The site is on a sharp curve between the fourth and fifth kilometer on Road 989 which connects Road No. 99 with Neveh Ativ and Majdal Shams.
Source: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.
Map of the area:
Sunday – Thursday And Saturday: 8 – 17 (16 during winter).
Fridays: 8 – 16 (15 during winter).
On holidays usually 8 – 13.
Adults 22 NIS, children 9 NIS, and Students 19 NIS. And free for National Parks annual subscribers.
If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves post.
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated in January 2019. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867 on his way to Damascus. He also passed through Nimrod Fortress, and this is what he wrote:
Two hours later we reached the foot of a tall, isolated mountain, which is crowned by the crumbling castle of Banias, the stateliest ruin of that kind on earth, no doubt. It is a thousand feet long and two hundred wide, all of the most symmetrical, and at the same time the most ponderous masonry. The massive towers and bastions are more than thirty feet high and have been sixty. From the mountain’s peak, its broken turrets rise above the groves of ancient oaks and olives and look wonderfully picturesque. It is of such high antiquity that no man knows who built it or when it was built. It is utterly inaccessible, except in one place, where a bridle-path winds upward among the solid rocks to the old portcullis.
The horses’ hoofs have bored holes in these rocks to the depth of six inches during the hundreds and hundreds of years that the castle was garrisoned. We wandered for three hours among the chambers and crypts and dungeons of the fortress, and trod where the mailed heels of many a knightly Crusader had rung, and where Phenician heroes had walked ages before them.
Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad – 1869 (you can find the whole book at gutenberg.org project).
Mark Twain references to Nimrod Fortress as the castle of Banias. This name affected Mark Twain’s guide, and they believed it was a Crusader fortress. Initial evidence showed that the fort was founded by Muslims and later vastly reconstructed and expanded by crusaders. But, later, findings show that the crusaders almost did not do any construction on this site. And this leads us to history.
The Castle was built after the death in 1193 CE of Salah a-Din, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. According to the historian of the ruler of Damascus at that time, Nimrod Castle was built after Al-Aziz Othman, son of a nephew of Salah a-Din, assumed control of the region in 1218-1232. That fact is reinforced in the inscriptions decorating the walls of the fortress, bearing the name of the local ruler.
The castle was built hastily since in 1227 the army of the German Kaiser Friedrich II arrived in the Holy Land and renewed the Crusader threat over the Ayyubids. Due to the pressure of time, the Ayyubids used an economical method of building, and the castle was erected within only three years – 1227-1230 CE. At first a small fortress was built on the eastern, higher part of the slope, and subsequently, the castle was expanded and built also on the western region.
The location of the building was given a lot of thought, to set it on one of the most strategic points on the road leading from the Hula Valley and the slopes of the Golan in the direction of Damascus in Syria. It is built on the steepest point in the region, overlooking the road passing over the southern, relatively moderate slope, which can be observed from the direction of the keep. All along the road ascending from the Hula Valley to Damascus, no other steep ascents are commanded so prominently by the cliff dominating them as does Nimrod Castle.
Ayyubid control came to an end in 1260 CE, when the Mongols conquered the region. Their rule did not last long, and in that very year, the Mamelukes faced them in a decisive battle at En Harod (the En Jalud battle). In this battle the Mameluke general Baibars overpowered the Mongol forces, who left Syria, and the entire region passed to Mameluke control.
Up to his death in 1277, Baibars expanded his kingdom while destroying the coastal cities and renovating the fortresses inside the country, including Nimrod Castle. In this period Nimrod Castle was renovated and expanded and rebuilt on a higher level of quality, excellent building materials, and impressive architecture expressed that. Later on, Baibars transferred control of the entire area and the fortress to his loyal assistant Bilich, who continued with the renovation of the fortress and added towers. After Bilich’s death and the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land in 1291 CE, the importance of the fortress declined and the construction on it ceased.
The Ottoman rulers used the fortress as a prison, and in the 16th century, it was completely abandoned and became a shelter for shepherds in the region. In October 1759 there was an earthquake that affected the entire area (the cities of Safed and Ba’al Bek were severely damaged), and among others – Nimrod Castle. Despite the force of the earthquake, the majority of the castle’s towers did not suffer any serious damage. Subsequently, the castle was abandoned until modern times.
In the 1920s, the French army used Nimrod Castle while suppressing the Arab and the Druze revolts. In this period the French placed at the Castle a battery of cannon, and for that purpose, they broke a hole in the western wall that serves as the entrance to the castle to this day. Later, during the 6-Day War, the castle was used by the Syrians as an artillery observation point, due to which the IDF’s air force damaged the facade of the castle. After that period the military battles in the region ceased. The castle was rehabilitated, renovated, and studied. Among other things, ancient inscriptions in Arabic were found that shed light on the building history of the castle.
The Names Of Nimrod Fortress
Nimrod Fortress has many names. It is also called Nimrod Castle and Banias fortress (named after the city in the valley). In Arabic, it is called Qal’at al-Subeiba (“Castle of the Large Cliff”) and later named Qal’at Namrud, (“Nimrod’s Castle”). In Hebrew, it is called Mivtzar Nimrod (“Nimrod’s Fortress”).
As you can see, almost all the names mention Nimrod. So who was Nimrod?
Nimrod In The Bible
Nimrod is a biblical figure described as a king in the land of Shinar (Assyria/Mesopotamia), was, according to the Book of Genesis and Books of Chronicles, the son of Cush, therefore the great-grandson of Noah. The Bible states that he was “a mighty hunter before the Lord [and] …. began to be mighty in the earth”. Extra-biblical traditions associating him with the Tower of Babel led to his reputation as a king who was rebellious against God.
Also, according to the same source: “Druze who came to the region during the 1860 conflict between themselves and the Maronites began calling it Qal’at Namrud (Nimrod’s Castle).”
Why did they attribute the castle to Nimrod? The only explanation I found is the following legend:
Legend has it that the connection between the king and his namesake fortress goes like this: On a visit to the swampy Hula lowlands, a pesky mosquito flew into King Nimrod’s ear. In a move of regal arrogance, he tried to end his mosquito troubles by having his head replaced with one of pure gold. Sadly and to his surprise, he found the remedy fatal, and according to the legend, his subjects buried his head in the valley below his magnificent former abode, where mosquitos continue to plague it even today.
Usually, during the summer vacation, the Israeli Parks and Nature Authority offers lantern tours. These tours take place after regular working hours (AFAIR 20:00). Thus you need to book tickets in advance. Moreover, since they are taking place during the summer vacation, many people are interested. Therefore I would suggest booking several weeks ahead.
I purchased those tickets once but had to cancel at the last moment since my daughter was not feeling well. Therefore, currently, I can not offer any insights regarding the lantern tour.
Nimrod Fortress National Park has the biggest Middle Ages castle in Israel. The entire fortress complex is 420 meters in length and 150 meters in width.
At the entrance to the park, in the ticket office (near #14), we received a brochure with explanations on one side and a plan on another. Here is the map with marked points interest.
You can see there is a circular trail along with the POI in the park. And this round route takes 2-3 hours to complete. So after leaving the car at the parking lot (on the left end of the map), we headed toward the entrance to the fortress.
The entry point (number 1 on map):
Sultan Baibars Inscription
At point #2, you can find the Baibars inscription:
The largest and most monumental inscription ever found in Israel to date. The inscription was exposed by a fall of stones that was at the foot of the eastern wall of the tower. It is made of five granite stones six meters long and 1.35 high and consists of four lines in Arabic. The inscription was built into the wall above the internal eastern opening, and it commemorates the building of the tower. The inscription that was read by Reuven Amitai-Price, professor of Middle Eastern history, mentions Sultan Beibars as patron, his officer Bilich as having initiated the building, two of the fortress commanders, the architect, the builder and the writer of the inscription, as well as the date the construction was completed – 674 after the Hegira (1275 CE).
View of the south-western tower (number 5 on map) and the valley beneath it:
The south-eastern tower – an enormous four-story tower that was expanded during the Mameluke period. The south-eastern tower is of special importance. It commands the access roads along the southern wall, which is relatively vulnerable, and therefore the tower was expanded as part of the reinforcements of the castle. The stairs lead to the interior hall, with its arrow slits (which were always built into exterior walls) evidencing the fact that it was formerly the original tower. The tower was expanded in the time of Baibars, and then additional arrow slits were built. From the platform, a spiral staircase descends to the rooms facing south, which also have arrow slits. The top of the tower affords a wonderful view of the entire southern wall, the Galilee, the Hula Valley and the slopes of the Golan and the Hermon.
View towards the east tower. As you can see, only the outer walls and towers remained. And all structures inside, ruined.
Writings and a lion:
View along the walls:
Inside the south-western tower (number 5 on map):
The tower has four floors, and using the round stairs you can go from one to another.
View of the tower from outside. Usually, different stone sizes indicate construction at different periods.
The Large Water Cistern
The Large Water Cistern is marked as point #6 on the map.
The large cistern – to the north-east of the south-eastern tower there is a large cistern, measuring 25X9.5 meters, and 8 meters deep. Rainwater flowed into it via a system of channels that cannot be seen any longer since it was destroyed. A barrel vault covers the northern side, and at its edge stairs descend to the bottom. A groin vault covers the southern part. A later break in the southern wall – made by shepherds – enabled them to look into the cistern.
The Drinking Fountain
Drinking fountain beside the large water cistern:
The drinking fountain – located at the southern side of the cistern on the external wall. The water came from the cistern. Above the fountain is an inscription by Fakhr a-Din Hassan, who renovated the drinking facility in 1240 CE.
View down to the Hula valley beneath the fortress:
“The Beautiful Tower”
The Beautiful Tower is marked as #8 on the map. Here are several interior photos:
The “Beautiful Tower” – this tower, protruding from the wall in a kind of semicircle, was built by Beibars. The interior is sloped, and the roof is vaulted. The construction, the stone carvings, and the finish of the arrow slits are of remarkably high quality. At the right-hand corner is a toilet cubicle, similar to that in the north-western tower.
Nimrod Castle and the surrounding cliffs provide a habitat for various animals and birds. The most common animal among the rocks and stones of the castle are the rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), large colonies of which live within and around the Castle. The most common predators in this region are jackals and foxes, and the largest mammal is the wild boar which roams in groups consisting of some individuals in the wadis and on the steep slopes. Among the rodents, the broad-toothed field mouse (Apodemus mystacinus) and the long-tailed field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) are common in the woodlands, where they feed on acorns, various plants and also insects.
Studies of bats conducted in northern Israel found mouse-tailed bats (Rhinopoma) at the site as well as the threatened horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus). Among the reptiles, lizards and geckos can be found among the rocks on the cliffs, where they find shelter in the cracks in the rocks, and on the slopes and in the woodlands can be seen agile lizards, tree geckos and limbless lizards (Anguidae).
Out of the all mentioned variety, we saw only lizards. But, keep in mind that you can stumble upon snakes, thus prefer closed shoes.
The Nimrod Castle National Park lies on the slopes of Mt. Hermon. The higher one goes in the region of the Banias springs, the vegetation also changes. In this area, it consists of typical Mediterranean woodlands of common oak and terebinth (Pistacia Palaestina). The majority of plants in this type of environment are evergreens, and there are places where the common oak grows exclusively. The plants in this woodland are typical of the woodlands appearing in the Upper Galilee, including: the snowdrop bush (Styrax officinalis), the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), broad-leaved Phyllirea (Phyllirea latifolia), Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus), Spanish broom (Spartium junceum), shrubby Jerusalem sage (Phlomis viscose), Etruscan honeysuckle (Lonicera Etrusca), fragrant virgin’s bower (Clematis flammula), creeping pipevine (Ristolochia sempervirens), spiny broom (Calicotome villosa), spiny hawthorn (Crataegus aronia) and more.
The road that leads to Nimrod Fortress:
The keep is marked as number 10 on the map.
The keep was built at the highest part of the fortress. It is a fortified and independent structure with its moat and wall. In the event of a breach of the lower fortifications, the fighters could continue the battle and defense from inside the enormously strong keep. Its gate is at the north-western corner. Square towers were erected at its four corners. In the space between them are remains of the arches of the ceremonial hall, additional halls, and water cisterns. From the top of the tower, there is a spectacular view.
The keep in b&w:
At this point, we turned back, and this is the keep from about halfway back:
The Northern Tower
Then we entered the Northern tower (number 12 on map):
The northern tower – an imposing tower at the western end of the northern wall, built in 1230 CE by the Ayyubid ruler Al-Aziz Othman. The tower was built at the top of a steep rocky cliff, which left no room for additional construction. The tower is well-preserved, including a hall with arrow-slits in its walls, from where a flight of stairs leads to the roof. In the 15th century, the place served as a prison.
The Secret Passage
We headed to the secret passage (number 13 on map) and, using it, exited the fortress.
The secret passage – west of the gate tower, at the edge of the “patio,” a secret passage was built leading outside of the northern wall. Near to the western gate, there is a large opening leading to a beautiful staircase, 27 meters long, 1.8 meters wide, covered by a high, spectacularly beautiful vaulted ceiling. In this ceiling, a row of stones can be seen that was moved out of place by the earthquake. The staircase leads to the secret passage, through which it is possible to exit the fortress without being discovered by the enemy outside. The height of the passage is impressive and is more appropriate for a grand royal entrance than for a secret passage. The passage ends in a hidden opening built at the bottom of the external northern wall, concealed from the outside by natural rock.
And this is where the secret passage led us:
Here are several nearby attractions that might interest you:
- Banias Nature Reserve
- Saar Falls
- Mount Hermon
- Tel Hazor National Park
- Tel Dan Nature Reserve
- Ayun Stream Nature Reserve
- Agamon Hula
You can combine Nimrod with one of these attractions for an excellent half to a full day visit.
Nimrod Fortress National Park is a lovely place for a visit. And though it is not a big park, you can easily spend several hours there. Moreover, it is suitable for a family visit. And since it is located in northern Israel on top of a mountain, it is not too hot there. Moreover, usually during the summer month, on specific dates, Nimrod Fortress is open until late. And you can visit this national park during sunset. Also, check out the lantern tours I mentioned above. Thus, if you have an option for an evening/lantern tour, definitely check it out.
Have you ever been to Nimrod Fortress National Park? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!
Here are several resources that I created to help travelers:
- Israel Trip Planner is the page that will help you to create your perfect travel route.
- National Parks And Nature Reserves page lists and put all national parks on the map. There is also a top list, information about ticket types and campsites.
- If you are looking for things to do, here are the pages for Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Sea Of Galilee, and Makhtesh Ramon.
- Wondering what events are there in Israel? Here is the Events And Festivals By Season guide.
And if you have any questions then check out Useful Information For Tourists To Israel.