Jacob’s Ford (Lat. Vadum Jacob) was the traditional biblical site between Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) and Lake Huleh where Jacob crossed the Jordan to meet his brother Esau (Gen. 32:10). During Frankish rule, it was a key river crossing on one of the main roads between Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) and Damascus.
Here Baldwin III of Jerusalem suffered a major defeat at the hands of the forces of Nûr al-Din while marching to the relief of Banyas, escaping to the nearby castle of Saphet (mod. Zefat, Israel) on 19 June 1157. The ford remained unfortified until Baldwin IV constructed a fortress, called Le Chastellet, on the western bank between October 1178 and April 1179. It consisted of an enceinte on a low hill, with the main gate on the south side, along which was a rock- cut ditch, and postern gates on the other three sides. Inside the castle were a cistern and a communal oven. Although there is no evidence of towers along the walls, written sources suggest the existence of a keep or citadel. The castle was never fully completed, and perhaps a double line of walls was ultimately intended, or, alternatively, a sloping talus around the curtain wall. Excavations, begun in 1993, have led to many new discoveries, including a wide range of iron tools.
The purpose of the fortress was both to defend Galilee and to threaten communications between Egypt and Damascus, although the religious significance of the site for both sides added extra impetus to the conflict. The castle was granted to the Templars, who, since 1168, had held Saphet, 15 kilometers (c. 9 mi.) to the southwest, and who regarded this region as one of their spheres of influence. Saladin took the threat extremely seriously, unsuccessfully offering the Franks 100,000 dinars to dismantle it, as well as raiding the surrounding area. In June 1179 at Marj Ayun, the Franks defeated a section of his forces under Farrûkh-Shâh, Saladin’s nephew, but this victory was quickly reversed when they encountered the main Muslim army.
Saladin began a full-scale siege on 24 August, capturing the outer compound on the first day, although it was another five days before the keep itself was undermined and the castle taken. Around 700 Frankish captives were either executed or enslaved, and the fortifications completely demolished. The destruction of Le Chastellet and its environs severely curtailed the Franks’ capability for offensives against Saladin’s domains and left the Gallilee increasingly vulnerable to his attacks. During the 1180s, Saladin generally held the military initiative, and it is arguable that these events made a significant contribution to his victories in 1187.