Margat/Qal‘at al-Marqab: the castle from SE

The Fortifications of the Crusader Period







The fortifications of the Crusader period, i.e. the two centuries between 1100 and 1300 C.E., are of a special interest not only for the regional history of the Levant but for the history of fortification in general. Their scientific exploration started 150 years ago with the investigation of the castles attributed to the Crusaders and has since then attracted scholars of different fields of interest. Although many of these objects have been studied in detail there are still many open questions. The reasons for this are the insufficient state of research, the complex multicultural historical setting, difficult research conditions due to political circumstances and an often unilateral approach of scholars focused exclusively on particular issues. Thus items like the town defences and the pre-Crusader fortification of the region, both fundamental for the assessment of developments in fortification, were almost blinded out. As comprehensive research on European medieval fortifications has worked out, castles and town defences were entities with a great variety of functions and meanings, fully understood only by means of a multidisciplinary approach. Furthermore, cultural preoccupations, research traditions and the lack of a good acquaintance with these objects, which are spread over nine different countries, have effected biased views. Since about two decades, however, these fortifications and their functions are discussed in a wider frame, encompassing several aspects that have not been considered before.

The Development of Fortification

Constantinople (Istanbul): S section of Land Wall

In the Middle Ages the Levant was an area crucial for the development of fortification. The heritage of a rich past was adopted and diversified by Byzantines, Muslims, Armenians and Crusaders. The Byzantine-Arab wars and local conflicts during the 10th and 11th centuries promoted the evolution of fortification long before the Crusaders arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean. Accordingly, the armies of the First Crusade on their way to Jerusalem between 1096 and 1099 encountered the most advanced fortifications of the time: Con­­stantinople (now Istanbul), Nicaea (now Iznik), Kaisariyya (now Kayseri), Mar‘ash (now Kahraman Maraş), Tarsus, ‘Ayn Zarbā (now Anavarza), Rāwandān (now Ravanda Kalesi), Tall Bāshir (now Tilbaşar Kalesi), Edessa (now Şanlı Urfa), Antioch, Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘mān, Ṭarṭūs, ‘Arqā, Tripoli, Tyre, Acre, and finally Jerusalem. All of them were surrounded by double, if not triple walls, protected by ample moats. Their gates were commonly entered through indirect access ways.

Ṣahyūn, E section of castle: Byzantine main wall (left)

The Crusaders became acquainted with achievements in fortification which were vastly superior to what has been developed by then in the West. Supported by well-skilled local craftsmen, of whom Armenians played an important role, they quickly adopted Eastern fortification schemes like the castrum-type fortification. Accordingly, a good deal of the castles built in the 12th century were modifications of this model. Although Byzantine fortification in the Eastern Mediterranean is not yet sufficiently explored, it is beyond doubt that it was a decisive source of inspiration. For several reasons this is hardly surprising. On the one hand the Crusaders rather preferred Christians as workers, on the other hand numerous Byzantine fortifications were present in the Levant and more than a few were taken over by them, in particular in the northern regions of their realm, e.g. ‘Ain Zarbā (now Anavarza), Baghrās (now Bakras Kalesi), Antioch, Latakia, Ṭarṭūs, Ṣahyūn (now Qal‘at Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn), Balāṭunus, and most of the castles in the Anṣariyya mountains. The main contribution of Western architects to Crusader fortification was the residential tower (donjon), a hallmark of Western feudal society not known in the East prior to the Crusader period. It dominated the castle and met the requirements of a noble ruler to demonstrate his power and social status.

Citadel of Caesarea: E wall and gate

From the mid-12th century onwards the picture changed with the rising of the Military Orders. They took over key strongholds and fortified them, according to their growing economical potential, to a much larger extent than the former feudal owners could afford. During the 13th century the two principal orders, the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar, played a vital role in the defence of the Crusader States. They erected huge fortresses, usually constructed on a concentric ground plan, like Tortosa (Ar. Ṭarṭūs), Belvoir (Ar. Kaukab), Chastel Pèlerin (Ar. ‘Athlīt), Saphet (Ar. Ṣafad), Margat (Ar. Qal‘at Marqab), and, best preserved of all, the famous Crac des Chevaliers (Ar. Qal‘at al-Ḥiṣn). These 13th-century fortifications reveal stronger architectural influences from the West, in particular from France. This is illustrated by the occurrence of rounded or D-shaped towers, architectural elements in Gothic style and a more regularly-coursed masonry of smaller stones. The fortifications constructed during the presence of king Louis IX of France from 1250 to 1254, of which the remains in Sidon, Caesarea and Arsūf are still to be seen, are of a special interest in this context.

Citadel of Damascus:

The picture is not complete without considering the Muslim military architecture of the period. Muslim fortifcations were the main type of defence the Crusaders were confronted with when entering the lands of the Eastern Mediterraean. Additionally, frequent changes of ownership in border areas promoted the mutual exchange of ideas and achievements. Muslim fortification was at a certain height at the arrival of the Crusaders in the Levant. Ascalon, Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre and Tripoli were well-fortified cities, the two latter even with a triple wall on the landside. In the course of the 12th century only few fortifications were newly built. Major attempts were some town wall reinforcements, executed by Nūr ad-Dīn, and the erection of the citadel and the city walls of Cairo by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin. The virtual revival of Muslim military architecture started at the end of the 12th century, when an enormous new fortification programme was implemented. The impressive citadels of Aleppo, Damascus, Bosra, and the castles of Ṣubaiba, ‘Ajlūn and Baalbek still bear witness of it. These fortifications show an hitherto unkown degree of monumentalization in architecture, which is most evident at the citadel of Damascus. Its enceinte is dotted with huge rectangular towers at narrow intervals. These massive multi-level constructions are a hallmark of Ayyubid and the subsequent Mamluk military architecture. Their emergence can not be adequately explained as a response to Crusader fortification achievements or to the progress of siege techniques. They should rather be seen as a manifestation of the reinvigorated power and significance of the Muslim elites in the aftermath of Saladin’s momentous victory over the Crusaders.

After the mid-13th century only few new fortifications were built in the remaining Crusader states. A decisive downturn in Middle Eastern castle building came with the end of the Crusader period on the Levantine mainland in the beginning of the 14th century. The Mamluks in their effort to prevent the Crusaders from taking a hold on the Levantine coast had razed many of the harbours and their fortifications. They only maintained a few castles in the hinterland like Marqab and others at strategic points inland. Although the kingdom of Cyprus continued to exist, Mamluk attacks were rare and inefficient, due to the lack of a powerful navy. Therefore, during the 14th and 15th centuries the rulers of Cyprus felt no need to advance fortification schemes. The next step in the development of military architecture were the defence works of the Hospitallers on Rhodes and the islands of the Dodecanese, where, based on the experience made in the Levant, they created modern fortresses, in response to the new threat posed by the emergence of firearms.

The History of Research

(to be continued)