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The Rugged Beauty of Crusader Castles, Adrian Boas, BAR 32:01, Jan-Feb 2006.

crac-des-chevaliers-castle-of-the-knightsHoly Wars in a Holy Land

Nothing is more evocative of the Crusader period in the East than the often-imposing castles built by the Crusaders in what is today modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus.

Well over a hundred castles were constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, ranging from simple isolated towers to huge, complex fortresses with elaborate concentric defenses. The Crusaders were innovative and bold in their designs, borrowing freely from Western, Byzantine and Muslim military architecture. The great Hospitaller castle of Crac des Chevaliers and the Templar castle of Safed, to name only two, reached new heights in castle design.

Castles were of course not the only Crusader buildings. In both cities and rural settlements, many fine examples of churches, covered market streets, manor houses, private dwellings and farm installations have survived. Here, however, we will look primarily at the castles.

The 200-year Crusader period1 begins in 1096, when the armies of the First Crusade set out from Western Europe. With the end of the first millennium of Christianity, a wave of religious fervor and messianic hopes had been spreading through Christendom. This religious revival found expression in the establishment of hundreds of new churches and monasteries and in new developments in Christian thought, arts and liturgy. The emergence of Romanesque architecture and its spread throughout much of Europe can be understood as one expression of this development.

Pilgrimages were becoming increasingly popular, although by the 11th century it had become much more difficult for Christians to travel in safety through Muslim lands. The overland route necessitated unarmed passage through hostile and harsh terrain; and by sea, the pilgrim was in constant danger from piracy and shipwreck and the physical discomfort that was endemic to medieval sea travel.

Several large pilgrimages nevertheless journeyed to the Holy Land. A great pilgrimage led by the bishop of Bamberg, Germany, in 1064, for example, numbered several thousand pilgrims, despite the deteriorating security situation.

In the early years of the 11th century, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim began to persecute Christian communities under his rule and destroyed most of their churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although this church was rebuilt in the middle of the century, its destruction left a lasting impression on Christians in the West. The vulnerability of the holy places of Christianity could not be more dramatically revealed than by the destruction of the holiest of Christian shrines. Eight decades later this was still fresh in the mind of Pope Urban II when he spoke of the need to free the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim hands.

An equally great threat to Eastern Christianity was the Seljuks—Turkish tribesmen who managed within a few years to occupy most of Asia Minor. By 1071 the Seljuks had pushed the Fatimids out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land as far south as Ascalon (Biblical Ashkelon). By 1091 they had defeated the Byzantine army of Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes and within the following two decades the Christians had been expelled from most of Anatolia. The once great Christian Byzantine Empire no longer extended much beyond the city of Constantinople. As the end of the century approached, Constantinople itself was under siege. In 1095 Emperor Alexius sent an envoy to Pope Urban II requesting military aid.

On November 18, 1095, Urban II opened the Council of Clermont in central France. It dealt with Church matters in general, but the real subject of his speech had apparently become known before it was made, and drew vast crowds of clerics and laymen to Clermont, making it necessary for Urban II to address them outside of the cathedral in an open field. There he made a rousing call for the organization of a Crusade to fight the infidel and restore the Holy Places to Christianity. Participation in the Crusade would be rewarded by the remission of sins.

The reaction to Urban’s speech was immediate and overwhelming. Accompanied by the cry of Deus lo volt (God wills it), word spread throughout the West by enthusiastic churchmen such as the itinerant monk Peter the Hermit. At first it was the simple people, the peasant serfs, who answered the pope’s call. This initial reaction became known as the Peasants’ Crusade, a movement involving tens of thousand of people from villages in France and Germany, most of whom had no fighting experience or equipment. From the spring of 1096, they crossed Central and Eastern Europe towards Constantinople, but they never reached the Holy Land. The Peasants’ Crusade is remembered chiefly for the bloodthirsty acts of persecution and murder carried out by its participants on the Jewish communities in France and Germany. The pope had spoken of fighting the unbelievers. The leaders of this Crusade believed that they were carrying out the pope’s wishes by attacking the Jews. In their eyes there were several good reasons for attacking the Jews—they were thought to have crucified Christ, they were wealthy and they were easy prey, unable to defend themselves. And they were near at hand.

The massacres began at Worms and spread to Mainz, where the Jewish community was annihilated. Attacks also took place at Speyer, Trier, Metz and Cologne. Almost the entire community at Regensburg was forced to undergo baptism. It was a bloody ushering in of the Age of the Crusades.

By the time the peasant armies arrived outside Constantinople, they had dwindled in size and lost much of their unity and motivation. Some contingents had already broken up or turned back. Those that remained demanded entry into the city. Emperor Alexius, who had certainly not expected that his request to the pope for aid would result in such an army, refused them permission to enter Constantinople and instead sent them across the Bosphorus before they could do any damage to the capital or its hinterland. Once in Asia Minor, this inexperienced rabble was exposed to a real enemy and was soon decimated by the Seljuks.

This was not the end of the First Crusade, however. While this had been going on, leading members of Europe’s knightly class, men like Hugh of Vermandois, the brother of the King of France; Duke Godfrey of Bouillon; Count Raymond of St. Gilles; Duke Robert of Normandy; Count Robert of Flanders; Count Stephen of Blois; Bohemond of Taranto; and the chief papal legate, Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy, had been answering Pope Urban’s call. Each of them recruited a feudal army and, from around August 1096, began to set out for the East.

After arriving at Constantinople, the Crusader leaders proceeded to cross the Bosphorus into Asia Minor to begin their march east. Their first conquest was Nicaea, home of early Church councils but now in Seljuk hands for several years. They then continued southeast, skirting the Taurus Mountains. The heat and humidity of summer and the difficult terrain took a heavy toll. With the onset of winter the Crusaders encountered freezing temperatures and heavy rainfall.

By October 1096, Baldwin of Boulogne, younger brother of Godfrey of Bouillon, took a contingent of troops eastward as far as Edessa (Urfa). Here, through clever diplomacy, he was adopted as son and heir by Thoros, the Christian king of Edessa. Shortly thereafter, Thoros died in mysterious circumstances, possibly poisoned by Baldwin, who, on March 10, 1097, succeeded him, and the Crusaders gained their first possession in the East, the County of Edessa.

On October 21, 1097, the main part of the army arrived at the walls of nearby Antioch, once one of the great cities of the Byzantine Empire. The siege of Antioch lasted some seven months through the winter of 1097–1098, but was unsuccessful. The city was still defended by the massive walls built by the Roman Emperor Julian in the sixth century C.E., an impressive obstacle strengthened by barbican outworks and some 400 towers. As the siege dragged on, Crusader morale deteriorated and deserters began to slip away.

On June 2, 1098, one of the Crusader leaders, Stephen of Blois, abandoned the army on pretense of illness. He subsequently falsely reported to the emperor at Constantinople that the Crusader army had, in effect, been defeated. This act of cowardice ensured that reinforcements would not be sent by the emperor. However, on that very day Antioch finally fell, not as a result of a successful attack on the walls or starving of the populace, but through a bit of old-fashioned espionage. Bohemond of Taranto made contact with an Armenian Christian named Firouz, who served as guardian of one of the towers. Firouz felt little loyalty to the Turks and indeed bore a personal grudge against the Seljuk governor of the city, who had recently fined him for hoarding grain. Bohemond persuaded Firouz to allow some 60 of his knights to enter the tower at night, and thus they gained access to the city and opened the gates.

After Antioch fell, however, a large Muslim army from Mosul besieged the Crusaders. It was now the Crusaders who found themselves on the defensive. Months of siege had left the city with little food and few supplies. In addition, the Christians had not had time to recover from their long march east. As the siege continued, the situation became desperate. A churchman named Peter Bartholomew had a vision in which he saw that the Holy Lance used by the Roman soldier to wound Christ during the crucifixion (John 19-34) was buried in the cathedral. The leaders of the Crusade were ready to clutch at straws. An immediate attempt was made to verify this vision and, lo and behold, the holy relic was discovered. This discovery had the effect of restoring Crusader morale. The army regrouped and on June 28, 1098, marched out of the city gates in tight formation to face the enemy. The besiegers were routed with the assistance, according to some contemporary accounts, of divine aid- Knights who had fallen in the Crusade rode down from the heavens to fight alongside their comrades. The Muslim army fled and the Crusaders gained complete control of the city. Thus the second Crusader state, the Principality of Antioch, came into existence.

On November 27, 1098, part of the army arrived at the fortified town on Ma’arat an-Nu’man, southeast of Antioch. They besieged the town for two weeks, and, when it fell, they carried out a massacre of the inhabitants with a barbarity that was remarkable even for them. According to the Muslim historian, Ibn al-Athir, more than 100,000 men were slaughtered. A Crusader source describes “ripping open the bodies of the dead to find hidden coins; others cut the flesh into slices, cooking it to eat” (Gesta Francorum XXXIIII).

As the Crusaders moved south toward Jerusalem, governors of the coastal towns, not daring to resist, sent gifts. At Jaffa, the Crusaders found the city abandoned. At that point, they turned inland. On June 7, 1099 they arrived at a hill overlooking Jerusalem, probably the hill of Nebi Samwil northwest of the city. From there, they could just make out the Holy City in the distance. William of Tyre described the scene-

As they approached still closer and could gaze upon the Holy City now so near at hand, the pilgrims, most of whom were walking barefooted, gave utterance to their spiritual joy with heartfelt tears and sighs.

On June 13, the Crusaders attempted a direct attack on the walls of the city, but in the absence of wood to build ladders or siege towers, it was doomed to failure.

The Crusaders eventually acquired wood to build three siege towers. The dry moat protecting the city on the north was filled and the city’s outer wall was breached. Two of the siege towers were destroyed in the fighting, but, on July 15, at 9 o’clock (or mid-day according to the Gesta Francorum, at the very hour of Christ’s crucifixion), Godfrey of Bouillon managed to move the remaining tower up to the main wall. The bridge atop the tower was lowered and the army entered Jerusalem. The city soon fell.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the Crusaders displayed a barbarity that made the previous slaughter at Ma’arat appear almost unremarkable. According to William of Tyre, the whole place was flooded with blood. Ibn al-Athir wrote that 70,000 Muslims (far more people than the entire population of the city) were slaughtered in the al-Aqsa Mosque alone. The Gesta Francorum records that the Muslim captives who survived were made to remove the corpses outside the walls, where they piled them up in mounds as high as houses.

Practical matters were now attended to. An elected Latin patriarch became the Church leader as secular leader Godfrey of Bouillon was chosen over his chief rival, Raymond of St. Gilles. However, Godfrey turned down the title of king. Jerusalem was to have a king only when, a year later, Godfrey died and his brother Baldwin was elected in his place. Military orders, particularly the Templars and the Hospitaller Knights of St. John, were founded to care for the pilgrims and defend the roads and frontiers.

Over the next few decades the Crusaders extended their territorial hold as far north as Giblet (Byblos), north of Beirut, and as far south as Deir al-Balah, south of Gaza. Four Crusader states had come into existence- the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli to its south and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Architecture is arguably the most important legacy of the Crusader period in the Near East. Castles were built not only on Crusader frontiers and along the major roads, but within the towns and villages and even in the open countryside. They were built for a variety of reasons and, although there is a tendency to consider only their military functions, their administrative role was no less important. But above all they were built to make up for a lack of manpower. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the Crusader states in the East were under constant threat of siege or invasion. The chronic lack of settlers and soldiers made defending the towns and frontier difficult at best. Although approximately 60,000 men (about 6,000 of them knights) had set out on the Crusade, only about 15,000 men arrived at Jerusalem in June 1099. Within a few months, most of the army returned home. Only about 200 knights remained in the East.

Eventually the situation improved and, in a crisis, the King of Jerusalem could organize an army of a few thousand knights, augmented on occasion by mercenaries and pilgrims. This would still have been inadequate when faced by the much greater Muslim armies that contemporary writers often describe as ten times larger than the Crusader army.

The inability to recruit more knights and foot soldiers forced the Crusaders to place a greater reliance on fortifications.

Most of the castles were not very large and fall into two types- tower keeps and quadriburgia, a rectangular enclosure castle. The keeps were massively built but small structures, not usually more than two stories high, with walls up to 16 feet thick and with a single entrance on the ground or upper floor (in which case it would have been reached by a ladder or a removable staircase). These towers, like all castles, were built over cisterns to ensure a water supply in times of siege. They had living quarters on the upper level and were embellished with various defensive elements, such as arrow slits and battlements.

The quadriburgia were enclosure castles of rectangular form, with walls or vaults surrounding a central courtyard and with four projecting corner towers. The projecting towers enabled the Crusaders to defend the entire circuit of the walls by flanking fire from arrow slits in their sides. These were generally larger castles than the tower keeps and were able to house a larger garrison.

By the middle of the 12th century, royal involvement in castle building was on the decline. It was the military orders who increasingly took on the mantle of defenders of the Crusader states through the construction or expansion of castles. Indeed, after the decisive battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187, castle building was almost entirely limited to those built or expanded by the Hospitallers, the Templars and, on a small scale, the newly established Teutonic Order.

In 1227, the Teutonic Knights built their new administrative center, the castle of Montfort in the western Galilee northeast of Acre. In 1217–1218, the Templars built their new headquarters called Chateau Pelerin at ‘Atlit, south of Haifa, and later in the century greatly expanded the castle of Safed, which became the largest castle in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Among the great Hospitaller castles of the 13th century were Crac des Chevaliers and the Margat in the County of Tripoli. All of these castles were built on hilltops or mountain spurs. All dominated large tracts of countryside and, with the single exception of Montfort, which was built in an isolated area, these castles served as regional headquarters overlooking villages, small castles and the farmland of the military orders. The advantage of their high location was twofold- On the one hand, the strategic value of domination of the region was important both for administration and for military control; on the other, it was the height that made these castles much more effective in withstanding siege warfare, which had greatly improved in the second half of the 12th century to the extent that the old towers and enclosure castles were no longer viable as defensive buildings.

By the second half of the 12th century, both the Crusaders and the Muslim armies were employing ballistic machines in greater numbers than ever before. The new counterweight trebuchet could hurl much larger rocks with greater strength and for greater distances than the old siege machines. As a result, a fortress was only secure if it was out of their range. And the best means to making them so was by building them on high places with steep slopes forming natural defenses.

Only the military orders had the financial means to construct the great new building projects. The dominance of the military orders can be seen in most of the larger castles such as Belvoir (dominating the Jordan Valley south of the Sea of Galilee), Beaufort, Chateau Pelerin, Crac, Margat and many others. Alongside the defensive elements in all of these castles, the designs incorporate elements necessary for the monastic lifestyle that was adopted by the military orders. For example, as in monasteries, these castles had central courtyards, chapels, communal dormitories and refectories for communal dining.

The wealth of the military orders, which came from innumerable donations of property and money in the West, also enabled them to experiment with and develop new defensive elements. They adopted elements from Byzantine and Arab military architecture and introduced new elements of their own. This can best be seen at Crac des Chevaliers, where the use of machicolation (chutes or balconies from which rocks or boiling liquids could be dropped on an enemy below), round towers (more effectively defended than rectangular ones), a massive glacis and a highly developed gate complex show the skill of the Crusader architects. These great buildings were to serve as models for much of the military architecture of the coming centuries.

Over the two centuries of Crusader rule in the East, seven additional Crusades took place- On the whole they were remarkably ineffective, and their failure may perhaps explain the ultimate downfall of the Crusader states.

The Second Crusade (1147–1148) followed the first major loss of Crusader territory, the fall of Edessa (1144) to Imad ad-Din Zengi, the atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo and the initiator of the Muslim Jihad (Holy War) against the Crusader states. Led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, the Second Crusade achieved nothing but the alienation of the Governor of Damascus, who had previously been an ally of the Crusaders and an opponent of Zengi.

Although the Ayyubids continued to carry out raids against the Crusaders, they made little headway in recovering Crusader territory until after the critical battle at the Horns of Hattin.

On June 27, 1187, Salah ad-Din Ibn Ayyub (known in the West as Saladin) brought an estimated 30,000 Muslim troops down from the north, crossing the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee. He then laid siege to Tiberias. After entering the city his troops attacked the castle, which was occupied at the time by the wife of King Guy’s chief rival, Raymond of Tripoli. Guy’s response was to call up his entire army and to set up camp in the town of Saforie, about 35 miles west of Tiberias, where there was a good water supply, vital for a large army in the heat of summer. Saladin rode up to the outskirts of Salforie in an attempt to entice the Crusaders into leaving the security of the town and to face him in battle. He succeeded on July 3, 1187, when Guy led his forces out of Saforie. On the morning of July 4, they faced the much larger Muslim army in open battle below the Horns of Hattin, a small extinct volcanic crater a few miles west of the Sea of Galilee. This encounter ended in a resounding defeat of the Crusader army. As the Crusaders had called up almost every fighting man, the fortresses throughout the land were now defenseless against Saladin. By early October 1187 almost all the major towns, including Jerusalem, had fallen to Saladin’s forces.

The Third Crusade (1189–1192), the most important after the First, was aimed at recovering the land that had been lost after the defeat of the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin. Led by the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, Philip Augustus of France and Richard I (the Lionhearted) of England, it was only partially successful- The coast was reoccupied by the Crusaders as far as Ascalon, but the interior of the country was still mainly in Muslim hands and, most significant of all, Jerusalem was not recovered. The reoccupation of Jerusalem was to be achieved only four decades later through negotiation between the Egyptian Sultan and Emperor Frederick II.

After the Third Crusade there were no major successes in expanding Crusader territory in the Levant. The Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) did not even reach the Holy Land. Instead its troops were diverted against Constantinople, which fell to the Crusaders in 1204.

The Fifth Crusade (1218–1221) was aimed at occupying Egypt and came very near to achieving its goal. In February 1219 the Crusaders managed to occupy both banks of the Nile near Damietta. The Egyptians then offered them, in exchange for an evacuation of occupied territory in Egypt, a 30-year truce and the return of all of the territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem except OultreJordain (Transjordan). Indecision and rivalry, however, lost this golden opportunity for the recovery of Jerusalem- the King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, was in favor of the agreement but the papal legate, Pelagius of Albano and the leaders of the military orders opposed it. Eventually, however, the Egyptians simply flooded the Nile, cutting off the Crusader troops and, in the end, forced them to leave Egypt.

The Sixth Crusade (1228–1229) was led by Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He reached an agreement with the Egyptian Sultan al-Kamil that brought Jerusalem, a corridor to the coast and parts of the Lower Galilee back into Christian hands. However, Jerusalem was held for not much more than a decade before it fell for good to the Khwarismian hordes (Islamicized Turkish tribes).

The Seventh Crusade (1248–1254), led by King Louis IX of France (St. Louis), was directed against Egypt but achieved little; the king and much of his army were taken captive in Egypt and had to be ransomed.

The Eighth Crusade (1267–1270) was led by the indefatigable Louis IX, this time landing at Tunis in an attempt to convert the sultan of Tunis before proceeding to Egypt. It too ended in failure with the death of King Louis outside Tunis on August 25, 1270.

Over the next few decades the territory under Crusader rule dwindled away to nothing. Arsuf and Caesarea fell to Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1265, Safed followed in 1266, Jaffa, Belfort and Antioch in 1268 and Chateau Blanc, Crac des Chevaliers and Montfort in 1271. Sultan Qala’un took Margat in 1285 and Tripoli in 1289. By the opening of the last decade of the thirteenth century, the Crusaders held only Acre, Pilgrims’ Castle (‘Atlit) and the island of Ru’ad, off Tortosa.

In 1291 Crusader rule came to an end with the fall of Acre in May and the departure of the last Crusaders from Pilgrims’ Castle in August.

With the advantage of hindsight, it is easy to see that the fate of the Crusader states was sealed more than a century before their demise. The Battle of the Horns of Hattin and the subsequent loss of almost all Crusader territory exposed the fundamental weakness of the Crusaders, the serious lack of manpower and the lack of unity of even their comparatively small forces. After the battle, the Crusaders were notably unsuccessful in almost all their endeavors and had no strong leadership.

The lasting influence of the Crusader period on the material culture of Europe and the Near East has not been very great. Developments in military architecture certainly had an influence on Western military architecture until the use of gunpowder brought about radical changes in the art of fortification. The common use of cane sugar in the modern world may be the only lasting contribution of the Crusader period to modern society.

Despite recent advances in scholarship, the Crusader experience remains something of an enigma. How did it come about that in a medieval society where most people were serfs barely above the level of slaves and without knowledge of the world outside their villages, thousands of people could be motivated to leave their homes and travel some 3,000 miles in extraordinarily harsh conditions to what was for them almost a mythological land, to face hardships and war? And how, in the impossible conditions and against impossible odds, did the Crusader enclave in the Levant manage to hold out for nearly two centuries? These are questions that have no easy answers.

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