The conventional wisdom of the 13th century held Tripoli under the Crusaders to be unconquerable. Capital of one of the four Frankish states since 1109, it was an Eastern Mediterranean port some 2000 years old, where Venetians, Genoese, Pisans, Arabs, Ottomans and Jews ran shipyards, fisheries, olive-oil presses, textile shops and orange groves. Its sugar traders were famously innovative, and were among the first to arouse Europe's sweet tooth. So well-fortified was the city that in the late 12th century, Saladin, who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, settled for merely worrying the environs of Tripoli.
During the 13th century, Tripoli fended off three sieges. The last two were by the formidable Al-Zahir Baybars, the Mamluk sultan who had become a Muslim hero in 1260, fighting in the vanguard of Sultan Al-Muzzafar Qutuz's victory over the Mongols at 'Ain Jalut. Baybars campaigned almost annually in the Levant, seeking the restoration of the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria by chipping away at Crusader rule. In the 1280's, Sultan Al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qala'un carried on that strategy, and by late in the decade, his prospects looked good.
Qala'un took major Frankish strongholds in 1285 and 1287, and when internal rivalries weakened Tripoli's defenses, he saw his chance. In the spring of 1289 he led his army north, stopping to pick up reinforcements in Damascus. About Tripoli's walls he deployed a huge force—sources number the soldiers at between 40,000 and 100,000—along with some 19 mangonels and catapults. Crusader reinforcements never arrived. The Venetians fled the city first, fearing that the Genoese might take all the ships. The siege lasted a day shy of five weeks, and when Qala'un was finished, the only remaining seat of Crusader power was Acre. Two hundred and twenty-seven years of Mamluk rule in Tripoli had begun.
Victorious, Qala'un repaired to Cairo. He left Tripoli under the control of Sayfedeen Balaban Tabbakhi as governor of the mamlaka, or state, of Tripoli, which was one of the six political units that made up what the Arabs called bilad al-sham ("the north country"). Its territory included roughly what is now the modern nation of Syria along with today's Lebanon and parts of Palestine. Tabbakhi's orders were to oversee the demolition of the Crusader city, and begin its reconstruction as a Mamluk one.
The demolition was not done entirely out of spite. Tripoli, named by the Greeks when it led a consortium of three coastal settlements (tri-polis), was itself something of a double city, as it is today. There was the walled harbor town, called al-mina, which is Arabic for "the harbor." It was the center of the city through successive eras until Mamluk times, and lay on a flat promontory that jutted into the sea from the fertile coastal plain, forming a harbor on its northern side.
Then there was the citadel, which lay inland some three kilometers (1.9 mi), snug against the foothills of the mountains, capping the hill known as Abu Samra. Just who first built it is uncertain: Some maintain the castle was the construction of Raymond IV of St. Gilles, the Crusader Count of Toulouse; others say St. Gilles enlarged and fortified an existing Fatimid Arab stronghold. But there is no doubt how St. Gilles used it: It was his base during 10 years of on-again, off-again, ultimately successful sieges of al-mina that ushered in Tripoli's Crusader era. The castle bears his name today, Qal'at Sinjil, and the solidity of its construction exempted it from Qala'un's demolition orders. Indeed, the Mamluks expanded the fortress further still. (Today, it is the city's most dramatic tourist attraction.)
Qala'un also ordered the Mamluk city to be constructed not at al-mina, but instead under the brow of the citadel. This, says Khaled Ziadeh of Lebanese University, was both strategy and sensibility. Ziadeh has specialized in Tripoli's social history. "To the Crusaders," he says, "the citadel was a military fortification that they first used to besiege the Arab city and later to guard the coastal center. But to the Mamluks, a citadel was always a social and political unit as well as a military one. The Mamluks were very much afraid the Europeans would return—remember, they had only retreated as far as Cyprus—which gave the Mamluks good reason to build inland rather than right on the coast. But that was not their only reason. It was also their tradition, which they had developed in Cairo."
Just who the Mamluks were can be difficult to understand today, for they have no modern analogue. The word mamluk means "something that is possessed" in Arabic, and it refers to a caste of elite military slaves. In the central Islamic lands, between the 10th and early 19th centuries, that phrase was not the self-contradiction it seems today. To become a Mamluk, you had to be born a peasant in the Turkic-speaking lands of Central Asia; and you had to be purchased by a patron, a Muslim ruler to whom you would swear fealty for life. In return, you would be schooled—often very well schooled—as an officer or, in the case of the most able, as a cavalryman. You rose through the military ranks on your own merit, for a Mamluk could neither inherit nor bequeath his position. Mamluks spoke Turkic tongues among themselves, which set them apart from local populations, and they took great pride in having been chosen individually to rise out of poverty and become men of achievement, responsibility and refinement. For their patrons, this system enabled them to control their domains using professional guards and armies who had no potentially subversive connections among the subject populations.
Inevitably, the Mamluks became powerful in their own right. Both in Baghdad and, more dramatically, in 13th-century Cairo they overpowered their patrons and established hereditary dynasties of their own. In Egypt, the Mamluk dynasty ruled for more than 500 years—independently from 1250 to 1517 and effectively, as Ottoman tributaries, until 1811. Supporting the Mamluk sultanate were such social institutions as the fortress, the palace, mosques and religious academies, which were patronized by sultans, princes, governors and other powerful individuals who increasingly, as time went on, were themselves Mamluks.
In Mamluk Tripoli, after securing the seat of government in the citadel, quartering the troops and making basic repairs to the aqueduct, among the first major projects undertaken was the construction of a central congregational mosque. Commissioned five years after the city's capture and dedicated to Al-Mansur Qala'un during the brief reign of his son Al-Ashraf Salah al-Din Khalil, it was this Great Mosque that first stamped the city with its new Islamic, Mamluk identity and offered a new hub for the religious and commercial life of the city. It rose on the site of the Crusader church of St. Mary, and it incorporated a relic gate and, for a minaret, the church's square-plan bell tower, both of which survive to the present day.
Using a nearly square paved courtyard, a central domed ablution fountain and a vaulted prayer hall, the Great Mosque followed architectural design principles common to the region at the time. However, it was built of the same stone as the citadel and other fortifications, and it lacked the ornamentation that is the most recognizable and pleasing feature of the architecture that developed out of those same principles several decades later.
That was because the years of the Great Mosque's construction were lean years, says historian Omar Tadmori of Lebanese University. Security and the restoration of basic services were foremost in the minds of the city's patrons and governors, who oversaw a permanent garrison of about 5000 soldiers. Europeans mounted occasional raids from their bases in Cyprus and beyond, and there was the ever-present fear—albeit never realized—of another all-out Crusade. Tadmori, who has advised on restoration projects throughout the Mamluk city and is modern Tripoli's leading architectural historian, notes that "the Mamluks did not build a wall around the city...; [rather] they constructed the markets, roads, and the narrow streets in a zigzag fashion" to confound and confine intruders—in short, to make the city into a trap. Tall stone houses rose at strategic corners, and each was fitted with slit windows for shooting. Each market and each section of the city could be closed off by its own gate.
Yet defense was hardly the sole consideration in city planning. Tadmori also points out that "the building of mosques, schools, baths and hostelries (khans) in the center of the main markets was always considered. They were built next to each other to allow traders, travelers and visitors to go to the mosque together, or attend the nearby school." In addition, the nature of crafts and trades determined assigned locations for each of the more than three dozen specialized markets: The more prestigious and refined ones, such as the cloth, gold, perfume, shoe and confectionery suqs, clustered close to the Great Mosque; the loud or smelly ones, such as the coppersmiths' and tanners', were situated where they would be least likely to distract those who gathered for prayer.
One prominent early patron of building was Prince Sonkor bin 'Abdallah Nuri, whose bath and madrasa (Qur'anic school) both bear the name Nuri today, as does the entire district around the Great Mosque. Other princes, governors and even sometimes the wives of such officials underwrote construction of other mosques and of baths, schools, markets, squares, fountains, gates and numerous houses; others sponsored the draining of marshes, the repair and replanting of fragrant groves of oranges, bananas, dates and walnuts and fields of sugarcane, along with irrigation systems; still others helped rebuild and expand industrial workshops for making soap, pressing olive oil, refining sugar, and weaving velvet and other textiles. Such patronage, undertaken out of a combination of noblesse oblige and a desire for self-commemoration, increased trade and the local tax base. In a few decades, Tripoli's population climbed from fewer than 20,000 immediately after the Crusader exodus to more than 40,000. (By comparison, some 100,000 people lived in Damascus at the time.)
Prosperity returned. Two decades after the Mamluk conquest, in 1310, Isa ibn 'Umar al-Burtasi commissioned a madrasa, the first in the city to make use of what are now regarded as the major elements of Mamluk decorative architecture. The portal and the arched windows of the madrasa were framed in alternating courses of black and white stone, a technique called ablaq—literally, "piebald." This set the openings off dramatically from the plastered, whitewashed sandstone walls, expressions of a North African influence that came to Tripoli by way of Cairo and has almost entirely disappeared today. Muqarnas squinches (see sidebar, page 10) appeared both in the portal and in support of the central dome. Inside, marble marquetry decorated the qibla wall, which indicated the direction of prayer, and the floor that surrounded the ablution fountain.
The madrasa of al-Burtasi, which today functions as a congregational mosque, was soon one of more than 20 schools in the city. Like their counterparts in Cairo, the Mamluks of Tripoli were not military men in a narrowly soldiering sense: They saw themselves as custodians of the Islamic empire, and their humble origins likely made them sharply aware of the value of the education they had themselves received. As a result, the city blossomed as an academic center as well as a center of commerce and crafts. By encouraging the madrasas, "the Mamluks transformed social and religious relationships through architecture," points out Tripoli-born historian Hisham Nashabe. "They created what became a center for the 'ulama, the intelligentsia of the time, who lived in the al-Burtasi district until the 19th century."
Tripoli's prosperity impressed visitors. In 1326, Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta remarked on the city's "amazing markets and fruitful plains." In her 1975 survey of the Mamluk city, architectural historian Hayat Salam-Liebich notes that in the early 1300's "travelers mention [Tripoli's] numerous mosques and madrasas, its beautiful markets and luxurious baths, and its construction of whitewashed stone, but what most impressed everyone who visited the city...[were] the water channels everywhere and the water piped from the neighboring hills that could reach the tops of houses several stories high."
With wealth came more refined, elaborate architecture, and the most elegant articulations of the Mamluk decorative vocabulary appear in the buildings of this early 14th-century period. It was in those years that the craftsmen of the city, looking mainly to Damascus and Aleppo, were able to carry their skills to sublime heights. Of the several dozen constructions of that time, two stand out.
The Qaratay Madrasa, built next to the Great Mosque between 1316 and 1326 by the governor of Tripoli, makes exquisite use of marble marquetry, especially in the square plaque above the main door, where interlacing bands of polychrome marble form four loops about a central, circular window. Other, square marquetry panels decorate the floor. Ablaq appears not only around doors and windows, but is also echoed in relieving arches above each window, in which alternately black and white stones interlock in fluid, elaborately curvilinear patterns.
In the 1330's, as the central city became increasingly built up, Vice-Sultan Sayfeddeen Taynal Hajeb Ashrafi commissioned a mosque at the southern edge of the city. Using the site of a former Carmelite church, where several Roman-era Corinthian capitals and columns were lying about, he sponsored construction of the city's most spectacular portal. Today it is also the best preserved because, unlike other portals, it stands inside the mosque, which is entered through a modest covered portico, or riwaq. The riwaq opens into a plain but grandly proportioned, domed vestibule that is used as a secondary prayer hall, and which also provides a superb frame for the decorative portal that leads into the main prayer hall. Yet in that main prayer hall, there is relatively little decoration. In this way, the Taynal mosque exemplifies the Mamluk tendency to concentrate decoration on the most noticeable parts of the structure: the portal, the minaret and, to a lesser extent, the windows.
The portal at al-Taynal, among the tallest in the city, is clearly its most refined Mamluk expression. It uses polished ablaq, a joggled relieving arch, extensive calligraphic inscriptions, three panels of marble marquetry and a crowning muqarnas half-dome. It is a coherent structure, one in which details contribute to what Salam-Liebich describes as the "feeling of freshness and purpose" that characterizes the best of Mamluk craftsmanship.
In the years that followed the 1330's, buildings of all types continued to be erected and decorated—some very well—and some of those still stand today. But by mid-century, the reign of Al-Nasir Qala'un had ended, and his successors proved less adept. Plague devastated the Mamluk world socially, economically and politically no less than it did Turkey, Europe and North Africa. And though Tripoli's sugar trade continued to gain renown in Europe in the late 14th and 15th centuries and the city grew ever more cosmopolitan, yet the building crafts seemed to lose the exuberance that had characterized what the early Tripolitan Mamluks called Tarabulus al-Mustajadda ("Tripoli the Renewed"). In 1517, Tripoli was folded into the Ottoman realm and its administrative status was downgraded. It remained a leading academic city of the Eastern Mediterranean until the mid-19th century, when it was eclipsed by the rise of Beirut. Today, its role is largely commercial.
In recent times, efforts to conserve, restore, catalog and publicize the city's Mamluk heritage have been carried out by a dedicated coterie of local Islamic waqf (foundation) trustees and Lebanese historians, among the latter Tadmori and Ziadeh. The Lebanese civil war did not significantly damage the core of Tripoli, and the city retains most of its Mamluk plan despite Ottoman, colonial and modern overlays. Two published architectural surveys, Salam-Liebich's and another carried out by graduate students of the American University in Beirut, have established a basis for conservation. The city has designated 45 buildings as historic landmarks, and it has marked them with trilingual blue signs that identify them and give their construction dates: 30 of them date to the Mamluk era.
However modern Tripoli may be in a lean time not unlike the early years after the Mamluk conquest. "Right now, there is no money for conservation beyond basic maintenance," says Shawki Fatfat, an architect in his late 20's who spent much of last year unemployed. "There are too many other more pressing problems since the [end of the Lebanese civil] war. This is understandable, but there is so much more that we could be doing—excavations, restorations, even just cleaning things."
Fatfat and others are hopeful that the Mamluk city will become the fifth site in Lebanon to be listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of its more than 600 World Heritage Sites. The motion is being brought by Nashabe, who also represents Lebanon on UNESCO's executive board.
World Heritage Site status, he says, would raise the profile of the city in a way we desperately need. It is like a certificate of authenticity, validating it in the eyes of international concerns that could then be in a more confident position to make partnerships with local ones."
Today, the old city is a crowded warren of dilapidated charm and seemingly undimin-ished utility, one among that handful of very old urban cores, from Fez to Istanbul, that wear well the passage of half a dozen centuries. True to the Mamluks' intentions, the city remains exceptionally difficult to navigate. Even Fatfat gets lost: "I grew up here and have studied and photographed every one of the monuments, but I still get confused sometimes," he confesses. But unlike many other cities, where markets have grown and expanded organically over long periods of time, Tripoli's have remained confined by the original plan, and one can still see where the gates—now removed—would have sealed one trade's area off from another's, leaving intruders at the mercy of archers.
Now, the stems of satellite dishes often poke out of the old slit windows and rooftop crenelations designed for the archers, and while women still negotiate the narrow passages with baskets of vegetables on their heads, some of them pause to take calls on cellular phones. Yet the coppersmiths still bang out tea trays; the Khan al-Khayyatin ("tailors' hostelry") is still stacked with bolts of cloth, and the ramshackle, nearly abandoned Khan al-Saboun yet houses a few makers of multicolored, hand-packed, spherical olive-oil soaps, variously sweet and musky—one even gooey with honey. Along the sea, al-mina, which the Mamluks were the first and only occupants of Tripoli to neglect, thrives as an industrial port and fish market, much as it has since Phoenician times nearly 3000 years ago.
The orange groves and sugarcane fields that lay between al-mina and the Mamluk city are increasingly filled with ranks of apartment buildings whose drabness is offset by the vistas they offer their occupants: on one side, the sea, and on the other, the snow-capped mountains. To increasing numbers of middle-class and professional Tripoli-tans, the old Mamluk city is a place to take pride in—though from a comfortable distance, if only because finding a parking place near it can be so exasperating. That is one development that the Mamluk planners can hardly be blamed for failing to anticipate.
Dick Doughty is the assistant editor of Aramco World. He visited Tripoli in the spring of 1999.