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Volume 21, Number 3May/June 1970

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The Castles of The Crusaders

At every pass they stood—vital links in a chain of massive fortresses stretching from the Taurus Mountains to the Judean Hills.

Written by Robin Fedden
Photographed by William Tracy
Additional photographs by Khalil Abou El Nasr

Although the Krak des Chevaliers (see up. 12) is the most striking crusader fortification, it was still only one of many such castles that in strength, number and disposition are unique.

From Arabia to the Taurus Mountains almost every strategic pass and coastal anchorage was fortified. On the island of Graye their masonry is washed by the waters of the Red Sea; at Petra it rises above the scorched rocks and the Nabatean temples; at Le Moinestre their mountain eyrie, at over 6,000 feet, is under snow for half the year; at El Habis Djal Djaldak the very caves in the great rock face were fortified; at Beaufort their castle dizzily overhangs the gorges of the Litani River; at remote Saone 170,000 tons of rock were carved from the mountain to strengthen their defenses; and at Tortosa they erected a cathedral within their fortification.

Many of the castles were built to guard the long and dangerously exposed flank of this new kingdom that the crusaders carved out of Islam.

It was a curiously shaped kingdom, between 400 and 500 miles long but, except in the extreme north, dangerously narrow. Rarely more than 50 to 70 miles separated the seaboard from a hostile Muslim hinterland and at Tripoli the crusader's hold shrank to a bare 25 miles.

If the First Crusade, at a time when the Franks possessed both the military initiative and a large army, had swung east to capture Aleppo and Damascus on the fringe of the Syrian Desert, history might have been different. The Latin Kingdom would have effectively separated the Muslim capitals of Cairo and Baghdad, and the crusader flank would have rested on the parched lands that stretch eastward to the Euphrates. In these deserts a hostile force could operate only during the winter months and even then with difficulty. But instead the First Crusade pressed on to capture Jerusalem—and for psychological reasons any other course would have been difficult—and the opportunity to capture Aleppo and Damascus vanished. Consequently the shape of the Latin Kingdom for defensive purposes remained highly vulnerable.

Another reason for the immense fortifications was a shortage of manpower. Although the army that the crusaders assembled at Nicaea in 1097 was very large by the standards of the time, crippling losses sustained during the long summer march across Anatolia and at the battle of Dorylaeum, left them with not more than 25,000 men to attack mighty Antioch. Then, after the siege and fall of Antioch, the commanders began to drop out at an alarming rate. Bohemund of Sicily established himself at Antioch. Baldwin of Boulogne set off with his contingent across the Euphrates to capture Edessa. And as the main army moved south other commanders detached themselves to carve out domains in attractive territory. By the time the crusaders reached Jerusalem in 1099, they could count no more than 1,500 knights and perhaps 10,500 foot-soldiers and neither the relief expedition of 1101 nor the Second Crusade helped. Even the Third Crusade brought only temporary relief. In the absence of men, in short, there was no alternative to massive fortification. Stones had to do the work of men.

Architecturally, the crusader castles were an extension of the architectural concepts of 12th and 13th century France,—the Franco-Burgundian genius that was giving the world Mont St. Michel, Chartres and Rheims. In addition, however, the crusaders, by combining current European practice with the Byzantine and Arab precedents that they found in the East, not only produced castles that have remained the architectural wonder of succeeding centuries, but revolutionized military fortification.

When the crusaders arrived in the Levant at the end of the 11th century, fortification was neither elaborate nor subtle. Based on the recently introduced Norman keep, it was essentially passive in conception. Though a keep was so solid that it might be defended by a single man, it could be besieged by two, one standing on either side of the gateway. The crusaders made castles offensive.

The first step was to substitute the less vulnerable round keep for the square keep which eventually developed into a linked strongwork of two or more towers. By furnishing the curtain walls with round towers of deep salient, they enabled defenders to provide flanking fire. In the 12th century, as the archer increased in importance, the crusaders also provided for two or three tiers of fire in the curtain wall. Lastly they brilliantly developed the concentric fortifications which presented two or more successive and concentric lines of defense, the inner lines always dominating the outer.

An attention amounting to genius was given to detail. Every military device was exploited and improved. The curtain walls were liberally furnished with posterns to enable the garrison to play an offensive role. These posterns were so placed that men fighting their way back to the shelter of the castle would expose only their left or shield side to the ennemy. To defend the main gate—always a point of weakness—they elaborated the bent-entrance. To penetrate the castle, attackers had to make a number of blind, right-angle turns which effectively discouraged charges. The crusaders also reintroduced the forgotten Roman portcullis—an iron grating hung over the entrance and dropped during an attack. They also developed machicolation —a series of overhead apertures through which missiles or hot liquids could be dropped from a castle's parapet on attackers—later a feature of 13th-century English castles.

Not least, the Franks carefully sited their castles, not only with reference to the defensive character of the immediate terrain, but with a view to signaling. There was often inter-communication between castles over a wide area. The Krak des Chevaliers, guarding the vulnerable waist of the kingdom, was one of a network of seven major castles linked by signal. When Saladin was besieging Kerak of Moab in 1183, the commander was able to transmit messages every night by signal fires to King David's Tower at Jerusalem 50 miles away.

The Franks had begun to construct fortifications almost as soon as they arrived in the Holy Land. But as time went on, and the period of expansion gave way to the period of retreat (which ended with the fall of Acre in 1291) the character and purpose of the castles changed.

In the first period the Franks took over and carefully strengthened existing works of Byzantine and Arab origin. At the same time they built castles for the purpose either of reducing Saracen strongholds or of extending their rule eastward into Muslim territory. It is a curious fact that the crusaders marched 400 miles from Antioch to Jerusalem without capturing a single castle. After the fall of Jerusalem their first objective was the reduction of the fortified towns which they had bypassed. To achieve this they built their earliest castles. They were primarily strongworks for the blockade of such towns as Tyre, Tripoli, and Ascalon. At the same time, to exert control over the lands beyond the Jordan, they built offensive castles such as Subeiba on the slopes of Mount Hermon, and Montreal and Kerak of Moab across the Dead Sea. These castles marked the height of Frankish power and the greatest extent of the crusader kingdom.

It was in the second period, however, the period of retreat, as the Franks were forced to rely more and more on their outstanding skill as military architects, that the most splendid crusader castles were built. As manpower progressively declined and the Saracen pressure increased, there arose such superb fortifications as Chastel Pelerin and Margat. These bastions were planned on a vast scale. Within the concentric fortifications of Margat for instance, the undercrofts were designed to hold provisions for 1,000 for a five-year siege, and at Chastel Pelerin, constructed on more conventional principles, the first of the gigantic rusticated walls which separated the marine peninsula on which the castle stood from the mainland was 20 feet thick. One of the towers of the second line of defense still raises its ruinous bulk 110 feet above the surrounding desolation.

Though initially held as feudal fiefs by the nobility, as the 12th century progressed and Muslim pressure increased, the burden and expense of manning and maintaining castles was more than most rulers could support. One by one they were sold or given away. By the middle of the 12th century it was exceptional to find a major castle in private hands. Fortunately by this date two kindred organizations had developed well able to assume responsibility for the castles: the Military Orders of the Hospital and the Temple. As the feudal lords relinquished them, the military orders took over and until the fall of Acre, a century and a half later, the orders were primarily responsible for the defense of the Latin Kingdom.

The castles could not have been entrusted to better hands. The military orders enjoyed vast wealth from their religious endowments in Europe and the Levant; their direct responsibility to the papacy gave them authority and independence; their vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, accorded well with the dour life of remote fortresses. Not least they were empowered to raise their own taxes, they possessed their own navy, and they could negotiate on equal terms with the courts of Europe through their own diplomatic service. As it turned out, of course, even these advantages were not enough. Despite epic stands and almost fanatic heroism they—and the castles committed to their care—succumbed to what, in retrospect, was probably inevitable.

Robin Fedden is the author of Crusader Castles, an authoritative survey of the crusaders' great fortresses, and of Syria and Lebanon, a social and historical study.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the May/June 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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