The Templars and the Defence of the Holy Land

From the moment that the First Crusade arrived in the Middle East, the Crusaders started building castles. As in Europe, they served as residences and administrative centres, as well as having a military function. But after the Second Crusade the Franks in Outremer found themselves on the defensive and the military nature of castles became more important. Often large and elaborate, and continuously improved by the latest innovations in military science, the Franks built over fifty castles in Outremer. Geography, manpower and the feudal system all explain this considerable investment in stone.

The Crusader states were long and narrow, lacking defence in depth. The Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem stretched 450 miles from north to south, yet rarely were they more than 50 to 75 miles broad, the County of Tripoli perilously constricting to the width of the coastal plain, only a few miles broad, between Tortosa (present-day Tartus) and Jeble. The inland cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus all remained in Muslim hands, while Mesopotamia and Egypt were recruiting grounds for any Muslim counterthrust, as the campaigns of Saladin and the Mamelukes would show. For the Crusaders the natural defensive line was the mountains, and they built castles to secure the passes.

Stones more than soldiers were pressed to this purpose as Outremer was chronically short of men. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 most of the Crusaders returned to Europe; the Kingdom of Jerusalem was thereafter defended by 300 mounted knights. Despite successive crusades, at no time during the entire history of the Crusader states were they able to put more than 2600 horse in the field. Moreover, though there was still a large local Christian population, these were Orthodox while the Crusaders were a Latin minority.

Outnumbered and insecure, the Franks of necessity housed themselves in fortified towns or in castles. Nevertheless, if the Crusader states were to survive they had to be a going concern, and the Franks set about organising their possessions along familiar European feudal lines. Castles were as much centres of production and administration as they were military outposts–battlemented country houses, containing corn mills and olive presses, and surrounded by gardens, vineyards, orchards and fields. Their lands in some cases encompassed hundreds of villages and a peasantry numbering tens of thousands. Wood to Egypt, herbs, spices and sugar to Europe, were important exports; indeed throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europe’s entire supply of sugar came from the Latin East.

But in times of war, agriculture was always the first victim. Were it not for Western subvention and the taxes imposed on trade between the Muslim East and Europe as it passed through the Crusader states, they would have collapsed sooner than they did. The Latin rulers were always strapped for cash, the bulk of their revenues going towards the upkeep of mercenaries, knights and castles. It was a vicious circle; insufficient land and manpower making castles a necessity; the cost of knights and castles greater than the productivity of the land could justify.

In this situation the military orders came into their own. They had the resources, the independence, the dedication–the elements of their growing power.

Structure of the Templars

THE TOP FIVE OFFICIALS of the Knights Templar were the Grand Master, the Seneschal, the Marshal, the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Draper. Ultimately, the Order owed its allegiance to the Pope–and to no other authority, spiritual or temporal.

 THE GRAND MASTER Ruler of the order, the Grand Master was elected by twelve senior Templar members, the number representing the twelve apostles, plus a chaplain who took the place of Jesus Christ. The master had considerable but not autocratic powers.

GRAND CHAPTER Comprised of senior officials. All major decisions by the Grand Master–such as whether to go to war, agree a truce, alienate lands, or acquire a castle–required that he consult with the chapter.

 SENESCHAL Deputy and advisor to the Grand Master.

 MARSHAL Responsible for military decisions such as purchase of equipment and horses; he also exercised authority over the regional commanders.

 DRAPER The keeper of the robes, the Draper issued clothes and bedlinen, removed items from knights who were thought to have too much, and distributed gifts made to the order.

 REGIONAL COMMANDERS These were the COMMANDER OF THE KINGDOM OF JERUSALEM, who acted as the order’s treasurer and within the Kingdom had the same powers as the Grand Master; the COMMANDER OF JERUSALEM, who within the city had the same powers as the Grand Master; and the COMMANDERS OF ACRE, TRIPOLI AND ANTIOCH, each with the powers of the Grand Master within their domains.

 PROVINCIAL MASTERS France, England, Aragon, Poitou, Portugal, Apulia and Hungary each had a provincial master who was responsible to the Grand Master.

 THE KNIGHTS, SERGEANTS and other MEN AT ARMS were subject to these various officers and their deputies.

A Power Unto Themselves

After the Second Crusade both the Hospitallers and the Templars came to provide the backbone of resistance to the Muslims, but the military impetus came from the Templars. The Hospitallers were still an entirely pacific order when the armed order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ came into being. But sometime in the 1120s the Hospitallers extended their role from caring for pilgrims to protecting them by force of arms if need be, becoming known as the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, or Knights Hospitaller, with Saint John no longer the Almsgiver but replaced by the more imposing figure of Saint John the Baptist. The first recorded instance of Hospitallers in combat dates from 1128, eight years or so after the founding of the Templars; it was the example of the Templars that helped turn the Hospitallers into a military order.

In due course the military orders were put in possession of the great castles, a task for which they were perfectly suited. The frontier castles were remote, isolated and lonely places; they did not appeal to the secular knighthood of Outremer. But the monastic vows of the military orders suited them to the dour life of castles where the innermost fortifications served as monasteries for the brothers. Their members were celibate, which made them easy to control, and they had no outside private interests. Superbly trained and highly disciplined, the Hospitallers and the Templars were led by commanders of considerable military ability; the capabilities of the orders generally stood in marked contrast to those of the lay institutions of Outremer.

The orders owed direct responsibility to the Papacy, placing them above not only local feudal quarrels but the antagonisms of nations and their kings. As corporate bodies, the orders were everlasting, their numbers undiminished by disease or death, and they were able to draw on an inexhaustible supply of young men of noble families in Europe seeking to fulfil the moral and religious obligations of knighthood. Also the Templars and the Hospitallers received donations of property in Europe which soon made them wealthy. Each order levied its own taxes, had its own diplomatic service and possessed its own fleet of ships. In effect the Hospitallers and the Templars were states within the state. Very quickly the under-manned and under-financed Crusader states were selling or giving frontier fortresses to the orders, and by 1166 there were only three castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem which the military orders did not control.

Costing the Templars

Every Templar was a highly trained and expensive mounted knight. Such a knight in the second half of twelfth-century France required 750 acres to equip and maintain himself as a mounted warrior, and a century later that cost had quintupled to 3750 acres.

For a Templar knight operating overseas in the Holy Land the costs were even greater, as much had to be imported, not least horses. Each Templar knight had three horses, and because they fell victim to warfare and disease, and had a lifespan of only twenty years, they needed to be renewed at a rate greater than local breeding allowed. The cost of horses rose six fold from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries. Moreover, horses consumed five or six times as much as a man, and required feeding whether or not they were in use. A bad harvest in the East, and urgent food supplies had to be shipped in for men and horses alike.

Each Templar also had a squire to help look after the horses. And in addition there were sergeants, more lightly armed than knights, who each had a horse but acted as their own squires. Sergeants were often locally recruited and wore a brown or black tunic instead of white. In fact for every Templar knight there were about nine others serving in support, whether as squires, sergeants or other forms of help. This is not much different from modern warfare in which every frontline soldier is backed up by four or five who never see combat, not to mention the many thousands of civilians producing weapons and equipment and providing clothing, food and transport.

Growing responsibilities increased Templar costs immensely. As secular lords found themselves unable to maintain and defend their castles and their fiefs, they handed these responsibilities over to the military orders. According to Benedict of Alignan, a Benedictine abbot visiting the Holy Land in the 1240s, the Templars spent 1,100,000 Saracen besants in two and a half years on rebuilding their castle of Saphet (Safad)–this at a time when a knight in Acre could live well on 500 Saracen besants a year–and continued to spend 40,000 Saracen besants in each following year on the day-to-day running of the castle. Saphet had a complement of 50 Templar knights, 30 mounted sergeants, as well as 50 mounted archers, 300 crossbowmen, 820 engineers and other serving men, plus 400 slaves–1650 people, which in wartime increased to 2200, all of whom had to be housed, fed, armed and kept supplied in various ways.

Only their vast holdings in Outremer and more especially in the West permitted the Templars to operate on such a scale and recover after losses and setbacks to continue the defence of the Holy Land.

Ruins of the castle of Baghras – a.k.a. Gastim – built in 1153 by the Templar Knights to control the Syrian [Belen] Gates, the mountain pass between Alexandretta and Antioch. It was forced to capitulate to Saladin in 1189. Retaken and restored in 1191 by the Armenians, the castle was returned to the Templars in 1216. In 1268, before having to surrender to the attack of Sultan Baibars, the Templars dismantled Gastim and set it on fire.

Templar Castles

When the First Crusade marched into the Middle East it came over the Belen Pass, about sixteen miles north of Antioch, that same crossing over the Amanus mountains that Alexander the Great had taken 1400 years before, after crushing the Persian army of Darius III at the battle of Issus. Known also as the Syrian Gates, the Belen Pass was the doorway into Syria and it was also the northern frontier of Outremer. Sometime in the 1130s the task of defending the pass was given to the Templars. Their key fortress was Baghras, built high above the pass itself, and the Templars built several others in the Amanus mountains. These castles formed a screen across the northern frontier where the Templars ruled as virtually autonomous border lords, effectively independent of the Principality of Antioch.

The Templars also took charge of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s southern frontier with Egypt when they were made responsible for Gaza during the winter of 1149–50. Gaza was uninhabited and ruinous at this time, but the Templars rebuilt a fortress atop a low hill and slowly the Franks revived the city around it. This was the first major castle in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that the Templars are recorded as receiving, and its purpose was to complete the blockade of Ascalon ten miles to the north, a small patch of territory on the Mediterranean coast still held by the Fatimids. Ascalon had long been the base for Muslim attacks on pilgrims coming up the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem or descending to the river Jordan, and in 1153 the city finally fell to Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem. The Templars played a prominent part in this triumph, for they were first into the breach when a section of the walls came down, yet William of Tyre was predictable in turning this against them when he claimed in his chronicle that their eagerness was due to their greed for spoils. In fact the Templars lost forty or so knights in the attack, and their Grand Master lost his life.

Another vital strategic site as well as an important spot for pilgrims was Tortosa (present-day Tartus) on the Syrian coast. Said to be the place where the apostle Paul gave his first mass, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built there in the third century, long before Christianity was officially tolerated within the Roman Empire, and it contained an icon of the Virgin said to have been painted by Saint Luke. To help the pilgrims who came to pray, the Crusaders built upon this history with the construction of Our Lady of Tortosa in 1123, an elegant cathedral which architecturally marks the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic. But in 1152 Nur al-Din captured and burnt the city, leaving it deserted and destroyed; and as the County of Tripoli lacked the means for its restoration, Tortosa was placed in the care of the Templars, who greatly improved its defences, building a massive keep and halls within a triple circuit of tower-studded walls, and with a postern in the seawall enabling the city to be supplied from sea.

The strategic significance of Tortosa was that it stood at the seaward end of an opening in the range of coastal mountains which runs back into the interior towards the Muslim city of Homs. Towards the eastern end of this Homs Gap, as it is called, and towering high above the route between the interior and the sea, is the great castle of Krak des Chevaliers gained by the Hospitallers in 1144, while in the mountains between Krak and Tortosa is the castle of Chastel Blanc, now known as Safita, already in the hands of the Templars some time before 1152. From the roof of the massive keep at Chastel Blanc can be seen both Krak des Chevaliers to the east and the Templar castle of al-Arimah to the west on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tortosa. In short the Templars, together with the Hospitallers, entirely controlled the one important route between the interior of Syria and the sea. Moreover, they did so with sovereign rights within their territories, having been granted full lordship over the population of their estates, the right to share in the spoils of battle, and the freedom to have independent dealings with neighbouring Muslim powers.

In the 1160s the Templars took over further castles, this time across the Jordan river at Ahamant (present-day Amman) and in Galilee at Saphet (also called Safad) to which was added Chastellet in 1178. Gaza, Ahamant, Saphet and Chastellet were all within the Kingdom of Jerusalem but close to its borders where they served defensive purposes. Chastellet covered Jacob’s Ford, the northernmost crossing point of the river Jordan, previously a weak point where Saladin came down out of Damascus and made easy raids against the Christians. So alarmed was Saladin when the Templars installed themselves at Chastellet that he immediately attacked, failing in his first attempt in June 1179 but two months later storming the castle and taking seven hundred prisoners whom he then slaughtered, although the Templar commander threw himself to his death to avoid capture.

More centrally placed was La Feve at the crossroads of the route between Jerusalem and Acre via Galilee. Acquired by the Templars in about 1170, it served as a major depot for arms, tools and food, and it housed a large garrison. It was later the launching point for the expedition that led to the disastrous defeat at the Springs of Cresson on 1 May 1187, a foreboding of the catastrophe at Hattin.

As well as fighting in the defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Templars continued to fulfil their original role of protecting pilgrims coming up to the holy sites at Jerusalem from the ports of Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, or going down from Jerusalem to the Jordan river. One of the duties of the Templar commander in Jerusalem was to keep ten knights in reserve to accompany pilgrims to the Jordan and to provide a string of pack animals to carry food and exhausted travellers. The Templars had a castle overlooking the site at the Jordan river where Jesus had been baptised, to protect not only pilgrims but also the local monks after six of them were gratuitously murdered by Zengi.

The acquisition of castles was accompanied by lands which helped to support them, especially around Baghras, Tortosa and Saphet. In these areas the Templars held many villages, mills and much agricultural land. The details are lacking because of the destruction of the Templar archives on Cyprus by the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century. But from what can be pieced together it seems that the orders between them, the Hospitallers and the Templars, may have held nearly a fifth of the lands in Outremer by the middle of the century, and by 1188, the year of the Battle of Hattin, something like a third.

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