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Chastel Blanc: The fortified church and town of Safita (Castel Blanc) in the mid 13th century

The great tower or keep (1) of Castel Blanc in the Syrian coastal mountains was a massively fortified church rather than simply a castle. The lower chamber (2) formed the church with a semi-domed apse at its eastern end (3); a function which continues to this day. The upper chamber (4) consists of a two-aisled hall supported by three columns. Access to this upper chamber from the church was within the south-western corner (5) and was not particularly convenient for military purposes, while access to the roof was by stairs against the western wall of the upper chamber. A rock-cut cistern lay beneath the church (6). An extensive platform surrounds the church, and appears to have had a defensive wall which formed an inner enceinte (7). Apart from the platform, the only substantial surviving element of these inner defences is the small south-western tower (8). Even less remains of the outer fortifications of Castel Blanc, recreated in the lower illustration, with the notable exception of part of a great entrance tower on the eastern side of the hill (9). Photographs taken before the modern village of Safita expanded into a small but thriving town, indicate that this formed only part of a complex of fortifications around the entrance to the Crusader town.

An important development in medieval castle construction came with the Crusades to the Holy Land beginning at the end of the eleventh century. Called initially at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, by Pope Urban II, the First Crusade attempted to regain the lands where Jesus Christ was born, lived, and died, which they called the Holy Land and which then, and for the previous five centuries, had been under Muslim control. The response to Urban’s call was enthusiastic, and a large army gathered to set out on Assumption Day, 1096. After a difficult journey to the Holy Land, which saw the Crusaders fighting more against the harsh conditions of the Middle East than against the Muslims, the Crusade was successful. The first prize, Antioch, fell on June 28, 1098, followed a year later, on July 13, 1099, by the fall of Jerusalem.

By 1101 the Crusaders had secured their presence in the Holy Land. Their initial success resulted to a large extent from a war that was being fought in the Middle East between the Seljuk Turks and other Muslim peoples, most notably the Egyptian Fatamids. This extended war had both depleted the fighting strength of the Muslims and brought disunity in the defense of their territories. For a while the Crusaders met little military reaction to their conquests. However, they soon realized that they would eventually be forced to defend their newly won territories. They would also have to do it with fewer soldiers than they had in the initial conquests, as many, perhaps as much as one-half to two-thirds of the initial force, returned to Europe following the fall of Jerusalem.

Eventually four Crusader kingdoms were carved out of the captured Middle Eastern territory: Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem. Kings were elected and a European socio-political structure created. In order to ensure the security of the kingdoms against both Muslim attacks from outside and Muslim/Jewish uprisings from inside these kingdoms, two practices were instituted. First, the Crusaders negotiated with the Muslims and Jews for peace. Treaties were made, bribes paid, and alliances formed; some Muslims and Jews were even used as tax collectors and policemen. Second, numerous castles were built throughout the four kingdoms. The Crusaders realized the need for building castles, and for building them quickly, and within three decades after the fall of Jerusalem most of their castles were completed. Of the two practices, the building of castles was the most effective. Treaties, alliances, and even bribes all failed to keep the peace during the century following the First Crusade. But the castles seldom failed, especially in the first hundred years of occupation, and when they did, it took a long time and necessitated a large number of men.

Of initial concern to these castle builders was the security of the Crusader kingdoms’ frontiers. Three were especially vulnerable, and the Crusaders concentrated their initial castle construction in these areas. The first, and perhaps most important, was the sea coast. At the end of the First Crusade the Christians had conquered almost all of the coast from Antioch to the Sinai Desert, with the exceptions only of Tyre (not captured until 1124) and Ascalon (not captured until 1153), and it needed to be protected. The second was the frontier facing Damascus. The third was to the south and protected the kingdom of Jerusalem against incursions from Egypt. Numerous castles were built along all these frontiers. A fourth frontier, west of Antioch and facing Aleppo, would also have been filled with castles, except that negotiations between the Crusaders and the Seljuk Turks led to a “demilitarized zone” without either Muslim or Crusader fortifications.

Castles were built along all major routes and in every major mountain pass, along the deserts, the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, and the sea. But protecting the frontiers was only one obligation undertaken by the Crusaders, and it was a responsibility that they could not completely fulfill. There was simply a limitation to the defensibility of the kingdoms’ frontiers, especially when so few soldiers were available as reinforcements should a border or a castle be attacked.

The function of many other castles built by the Crusaders was not the protection of the kingdoms’ boundaries, for they were built deep inside the Crusaders’ lands. These served as garrisons for soldiers who could be used to besiege nearby Muslim towns, such as Tyre and Ascalon, or to raid neighboring, unfriendly Muslim lands. Defensively they served as refuges against the attacks of strong Muslim leaders, like Saladin, until relief could come from elsewhere in the Crusaders’ kingdoms or from Europe. They served as centers of authority and police posts for the governance and security of the kingdoms against domestic insurrections. Finally, these castles were administrative centers and hubs of economic development and colonization.

With the exception of a few castles built to defend the larger towns of the Holy Land, at Tripoli, Tortosa, Tyre, Beirut, Acre, and Jerusalem, most Crusader castles were built in the countryside. It was here that the Crusaders could use the harshness and inaccessibility of the Middle Eastern terrain to add to the defensibility of their structures. Castles were built on the summits of precipitous rocks or next to steep ravines. At two places, Tyron and Habis, the Crusaders even fortified caves. Most castles had thick walls faced with stone. Because their inhabitants anticipated long sieges that might last until reinforcements could arrive from Europe, the castles were provided with reservoirs for water supply and large cellars for food storage. For example, at the castle of Margat it is estimated that there were sufficient food and water supplies to feed a garrison of 1,000 men for 5 years.

In general, two types of castles were built by the Crusaders. The first followed the style that began to be common in Europe at the end of the eleventh century: large rectangular keeps encircled by a stone wall. They were built with the same simple utilitarian character and the same solid construction as those in Europe. They were often also as large in area, but usually only two stories instead of three.

Two of the best examples of this type of Crusader castle were built at Safita and Jebail and were known to the Crusaders as Chastel Blanc and Giblet. Lying in the southern coastal region of Syria, the castle at Safita was built on a rocky knoll nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. At this height and with the precipitousness of its slope, defense was secured. The keep measured 30.5 by 18.3 meters and stood more than 25 meters high. It had two stories: in the upper story was a large, vaulted room, presumably the living quarters, which filled the entire extent of the keep and was lit by only a few arrow-slits; below it was a hall, also filling the extent of the keep, which was used as chapel. The flat roof was enclosed by a crenellated parapet. Around the keep was an oval wall with a large polygonal tower at its southwest end. There may also have been a gatehouse near this tower, although it has now disappeared. On the lower slopes of the knoll was another polygonal wall with a fortified gateway, adding to the defense of the castle above. It is not certain when the castle at Safita was originally built, although it must have been before 1166–67 when the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din is said to have captured it. It was also known to have been a Templar castle, although whether that Order initiated its construction is uncertain.

The castle at Jebail is a good example of a rectangular keep castle, but it is different from Safita in many ways. It was built not on a precipitous location, but at the southeast corner of a wall surrounding a town and a small harbor, the site of the ancient Phoenician seaport of Byblos. It was also much smaller, measuring only 17.7 by 22 meters, with only two stories. One of the strongest Crusader castles, the keep of Jebail Castle was built by reusing large blocks of ancient stone masonry, with old marble columns cut up and used for bonding. Enclosing this keep was a rectangular curtain wall reinforced with small corner towers. An extra tower in the center of the north face guarded the gate. Jebail Castle was constructed as early as the first decade of the twelfth century and served as a part of the fortifications of the kingdom of Tripoli.

Most of the Crusaders’ castles were not rectangular keeps, however. Such castles, too small in both keep size and overall size, simply could not sufficiently meet the military needs of the Christian force occupying the Holy Land. They could not house enough troops to stand in the way of an attacking force, nor could they store enough food and water for a prolonged siege. Rectangular keeps often took a long time to construct, and, as they were the focal point of a castle’s defense, there was little protection until they were completed. The Crusaders needed a fortification that was larger, more quickly built, and more defensible as it was being built. Therefore, they built most of their castles in the style of older Byzantine fortresses already prominent in the Holy Land.

On their journey to Jerusalem the Crusaders had seen and been impressed by the majestic walls of Constantinople. They then besieged the Muslim-held Byzantine fortresses at Nicaea and Antioch. Throughout the Holy Land they confronted other Byzantine defensive structures, so strongly built that they had been repaired by the Muslims who had inhabited them since the seventh century. These clearly influenced the Crusaders, and they began to imitate them.

This style of fortification can most easily be described as castle complexes, although they are most often called concentric castles. They did not rely on a single rectangular keep for their defense; instead, they imitated urban fortifications with large and powerful outside walls strengthened on the sides and in the corners with towers. The buildings inside the complex, none of which were like the rectangular keep castles, became less important in the defense of the castle. They were meant simply to provide housing and storage. These castles were also larger, their size determined by the extent of their outside walls, and could be more quickly constructed than rectangular keep castles.

The Crusaders built many of these castle complexes, most of which were impressive in their size and structure. Walls, sometimes double walls, surrounding a large bailey dominated each castle. As they were the primary means of defense, the walls were very tall and made of the strongest masonry. They were also protected at intervals by a number of crenellated towers. Entrance into the castle was through a single large gatehouse equipped with heavy wooden doors, portcullises, and occasionally a drawbridge. Buildings in the bailey varied in size, shape, and purpose. There were halls, barracks, kitchens, magazines, stables, baths, latrines, storehouses, and, especially in the cases of castles held by the monastic military orders, chapels and chapter houses. Most also contained large, deep wells and/or rainwater reservoirs that were meant to sustain their inhabitants if besieged for long periods until reinforcements could arrive, perhaps from Europe. In some castles there were also keeps, built as residences or barracks and meant to stand as a final line of defense should the outer walls fail.

The shape of these castles was determined by the terrain on which they were built: the harsher the terrain, the more defensible the castle. Many Crusader castle complexes were on high, precipitous hill tops or ridges. Often a deep and steep ravine or ditch, sometimes natural and sometimes hewn out of solid rock, was added. The terrain also determined that some castles, among them Saône, Beaufort, and Toprakkale, were divided into two separate baileys or fortresses accessible to each other only by means of a small drawbridge. In spite of the harshness of terrain on which most of these castles were located, though, most covered quite large areas. For example, the castles at Saône and Subeibe covered an area of 5 and 6.5 hectares respectively.

Krak des Chevaliers

Perhaps the most impressive of these castles, and certainly the one most studied by modern historians and architects, was Krak des Chevaliers. It remains to this day one of the best preserved and most awe-inspiring medieval castles in the world. No less a historical figure than T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was struck by its beauty and endeavored to make a study of it. He described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, [a castle which] forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria.” Built in the mountainous regions of southern Syria not far from the castle at Safita, Krak des Chevaliers was constructed using the terrain to improve its defensibility. It was erected on a hilltop over 640 meters high and surrounded on three sides by steep slopes. Yet its area measured nearly 140 by 210 meters, making it one of the largest of the Crusaders’ castles.

The outer defenses consisted of a polygonal wall, which contained several defensive galleries and semicircular towers. A small gate in the northern face of this wall was guarded by two adjacent towers. Between the outer and inner defenses was a forecourt, 16 to 23 meters wide, with a deep rock-hewn ditch in the southern section serving as a reservoir. The stables, magazine, baths, and latrines were also located in the forecourt.

The inner stronghold of the castle lay on top of a steep revetment rising from the forecourt. It was large and spacious and contained a range of buildings serving different functions, including more water tanks and food storehouses. The inner stronghold also included a chapel, although whether this originated with the construction or was added later when the castle came under the control of the Knights Hospitaller cannot be determined.

The entrance to the castle was protected by three fortified gateways, between which are sharp-turning narrow corridors. For even more defense, on the walls were five massive towers, one on the northern, one on the western, and three more on the southern perimeters. All five towers contained many chambers in their several stories and were probably the living quarters of the knights. They were separated from each other and from the main fortress by a series of stepped bridges. All the buildings in the complex, like the outer walls, were built using the most proficient of architectural and masonic skill. The stone was solid—pierced only by arrow slits—and smoothly cut with some, albeit minor, ornamentation.

Krak des Chevaliers was built in the early twelfth century on the site of a Muslim fortress, which for the most part was dismantled, and it remained a formidable defensive stronghold during the entire Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. It also housed a large number of combatants. In 1212 Wilbrand of Oldenburg estimated that the castle held more than 2,000 soldiers, although most of these were probably Maronite or Syrian soldiers rather than Knights Hospitaller. Its location and garrison meant that it became a target of many Muslim sieges and attacks. The castle survived sieges by Alp Arslan, the Sultan of Aleppo, in 1125 and by Saladin in 1188, and withstood further Muslim attacks in 1163, 1167, 1207, 1218, 1229, 1252, 1267, and 1270. It also survived two major earthquakes during this time. Finally, after being almost completely evacuated by its inhabitants, and after an extensive siege, Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured the castle in 1271.

After their initial conquests, the Crusaders had limited military success. In time, the nearby Muslim rulers began to unite and threaten the Crusader kingdoms. The first major setback for the Crusaders came in 1144, when the poorly protected kingdom of Edessa fell to Nur ad-Din, leaving the other kingdoms open to conquest. In response, the Second Crusade was immediately called by Pope Eugene III. However, it proved to be a miserable failure. Arriving in the Holy Land in late 1147, the Second Crusaders began to quarrel with the resident Crusaders, primarily over the latter’s willingness to make alliances and treaties with the Muslims, and this divisiveness brought a lack of offensive military unity that ultimately led to failure at Damascus against the more unified Muslim forces.

With the failure of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din began to extend his power to the south: Damascus was taken in 1154 and Egypt fell in 1168. Nur ad-Din died in 1174, but he was succeeded by Saladin, the nephew of Shirkuh, Nur ad-Din’s lieutenant who had conquered Egypt. Saladin proved to be an even more capable general than both his uncle and Nur ad-Din. When he succeeded to the throne he controlled almost all of the land surrounding the remaining Crusader kingdoms, and it was only a short time before he began to think about extending his power there as well. By 1187 he began to move into the Crusader lands, and on July 4, 1187, he met and defeated a large Crusader army at the battle of Hattin. The road to Jerusalem lay open to him, and the city fell on October 2, 1147. Only Tyre, the kingdom of Antioch, and the kingdom of Tripoli remained in Crusader hands.

This again brought an immediate response from the papacy. Jerusalem, the gem of the Holy Land, captured by the First Crusaders, had fallen to the Muslims, and it was the responsibility of the kings and princes of Europe to retake it. The Third Crusade brought large armies from the three most powerful kingdoms of Europe: Germany, France, and England. All three armies were led by their kings. However, despite the royal and papal influence in this Crusade, it also met with failure. The German army, choosing to travel overland to the Holy Land, never reached its target. Its emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, 68 years old, drowned in the Saleph (now Göksu) River between Armenia and Antioch, and shortly thereafter much of his army, deprived of their royal leader and decimated by disease and Muslim attacks, returned to Europe. The French and English armies, traveling overseas rather than by land, did arrive at the Holy Land, but once there, the two kings, Philip Augustus of France and Richard I “the Lionheart” of England, could never agree on any military action. No major campaign was ever launched by the two together, and no battle ever fought. Acre fell in July 1191 to the Crusaders after a lengthy and uneventful siege, but then, in October 1191, Philip went back to France and began attacking Richard’s territory there. Richard campaigned further up the coast toward Jerusalem, but Saladin kept him from the city and, late in 1192, Richard also returned home.

With the failure of the Third Crusade came the end of defensible borders in the Holy Land; now there were only defensible areas, all of which were protected by castles. One by one they too fell to Muslim armies. Further Crusades had no better success. The Fourth Crusade became diverted to Constantinople, which was conquered in 1204, but did not proceed to the Holy Land from there. Crusades also failed in 1212, 1221, 1229, 1254, 1270, and 1272. One famous Crusader, King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France, saw not only a large part of his army captured in Egypt in 1250, but his own death in Tunisia in 1270. Only King Frederick II of Germany eventually retook some of the lost Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in 1228, but by this time Muslim power had shifted with the Mamluks to Egypt, and Frederick had no better success there than any other thirteenth-century Christian general. By the middle of the thirteenth century the remaining Crusader territory and castles in the Holy Land began to fall. In 1268 the kingdom of Antioch surrendered; in 1289, Tripoli capitulated; and finally, in 1291, when Acre fell, the last vestiges of the Crusaders’ conquest returned to Muslim control.

During this time, until finally forced out of the Holy Land, the Crusaders continued to build castles. But these fortifications, most of them erected in urban areas, were not nearly as elaborate or sophisticated as those constructed during the first half of the twelfth century. Indeed, there seems to have been an air of desperation in much of their construction. But one feature prominent in these later fortifications is important to note. The Crusaders had discovered during their attacks on Muslim fortifications and then later in the defense of their own castles that there were many disadvantages to rectangular keeps and towers. For one thing, the straight walls of a rectangular keep were relatively easy to destroy by a battering ram or siege machine. They also presented virtually unprotected corners to attackers, with almost no potential for flanking fire. A circular or multi-angular keep or tower was more easily defended than a rectangular structure. It presented no unseen or shielded cover to the enemy and often offered no straight walls to his battering machines. It would soon become an important option for European castle builders as well.

A parallel history of Crusader castle construction, both in chronology and style, is to be found in Spain. Muslim soldiers had crossed into Spain from Morocco in 711, and by 720, due both to the strength of their armies and to the disunity of the Visigothic kingdoms, had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. Only the kingdom of Asturias in the north successfully resisted their conquests, securing this success at the Battle of Covadonga in 722. This victory may have come because Muslim leaders had split their forces between those responsible for taking northern Iberia and those that had crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and entered France. The latter army’s defeat by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours further secured the independence of the Asturias kingdom.

An uneasy peace settled on the Iberian Peninsula for the next few centuries. Neither Christian nor Muslim Spaniards lost their religious animosity toward the other, but both the lack of funds and the lack of unity seem to have kept them away from major military incursions into the other’s realms, although border clashes and raids were frequent. The disunity in the Christian lands would eventually see a division of Asturias into several separate kingdoms: Galicia and León in 910, Navarre in 987, Castille in 1035, and Aragon in 1035. Initially, this weakened Christian political and military power, prompting fears of Muslim invasion among those in kingdoms neighboring Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia.

To calm these fears, Christian kings built a large number of fortifications. One good example was Loarre Castle, built near the large Muslim town of Huesca. Constructed by King Sancho III Garcés “the Great” in c.1020 as one of a line of fortifications he built in the lower Pyrenees, Loarre consisted initially of three tall towers tied together and able to be defended on their own if needed. In 1073 the king of Aragon, Sancho I Ramírez, grandson of Sancho III Garcés, significantly added to this castle, while at the same time exhibiting his piety, by attaching an Augustinian priory to the front of the towers, which also served as an extended defense of the castle as a whole. Should it have been attacked, enemy soldiers would have had to fight through the crypt and nave of the church before they could even reach the central fortifications, which remained the three initial towers.

Loarre Castle

Another of these strongholds was a Muslim fortress that stood 10 kilometers from Loarre Castle and was easily seen from the walls of the Aragonese fortification. Although this fortress does not survive and has not been excavated, and thus its strength is unknown, it represents a similar castle-building policy held among the Al-Andalusian leaders. They also saw the need to protect their borders from invasions and raids wherever they faced a Christian threat. But slowly the Christian kings’ Reconquista, as it would be called later, began to cut into the Muslim realm. Coimbra was captured in 1064 by Ferdinand I of León and Toledo by Alfonso VI of Castille in 1085. Between 1073 and his death in 1094, Sancho Ramírez, using Loarre Castle as a base, captured the lands around Huesca, with the city itself falling to his successor, Peter I, in 1096. Afonso I Henriques, King of Portugal, with the help of Second Crusaders from England, Flanders, and the Rhineland, took Lisbon in 1147, with these same Crusaders and others from Catalonia, Genoa, and Pisa capturing Almeria later that year.

But the Reconquista was interspersed with warfare between and within Christian kingdoms, as evidenced in the military adventures of the famous El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), who fought both for and against the Castilian king Alfonso VI in the late eleventh century. Only with the Christian victory in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 were significant inroads into Al-Andalus made, and by 1249 all but the emirate of Granada had fallen—although it would hold out until its conquest in 1492 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

At each phase of the Reconquista, as their borders moved, Christian kings constructed new fortifications, almost always answered by new Muslim fortifications. Often these were built in sight of each other. Soon the country was covered by castles, the largest number of any medieval land. On both sides some of these fortresses were controlled by kings, some by nobles, and some also by ecclesiastics, as elsewhere throughout Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, but, uniquely, some were also built and controlled by the common people.

Perhaps no other event in medieval history had the impact on military technology, especially European fortifications, as did the Crusades. Because most Crusader and Reconquista castles were larger and more capable of a sustained defense than European ones, they tended to impress everyone who saw them. This, added to the fact that so many soldiers of different European kingdoms and principalities served in the Holy Land and Iberia, many of whom would authorize and control the construction of castles when they returned home, meant that the Crusader and Iberian castles greatly influenced late-twelfth- and thirteenth-century castle building throughout Europe. This would create a “golden age” of castle construction that produced perhaps the finest examples of what modern students see as the archetypical medieval castle.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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