Urban defences: Ascalon and Acre

With regard to urban fortifications, efforts were initially focused upon citadels rather than the walls around a town. Most such work was done during the decades of relative peace, when Egypt and Syria were ruled by the Ayyubids. Examples include the Castle of Richard of Cornwall, built in 1241 in the northwestern corner of Ascalon, which the Crusaders briefly regained. Here a new concentric citadel had a rock-cut ditch to the south and east. To the north was the city wall of Ascalon, here fronted by a masonry talus, and some marble slabs crudely carved with the arms of Sir Hugh Wake of Lincolnshire date from this period. A few years later the French King Louis IX built a second castle at Sidon, known as the Land Castle to distinguish it from Sidon's more famous Sea Castle. It was built upon the massive remains of a Romano-Byzantine theatre and used the ancient stone seats as building blocks.

From Louis IX's Crusade onwards, greater efforts were put into fortifying the urban areas. Previously citizens had been vulnerable to enemy raiding, sometimes even being plundered by local bedouin. It was assumed that such raiders merely wanted portable loot, and would leave once satisfied. Meanwhile the town's inhabitants took refuge in a citadel with their most valuable property, then returned to their homes in the largely unprotected outer city once the raiders departed. The rise of the Mamluk Sultanate changed this, and the determined campaigns of reconquest launched by Mamluk armies resulted in more efforts to surround the remaining Crusader towns with proper fortifications including some massive gates. The towers spaced along curtain walls were usually rectangular, though there was one rounded tower at Atlit, while Ascalon had both rounded and triangular ones.

Although the tall Crusader castle, or citadel, on the northern side of the town of Arsuf has almost entirely collapsed, the lower parts of its wall still include very interesting details. For example, the main gate seen here included two carved stone sills or ‘curbs' across the road; a deep groove that was probably for a sliding portcullis; and the metallic anchor point for the bottom of a heavy wooden door, visible as a small dark rectangle in the floor next to the wall.

The partially demolished defences of Ascalon were already so strong that late 12th- and 13th-century Crusader work largely consisted of repairs and embellishments. Here the construction included outworks with occasional casemates, four towers with indirect access and at least 14 other towers of rectangular, half-round or triangular plan; some strengthened with reused, horizontally laid, ancient or early medieval columns. The town's four gates similarly incorporated reused Roman and early Islamic elements. In addition to his new Land Castle at Sidon, Louis IX built massive walls around the town itself, with a deep moat and an entrance known as the Tyre Gate between two strong towers. Most of this has been lost, but Louis' walls around Caesarea Maritima on the Palestinian coast largely survive. They have been excavated by Israeli archaeologists and now stand as the finest existing examples of 13th-century Crusader urban fortification.

Until the Third Crusade, Acre had only a single wall but in its aftermath the city and its expanding northern suburb of Montmussard were given doubled walls, numerous massive towers and a deep ditch or moat. These were further strengthened by King Louis IX. Sadly almost all have now disappeared and even their position remains a matter of debate. Recent archaeological excavation and new analysis of the documentary sources are clarifying the issue. The northern walls were probably further north than believed and Acre, plus Montmussard, were much larger than had been realised.

Some of the most useful evidence comes from aerial photography before what is now called the Old City of Acre expanded. These include reconnaissance photographs taken by the Ottoman Turkish Air Force during the First World War, which clearly show the foundations of a wall that looks like the northern defences of Acre-Montmussard. They also show the coastal marsh, now drained, which lay just beyond that wall. A short section of wall uncovered in 1935 lay on this line, while a remarkable number of stone mangonel balls were found on a small promontory where it reached the sea - almost certainly dating from the 1291 siege.

Within the Old City were several large fortified structures, plus the torre (tall fortified towers) of the Italian merchant communes. They included the Castle of the King's Constable and the massive Convent or Headquarters of the Hospitallers, both adjacent to the 12th-century city wall separating Acre proper from Montmussard. Close to the main harbour stood the Court of the Chain and the Venetian 'market', both massive enough to be fortifications in their own right. The Templar Burgus or Castle stood on the shore at the southwestern corner of the city. Early aerial photography and recent archaeological investigations indicate that the eastern wall lay further east than once thought. As a result it now seems that later 13th-century Acre enclosed an area considerably larger than pre-Crusader Islamic Acre, whose layout had been established in the 9th century.

The lower chambers of Crusader castles were almost invariably much plainer than the sometimes decorated and better illuminated upper chambers. Those seen here are in Crac des Chevaliers, and are sometimes described as barracks. However, they are more likely to have been used as storerooms for food for the garrison and its horses, or for munitions.

The most significant recent excavation concerning the fortifications of Crusader Acre took place in what is called the Courtyard site, outside what had been regarded as the 13th-century city. Here a team of Israeli archaeologists uncovered a postern gate and a tower, both probably built between 1198 and 1212. A wide pilaster in a corner of the tower may have supported wooden stairs to the upper floors. A plaster-lined water basin was constructed inside one corner of the tower and the designers even inserted a well shaft within the core of the circuit wall, suggesting that the tower served as a service area as well as a fortification. Furthermore, the archaeologists discovered fragments of Crusader pottery, including a cooking pot, an amphora, a drinking jug, some bowls containing chicken bones and two decorated glass vessels plus evidence of a cooking fire. Perhaps the tower was a kitchen? Its walls were vertical with no glacis, and beyond them a moat was cut through earlier Hellenistic and Byzantine remains. The plastered upper floor of the tower had not been carried on stone vaults, as was usual, but on wooden joists, and the upper chamber itself was probably used as soldiers' living quarters.

The fortified way-station of Le Destroit in the late 12th century

Le Destroit was built on a system of foundations excavated from the rock. It commanded a defile through a low ridge parallel to the shore, along which the north-south road ran until modern times. These fortifications played a vital role during the Third Crusade, but in 1220 Le Destroit was demolished by the Templars and was replaced by the stronger fortress of Atlit. Today only the rock-cut foundations (1) and some of the lower course of masonry remains. The tower (2) originally consisted of a vaulted chamber with a staircase within its north wall (2a) leading to an upper chamber; this hypothetical reconstruction is based upon similar towers within the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The stone-cut foundation plinth contained cisterns on its eastern (1d) and western (1e) sides, plus rock-cut supports for an entrance stair on the south (1b). Peg-holes on the western slope (1c) may have been for a wooden stair to a wall between two main yards (3). The inner yard (4) contained rows of rock-cut mangers, once covered by simple wooden roofs. Whether any of the outer rock-cut areas were roofed is unknown. (After Dikijian and Nicolle)

Above left The Hospitaller Convent or headquarters in Acre, sometimes called the Citadel, was built on and around earlier structures. These included some Fatimid fortifications, probably dating from the 11th century. Here the Islamic walls can still be seen inside the larger western wall of the Hospitaller fortification.

Above right The French King Louis VII offered to pay for the construction of the refectory in the Hospitallers’ main Convent or headquarters in Acre. This may account for the presence of at least two carved fleurs-de-lis, the French royal coat-of-arms, in the otherwise undecorated Convent hall.

These remains formed part of the outer wall of 13th-century Acre but were well beyond the line of the inner wall, as excavated in the mid 1980s. The tower itself is likely to have been one of those between the doubled wall around Montmussard and the north-eastern corner of the city proper. According to written sources, there were three towers here: the Venetian Tower, the English Tower and the King's Tower. Of these the King's Tower was the most important, marking the north-eastern corner itself. However, it was round, whereas the tower at the Courtyard site was square. Though it was destroyed by fire, there is no evidence of a major attack upon this structure, and because it seems to be so close to Montmussard it should probably be identified as the Venetian rather than the English Tower.

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