Post-classical history


A coastal town in central Palestine (situated north of mod. Herzliyya, Israel). It was known in the ancient period as Apollonia-Sozusa and was called Arsur by the Franks.

In 1099, while still under Fātimid rule, the town was granted tributary status by Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Frankish ruler of Palestine; but in April 1101 Arsuf fell to his successor King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, assisted by a Genoese fleet, and its population was expelled. The town and the surrounding land remained part of the royal domain until around 1163, when John of Arsuf appears as its first independent lord. The lordship extended north to the Nahr al- Faliq, south to the Nahr al-Auja (river Yarqon), and east to the foothills of Samaria. In the twelfth century, the town was required to provide the military service of fifty sergeants. In 1261, the lord’s vassals comprised six knights and twenty-one sergeants.

Walter of Arsuf was captured at the battle of Hattin in July 1187, and the town fell into Muslim hands in August. Three years later Saladin dismantled its fortifications. The town was retaken following his defeat by Richard I of England northeast of the town on 7 September 1191, and the slain knight James of Avesnes was buried in its principal church of St. Mary. On the death of Walter’s successor, John (in or before 1198), the lordship passed to Thierry of Orca, the husband of John’s sister Melisende; but after Thierry’s death, in 1207 she married John of Ibelin, lord of Beirut. His son John began fortifying Arsuf in 1241, but on his death in 1258 it passed to his son Balian. Unable to defend his lordship against the Mamlûks, Balian rented it to the Order of the Hospital in 1261 for 4,000 bezants a year.

In 1263, Muslim sources record that the Hospitallers were building up the rabad (walled town), contrary to an agreement made with Sultan Baybars, who consequently laid siege in 1265. After forty days, on 26 April 1265, the defenders abandoned the town and retreated to the castle, which fell three days later when its gate was undermined. Some 1,000 defenders were captured or killed. The castle and town walls were then demolished.

Arsuf has been under archaeological excavation since 1977. The medieval town, enclosed by walls and a ditch, extends some 120-160 meters (393-525 feet) east to west by 345 meters (1132 feet) north to south, with sandstone sea cliffs on the west. The walls, market street, and houses appear to have been laid out in the reign of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705). In the Frankish period, the walls were strengthened with an external sloping masonry batter (talus), while on the east a new section of walling contained a town gate flanked by a pair of rounded turrets. Many of the earlier houses were demolished and replaced by open paved areas.

The castle stood in the northwest corner, on a rounded eminence surrounded by a dry moat. Much of the earlier, west range has been undermined by the sea. In the thirteenth century, however, a D-shaped enclosure was built to the east, lined with buildings facing onto a central courtyard and strengthened by two projecting rounded towers and a massive gatehouse with an entry flanked by a pair of rounded turrets. This was enclosed in turn by an apron wall, or barbican, reached from the town across a timber bridge. The Mamlûk assault is attested archaeologically by the discovery of mines and countermines, numerous iron arrowheads, and more than 600 trebuchet stones. The castle overlooked an artificial harbor or quay of trapezoidal plan, which was built in medieval times on Roman foundations.

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