Life in the Holy Land castles

During the 13 th century very few Crusader lords formed part of a village or rural community. Instead they lived in the cities where their way of life had more in common with the aristocratic elites of Italy than of France or Germany. Many members of the aristocracy no longer held much (or indeed any) land. Instead they maintained themselves by other forms of 'feudal rent'. Meanwhile the castles were under authority of professional chatelains. Most of the strategically significant castles were also passing into the hands of the Military Orders.

Castles and social order

As in Italy, the knightly class of the Crusader States tried to preserve their social status and live what was seen as a knightly way of life. This did not mean that castles became mere fortresses garrisoned by low-status troops, whose comfort or cultural interests were neglected. Many castles provided a remarkably sophisticated and comfortable environment, no matter who actually lived in them. The remains of what would today be called 'Turkish baths' were found at Atlit and there may have been extensive gardens at Montfort. According to Willbrand of Oldenburg, the citadel of Beirut had mosaic floors that looked like gently rolling waves, while one room contained a fountain in the shape of a dragon. Even some smaller castles still contain traces of mosaics and painted plaster. Nevertheless, most of the sculptural decoration found at Safad dates from the 12th rather than the 13th century. It has also been assumed that the refined lifestyle seen in Crusader castles reflected Arab-Islamic and Byzantine cultural influences, and there is little reason to doubt this was true.

The most striking decoration was probably reserved for chapels, which included decorative stone panelling, floor mosaics and wall paintings. Here a distinctive style developed that was a mixture of western European and Byzantine artistic styles while including Islamic decorative elements. Quite a lot survives in castle chapels, though it is likely that wall paintings were also seen in other important parts of a castle.

Most of the wall-head defences and crenellations now visible on Crusader castles are either modern reconstructions or date from Mamluk rebuilding. However, aerial photographs from the early 20th century show that some of the original crenellations on the fortified church at Castel Blanc still existed at this time. They are seen here in greater detail. The upper gaps were for observation while the tapering slots at floor level were for shooting through.

Stone-carved heraldic shields bearing the coats-of-arms of rulers and other senior men decorated some Crusader fortifications, as was the case in western Europe. This carving of the arms of the Lusignan family was found in Acre. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The most detailed description of a seigneurial chapel was of that in the castle of Tyre, as rebuilt around 1212. It is found in an account of the assassination of Philip de Montfort, Lord of Tyre, in 1270. The killer had entered Philip's service and the murder took place when de Montfort was talking to some burgesses from Tyre in the outer lobby of the chapel. Another mass had started but as there were so few people in the chapel the assassin seized his opportunity and struck Philip with a dagger. He then attacked Philip's son John with a sword, but the youngster hid inside the altar, the front of which consisted of a wooden panel decorated with saints. The assassin's sword stuck in this panel, whereupon other people arrived and overpowered the killer. Philip, though mortally wounded, staggered to a stone bench in front of the entrance to his private chamber. Other evidence indicates that the chapel was probably at first-floor level, and had a staircase as well as a lobby. Castle chapels were often placed close to the lord's private rooms, not merely for convenience but because they also served as administrative meeting places.

Despite the Crusader States' loss of territory, castles and smaller fortifications continued to be centres of rural and agricultural administration, storage or distribution. More importantly they provided security, enabling agriculture to continue. Yet the poverty of so many of the 13th-century Crusader aristocracy meant that their garrisons were rarely as effective as those of the Military Orders, and even rulers were sometimes unable to pay or feed their own garrisons. This was particularly acute in the Principality of Antioch and the County of Tripoli, which rarely benefited from Papal appeals for money in support of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Consequently it was common for garrisons to take part in agricultural to maintain themselves.

Amongst the smaller rural fortifications that continued to function was the Castle of Roger the Lombard in what is now Natanya. Caco, another rural fortification consisting of a tower and a reused Byzantine cistern, was not far away from this site. Khirbat Kurdana was different, consisting of a mill with a feeder dam and a defensive tower whose timber lower floor rested on stone corbels. It had one splayed arrow slit in the southern wall, and three in the north. During a second phase of construction after 1267, two floors were inserted on groin vaults, whose corner pilasters blocked three of the arrow slits. A large pointed arch on the west side was now defended by a box machicolation while the tower itself was flanked by two barrel-vaulted wheel chambers for a mill with a mill room above. These rural fortifications were small, but some others were more complex, including the Hospitaller castle of Coliat north of Tripoli.

Most cities and larger towns within the Crusader States had a castle as the residence of a ruler, his castellan or a local lord. By the mid 13th century the King of Jerusalem's Seneschal had considerable authority over the royal fortresses, which played a significant role during the struggles between pro- and anti-Imperial factions for control of the dwindling Kingdom in the 1240s. The princely castles of Antioch and Tripoli were similarly under the authority of chatelains.

Apart from their military role protecting against invasion and during internal conflicts, the major castles were also used to receive important overseas visitors, as well as providing locations for politically significant weddings or festivals. Such events probably took place in their great halls and out of doors when weather permitted. They also served as courts of justice, and centres of administration and for the raising of taxes. High-status prisoners could normally expect to be held in such castles, though not necessarily in any comfort. In fact elite prisoners were sometimes kept in extremely poor conditions until they died, though others were treated with respect and consideration until release or ransom.

Another group of smaller fortifications were those of the competing Italian merchant republics: Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. These foreign powers had become significant landholders within the Crusader States, with the Venetians rivalling the King of Jerusalem as seigneurs around 13th-century Tyre. However, it was the great seaport of Acre that most concerned the Italians. Here considerable efforts were made, until the mid 13th century, to keep the quarters of the quarrelsome Italian merchant communes separated by neutral ground. Yet this did not stop the rivals from building ever taller towers for reasons of prestige as well as defence against rivals. The Pisans apparently had two such towers in their part of Acre during the first half of the 13 th century. The Genoese, whose quarter was in the centre of Acre, had what was described as a 'great tower' called the Lamonyoia, until this was destroyed following Genoa's defeat by Venice and Pisa during the so-called War of St. Sabas. A Genoese 'new tower' mentioned 1249 may have been a replacement following the burning of the previous one. It was within crossbow range of the Pisan tower and, given the volatile relations between rival mercantile communes, Genoa not surprisingly sent military equipment from Italy to be used by their consul in Acre.


The city and citadel of Arsuf in the mid 13th century

Arsuf was a thriving commercial centre before the Crusaders arrived in 1101. It already had urban fortifications, but apparently lacked a citadel, though the remains of a small early Islamic tower may have been found beneath the castle added by the Crusaders in the early 13th century (1). During the Crusader occupation the existing Islamic urban defences were repaired and in the south-eastern corner these were greatly strengthened. A new city gate (2) was similarly built on the eastern side. The Crusader citadel (3) was an impressive structure consisting of a courtyard surrounded by a high inner wall with rectangular and semicircular towers (4). Massive outer bastions (5) were placed immediately in front of the inner towers. Beyond these was a deep fosse (6) surrounded by a carefully constructed retaining wall (7), needed because of the sandy nature of the soil. A drawbridge tower (8) provided access to the citadel. The city itself was protected by a wall with an outer fosse (9). The true nature of the ‘harbour’ at the base of the cliff (10) is still the subject of debate. Leased to the Hospitallers in 1261, the castle was considerably strengthened; yet Arsuf fell to the Mamluks only four years later. (After Roll and Smertenko, with additions by Nicolle)


The Templar stables in the city of Atlit, 13th century

The extensive stables that were built against the southern wall of Atlit were not reused after the fortified city was destroyed by the Mamluks in 1265. This reconstruction attempts to illustrate one corner of the Templars’ stable area next to the southern city gate of Atlit town, as it probably looked early in the 13th century before various modifications were undertaken; a section of the stable walls has been removed in the illustration. The whole area contained permanent stabling for over 200 animals, including war-horses, smaller horses for turcopole cavalry or to be used as baggage animals, plus draught oxen and even camels. Oxen seem to have fed from continuous troughs, whereas horse-troughs or mangers were usually divided into individual sections. There were also wells, drainage systems, grain chutes, tethering points and rooms that might have served as storage, offices or accommodation.

The city citadel of Arsuf in the mid 13th century

The Templar stables in the city of Atlit, 13th century

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!