Religious centres and the Holy Orders

Relatively few fortifications were built specifically to protect religious centres. Of these Jerusalem was the most important, and during the 15 years when it was again under Crusader control, efforts were made to restore some defences. The city walls had been dismantled by Saladin, but a barbican in front of St. Stephen's Gate was repaired, along with the Citadel, whose existing glacis may date from this period. However, there is some argument over where a castle constructed in 1240 was located. Some historians believe it was next to what was then called the Gaza Gate, where the Tower of the Maidens and the Tower of the Hospital were sited, but others maintain that the castle of 1240 was at the north-western corner of the Old City. Other fortifications were sited in an attempt to encourage the development of specific locations as centres of pilgrimage. However, by the 13th century security had deteriorated to such an extent that local bishops would evacuate threatened towns for the relative safety of these nearby fortresses.

The most significant 'religious' fortifications were, of course, those of the Military Orders. These included towns that were under an Order's control. In such places the citadel would normally be used as the Order's local headquarters. In Acre, however, the headquarters of the Hospitallers and of the Templars formed separate enclaves, each capable of individual defence.

Elsewhere the Military Orders had become substantial landholders and the territory under their control was the best defended in the Crusader States. The Templars, for example, were in the process of forming a sort of autonomous palatinate around Tartus by the mid 12th century, just as the Hospitallers would do around Crac des Chevaliers. Within this expanding Templar palatinate, the castle of Castel Blanc was an impressive eglise donjon (fortified church) that dominated the surrounding castle. It was built in the final quarter of the 12th century but was subsequently repaired extensively. Access from the ground-floor church to the upper chamber and roof is so awkward that the building cannot have been permanently garrisoned. However, it was very defensible and had a slit machicolation over the main church door.

In 1217-18 the Templars demolished the late-12th-century fort of Le Destroit and replaced it with the much larger castle of Atlit. The latter was largely built with pilgrim manpower, and became known as Chateau Pelerin. It was so strong that it survived the fall of Atlit town in 1265 and was only abandoned in August 1291, after the fall of Acre itself. A variation on the way Crusader builders reused ancient materials occurred in 1218, when the Templars cut a moat across the narrow isthmus at Atlit. They not only found ancient walls, which offered a ready supply of cut stones, but also gold coins with which they paid their workers!

During the 1920s, when this photograph was taken, the eastern end of the hilltop of Safita was largely devoid of buildings except for the remains of a tall gate, here seen on the right. Behind it rose the stern rectangular fortified church that the Crusaders called Castel Blanc. Today this, like the rest of the hill, is almost entirely covered with attractive stone houses, many made from masonry from the collapsed outer fortifications of the Crusader castle.

The south-western corner tower of the inner defences of Castel Blanc, now called Safita.

The town that was later built outside Atlit castle was defended by much weaker fortifications, although the huge stables were very impressive. These seem to have been based upon the traditional design of an Islamic khan, or protected lodging place, for merchants.

Here archaeologists found evidence for the everyday working life of a garrison, including tethering points and sockets for halter-rings for animals, and a courtyard well with a drain leading outside the buildings. The flat roofs that covered this remarkably large area rested on piers and wooden beams and consisted of boards. A concrete crust consisted of gravel and lime, rendered smooth with lime plaster, just as in traditional Palestinian domestic architecture. Most of the timber came from Mount Carmel, though some fragments of cedar were also found in the ruins, possibly shipped in from Lebanon or Cyprus.

The Atlit garrison relied on shallow dug wells, which produced slightly brackish but drinkable water, and one well in the middle of the stable yard remained in use until modern times. Other neighbouring buildings were not linked to the interior of the main stable structure but were accessed from the beach. The northern gateway of the complex was intended for heavier traffic than the other entrances, and had a roadway paved with diagonal slabs. The impressive door was approached by a metalled slope and seems to have been the only entrance to the main stable yard. Carts probably remained outside in a shaded area or shed. Stone 'grain chutes' made it easier to get the grain into various storage bins. Other rooms were possibly used as stores for the harnesses. However, only one room was specifically designed for larger horses, presumably the war-horses of the Brother Knights. It had sufficient space for animals to lie down, perhaps in separate wooden stalls.

Meanwhile, the grooms were provided with comfortable living quarters next to the stables. Much broken pottery was found here along with a steel 'striker' to be used with flint and tinder to start a cooking fire, while their drinking water was cooled in the semi-porous jars which remain traditional throughout much of the Middle East. Most of the ceramics were locally made, though some finer ware had been imported from Cyprus or Italy. A blacksmith also worked somewhere around the site, though the exact spot could not be identified.

The castellans of the main Hospitaller castles were under the authority of the Marshal. In peacetime the 'Castellans of Syria' answered to the Marshal and to the Chapter General of the Order, though in time of war the Marshal's authority was more direct, particularly if he was personally present within their bailiwick, or district. However, some smaller castles may not have had castellans and were instead garrisoned by mercenaries.

With regard to the number of personnel present in each castle, the evidence can be confusing. Eighty Hospitaller brethren were said to have been killed or captured when Arsuf fell to the Mamluks in 1265, whereas the complete garrison totalled around 1,000 men. Fifteen years later the Hospitallers were said to have had 600 cavalry in Margat, whereas a source from 1211 indicated that the complete garrison consisted of 2,000 men. In 1255 a Papal document maintained that the Order had only 60 mounted troops in Crac des Chevaliers, and proposed stationing 40 more in a new castle to be built on Mount Tabor. To further confuse the issue, a letter from the Hospitaller Grand Master, written in 1268, stated that the Order had only 300 brethren in the whole of Syria, so it is clearly impossible to present firm figures for the garrisons of specific castles.

The lower part of the great fortified tower that rises over Safita (Castel Blanc) consisted of a church, which has remained to this day throughout the tumultuous history of Syria. The impact of earthquakes, which still sometimes rock this region, can be seen in the cracked semi-dome of the apse.

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.

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

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