The Crusader States at war

Despite the development of larger transport ships and better accommodation for horses on board, the Crusader States continued to suffer from a serious shortage of livestock. This not only applied to large war-horses but also to pack animals. The limited territory of the remaining Crusader States also meant that they lacked pasture to maintain large herds. The shortage had several effects, not least of which was to make it difficult for armies to move around between their main fortified centres. Furthermore, huge efforts were made to avoid losses of horses on campaign or in battle. In complete contrast, the Crusaders' Muslim neighbours had access to very large numbers of horses, though more so in Syria than in Egypt. These not only included the relatively small horses traditionally associated with Turkish horse-archers, but also the large, finely bred and hot-blooded mounts used by elite armoured cavalry.

Given such constraints, it is hardly surprising that the Crusader States - and even those new Crusader forces arriving from Europe - relied on fortifications to an ever increasing extent. Furthermore, castles played a leading role in the Crusaders' rare attempts to regain lost territory. Sometimes land was temporarily abandoned as a result of the enemy's raiding expeditions, which often meant that villages and even towns had to be evacuated. Sometimes Islamic armies attempted to destroy such places, although small-scale raids merely damaged crops, orchards, vineyards, olive groves and other agricultural targets. The destruction of food stores and economic assets, like mills, would be considered a significant success, so the Crusader States placed great emphasis on giving them some degree of fortification. If this failed, the damaged facilities might hopefully be regained, repaired and refortified, as happened to the mills at Recordane during the 13th century.

Meanwhile the fortified cities served as centres from which such localised reconquests could be launched. The citadels built at Jaffa, Caesarea and Sidon by Emperor Frederick II as nominal ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, may have provided secure bases for such limited operations. Certainly the Kingdom of Jerusalem made what were, in the circumstances of the time, considerable efforts to re-establish control over the southern coast of Lebanon in 1227-28, during which period the Sea Castle of Sidon was constructed on a previously uninhabited coastal islet. Only later were serious fortifications added to the town of Sidon itself, which thereafter remained under Crusader control until its evacuation in 1291.

Safad castle, lost to Saladin in 1188, returned to Crusader hands from 1218 to 1220 when it was apparently intended as a base from which to reconquer Galilee. As a result, when the Muslims took it again in 1220, they completely dismantled the existing castle. Safad was handed back to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1240, whereupon major efforts were made to refortify it, probably for the same strategic reasons. A few years later the Crusading King Louis IX of France camped as close as possible to Frederick's fortifications at Jaffa, in order to protect the building of a stronger city wall. Louis probably did something similar at Sidon where an apparent hall along the northern face of the Sea Castle served as his headquarters.

However, such rebuilding efforts did not always succeed. For example, the Fifth Crusade, using Acre as its base, failed to retake Mount Tabor in 1217, although the latter was closer to Acre than to any comparable Islamic seat of power. Several efforts launched from Antioch after 1191 similarly failed to regain territory lost by the Principality. The main reason for these uncertain results was the Crusader States' lack of sufficient manpower to undertake proper siege operations. Consequently they largely relied on raiding tactics, and these could only regain territory if an enemy was willing to relinquish it. Full-scale offensives were only possible when large Crusading armies arrived from western Europe, and these were few and not always successful.

Meanwhile the upgrading or repair of existing fortifications was essentially defensive. Even the decision to refortify Ascalon in 1239 was initially defensive, to face any threat from Egyptian-held Gaza while the Crusaders planned to attack Damascus. In the event they attacked the Egyptians instead, and suffered catastrophic defeat at the battle of La Forbie in 1244. Thereupon Egyptian forces blockaded Ascalon until it surrendered.

The County of Tripoli enjoyed a better strategic situation, and although it lost some territory to Saladin and his successors, its heartland in what are now northern Lebanon and the southern part of the Syrian coast was strongly protected by the Military Orders. In fact this territory remained a substantial and well-fortified base area from which Crusader forces could raid their Muslim neighbours. This caused massive economic damage and kept the Arab villages so subdued that many accepted Crusader suzereinty, even within rugged and inaccessible mountain regions. Hospitaller garrisons from Crac des Chevaliers and Margat often joined forces to raid the hinterland of Hama and other nearby Islamic cities, and the strength of the Hospitaller palatinate in the north of the County of Tripoli even obliged the fearsome Isma'ili 'Assassins' to pay tribute. This tribute only ended with the fall of Crac des Chevaliers to the Mamluks. Even then, some remaining Crusader garrisons remained strong enough to launch further raids; in 1280, 200 knights attacked the fertile Buqai'ah plain near Crac, despite the fact that the latter fortress was now in Islamic hands.

Things seemed quieter in the now tiny Principality of Antioch. However, several Crusader-held ports were already being used as bases from which to launch naval raids against Islamic coasts and shipping. This might be interpreted as 'the wave of the future' in the struggle between Christian and Islamic forces in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, something which became a major aspect of 14th-century warfare.

The only large-scale or strategic Crusading expeditions in the Middle East during the 13th century were those launched against Egypt, which was now the centre of regional Islamic power. One of these seaborne invasions provides the only known evidence for a classic motte-style castle from this period. When the Fifth Crusade landed on the western bank of the main eastern Delta branch of the Nile, facing Damietta, on May 27, 1218, they fortified their camp with the usual ditch and rampart. The campaign dragged on through the summer and autumn, despite the capture of the Chain Tower of Damietta. Operations stagnated during winter when the Crusader army was virtually trapped within its fortified camp on the western bank of the river. However, Damietta finally capitulated in 1219. The Crusaders then seized the fortified town of Tanis. According to James de Vitry, who was eyewitness, the Crusaders built a third fortification in the middle of Lake Manzala, between Damietta and Tanis.

The fall of Arsuf, 1265

The relatively new citadel of Arsuf was leased to the Military Order of the Hospitallers by the once-powerful Ibelin family in 1261. The Hospitallers then poured money, materials and effort into strengthening this vital fortification, which formed one of the southernmost coastal outposts of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, only four years later, the powerful Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria launched a major offensive under Sultan Baybars, who was one of the most effective military leaders in medieval history. In fact Baybars pretended to be on a hunting expedition in what is now the occupied West Bank when he and his troops swooped. First they attacked Caesarea, which fell after only a week. Haifa was then destroyed, but Atlit held out, and so Baybars besieged Arsuf. Despite its Hospitaller garrison, which included 270 knights, the town fell and the citadel capitulated only three days later. Archaeological evidence of this final siege includes not only a thick layer of ash but also an extraordinary number of mangonel stones. Those of the Crusader defenders were mostly found in neat piles, never having been shot. Those of the Mamluks, however, not only included chipped and broken examples of the carefully carved and balanced missiles preferred by mangonel operators, but also large numbers of more roughly shaped rocks. This seems to indicate that the Mamluks launched such a massive bombardment that they ran out of ammunition and had to collect whatever stones were suitable from the neighbouring hills. (After Roll and Smertenko, with additions by Nicolle)

The fall of Arsuf, 1265

This was followed by a new and separate fourth construction on the west bank facing Damietta. It was on a sort of motte, which, according to de Vity, was: 'raised on the height of a mound until it resembled a hill, enclosing the sand with a wall of clayey soil, for in Egypt stones are not to be found unless they are carried with great labour from Cyprus or Syria (by ship) ...

In the middle they erected a wooden tower of astonishing height, not only for the defence of the castle, but also so that from a distance it might appear as a beacon to those sailing to Damietta.'

Apparently this unusual castle consisted of a mound of sand retained by a clay ringwork with a timber tower on top. The design may have been determined by a lack of building stone in this part of Egypt, where traditional Nile Delta architecture was of brick. However, it is interesting to note the major role played by Germans and Frisians who provided the timber, and the fact that the majority of men on this Crusade came from areas of western Europe where the old motte style of castle remained common.

The defensive function of Crusader fortifications is obvious but the precise way in which they operated during the 13th century is not always clear. The many small towers that dotted Crusader territory may, for example, have served as observation posts and local refuges. Nevertheless, warning of the approach of enemy forces did not necessitate fortifications, however small, so perhaps their tiny garrisons were expected to offer suicidal resistance in the hope of delaying an attack upon a major centre. Delays or truces clearly featured prominently in resistance. A short three months truce with Saladin, after the Battle of Hattin, enabled Renaud de Sagette to prepare his castle of Belfort for a prolonged siege. Chroniclers refer to supplies being sent, and to the repair of its walls and gate. Yet when the crisis came, Belfort fell quite easily. The importance of outlying castles was clearly not lost on Saladin, whose biographer Imad al-Din wrote of Antioch after Hattin that 'To take away her fortresses is to take away her life.'

(1) The castle of Belfort (structures built by the Lords of Sagette 1139-90 are hatched, Ayyubid structures 1190-1240 are stippled, Templar structures are black, and Mamluk and Ottoman structures are unshaded):

1 - early Mamluk residential tower;

2 - Ayyubid great tower;

3 - early Mamluk casemates;

4 - early Mamluk postern;

5 - early Mamluk salient with two towers;

6 - Templar chapel;

7 - 12th-century Crusader donjon;

8 - 17th-century Ottoman buildings;

9 - 12th-century Crusader main wall;

10 - early Mamluk entrance way;

11 - early Mamluk entrance passage;

12 - early Mamluk entrance ramp;

13 - early Mamluk hall. (After Corvisier)

(2) The castle of Margat:

1 - north-western great tower;

2 - outer fosse;

3 - outer enclosure wall;

4 - inner enclosure wall;

5 - outer entrance tower;

6 - forecourt between outer and inner gates;

7 - inner gate;

8 - substructure of vaulted chapter house;

9 - magazine chambers;

10 - chapel;

11 - two-storied hall;

12 - southern great tower rebuilt by the Mamluks;

13 - hall;

14 - open cistern. (After Muller-Wiener)

Good visibility was important for a major fortress. A sentry on the inner towers of Atlit, for example, was said to have been able to see an approaching enemy 13km away, but this was merely a result of its coastal location. Furthermore the site of Atlit could, to some extent, 'control' movement along the vital coastal road. At one time the selection of the site of Amoude in Cilicia as the location for a Teutonic Knights castle was thought to reflect the amount of land beneath its gaze. More importantly the hill of Amoude lay close to a strategic river crossing located in the heart of a fertile and densely populated plain. One of the Teutonic Knights' other important castles in the Kingdom of Cilician Armenia was Haruniya, close to a very important pass through the Amanus Mountains linking Cilicia and the plains of northern Syria. Such considerations were far more important than the distance that could be surveyed from the highest towers.

Despite the development of more powerful siege machines, most notably the counterweight trebuchet, the basic techniques of siege warfare remained the same as they had been during the 12th century. This was as true for the defenders as for the attackers. Given their numerical weakness, the basic strategy adopted by Crusader garrisons when facing a major assault was to retire into their citadel until the raiders hopefully withdrew. For several decades this worked well, especially against ill-disciplined foes like the Khwarawzians, who were themselves little more than a 'refugee army' fleeing ahead of Genghis Khan's more determined forces.

Clearly the construction of powerful defences made the Islamic states consider smaller campaigns as little more than pointless. Major invasions now had to be conducted by sizeable forces and even the hugely powerful Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria could not take all fortified places in a single campaign. Indeed some of the strongest Crusader fortresses were left until last. Furthermore, the Mamluks had to take complete control of major citadels if they wanted to occupy a city or region permanently. The fact that it took the Mamluks over 40 years to subdue what looked like small, isolated, vulnerable and demoralised coastal enclaves demonstrates the soundness of the Crusader States' defensive strategy. That it ultimately failed was a reflection of geopolitical factors, not of the defences, their garrisons or their tactics.

(1) Tartus:

1 - donjon;

2 - inner wall of the citadel;

3 - banqueting hall;

4 - chapel;

5 - outer citadel wall;

6 - inner fosse;

7 - north-western tower;

8 - south-western tower of the citadel;

9 - north gate of the city;

10 - city wall;

11 - city fosse;

12 - Cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa;

13 - south-western corner tower of city walls. (After Deschamps and Muller- Wiener)

(2) The fortified mill at Recordane (Khirbat Kardanah):

1 - bridge across the stream;

2 - first mill;

3 - entrance to the tower protected by a machicolation;

4 - fortified tower;

5 - second and third mills;

6 - fourth and fifth mills added during the Ottoman period. (After Pease)

(3a-c) Remains of the fortified tower of Caco (al-Qaqun): 3a - lower floor or basement with ceramic drainage pipe (1) from the roof; 3b - upper floor with pipe embedded within the corner wall; 3c - east-west section through the existing structure. (After Leach)

The more warning a garrison received of an impending attack, the better its chances of a successful defence. Yet Crusader garrisons often had little warning. Sultan Baybars, for example, was famous for the care he took to achieve surprise, sometimes not even informing his senior commanders of the real destination of a raid or siege campaign until his army was already on the march. This forced the Crusader States to spread their defences amongst several potential targets, further contributing to the remarkably small size of some garrisons.

Larger towns and cities could summon local militias when threatened, and such communal forces were recorded even before the emergence of real 'communes' with Crusader cities. At the same time major urban centres like Acre housed relatively large professional forces, yet their effectiveness was not guaranteed; Antioch capitulated in 1268 after a siege of only five days, despite being fully garrisoned.

The large numbers that crowded into a city or its citadel as the outer town and suburbs were abandoned to the enemy must have caused problems. There would have been far more frightened mouths to feed and only a small proportion of such refugees would have been effective fighting men. The final defence of Acre in 1291 drew in many available troops from other coastal enclaves, weakening them to such an extent that, after Acre fell, most other outposts simply surrendered.

When such a city fell much of its population is unlikely to have been able to escape, especially when disciplined and organised conquerors, like the Mamluks, placed guards on the gates to avoid unauthorised looting by their own men. Even on the coast there were not enough ships for everybody to escape. As a result many of the poor, unable to pay for a passage in such ships, with nowhere to go and no family links outside the Crusader States, had no alternative but to remain. A larger number of these usually unrecorded 'poor' were presumably absorbed into what became the Arab-speaking coastal populations of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

Although the basic techniques of siege warfare remained largely unchanged, more powerful artillery was now available in increasing numbers. The mining operations that had proved so effective against Crusader fortifications in the 12th century continued, but were now supported by massed trebuchets. This combination proved highly effective against Crac des Chevaliers in 1271. The demoralisation of Crusader garrisons during these final decades may have been overstated, but constant bombardment by great rocks clearly had an impact that was probably more significant than the physical damage caused.

On the other side, the defenders' use of espringals and 'great crossbows' could prove very effective, because the attackers were more exposed to the massive arrows shot by such weapons than the defenders within their stone walls. 'Great crossbows' were used by the Templars of Atlit in 1220, causing such heavy casualties that the Ayyubid Sultan al-Muazzam withdrew his army. The Templar garrison of Jaffa used the same sort of weapons in defence of Jaffa in 1266.

Other chroniclers add further details about defensive measures; these being particularly abundant in accounts of the final siege of Acre in 1291. For example, Oliver of Paderborn, in his Historia Damiatina, described one tower as having huge iron spikes attached to wooden hoardings. Similar obstacles may have been planted in the moat. However, a suggestion that, during the final epic siege, the main wall of Acre was protected by wooden barbicans seems more doubtful.

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