On the Path of the Crusades

by Cathy Scofield

Cathy traveled with us on our new Crusades trip in October 2010.  Read on to hear her experience on the trip!

Study Leader: John France
Tour Manager: Mary Dell Lucas

A Brief History of the Crusades

Historically, the Crusades were a Western European Catholic 200-year long series of quests to ‘rescue’ Jerusalem from Islam, a religion that exploded into popularity after Mohammed’s death in 632AD. By 750AD, Islam was dominating the region from the Arabian Sea to the straits of Gibraltar. During the late 11th century, religious piety was at an all time high in Western Europe, and this, coupled with a Constantinople threatened on the East by the Turks, and seeking military assistance from the West, led to Pope Urban II crafting the call to the Crusades. Catholic Christians, taking up arms to paradoxically cleanse themselves of all sin, Orthodox Christians, already resident in the Middle East, yet differing philosophically from the Roman Catholics, and Muslims, resident and in political control of a great deal of territory were brought together, over a land and city they all revered as holy, changing the destinies of each forever.

The First Wave
The incoming Crusaders in the first wave, driven by religious fervor, did indeed take Jerusalem, establishing a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. But the next 200 years demonstrated that this was a fragile accomplishment, and the Latin Kingdom was defeated in 1187 by Salah al-Din. The Crusaders were chronically outnumbered, and repeatedly, in castle after castle, capitulated because they did not have the numbers to man the incredible fortifications that they had built to safeguard this new infrastructure.

The Tour Revealed How the Crusades Still Influence Our Cultures

It wasn’t just building castles, conquering land, collecting taxes and tribute that the Crusaders implemented.  They also planned infrastructures and improvements to existing cities that that made subtle but real changes. Imagine a tour inspired by the flow of the Crusades, and you receive a dynamic route that links the destinies of men and women, nations, religions, and regions. As a movement that introduced the West to the East, the Crusades influence us to this very day, as this tour demonstrated.

Tour Begins in Istanbul: An Archeological and Cultural Perspective

The tour began in Istanbul, formerly called Constantinople, with beautiful, weather;  the Sea of Marmara sparkling in the sunshine, laden with ships waiting to enter the Bosphorus. Driving along the old wall, that originally encircled a huge area – one side was 7 kilometers long – to defend from attack from the sea, we stopped a the Golden Gate, where the emperor entered and exited – people like ourselves would be delegated to a much different gate, of course. These walls were created by laying a foundation, outlining the wall on both sides, and then filling it with rubble. This immense thickness was needed to protect against siege machinery carried aboard the attacking ships. We climbed the steep steps to the top of the wall, walking alongside the crenelations to visit several of the towers.

As we continued along the wall, we could see that the former moat now hosts community gardens, complete with busy produce stands. We stopped at the first Crusader encampment, park-like with the wall behind it, then approached the Golden Horn, the inlet from the Bosphorus once guarded by a chain controlled by the Galata Tower.

Having completed the circuit of the wall, we visited the Chora Monastery, which was decorated very similarly to the Aya Sofya when it was consecrated as a Church to the Holy Wisdom. Byzantine mosaics, frescoes and ornamental panels of stonework.

The Aya Sofyia

The Aya Sofya IS impressive. The massive dome, resting on other domes, all buttressed to form an interior space of great space and beauty.

It was used as a basilica, and later a mosque – when the mosaics were plastered over, and is now a museum. Originally, it was the church where the emperor worshipped, so there is a separate door for his entrance and upstairs is the place for the women to worship. Even more spectacular to my mind is the Blue Mosque, properly named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. The Blue Mosque is modeled after the Aya Sofya, but surpasses it in the loveliness of the interior atmosphere and the beauty of the stained glass windows.

Ah… The Food!

A word about the wonderful food on this trip. There were regional variations, but generally, there were cold mezze – small appetizer or salad like dishes, such as  cucumber and tomato salad, eggplant, humus, tahini, chickpeas, yogurt; next would be several warm mezze, served hot from the kitchen – perhaps something like falafel, or borek. The main dish was usually grilled, fish, or kebabs, or chicken, and finally, dessert – usually fruit, and perhaps some sweets with honey or dates.  Breakfast buffets varied, but some of the best had olives, sliced meats, cold cereals, a variety of juices – apple, cherry, orange – coffee, tea, dried fruits, yogurt, fresh fruits and breads. There was something to win every palate.

Antioch in the Afternoon
Antioch was the next stop, much hotter, hazier and a more barren mountainous landscape; the location was important because of the river Orontes’ connection to the sea. The Romans originally fortified the town, no mean feat when you realize that the town abuts a steep hill, so they built the wall all the way up the hill, along the crest – where the citadel and towers were located – then down again to connect up to the town wall. When the Crusaders got to Antioch, their ranks had been decimated drastically from the force they had landed in Constantinople, but they arrived at a fortunate moment; the local Islamic leaders were arguing, allowing the Crusaders to be able to besiege Antioch and infiltrate the citadel. We visited the old wall of the town, and walked back to where we could see the citadel, originally a triangle shape, with towers still visible  – very evocative in the late afternoon light.

The Crusades: A Journey of Death
John France spoke to us that night about the different styles of warfare, the Turkish light horsemen, and the Western Crusaders, with their larger, heavier horses. I pictured a Champion American Football team taking on a World Class Soccer team – one dashing in and out rapidly and the other, a solid immovable force. In medieval war, as in the Crusades, the fight must ultimately become intimate, and at close quarters, the football team had the advantage. Amazingly, the real weakness on both sides was horses. Supplying horses with food and water, and pacing the marching slowed down any cavalry or horse troops. While the ranks of men was decimated by the unfamiliar territory, the lack of food and water, and illness, the equine cost of the Crusades was horrific – only about 5% of the horses that landed lived to do battle. The journey from Constantinople had truly been, for men and horse, a journey of death.

European Infrastructure in a Muslim Country
As we began to view different citadels, castles, and fortified buildings of all sorts – churches, farmsteads, theatres, the Crusader’s European mindsets showed in the infrastructure they began to establish in the Middle East. Muslims were in power, but there was a huge Christian population, which provided the Crusaders with a political basis. As in Europe, establishing a castle or fortification was possible when the local landholders could be taxed, trade was lucrative, and protection desirable.  As we travelled through the Jabal an Nusayriyah (Coastal Range) mountains in Syria, we saw the establishment of the familiar (to the Crusaders) infrastructure and modifications due to new strategies and types of warfare. While egos abound in the history of the Crusades, there are patterns, influences, and inventions that permeate our lives today.

Traveling – Syria Style
In Syria lane markings on the highway are very faint, and in fact, seem to be wishful thinking, because motorists create as many lanes as they desire, even traveling the opposing direction on the shoulder in motorcycles, often with three family members all aboard. Vendors at the side of the road sell fish – looking like a surreal mobile, with the flashing fish catching the light, and produce, and often rugs and towels. Market day, as we traveled through the small towns, was in evidence, as goods were piled out on the sidewalks, and drivers stop their car, get out, do their shopping and then come back to drive on to the next stop.

Castles and Citadels

Aleppo: A Formidable Citadel in Ruins
The citadel at Aleppo was massive, much in ruins – from a number of historic periods – but the Ottoman throne room had been restored to glory for important occasions. The citadel itself has a zig zag entrance – to put any intruders at a disadvantage, many machicolations (boxes attached to the exterior, with holes in the bottom for shooting or other defensive measures), murder holes for ventilation and more vertical defense, and shooting galleries, where archers can rotate at many arrow slits for more horizontal defense.

Qalat Salah al-Din: A Private Castle
Qalat (castle in Arabic) Salah al-Din (Saladin in the west) was next, an example of a private castle. Qalat Salah al-Din is large, sitting on a promontory between two ravines, a natural advantage. The pinnacle that supported the drawbridge remains, but the access to the castle is a much more tourist friendly series of broad steps. The huge towers, and the donjon were built of margined blocks, a Frankish technique, and the interior spaces had barrel vault ceilings. On the roof, some crenelations were still intact.
Qalat Marcab: A Corporate Castle
Qalat Marqab, built on the cone of an extinct volcano, overlooks Mediterranean. What is not to like about this location?!? This castle, built of basalt blocks, was on the boundary between two Crusader states, and is an example of a corporate castle, having been purchased by the Knights of St. John of the Hospital, who could afford to maintain it. The large round towers are Armenian in origin, and date from the 12th century. Round towers have two tactical advantages – they are oblique targets for catapults, and they have no blind spots. Once again we walked all over the castle, up the stairs to the roof, the shooting galleries, down to the refectory, on the walls overlooking inner courtyards and outer perimeter.

Krak des Chevaliers: The Village Moved In
Krak des Chevaliers, another corporate castle run by the Knights of St. John of the Hospital, is built on a natural rock outcrop. As such, much of the lower walls are not walls at all, but truly solid rock. Krak des Chevaliers is well preserved, because the village moved into the castle, which is enormous, rather than dismantling the castle to create the village elsewhere. The French restored it in 1936, and later the Syrian Government also did some restoration work. Krak des Chevaliers, Castle of the Knights, dominates a strategic pass between the Mediterranean and the inland cities of Homs and Hama on the Orontes River. This provided tribute income to the castle. It was also located between the Crusader counties of Tripoli and Antioch. In 1173, an earthquake damaged the castle, and it was completely rebuilt in the late 12th century. When the Egyptian Mamluks attacked and took the castle, they used siege engines and mining and were able to collapse one of the outer towers on the vulnerable south side. The castle was understaffed, and so surrendered – another reason it is still in wonderful repair. The castle has a double wall defense, a trench that could be filled to be a cistern /moat between the walls, outer shooting galleries, and a stable. The inner castle rises, the towers seemingly grow organically from the rock itself. The inner castle has a refectory, a church, a kitchen with a huge oven, large storerooms, and quarters, with arrow slits to the outside walls, and windows to the inner courtyard.

The Assassins’ Castle and the Peaceful Monastery
Masyef was the castle of the sect of the assassins, a Shi’ite sect who believed in jihad (religious war) and gained a reputation for killing enemy leaders. They were expelled from Aleppo and Damascus, and so found Masyef as their stronghold. The assassins were a highly dedicated group, and led by the ‘old man of the mountains’, paid off the Crusaders in order to maintain their independence. The castle itself is small and due to multiple occupations, has been renovated greatly on many occasions. It is a hodge podge of buildings, layers and rooms, and is difficult to ‘see’ coherently any one occupation.

Stopping at the Seidnaya monastery, second only to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrimage, it is important also to Muslims and has enjoyed relative peace. The icon of the Holy Mother and Child painted by St. Luke, resides here, and is visited by the faithful.

An Archaeological and Cultural Tour of Damascus

After a lunch in Damascus, we went to the Citadel. For a change, this structure was needed to impress people, not quite so important for defense. Following the walls around, we came to the Umayyad mosque and the tomb of Saladin. Women had to wear a mosque outfits, but these were lightweight and looked monkish. The mosque was beautiful, with a large courtyard, much stone inlay work, wood carving, and painted ceilings. As we walked back through the souk, with its amazing displays of clashing wares – stores for women’s fundamental coats next to stores with glittering bras, stores with swords, stores with spices piled high, stores with containers of candy – the eternal atmosphere of this old, old city permeated our consciousness.

In Bosra, there is a fortified theatre, an anti-Crusader defense, with a rampart, fortified towers, surrounded by a large ditch, and piles of trebuchet balls in the galleries. The theatre itself was Roman, and quite large, but it must have been the best defensible site at hand.

Eide in Jordan and Shabbat in Israel

Crossing into Jordan, we drove to Ajlun – another anti-Crusader castle. Ajlun is Islamic, built in response to the Crusader threat. It has a ditch/moat, with massive walls and towers. It was Eide today, the feast at the end of Ramadan. Families were picnicking, eating, gathering together, very busy and social at the castle. In downtown Amman, there was a lot of singing and dancing in the streets.
We crossed into Israel over the Jordan river, and it is the Shabbat, the holy day. Good Jews do not drive until after sundown, or operate machinery or fix food. There was a lot of traffic, so I guess some people are practical. The Jordan river was of enormous significance to the Christian pilgrims and thus to the Crusaders, who built fortified outposts on the way from Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Jordan.

The Historical Influence of Herod and Louis IX
We went to Caesarea, a fortified roman port – now a holiday site for people enjoying the day on the seashore. Standing on the wall of the fortification, we overlooked immense excavations. Herod built Caesarea, but it didn’t last long. There were three aqueducts to supply water, but an earthquake destroyed enough infrastructure that it wasn’t economically feasible to repair the city. The castle was re-fortified in 1251, by Louis IX, with the ditch/moat,  a zig zag entrance, massive towers, a portcullis, and a drawbridge. The church on the site was built very similarly to the Dome of the Rock – much smaller, supported by arches, and the under area probably used for storage. Caesarea had a sally port, the first time I had seen one. You run down there, out into the moat/ditch and surprise the attackers. Of course, you yourself could get pretty surprised, too.

We stayed in Haifa, which could have been any European city. Our hotel was high up on a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Remember it is still Shabbat, so we got an introduction to the Shabbat elevator – it only goes up or down one floor at a time.

Akko: Where the Pilgrims Landed
Akko or Acre is the port where pilgrims landed to begin their march to Jerusalem. It was also important for trade, and supplies. The archeologist, Dr. Stern, who has been excavating the Crusader city, walked us around. The excavation is truly amazing; first they had to support and stabilize the existing city, then excavate the city beneath. It had been filled with rubble, so was well preserved. We toured the Hospitaller quarter, which even had public toilets that were flushed with either sea water OR rain water. There was a Templar quarter, a Venetian quarter, Genoese, German, French, and so forth. It was a wealthy city, but ignored its own vulnerability. The Mamluks decided that they wanted it, besieged Akko for two years and in 1291, ended the siege by slaughtering all inhabitants.

The End of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem
The review of the pivotal battle of the Horns of Hattin began with a stop at Sepphoria, where the Crusaders assembled and planned. There were plenty of local springs and food for the men and horses.  It is 26 kilometers to the Horns of Hattin, and the setting was a very hot July in 1187. The two-day uphill route gets increasingly dryer, and Salah al-Din let the weather and the lack of water become part of his strategy to wear down the Crusader army. He also sent horsemen to harass the army, which was traveling as a column. It took tremendous energy to shift the army to turn and face the enemy, and of course, when they did, the enemy had dispersed once again to peck at another flank. Salah al-Din also seized the spring at Turan, which was the closest water to Tiberias, which Salah al-Din’s army had just taken. The lack of water for both Crusader men and horses was crucial. When the Crusader army got to the Horns of Hattin, the blocks of the army began to do different things. Some men deserted and fled, one block attacked Salah al-Din and almost prevailed. The end result, however, was the defeat of the Crusader army and the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

We visited Vadum Jacov, a castle built to defend a critical passage over the Jordan river, built in 11 months. Dr Ronnie Ellenbaum, who met us at the site, felt that it was not complete, merely enclosed. He talked about all the information he and his research teams have been able to learn about how castles were planned and built, due to the records, and excavations. We traveled through the Golan Heights, with barbed wire and mine fields to reach the Golan Heights Winery, which has paradoxically and gratefully, lovely wines for a tasting to top off our incredible day.

Well planned, and well built, Belvoir Castle, was a base to prevent raids by the enemy and to squeeze any attempt to take over Galilee.  The Hospitallers had the land and resources, while an old Jewish city had the stones; once again, a corporate fortress was built. A formidable, concentric castle, the inner castle could defend the outer castle, and a deep ditch surrounds the more vulnerable sides. A relatively small castle, all defenses were covered, and even the sally ports were hidden. Belvoir held off Salah al-Din for two years, but finally succumbed to undermining of the tower on the Jordan River side.

The Intensity of Jerusalem
Traveling to Jerusalem, we could see Jericho, and the Dead Sea in the distance. This road that we are traveling would have paralleled a path fortified for the pilgrims. As we approach Jerusalem, it seems to go on forever, hill top after hill top. Even the walled city is huge. The current walls are Ottoman, but closely follow the walls from the Crusader times. After we arrive, we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is quite ugly, partly because it is divided up into a number of different religious jurisdictions. They don’t agree on maintenance of the entire building, so each section can be lovely and intense, but there is no coherence. The Church also encompasses important Christian sites, such as the empty tomb in the Aedicule, the Stone of Anointing upon which Jesus lay as he was prepared for burial  (replaced several times over the centuries), and Calvary. It is an intense place.

The Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock: Archaeological Insights to Cultural Sites
Next day, we approached the Temple Mount area, through the security screening, to view the Dome of the Rock, which is a mosque, and the Al Aqsa Mosque, neither of which can infidels enter. The Temple Mount, the plaza upon which these structures stand,  is artificially enlarged by arched supports, which no one is allowed to view, but is where the Templars are said to have stabled their horses. The exterior of the Dome of the Rock was beautifully done mosaics, renovated during the last century. We exited close to the Wailing Wall, the spot closest to the Holy of Holies, and where Jews come to deliver prayers in the form of scraps of paper tucked into the rock. There is a large area for men, and a small area for women.

The Citadel of Jerusalem/David’s Tower is now a museum, and using the maps in the museum, John described how the Crusaders took the city of Jerusalem in 1099. They assaulted both the north and south walls, using smoke signals via the Mount of Olives to communicate. When the north wall collapsed, many citizens fled. Some who ran to the Temple Mount were massacred, but others did indeed escape. To give the Crusaders credit, they improved the city during their stewardship, and left it much more beautiful than when they arrived.

As we drove up the Mount of Olives , the view of the Temple Mount and the walled city just kept expanding.

The End of Our Tour
Our final Crusader stop was the Church of Abu Gosh, a beautiful Norman church, lovely, serene and austere.

When you follow an historical route, learn about the motivations, challenges and opportunities, inevitably, you grow. This was an amazing trip, and I either think about it specifically or have an aha moment every day. Thank you, Far Horizons, Mary Dell Lucas, John France, and my fellow travelers.

2 Responses
  1. Graham Loynd

    Great trip log, Cathy.
    Let me emphasize how wonderful it was to have our own renowned Crusades expert, Dr. John France, along to describe the sights, and outline the history which occurred right where we stood.

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