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What Are Crusader Castles?

The Levant is not a small geographic blip on the map, spanning thousands of kilometers north to south, and stretching hundreds of miles from the west coast of the Mediterranean, to the North Arabian Desert and Mesopotamian in the east. As such, the diverse landscapes and cultures inhibit the ability to generalize the construction of crusader castles under a single rule or theory, even during the same period of time. Crusaders came from all over the European continent, a landmass that had been heavy laden with castles and warfare for centuries.

Each group of people brought forth with them different castle building techniques and styles that would be implemented and integrated into the Levant, similar circumstances to when Norman castles flooded the French landscape when it was invaded. The variety and utility of crusader castle outstrips those of their historical counterparts as they deal with unknown and unforgiving landscape which showed little mercy, each castle was uniquely created for a unique set of reasons, there were no two alike.

One thing does remain the same, there central role in controlling the Levant. With numerous castles in the Levant it would be an ambitious endeavor to incorporate them all, as such I will present you the idea that the crusader castle were the most important contributing factor for the longevity of the crusader states, with key examples to highlight there primary functions. There have been hundreds of castles built, conquered, refortified and abandoned, but rarely do we definitively know why such events occurred.

It is left for the historians to interpret the small scraps of information gathered throughout the years in order draw out reasonable conclusions to the events that had occurred. There is one such document existing that pertains to one of the earliest crusader castles during the first generation of castle building (1099-1114). Saphet castle or sometimes referred to as Safad castle is located in Galilee, is unusual in the world of archeology and history.

It is a rare occurrence when we can learn more about a castle, a structure made of solid stone that can stand the test of time, from the documentation and written evidence. There has been difficulty determining if Saphet castle was either an existing Muslim fortification or a newly constructed Frankish one. Attempts to understand its exact appearance have been hindered by the numerous times it has been destroyed and rebuilt, often by different groups of people with unique architectural style.

The crusader reincarnation of the castle in the 1240’s was replaced by a later Mamluk structure before being flatted by a nineteenth century earthquake. The first mention of Saphet castle in the possession of the crusaders is in 1101, during the first generation of Frankish castle building. This preliminary castle would have allowed them to gain a foothold in the surrounding landscape. This would make it one of the earliest fortified Frankish locations in the Levant and was most likely initially built for defense, something that they could easily defend from their newly made enemies.

Saphet changed hands numerous times and with each new reincarnation, the primary responsibilities and purpose of the castle shifted. In 1188 the castle was conquered by Saladin and remained in Muslim hands until 1240 when it was recaptured by the Templars. After its recapture the Templars deemed in necessary to refortify the fortress due to its close proximity to Damascus, unable to finance the project the Templars recruited the help of the Benoit d’Alignan, the Bishop of Marseilles.

After his recruitment he traveled to Acre in order to petition The Master of the Temple, Armand de Perigord and the Council of Templers to aid in rebuilding the castle. After successfully acquiring the help of the Templers, construction of the castle began almost immediately. The rebuilding of Saphet castle is important to crusader history as it shaped the landscape, but its documentation left behind would give insight all manners of historians about the construction of crusader castles and the enormously important role they play.

The pamphlet or short text, De Constructione Castri Saphet is thought to have been anonymously written sometime between when the Bishop of Marseilles visited Saphet for the second time two decades after is revival in 1260, and the when the castle fell to the Muslims in 1266. The reason for the pamphlets creation is unknown, as it is not made clear in the text. Hugh Kennedy suggested that it was most likely initially written as a tribute to the Bishop of Marseilles and later published to spur more funding and greater interest for other castle building ventures.

The pamphlet begins by explaining why there was such as need for this castle to be built and how the funds and men were to be accumulated in order for the successfully and timely construction. “When he asked them why they inquired of him so insistently, they answered that with the building of Saphet, the gates of Damascus would be closed. ” When the bishop travelled to Damascus, local Muslims began to inquire if Saphet castle was going to be rebuilt. They knew that the location of Saphet was strategically valuable and the rebuilding of it would be significant as it would extend the reach of Frankish power.

During this period, the Franks had a temporary truce with Damascus, but as a major center of Muslim power in close proximity of Acre and other smaller settlements it made the local Frankish communities uneasy. There were no other castles between Damascus and Acre to act as a shield against the Muslims for when the peace would eventually break, the strategic position of Saphet would allow them to control the surrounding landscape, something that would enable them to acquire vast amounts of resources from the Muslims without going to war.

Because of the building of this castle, The Sultan would lose large sums of money, massive subsidies and service of the men…his land would turn to desert and waste. ” Fundamentally castles are defensive structures, the building of Saphet castle would play a defensive role if the Muslims had chosen to invade the region, something that would inevitably occur when the castle was captured in 1266 by Baybars. Although fundamentally defensive, the building or rebuilding of a castle plays a much larger role in the dynamic of the landscape.

This castle would become the new nucleus of the land, and its sphere of influence would cut into that of Damascus’s. Land that had once been under the rule of Damascus could no longer have been exploited for places of residence, agriculture and profit, because it was now in the vicinity of a Frankish castle. Castles give the crusaders the ability to send out raiding parties to the surrounding area to enforce Frankish rule and quickly withdraw without minimal contact or risk.

Thus wealth in the terms of land and resources was shifted from the Muslims to the frank in relatively safe manners as it had occurred from the building of a single castle that could dominate the landscape This pamphlet may not accurately portray of the results of the building Saphet as its primary purpose for being written was to act as a form of propaganda about the importance of funding and the building castles. This being said, I do not believe it does not diminish its value as it does highlight some incredible results that occurred around the landscape from the construction of Saphet.

Even if some had been embellished or falsified, it cannot be said that the castle had a negligible effect. “Before it was built the Saracens, Bedoin, Khwarazmians and Turkmen used to make raids to Acre…agricultural lands could be worked freely…the land remained uncultivated and like a desert for fear of the castle of Saphet. ” Here the anonymous author describes that good fertile land once used for agriculture by Damascus had been turned into desert and thus useless for farming. While the local landscape of Saphet could be worked without any fear from enemies.

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