In the Footsteps of the Crusaders

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The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the name by which the Crusaders’ rule over the Holy Land is commonly known, lasted from 1099, when the Crusaders ”rescued Jerusalem from the yoke of the infidel,” as one contemporary account put it, to 1291, when the city of Acre was retaken by the Moslems. At its zenith the kingdom stretched from Beirut to Elath, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan and beyond.

Even though the kingdom was in a constant state of siege, a building boom of a magnitude rarely equaled in the land occurred during the period of Crusader rule. Despite man-made and natural disasters the Israeli landscape is still dotted with 12th- and 13th-century remains, and a visitor can soon learn to recognize the idiom of Crusader architecture in the Holy Land.

There were three types of construction: military, religious and civilian. Forts and castles, churches and monasteries, inns, markets and hospitals were built by the Crusaders to defend their holdings and to serve the needs of pilgrims. The style was basically Romanesque with some early Gothic elements; a few local motifs were introduced by native craftsmen.

In Jerusalem, the city that had beckoned from afar, Crusaders’ footprints abound. Capture of the city came after a five-week siege. The heat was intense; food and water were scarce, and from the seemingly impenetrable walls of the Holy City the Moslems taunted their foe. On Friday, July 15, 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon and his men finally scaled the wall and won the battle for Christendom. A terrible massacre ensued. Old men, women and children were slaughtered. The Jews, who had fought alongside the Moslems, were locked up in a synagogue and set on fire. Blood was flowing in the streets, ankle-deep.

Later that day, Godfrey, Tancred and the other leaders of the First Crusade made their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They went barefoot, wrote one Crusader, ”through the holy places . . . where Jesus Christ the Saviour lived in the flesh. Devoutly they kissed the places where his feet had trod.” At the church they found evidence of the damage inflicted earlier in the century by the Egyptian Caliph el-Hakim. Soon, refurbishing of the church began; it was completed and celebrated in 1149, 50 years to the day after the Crusaders’ victory.

Unlike the interior, the facade has changed little since the 12th century. The double portal (the right one has been blocked since the days of Saladin, the Moslem ruler) and the two corresponding windows on the second floor are accented by three archivolts supported by engaged columns. The capitals with a foliage motif and the rosette-frieze were common to local architecture since the Byzantine period. The voussoirs – the evenly shaped stones in the arches – may have also been influenced by Eastern masons. The carved lintels of the portal, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus, have been removed to Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum for preservation. On the terraced roof, near the Ninth Station of the Cross, are the remains of the Crusader refectory and cloisters. The remains now surround a cluster of mud huts -the Ethiopian holding in the Holy Sepulcher – where old monks reside.

Southeast of the Holy Sepulcher are the Three Covered Bazaars, built to produce income for the Order of the Templars and the Church of St. Anne. Light enters the bazaars through apertures at the top of the groin vaults; the shops, still in use, are small and dark. The central bazaar, Suq el-Attarin, was known as Rue de Malquisinat (the Street of Bad Cooking) for the quality of the roasted meats sold to pilgrims there. Not all foods were poor, however. Oranges, peaches and bananas were available, along with a variety of breads, and local wines kept chilled in snow from Lebanon. Game – partridges, cranes, wild boar – was consumed by the Crusaders, and poultry could be purchased on nearby David Street, in a huge vaulted hall with massive piers – today’s vegetable market.


At the southern end of Suq el-Attarin begins the recently excavated Cardo, an elegant arcaded street from the Byzantine era. Shops on either side of the street, added some 600 years later by the Crusaders, have recently been been renovated to accommodate modern goods. Below street level, one can see remains of fortifications from the sixth and first centuries B.C., pieces in the mosaic that is Jerusalem, reminders of destruction and renewal.

East of the Cardo, on Misgav Ladach Road, is the partially restored Church of St. Mary of the Teutonic Knights. The church was established in 1128 to care for German pilgrims who might have felt unwelcome in the French-dominated Crusader Jerusalem. A German traveler in the 12th century described it as ”the German house upon which hardly any men who speak any other lan-guage bestow any benedictions.” The church, which had a hospital and a hospice attached to it, was the modest birthplace of the Teutonic Order, which later became so powerful that it conquered the state of Prussia and gave rise to its militaristic spirit.

The most beautiful Crusader church in Jerusalem is St. Anne, the traditional dwelling of Mary’s parents. It was turned into a madrasa, a religious school, by Saladin after his victory over the Crusaders in 1187, as is testified to by an inscription above the portal. Some seven centuries later, after the Crimean War, the Turks presented this building to the French Government, which committed it to the care of the White Fathers, a religious order.

Romanesque in style, built of white stone, it is pure and austere. The facade is elegant in its simplicity. A plain, triple-pointed arch marks the main portal; above it is a delicately carved molding. Only the top window is adorned, flanked by pillars and capitals. Six cruciform piers divide the interior into a nave and two aisles. The central apse creates a chevet, an unusual rounded projection in the exterior of the eastern wall. Light filters into the sparsely furnished building through a few clerestory windows. The acoustics in St. Anne are superb; to hear mass sung here – divine. (Mass is sung every morning at 6:30.) Some time after the conquest of Jerusalem, the Templars – the order charged with protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land – implanted themselves on the Temple Mount and refurbished the Mosque of Aksa. The Crusaders renamed it Templum Solomonis for Solomon’s Temple, which had stood on the Mount some 2,000 years before. The zigzag central arch in the entry porch is Crusader, as is the small octagonal edifice northwest of the Dome of the Rock. T hat building was turned into Templum Domini, and the octagonal structure served as its baptisary. Known today as the Dome of the Ascension, the former baptisary is a fine example of Crusader architecture.

If one leaves the Temple Mount through Bab el-Silsileh (Gate of the Chain in Arabic) one can see the twisted marble columns on either side of the gate, which probably come from a Crusader structure, as does the ”recycled” rose window in the water fountain across from the gate.

Before leaving Jerusalem one should visit the Citadel, an amalgamation of walls, towers and other fortifications. In the Crusaders’ period, as the city changed hands more than once, the Citadel often served as the defenders’ last stronghold. Nothing is left of the Latin Kings’ palace that stood nearby, and only a few architectural details from that era remain within the Citadel, but at its southwestern corner one can see the glacis and the outer wall of the fosse – the dry moat.

In the autumn of 1099, having fulfilled their vow to redeem Jerusalem, most of the Crusaders returned home. Those who stayed behind were known as the Franks – Christians of European, mostly French, origin. Noblemen, merchants, artisans, even peasants – most of the Franks settled in urban centers such as Jerusalem, Acre, Tiberias and Bethlehem. The country’s indigenous Christians detested the haughty Franks, who had replaced their clergy and liturgy in the churches. The Moslems who survived the First Crusade were mostly farmers who were allowed to continue to till the land and produce foodstuffs for the urban Franks. The Jewish population was almost completely eradicated by the Crusaders.

One of the main tasks of the 150,000 Franks (about a third of the total population) was to keep the highways safe for pilgrims. Since the pilgrims were in constant danger of Saracen attacks, the Franks built a strong network of forts and castles along the borders and on major routes and crossroads. These garrisons were strategically situated on mountain tops and within visual contact of each other; torches and homing pigeons were used to communicate. It was an effective early warning system.

Belvoir, a few miles south of the Sea of Galilee, is a fine example of a castrum, as a small Crusader fort was known. Known in Hebrew as Kochav Hayarden (Star of the Jordan), it commands a sweeping view of Mounts Hermon and Tabor, the Golan, the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmuk and Jordan Valleys. From this fort one could observe any movement on the nearby road, one of the ancient trade routes from Egypt to Damascus, which crosses the Jordan near Beit She’an. Belvoir was built in the middle of the 12th century and served the Knights of St. John, also known as the Order of the Hospitalers. As their name implies, this order was founded to minister to the sick, but later, alongside the Templars, they also guarded the highways and fought the Saracens, the Moslem foe.


Belvoir, which was meant to withstand prolonged sieges, is a double fort. The outer portion is a rectangle, 330 by 440 feet long. Square towers stand at the four corners and at regular intervals in between. Entry is over a culvert and through a low, fortified gate. Inside is a courtyard with arcaded corridors that used to house stables and storage areas. The inner fort, also protected by thick walls and corner towers, is built around an open court where one can still see the Hospitalers’ dining quarters, kitchen, ovens and the steps that led to a chapel and bedrooms. The bedrooms are now gone, as is the upper part of the keep.

Belvoir is built of black basalt blocks with white limestone used to accentuate certain vaults and arches. At the crumbling southwestern corner of the moat a typical Crusader building method can be seen: uniformly cut ashlars form both the inside and outside faces of the wall while the middle is filled with rubble and cement. The walls are up to 10 feet wide. Hidden in the outer walls are several staircases leading down to posterns in the moat from which sudden attacks could be launched.

Belvoir served the Hospitalers well until the time of Saladin, to whom it surrendered in 1189, after a year-and-a-half-long siege. In the 1220’s, the fort was partially destroyed by Saladin’s nephew, el-Malek el Mu’azzam.

Before leaving, the visitor might look again at the view and listen to the whispering breezes that gave Belvoir its Arabic name – Kaukab el-Hawa (Star of the Winds).

Keeping the sea lanes open was of vital importance to the Franks, who depended on arms, supplies and men from Europe. Acre, on the coast just north of Haifa, with its natural harbor, was second only to Jerusalem in its importance to the Latin Kingdom. The city, which is at least 4,000 years old, was famous since Phoenician times for its glass and for the dye extracted from the purple murex, a local snail. Alexander the Great stopped here, as did St. Peter and Maimonides – on separate occasions, of course.

King Baldwin I captured the city in 1104. Like other Mediterranean coastal cities, Acre was conquered with the help of Italian merchant fleets. For their assistance, commercial and other privileges were granted to the merchants; Venetians, Genoese, Pisans and Amalfians occupied large sections of Acre. The Orders of the Templars and the Hospitalers dominated the rest of the city, which, noted a contemporary visitor, ”is so populous as to surpass all the rest.” ”It receives all the merchant ships and . . . all the pilgrims for Christ’s sake. The air is corrupted by the enormous influxes of strangers.” A Moslem traveler described it as the ”focus of ships and caravans, and the meeting place of Moslem and Christian merchants . . . Its streets are chocked by the press of men so that it is hard to put foot to ground.” The traveler also commented on the preponderance of crosses and ”pigs” – his term for Christians. Some 40,000 people lived in Acre in the 13th century; the port could accommodate up to 80 ships. L ike most of the country, Acre was conquered by Saladin in 1187, but the balance of power shifted with the arrival of Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Third Crusade. In 1191 Acre returned to Christian hands and became, for a century, the capital of the Latin Kingdom, replacing the fallen Jerusalem.

The grand quarters of the Hospitalers in Acre were built mainly after 1191. A century later, when the Moslems demolished the city, they found the complex too solid to destroy and covered it with rubble. It took the Israelis 12 years to remove over 30,000 cubic feet of debris from the subterranean halls that housed the Master of the Hospitalers and his administration.

The entrance to this subterranean Crusader city is opposite the Mosque of el-Jazzar. After reaching the courtyard through a large Turkish gate, one can see, on the right, several huge rooms covering an area of 500 square yards; the barrel vaults are 25 feet high. This area, known today as the knights’ halls, may have served as barracks. The walk continues left of the court to a partially excavated hall, which may have been the administrative center, the Grand Manier. A narrow passage leads to the most impressive hall, the refectory, a 100-by-50-foot rectangle that was 36 feet high. Marco Polo may have dined in this hall on his way to China.

A 200-foot-long tunnel connects the refectory to six halls with cylindrical, cross-vaulted roofs. Finds from excavations in Acre, including Crusader artifacts, can be seen in the small museum next to the Hospitalers’ complex.


Acre, the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, came under siege on April 5, 1291. ”The enthusiasm of the Moslems was so great,” wrote one historian, ”that the number of volunteers exceeded the regular forces.” The walls and towers were bombarded by siege machines; the moats began to be filled. King Henry II of Cyprus arrived with his fleet, but it was too late. On May 18 the Saracens ”in numbers past counting” broke through the walls. The Franks who tried to flee were captured and killed. The last tower, held by the Templars, was being undermined when its defenders agreed to surrender. So many Saracens then entered the tower that it collapsed under their weight, crushing hundreds of Christians and Moslems. The conquerors destroyed the city’s markets, towers and walls, and Acre laid in ruins for centuries. Thus ended 200 years of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Sites Associated With the Christian Warriors Where to Go Were they brave, devout and romantic, or cruel, greedy and bloodthirsty? Everyone has preconceptions about the Crusaders.

Four European states came into being in the East after the First Crusade (1097 to 1099). They occupied an area along the eastern Mediterranean coast – today’s Syria, Lebanon and Israel. One of the four states was the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, whose fortunes and borders kept changing. Basically it covered most of modern Israel.

Out of the dozens of Crusader sites that still exist in modern Israel, three – Jerusalem, Belvoir and Acre – are particularly worth a visit, since they represent three different facets of the Crusaders’ history.

Jerusalem was the heart of the Latin Kingdom, the battle call of the Crusaders, the place where they left a lasting imprint. Belvoir is the country’s best preserved fort; it also commands spectacular vistas.

The coastal city of Acre, 16 miles north of Haifa, was the last stronghold of the Christians in the Holy Land . The city contains the grandest examples of Crusader architecture in Israel. Transportation Most of the Crusaders’ remains in Jerusalem are encompassed by the Old City Wall, an area less than one square mile, and can easily be visited on foot.

Belvoir is about six miles north of Beit She’an. There is no public transportation directly to the fort, but one can rent a car (about $35 a day) and drive to it. From Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the trip takes a couple of hours, from Haifa somewhat less. On the road to Belvoir, which passes through the Jordan Valley, an orange sign with the words ”Kochav Hayarden (Belvoir)” points west to a road that climbs three miles to the fort.

Regular bus and sherut (taxi) service is available between Haifa and Acre, which is just across the bay. The bus fare is about 25 cents, sherut less than $2.

If you rent a car to visit Belvoir and start early in the day, you can visit the fort, then continue north to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, about an hour away, for lunch. After lunch, you can drive on to Acre; that leg of the trip is also about an hour. Hours and Fees The places described in the accompanying article are free and open to the public from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., with these exceptions:

In Jerusalem, the Church of St. Anne is open daily from 8 A.M. to noon, and from 2 to 5 P.M., but is closed to the public on Sunday. The Temple Mount can be visited daily from 8 to 11 A.M., except Friday. Entry for non-Moslems is through Bab el-Maghrabeh, near the Western Wall.

Belvoir is open daily from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M.; entrance fee is $1. The Crusaders’ City in Acre is open daily from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., but closes at 1 P.M. on Friday; the fee is $1. Meals and Rooms Jerusalem offers many hotels and restaurants at various price levels.

There are no restaurants or hotels at Belvoir, but meals and lodgings are available in Tiberias. Several open-air restaurants are situated right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where the specialty is St. Peter’s fish caught in the freshwater lake. Lunch, at either Nof Kinneret (telephone 20773) or Galei Gil (20699) is $7 to $10, dinner $12 to $15.

There are also many hotels in various price ranges. At the Plaza (92233), a double room, including a large Israeli breakfast, is $100. At Galei Kinneret (92331), a quiet, older hotel, a double, with breakfast is $80. At Ganei Hamat (92890), just outside the city, near the Hot Springs, a double, with breakfast, is $65.

Acre offers two restaurants near the old port – Abu Christo (910065) and Ptolemais (916110). Both have a view of the Mediterranean and serve fresh fish and meat dishes, prepared in Near Eastern style. Lunches is about $10, dinner from $15 to $20. At the Argaman Motel (916691), on the beach, a double room is $60.

More information may be obtained by calling the Ministry of Tourism in Jerusalem (237311).N. R.

in The New York Times


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