Five Crusader Fortifications in the Medieval Levant

Dues Vault, Hospitaller fortress in Acre, Israel / Creative Commons

Taking a tour through five well-known 13th-century fortifications and castles built by Crusaders in the Levant.

By Dr. David Nicolle
Visiting Research Fellow
University of Nottingham


William of Oldenburg described Margat as follows: A huge and very strong castle, defended by a double wall and protected by several towers. It stands on a high mountain … Every night four Knights of the Hospital and 28 soldiers keep guard there … The provisions stored there are sufficient for five years.

Margat’s hilltop location is linked by a neck of land to a larger hill to the south, this potentially vulnerable approach being defended by a rock-cut reservoir to discourage mining. Margat itself is divided into two areas consisting of the castle and the fortified town, divided by a ditch and wall. The outer walls were defended by a dozen towers, of which all but four are round and probably date from after the Hospitallers had taken control.

The great Hospitaller fortress of Margat crowns a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean, near Banyas. The site consisted of a fortified town, on the right, and a much better protected citadel on the left. The southernmost outer bastion of this citadel was rebuilt by the Mamluks after they captured the place, and is distinguished by a horizontal line of white limestone masonry. Most of the rest of the fortress dates from the 12th and 13th century Crusader period.

Margat’s defences are remarkably varied. On the eastern front, a wall and several round towers create a huge hillside terrace, behind which is a glacis crowned by an inner wall. How far this inner wall originally extended is, however, unclear. The north of the site has a single wall dominated by a square tower, probably from the 12th century. On the western side was an enclosure strengthened by four early 13th-century round towers whose wall-head defences are now lost. The main castle dominated the southern end of the enclosure, and was approached through a square gatehouse in the outer wall. Above the entrance arch are the corbels, which supported a machicolation; there is also a groove for a portcullis. The resulting complex entrance has alternative angled routes into the castle, though there was no access to the upper floors from the gate. Another fortified gate linked the fortress and the town, while the exterior of the citadel was protected by a double wall. On its western side are three square towers, again probably dating from the 12th century. The wall connecting them has a covered ‘shooting gallery’. But on the other side there are no towers because the slope is so steep that simple walls were considered adequate. At the very southern tip of this roughly triangular citadel was what the Crusaders called the Tower of the Spur, which was replaced by the great Mamluk tower that dominates the southern end of Margat.

Though plain and undecorated, the church inside the citadel of Margat is an impressive structure built of finely cut white limestone, in stark contrast to the roughly cut black basalt of the rest of the castle.

These outer defences are overlooked by clifflike inner walls, which surround the inner court; the latter is largely surrounded by vaulted halls used for storage and shelter. On the southern side is a more elegant, vaulted chamber, which was probably the Knights’ Hall. Nearby is a grand but austere chapel whose eastern end was incorporated into the castle wall. It was probably built shortly after the Hospitallers gained possession of Margat, although the halls on each side are from a later period.

Today the western side of the fortress-town of Margat looks less impressive than the eastern and southern defences. This was, however, the original approach and was protected by two strong enclosure walls plus a dry moat. Most of what is visible here forms the inner wall with the mass of the main citadel rising on the right.

Numerous changes were made to the plan during the construction of Margat, and it seems almost as if the masons were working continuously, year after year. The result is ingenious if rather confusing, with the most impressive elements of the citadel being two massive round towers. The smaller of these, at the north-eastern corner, still has its wall-head defences, which consist, at the lower level, of arrow-slits and one large rectangular opening for a counter-siege machine. Above them a wall walk has merlons pierced with arrow slits. At the southern end, where the natural defences are weakest, the Hospitallers constructed a round keep, 200m in diameter and 24m high. It was comparable to the great circular keeps of western Europe, though somewhat squatter, perhaps because of the threat of earthquakes.

The inner courtyard of the great castle of Crac des Chevaliers is remarkably small because so much of its area has been covered by additional structures. Of these the most famous is the fine, carved, Gothic arcade on the right, which formed a covered cloister for the brothers of the Hospitaller Military Order.

Otherwise the castle of Margat is remarkable for its use of superimposed halls and vaults, provided with arrow slits to turn them into huge shooting galleries, linked by a maze of often unlit staircases within the wall. Most probably served as storerooms or barracks though one contained ovens and some seem to have been stables. Above them is an extensive roof terrace, perhaps intended for stone-throwing siege machines of the type which defended Margat in 1285. In fact, numerous arrowheads embedded in the mortar around certain arrow slits probably date from the final siege.

Crac des Chevaliers

The eastern entrance of the castle of Crac des Chevaliers led to a covered entrance ramp, the upper part of which is seen here. Halfway up the covered corridor the ramp made an abrupt 180-degree turn, at the furthest point visible in this picture.

Crac des Chevaliers, with its finely cut white limestone masonry, is less forbidding than the dark and roughly cut basalt mass of Margat. It is, however, more cramped, with approximately three-quarters of the area within the inner walls being built over. A chapel stands at one end of a small courtyard while at the other a large raised platform rests on vaults, which were probably used for storage, inner stabling and as shelter from incoming stones and arrows. On the western side of this courtyard is the magnificent Hall of the Knights, perhaps largely 12th century with 13th-century interior vaulting and ribs. However, even this was not the most remarkable aspect of Crac des Chevaliers. To quote the historian Hugh Kennedy:

The most striking feature is the gallery on the courtyard side, which probably dates from the 1230s; elegant, with delicate, slender pillars and tracery, it shows all the refinement of the high Gothic of the thirteenth century and is a perfect complement to the massive fortifications. There is a short Latin verse inscribed on one of the arches: Sit tibi copia, Sit sapiencia, Formaque detur, Inquinat omnia sola, Superbia si comitetur. (Have richness, have wisdom, have beauty but beware of pride, which spoils all it comes into contact with.)

One of the most remarkable features inside the castle of Crac des Chevaliers is an open cistern, or short moat, between the extremely strong southern outer wall, on the left, and the even larger southern glacis of the inner citadel, on the right. In addition to serving as a secure source of water, its existence may have inhibited mining operations against the vulnerable southern side of the castle.

In stern contrast to the delicacy of this carved gallery or cloister, are the great towers of the southern wall. These provided accommodation for the 60 or so knights who were the aristocracy of the community. The south-west tower also has a vaulted circular chamber, which may later have been modified to provide the Grand Master with some privacy. On top are the remains of a small watchtower.



[LEFT]: The Templar castle of Atlit, or Pilgrims’ Castle, seen from the ruins of the 12th-century castle of Le Destroit, which it replaced. Atlit castle was in a very strong position, which could be directly resupplied and supported from the sea. Consequently it resisted long after the now abandoned town of Atlit (to the left of this picture) had fallen to the Mamluks. The Templars also gained considerable revenue from valuable salt-evaporation pans seen in the foreground.
[RIGHT]:  (I) Caesarea Maritima: 1 – North Gate; 2 – East Gate; 3 – Sea Gate; 4 – excavated Crusader building; 5 – excavated Crusader houses; 6 – Cathedral of St. Peter; 7 – port; 8 – Citadel. (After Benvenisti and Kaufmann) (2) Atlit: I – inner ward of the Citadel; 2 – harbour; 3 – North Great Tower; 4 – South Great Tower; 5 – outer wall; 6 – north Beach Gate; 7 – south Beach Gate; 8 – urban fortified wall; 9 – baths; 10 – faubourg, or town; 11 – unfinished church; 12 – stables. (After Johns and Pringle) (3) Section through the Citadel of Atlit (surviving structures are shown in black): 1 – north-west tower; 2 – north-west hall; 3 – west undercroft; 4 – inner ward; 5 – east quarters; 6 – north gate tower; 7 – east bailey; 8 – outer wall; 9 – fosse. (After Pringle)

Otherwise known as Pilgrims’ Castle, Atlit stands on a low promontory and was built from 1217 onwards. A fortified town was added later. The concentric defences of the castle itself are separated from the mainland by a rock-cut ditch and counterscarp wall in front of two massive walls. The inner wall is 12m thick and was over 30m high, being flanked by two rectangular towers. The outer is over 6m thick and was 15m high with three towers.


[LEFT]: The main entrance into Le Destroit, on the low coastal ridge next to Atlit castle, was a gateway partially cut through the rock. Another secondary entrance seems to have been approached via an external wooden stair supported on timber beams, which were slotted into a series of holes in the man-made rock face, as seen here.
[RIGHT]: Atlit in the 1930s, looking inland from the castle across the valuable salt-pans to the coastal plain and hills of Palestine beyond. This is now a closed military zone. The fortified medieval town of Atlit lay to the right, between the castle and the salt-pans, while the beach, also on the right, formed a rather exposed harbour.

Beyond the castle, the town wall had a ditch and counterscarp, three gatehouses, each with a portcullis and probably slot machicolations. There were wooden bridges over the ditch, and an additional postern. A small harbour south of the castle provided limited protection from storms, and on the far side of the town was a stone-faced earthen rampart, which marked the southern edge of the precious salt-pans that brought considerable revenue to Atlit. The seaward end of this rampart also had a moated tower.


Crac des Chevallers in the mid 13th century

The picturesque Sea Castle at Sidon stands on a small rocky islet only a few metres from the shore. It was built in 1228 to protect the northern harbour of Sidon, which itself formed a vital stage in the sea route from Acre to western Europe. In the 13th century most ships hugged the coast and preferred to come ashore each night, which necessitated a chain of secure harbours. (Museum of the Order of St. John)

Caesarea Maritima

The mid 13th-century fortifications of Caesarea, as rebuilt by the Crusading King Louis IX of France, are the most complete examples of unaltered Crusader urban defences in the Middle East. (Duby Tal)

Caesarea Maritima on the Palestinian coast boasts the best-preserved Crusader urban defences, largely because this site was abandoned for centuries after it had been retaken by the Mamluks. The main city gate was on its eastern side and had a drawbridge supported by a stone vault, which has been reconstructed. The lines of the town’s fortifications follow those of the early medieval Islamic defences, though the walls themselves received their final form when Louis IX of France had the city refortified in 1252. The original height of this mid-13th-century wall is unknown, but in several places there were casemated arrow slits with sloping sills; the whole being fronted by a talus rising 8m from the base of a dry ditch 7-8m wide and 4-6m deep. The vertical counterscarp remains, along with 14 projecting towers. One tower on each of the landward sides of Caesarea had a bent entrance. The ruins of a castle were found on the southern harbour mole, consisting of a keep behind a wall with rectangular towers fronted by a sea-level rock-cut moat.

The excavated outer defences of Caesarea Maritima on the Palestinian coast clearly show how the moat of the refortified city followed the line of the wall precisely. The sloping lower part of the city wall is on the left while the near-vertical retaining wall of the moat is on the right.


Archaeological investigations at Arsuf are much more recent and a great deal remains to be published. The site differed from that at Caesarea Maritima, as Arsuf takes advantage of a sandstone bluff overlooking a shallow natural haven near the modern Israeli town of Herzliya.

Although the Crusader military architects who designed the new fortifications of the town of Arsuf followed the lines of the existing Islamic defences, they added several much stronger walls and towers. Here the lower part of the south-eastern corner tower has been excavated, along with part of the moat and a retaining wall on the far right.

The city had reached its greatest extent during the pre-Islamic Byzantine period when it had an important Samaritan community, though not, it appears, a Jewish one. During the early Islamic period the extent, though not necessarily the population, of Arsuf was reduced, apparently in response to the threat of Byzantine naval attack. Arsuf was now, for the first time, given a fortified wall. This was the city that the Crusaders seized early in the 12th century, after which the conquerors continued to use the existing Islamic fortifications, restoring them and adding a new gate. During the early 13 th century, the Crusaders added a castle on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. This included a courtyard surrounded by a high inner wall with two rectangular and four semicircular towers. An outer wall had five larger and lower bastions, the largest of which projected directly ahead of the twin gate-towers. This doubled-wall system was in turn surrounded by a deep moat strengthened by outer retaining walls forming a polygon. The seaward ends of this retaining system have, like much of the western side of the castle, collapsed as a result of cliff erosion.

[LEFT]: Much of the ruins of the medieval Crusader city of Arsuf remains unexcavated, because the ground has been polluted by chemicals from an Israeli armaments factory. However, the foundations of the ruined east gate have been uncovered. Here the Crusaders followed the line of the previous Fatimid city fortifications, but added a stronger gate.
[RIGHT]: The northern part of the fosse, or moat, around the citadel at Arsuf. Massive strengthening piers were added to this, the longest stretch of outer retaining wall, probably because the pressure of loose sandy earth behind threatened to burst the wall and fill the moat.

A bridge on two piers led into the south-eastern side of the castle. It would originally have had a drawbridge into a short wall between the southern and easternmost outer towers. Some large circular structures in the north-eastern corner of the castle may have been ovens in a kitchen area, and on the western side was a polygonal keep over a vaulted hall. Much of the western side of the castle and all of its straight western wall have fallen down the cliff.

The rectangular area of very shallow water in the centre of this photograph is sheltered by the foundations of walls dating from the 13th-century Crusader occupation of Arsuf. It has sometime been interpreted as the remains of a small harbour, though it might also have been a wharf that was later flooded by a slight change in sea level. The massive pieces of masonry on the right are from the collapsed western side of the citadel overlooking this harbour or wharf.

At the base of this cliff was what some have identified as a harbour with jetties and corner towers. An alternative interpretation suggests that it included a flat area of land, just above sea level, which may have served as a wharf. A tunnel led from the fortress to the supposed ‘port’, perhaps as a final means of escape, while another tunnel led south from the courtyard into the moat. This could have served as a postern, enabling the garrison to attack an enemy in the moat.

From Crusader Castles in the Holy Land, 1192-1302, by David Nicolle, Illustrated by Adam Hook (Osprey Publishing, 07.12.2005), published by Erenow, public open access.