Friday, October 23, 2015

A Home in the Holy Land





The Bishop of Oldenburg, travelling to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1212, was stunned by the luxury of the residences of the elite. According to Sir Steven Runciman in his "Families of Outremer," Oldenburg was particularly impressed by the Ibelin palace in Beirut: 

Its windows opened some on the sea, some on to delicious gardens. Its walls were panelled with plaques of polychrome marble; the vaulted ceiling [of the salon] was painted to resemble the sky with its stars; in the centre of the [salon] was a fountain, and round it mosaics depicting the waves of the sea edged with sands so lifelike that [the bishop] feared to tread on them lest he should leave a footmark.
Unfortunately, nothing of this palace remains today and, indeed, only scattered fragments of urban secular architecture from the crusader period have survived into the present. Even these remains have largely been obscured by the changing styles and functions that have altered the appearance of crusader structures almost beyond recognition in subsequent centuries. However, descriptions such as the one cited above as well as systematic analysis of the archeological evidence enables us to imagine a great deal. As a novelist writing about the crusader kingdoms, I am compelled to utilize all existing sources, both written and archaeological — and then add a hefty dose of imagination. What follows is a short survey of the key elements that would have defined an urban dwelling in the crusader kingdoms.

Due to a general scarcity of wood, the basic building material of the Middle East in the period was stone and/or brick. The latter, and often the former, was ususally plastered over and whitewashed. Most buildings were rectangular, two to three stories high, and crowned by flat roofs that might be decoratively crenellated and/or often provided additional living space in the form of a roof-top terrace that could be shaded from the sun bycanvas awnings. Whether used in this way or not, rooftops almost always collected rain water in a cistern. This house located on Kythera is much younger (17th century Venetian), but it has many of the features of crusader urban architecture.


Most dwellings would have been built around one or a series of courtyards. These in turn would have contained fountains, wells, kitchen and formal gardens, or working space, depending on the wealth of the occupant.  The courtyard below in Jerusalem has many medieval elements and does not look so very different from what it could have looked like in the 12th century.


The courtyard below from the Hospitaller headquarters in Acre is an example of a more spectacular, 13th century courtyard and only relevant for public buildings, but it is indicative of style, taste and crusader capabilities.


The surrounding enclosed spaces would have been either vaulted, with a wide, slightly pointed arch being the dominant, indeed iconic shape of crusader architecture, or topped by a flat roof supported by beams. A combination of these forms, with vaulted chambers on the ground floor and rooms with flat roofs above was common, but in more expensive structures double vaulted chambers at right angles to the chambers below could be stacked upon one another. A good example of this is the Hospitaller Castle of Kolossi. Below are three images of a vaulted chambers, one an upstairs chamber from the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi, one a cellar from the Byzantine/Crusader castle of St. Hilarion, and the third showing a wine or oil press in the chamber, something very common in the crusader kingdoms.












Doors and windows could be either arched or square, with the Romanesque forms of “double-” or “triple-light” windows presumably as common in the Holy Land as in the countries of the crusaders’ origin. Below is a lovely example of a medieval portal in Jerusalem, and two examples of windows form St. Hilarion and Krak de Chevaliers respectively.







Because there were major glass producing centers in the crusader states (notably Tyre and Beirut), window glazing was more common in the crusader states than in the West, a fact supported by both archaeological finds and descriptions. Below is an example of crusader glass manufacture, while the context is different, again this glass demonstrates the very high quality of the industry generally.








Archaeological evidence suggests windows in the crusader kingdoms used both plate glass and round glass set in plaster (the latter being presumably much cheaper and more common). To the left is an example of the round glass technique used here in the Templar Church in Famagusta, Cyprus.






As the description at the start of this essay indicated, interior d├ęcor could include polychrome marble, but mosaics and glazed tiles were also common. A wide variety of crusader glazed pottery has been found, using cream colors, yellows, greens and blues. The pottery gives us some indication of what colors and motifs may have been used on floor and wall tiles. Here is one example of crusader pottery:













However, we also know that the Turks and Saracens were very fond of brilliant blues and turquoise tiles in later centuries, and these may also have been available to the crusaders. At least I like to imagine it so! To the left is an example of modern tile work just to hint at the possibilities.







As for mosaics, the description at the start of the article is perhaps the best indication of quality and the fact that life-like motifs were possible in the crusader era.  However, we should not forget that mosaics floors were very common in the Roman and Byzantine periods, and the many crusader residences in fact dated from earlier periods and retained these older tiles. Below is a picture of tiles that date back the 4th century AD and were allegedly commission by St. Helena. Particularly under the influence of the Byzantine brides of Baldwin III and Amalric I, Byzantine styles and artists were welcomed and employed in the crusader kingdoms. They would easily have produced tiles similar to this example from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.


Last but not least, no description of urban architecture in the crusader states (at least for the “upper crust”) would be complete without reference to gardens. As the opening description stressed, crusader elites oriented their houses so that their (glazed) windows looked out at either views (such as the ocean) or gardens. The Holy Land offered a variety of beautiful vegetation from trees such a palms and olives, lemons and pomegranates, to flowers such as hibiscus and oleander. Crusader gardens would have been beautiful indeed.  So to conclude, here is a picture of the garden in the crusader church of St. Anne in Jerusalem today.


Note: All photos except the glass and pottery were taken by the author.

Life in the crusader kingdoms is described in my three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin:



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