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Monday, May 15, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Urban Landscapes and Infrastructure

 Unlike the early settlers in the Americas and Australia, the Europeans who established the crusader states were confronted with a densely populated region that had been urbanised for thousands of years. Thus,  European settlers who came to the Holy Land had to cope not only with an alien climate and unfamiliar geography, but also with a majority population whose language, architecture and social customs were non-European. To their credit, the Franks rapidly adapted to their new environment. Thus, while the roots of Frankish culture were European, the lifestyle of the Franks of Outremer was shaped by elements borrowed from the people and civilizations that surrounded them. The result was a unique and distinctive identity and culture of their own, reflected in their buildings, art, fashion, food and social structures.

Urban Landscapes and Infrastructure

The Near East’s geography and climate set the parameters for human habitation in the region, ensuring many common features across cultures and centuries. Furthermore, in major urban areas, the Franks occupied cities that had already existed for centuries or, in some cases, thousands of years. In consequence, Frankish influence was subtle and nuanced. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of ‘Frankish cities’ and identify some common features that impacted the life and lifestyle of those cities’ inhabitants during the era of the crusades.

A visitor approaching any major Frankish city from any direction but the sea would have first encountered a green ring of cultivated, usually irrigated land composed of orchards and utility gardens. These agricultural suburbs evolved to meet the demands of the urban population for fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy goods. Thus, the environment immediately surrounding most Frankish cities was green and lush with vegetation.

Inside this soft-shell of cultivated vegetation, many cities were protected by walls. The height, thickness and defensibility of these walls varied greatly, as did the number of towers and gates. Antioch, for example, was famed for having four-hundred towers; Ascalon had fifty-three. The smaller cities undoubtedly had fewer towers and gates, but the major coastal cities (Sidon, Beirut, Tyre, Caesarea, Arsuf and Jaffa) were all walled. The majority of these had been fortified for generations, if not millennia, and the Franks did little more than repair or modernise the existing defensive structures. The walls of Ascalon, for example, were built by the Romans, expanded and strengthened first by the Byzantines and then by the Fatimids before the Franks gained control of the city in 1153, who did not more than effect repairs and make modest additions.

On the other hand, inland cities were conspicuously non-fortified, providing striking evidence of the comparatively peaceful environment that characterised life in the crusader states for most of their existence. With the exception of Jerusalem, Banias, Tiberias and Caymont, the major inland cities, such as Nablus, Nazareth, Hebron and Ramla, were not fortified.

The size of Frankish cities varied greatly. Jerusalem enclosed seventy-two hectares, Acre sixty, Ascalon fifty, but Sidon, the next largest city, had only fourteen hectares and Caesarea twelve. In terms of population, Antioch, Acre, Tyre and (in the twelfth century) Jerusalem all had populations exceeding 20,000 people. In the thirteenth century, Acre and Tyre are believed to have housed close to 30,000 inhabitants each. Ascalon had an estimated 10,000, but the other cities were smaller, with Caesarea probably home to just under 5,000 inhabitants. The interplay of geographic space and population determined the population density and had a powerful impact on the character of the city.

Jerusalem was so large that despite a significant population, it was known for its many gardens, squares, courtyards and open markets, and for its clean, healthy air. There were orchards within the city walls as well as gardens, open markets and many pools. Despite butchers and tanners operating within the walls, contemporary accounts indicate the city did not smell.

Acre, on the other hand, had a terrible reputation as overcrowded and polluted. This was particularly pronounced in the thirteenth century when the city was flooded with permanent refugees from the lands lost to Saladin. The gardens and orchards within the city walls were converted to housing to accommodate these new inhabitants, while the courtyards of the older houses were built up. Even the gardens of the royal palace were divided into parcels and sold-off for development between 1257 and 1273. By mid-century, a population 50 per cent larger than Jerusalem lived on a land area 20 per cent smaller. Despite highly sophisticated and extensive infrastructure, the sewage system inevitably became overwhelmed, and the inner harbor became a cesspool known as the ‘filthy sea’.

So much was written about Acre by pilgrims passing through the Frankish port that the image of a cramped, overcrowded and polluted city tends to dominate modern portrayals of life in all cities of the Holy Land in the Frankish era. This ignores the fact that Acre was the exception, not the rule. According to Ibn Jubayr, the houses in Tyre were larger and more spacious than in Acre, the roads and streets cleaner, while the conditions of the Muslims living there better, although he does not say in what way. Likewise, Ascalon had a reputation as clean and pleasant, as did the Frankish cities of Cyprus, particularly Nicosia. 

Contributing to the overall positive reputation of Frankish cities were sophisticated public infrastructure projects that could be found throughout Frankish Syria, Palestine and Cyprus, namely aqueducts, cisterns, public pools, fountains, bathhouses and underground sewage systems. Securing adequate water supplies was critical in the Middle Eastern climate, and it is striking that the lack of water is never mentioned in any of the accounts of sieges, underlining how effective Frankish infrastructure was in this regard. Caesarea, for example, had no less than three aqueducts. Jerusalem had one aqueduct and several springs, and the fountains of the city were said never to run dry.

Baths were another prominent feature of Frankish cities. Some were inherited, but the Franks built many more. As with Roman baths, the heat was produced in furnaces and distributed as hot air running through vents under the marble floors. Bathhouses were generally spacious and, as in Roman times, popular places to meet and socialise. The Hospitaller Rule prohibited their brothers from eating and sleeping in bathhouses, an indication that both were possible. Bath attendants provided massages and shaves as well. At least one source suggests wives could accompany their husbands to the baths, but separate days or separate spaces for men and women appears to have been the rule.

Open markets for cattle, horses, pigs, poultry and dairy were features common to Frankish cities. By their nature, loud and smelly, they were generally located on the city’s edge, near the gates. However, covered markets or souks, so characteristic of Near Eastern cities, were also found in Frankish ones. Souks consist of covered streets with vaulted roofing flanked by a series of bays formed by vaulted chambers perpendicular to the road. Each bay housed a different merchant displaying wares. The most famous Frankish souk is a market street in Jerusalem built under Queen Melisende in 1152 that is still in use today. The central passage is 6 metres high and 3 metres wide, while the shops lining it are each 4 metres square. Holes at regular intervals in the roofs of these medieval souks allowed light and fresh air to enter.

Perhaps more surprising to the modern reader, Frankish cities were served by highly sophisticated, public sewage systems. In Acre, the Hospitallers had a latrine block built on several floors offering 35 stone seats and a flushing system. We can assume that while differing in scale, the arrangement was standard across Hospitaller structures. Similar features were found in the Lusignan palace. It is reasonable to presume that Templars, Teutonic knights and the Italian ‘fundacos’ all had like arrangements. The waste from these latrines fed into a city-wide sewage system. Such systems, which have been identified in more than one crusader city, demonstrate centralised planning and infrastructural maintenance. Furthermore, the major canals for drawing the wastewater out of the city could be accessed from individual houses and shops along the length of the stone drainage pipes before emptying outside the walls.

All in all, the Franks converted existing structures or built new ones to create cities with all the conveniences expected in this period: open and covered markets, factories, workshops, hospices, hospitals, churches, foundations, individual residences and palaces. Frankish construction and modifications put a stamp on the face of the cities they occupied, despite older structures underneath. While this imprint has been effaced by centuries of rebuilding and repurposing Frankish structures, we still have a glimpse of what Franks built in an Arab description of Jerusalem, written shortly after Saladin’s reconquest in 1187. Ibn-Khallikan wrote:

‘The infidel had rebuilt [Jerusalem] with columns and plaques of marble … with fair fountains where the water never ceased to flow — one saw dwellings as agreeable as gardens and brilliant with the whiteness of marble; the columns with their foliage seemed like trees’.[i]

[i]Ibn-Khallikan, quoted in A History of the Crusades Volume 4: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, ed. Harry W. Hazard (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 138.

The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

  1. "Acre was the exception, not the rule."

    This exemplifies modern mdia: "Give us your dirty laundry." The rest of reality is ignroed.


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