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Monday, June 5, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Domestic Archecture

 Frankish domestic architecture consisted broadly of two types: that which had been inherited through the occupation of existing structures and new buildings constructed during the Frankish era. They were of a distinctly different character as the former followed Eastern traditions based heavily on Muslim practice, while the latter was based on Western European models yet integrated key elements of Saracen architecture suitable to the environment.


Muslim architecture in the era of the crusades was remarkably homogeneous. The dominant feature was an inward orientation. Houses were built for maximum privacy, to keep strangers out and keep women in. Windows were small and set high in the wall to inhibit the ability of outsiders to see in — and thereby restricted the ability of inhabitants (particularly women) to look out. The heart of the house was the courtyard, and most of the rooms opening onto the courtyard could be accessed only via the courtyard itself. This had the effect of making each room self-contained and accessible only via one door. Courtyard houses might have rooms along anything from one to four sides of a courtyard, while the homes of the wealthy might enclose two or more courtyards. Cooking was usually done in an oven located in the courtyard.

Most Muslim houses were built with comparatively thin walls, less than a metre thick, and supported no upper story, although they might have cellars. The roofs were flat and sometimes supported by wooden columns. Water was collected on the roof and fed through pipes to cisterns. The poor built their homes of mud or mud-bricks; the rich of stone, marble and mosaic. Interiors were often plastered and whitewashed. Tiles were also occasionally used as flooring.

Rural houses in the Holy Land, however, did not follow this plan reflecting the fact that the rural population was predominantly Christian. Rural dwellings were usually  composed of a single room opening onto an enclosed courtyard. The construction materials were inferior, namely, fieldstone and rubble. Floors were of stone or packed earth. In one village, houses appeared to share a cistern. All these features are indications of poverty rather than preference.

In contrast, Europe in this period offered great variety of domestic architectural styles. Given the heterogeneous origins of Western settlers in the crusader states, it is hardly surprising that these styles are all found in structures built by settlers and their descendants in the Holy Land. The Franks built hall houses, courtyard houses, tower houses and burgage houses, the latter being a house with a narrow front on the street and a long deep interior, often standing several stories high.

While Frankish architecture drew upon these traditions, it was notably different from contemporary architecture in the West. The differences are perhaps most pronounced when looking at rural architecture. In Western Europe, peasant housing in the twelfth century was still predominantly constructed of mud and timber with pitched roofs set on wooden beams and covered by slate, tiles or thatch. Walls were thin and unsuitable for supporting an upper story. Fireplaces were non-existent, and cooking was done over a central hearth with a vent in the roof to release the smoke. Many houses of this period were divided into two parts: one for humans and one for livestock. 

In contrast, Frankish rural housing was constructed of stone, with walls as thick as 2 metres supporting barrel vaulting. Most houses were two stories with stairs sometimes built into the walls. Interior and exterior wooden stairs may also have been standard. Many Frankish rural dwellings also boasted a proper fireplace with hood and chimney. The windows were slender with a rounded top on the ground floor but larger on the upper floors. Such houses bear a striking resemblance to European twelfth- and thirteenth-century urban architecture. This reflects the Frankish rural settlers’ higher social and economic status compared to peasants in Europe and Christian peasants under Muslim rule. 

Despite occupying and adapting existing structures on arrival, some Frankish construction took place in urban areas. Here, Frankish domestic architecture differed markedly from traditional Muslim housing in being outward-oriented, i.e., facing and opening to the street or a shared courtyard. Frankish homes were also multistoried, often three — and in some cases four — stories. The upper floors were reached by either external or internal stairs, the latter of wood or carved into the thickness of the walls.

Frankish shops opened directly onto the street or courtyard; folding tables for selling goods produced in the ground-floor workshops could be lowered from wide windows on the ground floor. Merchants and shopkeepers lived on the upper stories above their shops with large upstairs windows, balconies or loggia looking out over the street or courtyard. The loggia was the result of Italian influence, and there are still several good examples of these visible today. (Loggia are open but covered porches and balconies formed by arches or supported by columns.) Some of the pillars used by the Franks were reclaimed Roman or Byzantine pillars, but the Franks were skilled at producing pillars themselves. The capitals were famous – even among their enemies – for the lifelike quality of their decoration.

Most buildings in the Middle East were crowned, then as now, by flat roofs, which were sometimes decoratively crenellated. The roof provided additional living or workspace in the form of a rooftop terrace that could be shaded from the sun by canvas awnings or a vine arbor. Whether used as a terrace or not, rooftops almost always collected rainwater, drained via clay or stone pipes into a cistern. The water was purified by allowing the sediment to settle to the bottom; water was drawn into the house through a pipe located well above the sludge. Even the humblest and smallest of urban dwellings had cisterns, often several.

Windows and doors opened onto the streets and common courtyards. The main windows and doors — those facing the front — were generally large and either round or slightly pointed; back and internal doors were sometimes square-headed. Windows, too, were often pointed or double-light rounded windows set in an arch. The large windows in formal rooms were probably glazed. Archaeological evidence suggests that Frankish window-glazing consisted either of plate glass or round glass set in plaster (the latter presumably less expensive and more common). Otherwise, windows had grates or shutters to prevent unwanted intrusions.

Exterior walls were usually plastered and whitewashed, although the homes of the wealthy were sometimes faced with marble. Interior walls were likewise either marble-faced or plastered and whitewashed. The plaster walls may have been decorated with frescoes or painted designs or borders.  Wall niches, either open or covered with curtains or wooden doors, were commonly used for storage. Plaster benches built directly against the walls of houses were another common feature. Both reduced the need for furnishings.

The floors of poorer dwellings were either beaten earth or cut out of the bedrock, while upper floors were plaster. In wealthier homes, the floors were usually flagstone on the ground floor, marble or mosaic above. Rugs and carpets were readily available, as these were one of the many products that passed through the crusader states on their way West. The use of tapestries and wall hangings was also likely. Courtyards were usually paved with cobbles.

Frankish houses frequently had fireplaces, and the better homes had indoor privies. A house in Caesarea, for example, had ceramic pipes leading from the upper floor to a sewage tank. Likewise, the houses in planned rural settlements had cisterns and elaborate plumbing. This is hardly surprising; similar arrangements for waste using ceramic pipes have been found in many Byzantine houses of roughly the same period. Many contemporary Byzantine homes also had internal water basins plastered on the inside. By the thirteenth century, residences in Western Europe also started to feature water funneled from rooftop cisterns to lavers and from these to latrines. 

Finally, no discussion of urban architecture in the crusader states would be complete without reference to gardens and fountains. To the extent possible, Frankish elites oriented their houses, so their (glazed) windows looked out at views, such as the ocean or mountains, or gardens. The Holy Land offered a variety of beautiful vegetation: trees such as palms, olives, lemons and pomegranates, and flowers such as hibiscus and oleander. Many Frankish gardens contained fountains or incorporated other kinds of irrigation to keep them green throughout the summer.

Only scattered fragments of the sophisticated urban architecture of the Franks have survived into the present. These remains have been largely obscured by subsequent changes of style and function, often making the Frankish foundations unrecognizable to the layman. Most frustrating to the historian is the loss of all the major palaces. The Franks built a royal palace in Jerusalem south of the Tower of David sometime between 1143 and 1174 and maintained a royal residence in Acre. The Lusignans had royal palaces in Nicosia and Famagusta. In addition, leading clerics such as the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops maintained palaces.  While we have only one surviving description of a baronial palace, that at Beirut, the leading barons of Jerusalem all had residences in their baronies and probably palaces in Jerusalem. The barons of Cyprus had palaces in Nicosia.

Based on written accounts, we know that the Lusignan palace at Nicosia had a loggia overlooking a square and that arcades supported by columns surrounded the great hall. ‘Its great throne room, its balconies, its golden ornaments, its tapestries, pictures, organs, and clocks, its baths, gardens and menageries suggest the most sumptuous of medieval residences’.[i] The royal palace in Famagusta included arched arcades around a central courtyard. It also had a large latrine tract that has survived. Undoubtedly, the most evocative description of the palaces of the wealthy in the crusader kingdoms is provided by Wilbrand of Oldenburg, a cannon of Hildesheim, who visited the Holy Land in 1211-1212. He describes the palace of the Lord of Beirut, John d’Ibelin, as follows:

Its windows opened some on the sea, some on to delicious gardens. Its walls were paneled with plaques of poly-chrome marble; the vaulted ceiling [of the salon] was painted to resemble the sky with its stars; in the center 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 foot mark.[ii]

 Unfortunately, nothing of this palace remains today, and the archaeological remains of the other palaces are insufficient to allow us to draw the plans, let alone conjure up images.


[i] T.S.R. Boase, ‘The Arts of Cyprus: Ecclesiastical Art’ in The art and architecture of the crusader states, ed. H.W. Hazard (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 174.

[ii] Wilbrand of Oldenburg, ‘Journey in the Holy Land (1211-1212)’, quoted in Sir Steven Runciman, ‘The Families of Outremer: The Feudal Nobility of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1291’ (London: Athlone Press, 1960), 1.

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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