Church of the Holy Sepulcher as it is Today*
Jerusalem had been the goal of the first crusade, and Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom named after it. Understanding of Balian's world, therefore, cannot be complete without understanding what Jerusalem was like during his lifetime. Jerusalem is also the scene of many episodes in the first two books of the Balian d'Ibelin series. What follows is a description of Jerusalem as it would have been just before it was captured by Saladin.
The Countryside to the East of Jerusalem Today
The Holy City of Jerusalem crowns a hill in semi-arid, hilly countryside and was in crusader times encircled by tall, white-stone walls punctuated with square towers, seven gates and at least three, possibly more, posterns. To the east, south and west, the land sloped away sharply, but to the north the land was fairly level. There were olive orchards dating back to the time of Christ to the East, and in the crusader period the city was probably surrounded by other kinds of orchards as well. Common at this time were citrus orchards, but figs, dates, and almonds were also cultivated to serve the urban population. Almost certainly, there were also vineyards surrounding Jerusalem during the Christian period as wine was an important product of the kingdom, necessary for the liturgy and consumed in large quantities locally.
Picture of Jerusalem’s Walls
Life within crusader Jerusalem would have been exceptionally pleasant for the period. When the first crusaders took the city by storm in 1099 they carried out a massacre of the garrison and population that — while not as apocalyptic as often portrayed — left the city largely depopulated. The policy of not allowing any Muslims or Jews to live in the Holy City further reduced the population. The early kings of Jerusalem were compelled to invite Christian settlers not just from the West but from Syria as well. Still the population never fully recovered and is estimated to have been no more than ca. 20,000 people in the second half of the 12th century. In consequence, Jerusalem was not densely populated and there were gardens and open spaces inside the walled city.
A Roof-top Garden in Jerusalem Today
Starting with life at the top, the religious and secular authorities both maintained palaces in Jerusalem. The patriarch’s palace was located beside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and unfortunately nothing is now left of it. The royal family initially occupied the powerful citadel, whose oldest tower allegedly dated back to the reign of the biblical King David. However, they began construction of a “modern” palace in the first quarter of the 12th century. Although this too has been lost to us, contemporary accounts mention that the royal palace had extensive gardens. Since it was started by King Fulk of Anjou, it was probably inspired by similar to the palaces he was familiar with in France in this period — think of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s magnificent residence in Poitiers, for example, but it would have had “Eastern” elements of design and landscaping as well.
Citadel of David — the “Old Palace”
The gardens, for example, would have included palms, citrus fruits, pomegranates and other distinctive Mediterranean vegetation, such as oleander and hibiscus. More important, this palace (like the Patriarch's) was not fortress intended for defense (as castles in Western Europe), but rather had a purely residential and representational character. There was no need for narrow, “arrow-slit” windows or massive walls. On the contrary, the crusader states had major glass-making centers, notably at Beirut and Tyre, and glazed windows were quite common, certainly among the upper classes. So the royal and patriarchal palaces would not have been dark, dingy and smoky, as in the castles depicted in Hollywood, but rather sunny, well-lit and designed with cross-ventilation for cooling in the summers. The use of mosaic and tile floors would, furthermore, have been inherited from their predecessors (and most of the houses in Jerusalem were taken over in-tact after the Christians seized control), as was the use of slender columns, often dating from the Roman period. A description of John d’Ibein’s palace in Beirut dating from 1212, for example, mentions mosaic floors so lifelike the observer was afraid of leaving his foot-print in the “sand” and polychrome marble walls as well as fountains and gardens. It offered splendid views of the sea as well — so large windows. While John’s residence was built half a century later, it was also the home of a mere nobleman rather than a king. I think we can assume the royal palace of the Jerusalem and also the Patriarch’s palace were both very luxurious indeed.
Tiles Walls Today
Besides these two main palaces, Jerusalem housed the headquarters of the Knights Templar on the Temple Mount and the headquarters of the Knight’s Hospitaller, a huge establishment that took up a large city block and enclosed four churches, wards for over two thousand patients, a hospice for pilgrims, administrative buildings, barracks, kitchens etc. These complexes were large, multi-story stone buildings, again with glazed windows, courtyards, and sanitation. The accommodation for the Master and senior officers of these powerful orders would hardly have been less luxurious than for the king and patriarch.
Temple Mount Today:
The hexagonal building on the left was a Baptistry from Crusader Times. On the right: The "Dome of the Rock" which in Crusader Jerusalem was converted into a church and known as the Temple of Gold
There were also lesser palaces for nobles and wealthy merchants. The foundations of these houses in some cases dated back to the Roman period, and many were Byzantine or Fatimid since the capture of Jerusalem had not entailed whole scale destruction of the architectural substance. Arab sources stress that even when they re-took Jerusalem in 1187 (after a siege that did entail the use of stone throwers and mining), they still found many beautiful residences with “superb columns of marble and slabs of marble and mosaics in large quantities.” (Ibn al-Athir) Much of this ornamentation would have pre-dated the Christian period, but not all of it. Certainly, many churches were built and/or re-decorated in the crusader period and many of the craftsmen came from or were trained in Constantinople or by Byzantine masters. Undoubtedly some of these craftsmen also found employment on secular as well as sacred building projects.
Houses with Medieval Features in Jerusalem Today
Life in any medieval Christian city was, of course, characterized by the pervasive presence of the Church and nowhere — except possibly in Rome — was the Church more important than in Jerusalem. There was not just the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Calvary Chapel, but dozens of churches catering to different Christian communities, Syrian and Armenian, Greek and Maronite, as well as the Latins. There were also the two great mosques on the Temple Mount which had been converted into churches, as well as the austere but lovely Church of St. Anne and many more.
As for the bulk of the population, while accommodation would have ranged from the comfortable to the squalid as in any city in the world, nevertheless, this being an ancient, eastern city, it was well supplied with public cisterns, reservoirs, and baths. Indeed, most of the buildings in Jerusalem at this time had rain-fed cisterns to supplement the municipal water supply. There was also network of open and covered markets. The covered markets are particularly intriguing and parts are still standing today. They were like tunnels, often running almost the entire width of the city, with vaulted ceilings and flanked by shop after shop. The paved walkway between the shops had steps to accommodate the slope and were not suitable for horses.
Covered Market in Jerusalem
Due to the annual pilgrim traffic, Jerusalem was also a city with many hostels and taverns, and the shops of the city would have catered to pilgrims by selling all the "exotic" things pilgrims sought from relics to silk and Turkish carpets. They would have sold all the necessities for everyday living as well: shoes, textiles, candles and soap, for example. The city had separate markets for grain, pigs, poultry, fish, herbs and spices. It had quarters for the jewelers, gold and silver smiths, for textile goods, leather goods, glass, and weapons. My favorite is the “street of bad cooking,” which was apparently a medieval precursor of “food courts” for “fast food.”
Another Street Scene in Modern Jerusalem
Last but not least, the streets must have been a veritable “tower of Babel” with the native population speaking Arabic, Greek, Armenian and French, while pilgrims came from the far corners of the earth speaking Norse, English, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, German and more.
* All photos in this entry were taken by the author in 2014.
Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The first two books in the Balian d'Ibelin series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem are available for purchase.
A landless knight,
a leper king,and the struggle for Jerusalem.
A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem
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