Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, February 2, 2018

On the Crusader Trail in the County of Tripoli

A Guest Post from Michelle Foltz
Michelle recently returned from Lebanon, where she visited several sites from the crusader era. She agreed to share her findings with readers of my blog.

Citadel of Count Raymond of Saint Gilles (copyright M.Foltz)


The Citadel of Count Raymond of Saint Gilles (Qalʿat Sanjīl )  deserves top billing of the Crusader sites in the city of Tripoli if only for its powerful, physical presence. Historically it was the site of important military and administrative functions for every conqueror and defender of the area—from the southern French Crusaders in the early 12th C to the Ottomans in the 20th. The Citadel’s function as a defensive structure was destroyed during the Mamluk conquest in the late 13th century and the ruins left unoccupied for the next 20 years before it was rehabilitated and expanded. Despite this history, the façade of the Citadel has the external appearance and majestic proportions to kindle the desire of any pilgrim on the ‘Crusader Trail’ to claim it as wholly crusader. 

Today it is difficult to identify the exact demarcations of the original structure as old stones have been recycled in successive rebuildings. Medieval ashlar of the earliest construction could have been refashioned and used for the top level of the parapets centuries  after it was originally quarried, laid, and torn down. One notices rocks of different sizes and shapes to those on either side or in adjacent courses or as arches filled-in or half obliterated.  This is most noticeable at the corners and interfaces of walls, typifying the various styles and changing functions over the centuries. However, experts of medieval architecture write that the foundations show distinctive features of southern French or Provençal heritage, the home of San Gilles and his followers, the original, Crusader builders. 

Tripoli - Northern Gate to the Citadel
(copyright M.Foltz)

Most of the extant interior walls and terraces were built during Ottoman times for military and administrative functions. The prison, barracks, store rooms, and stables are well identified in the posted explanations. The most identifiable internal crusader structure is the rectangular outline of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Mont-Pilgrim that the San Gilles rulers built over a pre-existing Shia’a saint’s mausoleum.  This Muslim holy place was said to remind Count Raymond of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the liberation of which had been the primary focus of the First Crusade. A partially intact engaged column and pier that formed one of the arches that supported the missing barrel vault of the Romanesque church is the only distinctive Christian remains in the interior.

Crusader Column in the Chapel of the Citadel, Tripoli
(copyright M.Foltz)

Two museums are housed within the Citadel. One concerns the history of the Citadel itself. The other, in the long, gracefully vaulted Ottoman barracks, contains historical objects and information concerning a number of archeological sites in northern Lebanon. The official ticket seller/guardian must be specifically asked to open this latter museum and seemed to have little tolerance for an extended visit. Both are well worth a thorough perusal.

Inside the Citadel in Tripoli (Copyright M. Foltz)

The Citadel sits in the center of modern Tripoli overlooking the present day souks and the city west to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1102 and until the early 20th C the Citadel lay well beyond the city’s boundaries, whose center was the port, Al-Mina, on the  peninsula. Before capture by the crusaders, the 11th C city was famous as a center for culture and learning and was ruled by the Shia’a Banu Ammar family who held close ties with the Fatimids in Egypt.   

Count Raymond built the Citadel three kms from the coastal city walls, on a ridge near a bridge on the  Abu Ali River and called it Mount Pilgrim, Mons Peregrinus. From this position he began besieging the city while controlling access to the town from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Despite this advantageous position, it took the combined Crusader armies, seven years, and the help of Provençal and Genoese fleets before the city was  secured  and the County of Tripoli established as the fourth Crusader state.* The counts ruled from the city, leaving the Citadel as an outer defensive bastion.  In the mid 12th C. it was given to the Hospitaller knights who used it, along with the great fortress of Krac des Chevaliers and a surrounding network of smaller forts, to solidify their growing political, economic, and defensive role in the County.
Krak des Chevaliers (copyright HSchrader)

Standing on the Citadel’s ramparts and looking west to the sea individual domes, minarets, and khans are identifiable from the mass of structures below. A bit of imagination can convert the area between the souks and the port of Al-Mina into the extensive orange and olive groves that once dominated this open space before it was filled-in during 20th century expansion. 

To a ‘western eye’, one of the most distinctive buildings is the square plan Romanesque minaret of the Grand Mosque that would not be out of place at the summit of a Lombard hill town.  It was once the bell tower for the medieval Church of St. Mary.  History is filled with conquerors destroying  or desecrating the religious shrines of their enemies. History is also filled with conquerors re-purposing or incorporating the religious structures of their enemies into a different context—religious or other—involving a major refashioning to alter the existing orientation. The minaret of Tripoli’s Grand Mosque is at the extreme end of accepting the whole cloth of a religious structure without alteration. Nothing hides its Frankish origins; only a simple crescent filial converts its religion, but not its function.
Tripoli Grand Mosque with Minaret like an Italian Church Bell Tower (copyright M.Foltz)

The site of Tripoli’s souks were once the center of the commercial  and residential city that grew up around the Citadel after the Mamluk conquest. Before that, it was the small crusader village of Mount Pilgrim. The present day souks are primarily Mamluk in layout with Ottoman layers and very few Crusader remains. The Ezzedine Hammam was once a medieval church, and it was still possible to decipher the Christian iconography of lamb and scallop shell at its entrance. The columns gracing the khan of the tailors, Khan al-Khayyatin, have all the appearance and orientation to have once graced a Byzantine chapel. Perhaps the covered Souk al-Haraj, with its evocative columns, had a function in the 12th C medieval village and before that a Roman temple? Little is specifically known or readily available to answer.

The main avenues of the souks give off numbers of narrow alleys and side streets that twist, intersect with each other,  and turn, acting as defensive elements as they ascend and traverse the slope to the Citadel. Many dead end, some into small courtyards planted with fruit trees and flowers. The alleys are cool and narrow; the small, high windows with their latticed window projections, mashrabyias, allow those inside a ready view to the outside, while protecting the interior privacy. For a first trip into the souks, a good guide can lay the ground work of the past that can be fleshed out on subsequent independent visits.

Al-Mina, the present port, was the center from which the Counts of Tripoli administered their lands and the Italian commercial city-states ran their warehouses and trading emporiums. The Mamluks thoroughly destroyed this area and did not rebuild or settle in it for fear of the fleets of the Frankish rulers of Cyprus, however, it continued to be an important port connecting Europe with both Aleppo and Damascus. No Mamluk religious buildings, such as those around the Citadel and the souks, are found in Al-Mina. Even the great Ottoman era walls have been torn down or built over. Though nothing standing is Crusader, the Romanesque architecture of the 18th C Saint George’s Orthodox Cathedral shows robust Byzantine and medieval influence, while a cave below the church dates as a religious structure from long before even the 12th C.

Smar Jbeil Fortress and Town

Smar Jbeil with the Author Michelle Foltz (Copyright M. Foltz)
Unmentioned in guidebooks and little known to those outside the area as a Crusader site, information about Smar Jbeil is available on the Internet with various levels of accuracy. Until the Syrian army left their position in the fortress, it was not readily accessible, but since 2005 the community and the Lebanese Director General of Antiquities have worked to restore and rebuild the site.

The village and the fortress of Smar Jbeil share a history dating from at least the 3rd millennium BCE. The Phoenicians probably gave the area its name, meaning guardian or watchman over Jbeil, the important Phoenician coastal city (aka Byblos).  In the 6th BCE the area came under control of the Persians, falling to the armies of Alexander in the 4th.  The Romans and later the Byzantines held sway after Pompey’s conquests in the mid first century BCE.  Though defensive in position and structure it is thought that the Romans used it as a governmental, administrative residence.  In the 7th C CE, Mar Jean Maron, the first Maronite Patriarch, lived in the fort, turning like many of his followers to the safety of the mountains from persecutions by the Orthodox in the coastal urban areas.

The strategically lofty position of the hill top, 500 meters ASL, makes it reasonable that it was used in one form or another for defense, most likely for observation and communication purposes by all the peoples who at one time or another ruled the area. The repeated statement highlighted on the Internet, reports that a defender on the ramparts would be able to scan the Mediterranean coast from Jbeil (some sources say Jounieh) to Tripoli, some 45 kilometers in length. I could not positively identify either city on a clear morning. Still the view is gloriously impressive and knowing that most military and commercial sea travel would have rarely deviated from coastal routes, the strategic value of the fort is incontestable.

Like  the crusader fortress of Qa’alat Saladin in nearby Syria and Kerak in Jordan, Smar Jbeil is built into, on, and within  a great mass of bedrock, giving it an inherent strength and sense of solid defensibility.  Though extremely modest in area compared to the better known medieval citadels in the Levant, it has a serene majesty of purpose for which size is of little standing. The impressive vistas to the Qadisha Valley and Bacharré to the east and northeast are as commanding as the ten km. view down to the sea.

Water Troughs carved out of Bedrock at Smar Jbail. (Copyright M. Foltz)

Smar Jbeil is recorded as part of the crusader fief of Saint Montagne of the lords of Batroun who were vassals to the Counts of Tripoli.  Some sources state that "the Franj" (crusaders) demolished the old castle to build a new one, calling it Chateau Fort, Strong Castle. The moat, excavated through solid rock, the enclosing wall of the fort punctuated with defensive towers, the separate, central smoothly bossed donjon, and the postern exits are all architectural elements, that along with the style and quality of the stone work, attest to crusader influence.  Smar Jbeil’s strategic position along with evidence of previous fortifications and the Frankish pattern of building defensive networks of outlying fortifications give credence to the importance this site holds for crusader history.

The remains of interior structures: olive oil and/or wine presses, Roman tombs, tombs with Greek inscriptions, several hundred wells carved into the surrounding rocks, tunnels, and some indistinct bas reliefs on the northern side of the bed rock testify that the fort provided administrative and economic functions that were probably well coordinated with those in the town. Walking along the moat and around and through the defensive walls, however, there is no question this was first and foremost a significant defensive structure.

The churches of Smar Jbeil have a place in history equal to the fortress. The earliest Christian church to Mary in Lebanon (Al Sayde, Our Lady of Gifts, or Our Lady of Rescues) built in the 6th C, sits less than a hundred meters down the slope from the fortress.  It stands, a poetically ruinous but spiritually compelling single nave with semicircular apse. Its south wall has been broached by the growing trunk of a thousand year old Lebanese oak whose branches arch to form a roof and whose brown leaves and acorns breeze across the floor in a moving carpet. The gently dappled en plein air ambiance enhances the tranquillity of this historical gem. The church was desecrated during the recent Syrian military occupation but has been rehabilitated by the townspeople and is being evaluated for expert restoration.  It remains in service today as a venue for baptisms and weddings. 

Our Lady of Gifts Chapel in Smar Jbail
Immediately beside the Church to Our Lady of Gifts is the main Maronite Church of  Saints Bassil and Nouhra. By history an earlier church existed on the ruins of a much older Roman temple during Roman and Byzantine time. Cut rounds of recycled columns are among the ashlar courses making up the eastern wall. Major renovation by the crusaders in the 12th C was followed by various additions needed to counter wear and nature. By tradition Saint Nouhra came to Batroun from Egypt in the 4th C. When commanded to give up preaching his religion, he refused, was tortured and blinded, but miraculously continued to see, and was buried in one of the wells of the fortress. The water from this well became known for curing blindness and other diseases of sight. Nouhra is Syriac for light.

The church is a square divided by four piers that support the resulting nine vaults with three alters at the east end to Bassil, Nouhra, and Mary. The walls and piers are plastered white with narrow tracings in the groins and other edges in blue and brown. Plaster molds on the piers of  pairs of doves drinking from a chalice and other Christian motifs are in keeping with the uncluttered, open, clean space. The south wall, from the Byzantine era of construction, incorporates two columns that are associated with stylites—hermits or anchorites who sought God’s presence by standing for years on pillars. The western entrance and porch with 3 bays of unplastered vaulting is crusader in origin. An unusual carving graces the south portal from the porch that looks to be an unconventional dragon-fish, its symbolism unknown. The entrance on the north side of the church was redone in late Ottoman times. Draped above this entrance is a chain carved from a single block of stone, similar to the one found at the Hammam al-Jadid at the entrance to the souks in Tripoli. 

The rehabilitation of the fortress and the chapel to Our Lady in Smar Jbeil is a striking example of what a community can accomplish when it works together to care for and honor its heritage. This is in sharp contrast to the attitude in Tripoli where a perverse pride of ignorance of the town’s history seems the norm. People boasted of never having visited the Citadel. Perhaps there is too much history to sort out, or the history doesn’t fit with present nationalistic ideals.

* The other three: County of Edessa, Principality of Antioch, and Kingdom of Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Trilogy is set in the crusader period.


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