• Adrian J. Boas

On a Link in the Chain

Tell es-Safi facing south, 1920s (Israel Antiquities Authority archives)

This post is dedicated to my youngest son Daniel on his wedding day

The white chalk exposure halfway down the hill on the north-west gives the castle its name - Blanche Garde, and on occasion, alternatively Candida Custodia, Alba Custodia or Alba Specula. The colour of stone was often an inspiration for Frankish castle names - Chastel Blanc and Chastel Rouge north of Tripoli, Turris Rubea in the Sharon Plain, Cisternum Rouge east of Jerusalem. I came here with a friend and fellow archaeologist* a quarter of a century ago in the hope of excavating the castle and some other medieval and post medieval sites on the tell, but came up against the same obstacle that faced Frederick Bliss and Robert Macalister when they attempted to excavate an Iron Age city gate directly below the castle in 1899 - the existence of a Muslim cemetery surrounding the castle. It had perhaps been there since the Muslim village was founded on the tell in the Mamluk period, certainly since the establishment of the Ottoman settlement. Its presence frustrated my aims and after carrying out a brief survey of the tiny fort, sent me off to seek an alternative site (in the event a good thing as it led me to transfer my attentions to the far more interesting castle that I have been excavating in the north of the country for the past decade and a half).

Tell es-Safi is beautiful, in a half-wild, half-tamed manner. It is a low, curved prominence of adjoining hills rising to its highest point in the south-west where the castle stood. It occupies the middle ground between the flat coastland to the west and the foothills that rise towards the Hebron Range in the east. Winding tracks criss-cross the hill and the soil is a pallid, parched dust, but after the rains and in the perpetually damp places where the local farmers herd their cattle and goats, it becomes a rich chocolate brown. The vegetation is that of the Shefelah, as this region of intermediate lowlands is known in Hebrew, various small plants and grasses - thistles, thorny burnet, toadflax, bindweed, and a few straggly trees - jujubes, the occasional twisted olive, almonds, a lone broken cypress, and thick clumps of prickly pears. In the spring following the rains the slopes are entirely covered by a vestal, emerald growth that in the first heat dries to a tawny gold. Only the hardier plants, along with the trees and the prickly pears retain some green. Everything else is between gold and grey. Across the hill where the winter rains have exposed them, are outcrops of bedrock, and there are endless scatterings of stone - rocks that lie where nature has placed them, rows of white boulders placed by the local farmers as makeshift fences, and shapeless piles and piles of building stones, a sea of stones, pitiful reminder of the dismantled village. Rising among these is the square-hexagonal base of a minaret, a stunted sentinel and a nearer reminder of the past than the fragment of the castle or the slowly emerging remains from Biblical times that are coming to light each summer on the north-eastern ridge. To the north extending from Wadi 'Ajjur is a stretch of level agricultural land beyond which are lower hills, pine forests and settlements. To the west is the broad expanse of the coastal plain, and when visibility is good one can make out the distant towns; Gaza, Ascalon, Ashdod with the chimney stacks of its power station, and the high-rise conurbation further away to the north towards Tel Aviv.

William of Tyre recorded that the castle of Blanche Garde was built by King Fulk in 1142. Together with Bethgibelin (Beit Guvrin, which William refers to as Beersheba) built in 1136, and Ibelin (Yavne) in 1141, it formed part of a ring of fortifications around Fatimid held Ascalon. It was a defensive network, constructed with the aim of putting an end to frequent Muslim raids into the hinterland of the kingdom. These raids had reached Jaffa and Jerusalem and as far as Arsuf in the north and Tekoa in the south-east, but concentrated on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road. They prevented the Franks from settling in the countryside and threatened to cut Jerusalem off from the coast and place its very existence in jeopardy. William is very specific with regard to the purpose of the castles:

The Christians perceived that the bold incursions of the enemy showed no signs of ceasing; their forces were constantly renewed, and like the hydra, they gained increased strength by the death of their citizens. Hence, after long deliberation, our people resolved to erect fortresses round about. These would serve as defenses against this monster which ever increased by the loss of its heads, and often as it was destroyed, was reborn to our exceeding great peril. Within these strongholds forces could be easily assembled which, from their very proximity, could more readily check the enemy's forays.**

These were policing stations, not unlike the British Mandate Tegart forts that are scattered about the countryside and along the northern border, isolated, solidly built courtyard constructions, provided with a water source and capable of resisting a lengthy siege. They could be used to observe the countryside and when necessary, troops could be sent out from them to intercept the enemy. William of Tyre made much of their effectiveness in securing the region and records an additional benefit, in that the security they provided enabled the commencement of intensive Frankish settlement in the countryside.

I have always accepted William of Tyre's statement regarding the purpose of these castles at face value, and considering that there was indeed a decline in the number of raids in the 1140s up to the time of the fall of Ascalon, they apparently were an effective means of preventing incursions. But there is a difficulty, which one becomes aware of when standing on the eminence of Tel es-Safi, as indeed at the sites of the other two castles that formed the ring (and I assume the same could be said if one were able to look across towards Ascalon from Gaza, the location of a fourth castle added to the ring by Baldwin III in 1149). It is such a broad expanse of land, and for much of the year visibility is so inhibited, by humidity in the summer months and mist or storm in winter, that one has to wonder whether, unless it was a fairly substantial army, a Muslim raid setting out from Ascalon would be noticed at all, and if it was, as all three castles were over 30 kilometres away, whether it would even be possible to intercept it. And if they did manage to do so, would they not often find themselves greatly outnumbered? The garrisons at Bethgibelin and Ibelin (castles of roughly 50 by 50m at the time - they would later on expand), and particularly that of Blanche Garde (a tiny building of a mere 16 by 16m) could not have been very large whereas the raiders seem, at least on occasion, to have been fairly substantial forces. In an attack on Ramla in 1107 the Muslims killed 400 people.*** The answer seems to be given by William of Tyre. He suggests that the castles were places for mustering a large combined force, which indeed was probably the case for most small and medium-sized castles:

Often by themselves, more often in company with men and arms from the other fortresses built with similar intent, these men used to issue forth to encounter and defeat the enemy when they tried to make raids from the city.****

Bethgibelin, Ibelin and some other castles further inland such as Le Toron des Chevaliers (Latrun) and its neighbour, Castellum Arnali (Yalu) would have been ideal for this purpose. Keeping in mind the small size of Blanche Garde (the term "castle" is a bit misleading as it was little more than a turreted tower and William refers to it by the Latin castrum rather than castellum) it was perhaps chiefly intended as a lookout, a strong one and very well-positioned, but intended mainly to relay information back to the larger castles of the interior. Its real value was as a link in the chain.

* Professor Aren Maeir, an archaeologist whose expertise is the Bronze and Iron Age cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. Aren has been excavating Tell es-Safi site since 1997 and it has evolved into one of the most important excavations being carried out in the Southern Levant. See The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project Official (and Unofficial) Weblog -

** William of Tyre, Chronicon 14.22, English trans. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, vol. 2, p. 81.

*** Albert of Aix, Historia Hierosolymitana, Recueil des historiens des croisades, Historiens occidentaux, X.8, pp. 636-38.

**** William of Tyre, 15.25, English trans., vol. 2, p. 132.