Adrian J. Boas
On Fear, Imitation and Adaptability
Updated: Dec 1, 2018
High on the list of factors explaining how the crusader states managed to hold out for two centuries, despite the comparatively small number of soldiers they were able to muster in a battle, is their really quite remarkable ability to learn from others. This is a quality that they applied in many of their endeavours. In military architecture, they borrowed from the Muslims, the Byzantines and the Armenians, the latter in particular. Armenians were among the finest castle builders of the Middle Ages. One of the things they were extremely skilled at was in choosing the most advantageous setting for a fortress.
In 2006, I travelled with my wife to Turkey to take a look at a number of Armenian and military order castles in the east of the country, in what in the Crusader Period constituted the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia. Like an infant protectively cradled in its mothers arms, the kingdom was enclosed by the rugged Taurus and Amanus mountain ranges, just a few well-defended passes allowing access from the west, north and east. Within, we found a varied and often dramatic landscape of jagged basalt and limestone hills, fertile river valleys, arid and desolate plains, towns, villages and a large number of well-preserved, castles. These castles were often cleverly designed, with concentric fortifications, complex gates and entry passages, and with what in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries constituted the most up-to-date defensive elements.
One thing that was particularly noticeable to me, as a person who from childhood has suffered from acrophobia, was the very clever way in which the Armenians made use of the topographical setting. Acrophobia is an irrational fear of heights, experienced by sufferers even when they are not particularly high up (I have experienced it while sitting in an armchair watching television!). I am a person who generally attempts to overcome or at least challenge his fears. At the first castle we visited, Yilan Kale (Snake Castle) near Adana, we climbed an almost (so it seemed to me) vertical ascent to the intimidating upper gate, avoiding clouds of mosquitoes and kamikaze swallows. The last few metres before the gate were a particular challenge, as the path narrowed severely and there was a sheer drop of several metres to our left. After some hesitation, I managed to cross this (fortunately with no one but my wife around to observe how). I subsequently attempted some other hair-raising passes in various other castles, but two castles defeated me - Chivlan Kale (possibly identified as La Roche Roussel) and Anavarza (pictured above).
Chivlan was built on a sort of sloping plateau above a sheer cliff, high above the approach road. To reach it, it was necessary to drive up towards the plateau from behind, and then continue by foot up an increasingly steep rise covered with thick undergrowth between rocky outcrops, oak and wind twisted pine trees, on a path that seemed to be more imagined than real. As we climbed, the wind cut across the hilltop and the slope became progressively steeper. At a certain point my wife turned back, and I went alone until, missing a step I slipped several metres towards a steep drop, and only by grabbing hold of a exposed tree-root avoided a serious fall. At that point, I gave up and turned back.
But the most disappointing failure was at Anavarza. The approach to this castle was much easier than that of Chivlan, via a path up a not very steep slope with a jagged, rocky surface. At the top was a beautiful fortification with round towers enclosing a courtyard of golden grass as broad and level as a football field. It was enclosed on two sides by the walls and on the others by a sheer drop. All well and good to this point. The problem came when we wanted to advance towards the inner or upper ward. As you can see on the plan above, the two sections of the castle are joined by a very narrow neck, which is cut down several metres to form a moat or ditch, opposite which is a tower that occupies the entire width of the neck. To enter the tower and reach the upper ward it was necessary to climb out of the ditch using a feeble looking metal ladder attached to the rock, and then to cross adjacent to the side of the tower along the very edge of the cliff that you can see in the photograph above, several hundred metres above the plain. As attempting this would possibly mean an early, sudden and less than pleasant end to our travels, we once again turned back.
A castle like Anavarza would be a daunting prospect even for a non-sufferer of acrophobia. But locations as ideal as this were not always available. Whereas the Armenians occasionally built their castles on the edge of sheer cliffs, and sometimes even retained steep precipices within castle walls (as at Yilan), the use of topography made by the Franks was generally less dramatic, though by no means less intelligent. Their contribution was in positioning castles like Crac des Chevalier, Safed, Montfort and Montreal on mountain spurs and hilltops, surrounded on most or all sides by steep slopes, which limited accessibility and made them considerably easier to defend. If not exactly imitating the Armenian castles, the use of what nature provided was certainly a lesson well learned.