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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Overcoming Obstacles

Jaffa Gate during lock-down (photo Orit Fenig)

I live in a walled city but outside the city wall. It is just about a five-minute walk from my house to the main city gate. Until a little over a century ago being here would have meant that I would be exposed to very real dangers. City walls still had a purpose, a role beyond that of tourist attraction. During the recent lock-down the walls of Jerusalem briefly came to mean something again, to serve a function, and as in the past it was to keep something out, or perhaps, depending on where you lived, to keep something in. But that was (and one hopes will remain) an exceptional situation. Today the walls are regarded as a sort of monument, a remnant of the past like the Colosseum in Rome.

In modern times it is often more dangerous to be within a city than outside of it. In many western countries urban crime rates are three to four times as high as those of rural communities and fatalities in road accidents are higher in cities than rural areas. And as we have recently experienced, when plague breaks out, the heavily populated city is far more vulnerable than the countryside. But whatever dangers might lurk within a city, the presence of city walls exhibits the direction from which people in the past felt most threatened. The real dangers came from outside.

Ramparts and glacis at Ascalon

Of all the walled cities in the medieval Holy Land, Ascalon was the most formidably defended against external threats. It occupied an ancient site and possessed massive Middle Bronze Age earthen ramparts that surrounded the entire city in a great arc stretching from shore to shore. On average they rose to fifteen metres in height, and above them stood thick stone walls that probably rose another eight to ten metres and had been rebuilt several times over the centuries, most recently in the Fatimid period. This ancient fortification system, the only one still functioning in a living city in the kingdom of Jerusalem, was extremely effective against the siege capabilities of the Frankish army. It enabled the Fatimids to hold the city 54 years after the establishment off the crusader state and long after all the rest of the coast and all the cities to the north as far as Antioch were in Frankish hands. This was to have a considerable impact and would shape many future developments in the Latin East, among them the establishment of the military order, and the evolution in Frankish castle building. It also influenced the nature of Frankish rural administration and rural settlement.

By retaining hold of Ascalon the Egyptians possessed a bridgehead within the borders of the kingdom. It served through the first half of the twelfth century as a base for brigands carrying out raids into the hinterland. The constant danger of attack and the consequent need to defend pilgrims and other travellers on the roads was one of the central motivations for the establishment of the Order of the Knights of the Temple, the first military order. In an effort to prevent the continual raids on the roads and settlements the Franks began in the mid-1130's to construct small fortifications encircling Ascalon. These and the manner in which they developed established the castle as an important tool of Frankish arsenal in facing external threats.

The constant menace that Ascalon constituted in the first half of the twelfth century was considerably eased by the construction of these castles but continued to some degree until the city finally fell to the Franks in 1153. The need to administer the countryside and collect taxes and agricultural produce necessitated the establishment of administrative outposts. Until the threat of Ascalon was finally overcome this role was usually fulfilled by fortified towers or small fortresses occupied by a steward. Remains of tens of such fortified administrative centres are scattered across the countryside. After the fall of Ascalon these were replaced by large, unfortified courtyard buildings, better suited to fulfil their administrative role. Once Ascalon's defences were finally overcome and briefly, until the arrival of a new and substantial external threat (the rise of Saladin in Egypt), Frankish rural settlement flourished.

The history of Ascalon as a Frankish city was short and largely inconsequential. Its importance in crusader history is mainly in the period prior to its capture in 1153. Then, thanks to its Middle Bronze Age defences it played a substantial role as a catalyst in the development of Frankish society and its two great innovations - the military order and the art of castle building.

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