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Jerusalem: Most Heavily Fortified City in The Medieval World

Posted by on October 1, 2013
Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade.

Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade.


The Christians believed that Jerusalem was the holiest city on Earth, just as did their Muslim and Jewish counterparts. It was the city where Christ had laid down his life for the sins of humankind; rose from the dead three days later and ascended into heaven. The Holy Sepulcher, which encloses the sites of Golgotha and of Jesus’ tomb, was built in the fourth century by the Roman Emperor Constantine to commemorate the sacrifice Jesus paid for humankind: A significant event well worth the treacherous 2,000 journey. Many Franks believed that the capture of Jerusalem would make the earthly Jerusalem one with the heavenly Jerusalem. That popular belief led to the creation of prophecies centered around the end times. No doubt, priests preached of Christ’s return once Jerusalem was restored to Christian rule.

Even amidst the religious fervor, the Franks could not ignore the fact that they were completely isolated, far away from any help. They had rushed down the Palestinian coast without establishing any military bases. They knew that, in a matter of time, Al-Afdal would arrive with an army, relieve the garrison at Jerusalem and annihilate their Holy expedition. So, the Franks were determined to capture the Holy city before it was too late.

They were, however, confronted with a challenge greater than what they encountered at Antioch. Jerusalem was one of the most — if not the most — heavily fortified cities in the medieval world. The walls enclosing the city were about sixty feet tall and ten feet thick. The Tower of David and the Quadrangular Tower were located adjacent to each other on the western wall. Both towers overlooked the road that ran up the hillside to the Jaffa Gate. Since Jerusalem was built, both towers had made it possible for every watchman to see an enemy army advance miles ahead.

The city’s geographical setting made its defenses all the more formidable. The south-east wall was protected by the Vale of Gehenna; the eastern wall stood atop of the ravine of the Kedron, and a third valley skirted the western wall. The only areas that were open to an attack were the south-western and northern walls. That was because the land in those areas was flat.

Jerusalem was also well garrisoned. The Egyptian governor, Iftikhar ad-Dawla commanded a large, highly-trained garrison of Arab and Sudanese soldiers. He didn’t have to worry about lack of water or food because the cisterns running through the city provided the city’s inhabitants with an ample amount of clean water. And the herds of sheep and other pack animals in the surrounding countryside provided plenty of food for Jerusalem’s inhabitants.

When Iftikhar learnt that the Franks were marching on Jerusalem, he had the wells outside of the city walls poisoned, trees chopped down, and the flocks of herds driven to confined areas where they would be safe. Next, Iftikhar banished all the Christians — Orthodox and Syrian — from the city. The Jews, though, were permitted to stay.

Runciman believed that the banishment of the Christian population was a wise move. Although they numbered in the thousands, the Christians were useless as warriors. But that was because, under Muslim law, they were forbidden to carry arms. Moreover, Runciman argued, Iftikhar wanted to prevent disloyalty within the city. Fewer people also meant fewer mouths to feed.

Runciman is right about Iftikhar’s motives, but he is wrong to suggest that Iftikhar’s decision to expel the Christians was a wise move. In his haste to repel the Frankish onslaught, Iftikhar failed to realize that his Christian subjects possessed important knowledge of military tactics and location of supplies. He also didn’t take into consideration that betrayal to the enemy is much worse than betrayal within strongly fortified walls. That one mistake would ultimately lead to his downfall and pave the way to victory for the Franks.

Sources Used:

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. Ecco; New York, 2011.

Haag, Michael. The Templars: The History and the Myth. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; HarperCollins, 2009.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1951.


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