The Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles overlooks today the modern districts of Tripoli (in Lebanon), surrounded by densely-constructed, dilapidated apartment buildings that reflect little of the city’s glorious past. But this was not always the case.
The Castle takes its name from Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse – widely known as Raymond de Saint-Gilles – who was among the leading architects of the First Crusade and who, along with Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemond I, and Baldwin I, invaded in 1097 the lands of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, ultimately conquering Jerusalem in 1099.
By 1103 and despite his active involvement in the broader expedition, Saint-Gilles was still without any fiefdom of his own, while the other leaders had already secured and controlled areas of importance: Bohemond was the ruler of the Principality of Antioch, Godfrey was the King of Jerusalem, and Baldwin was the leader of the County of Edessa, before becoming King of Jerusalem after Godfrey’s death. As such, Saint-Gilles focused his attention on Tripoli whose wealth had not been plundered yet by the occidental forces; he camped at the outskirts of the city and declared himself Count of the region.
At the dawn of the 12th century, when the remarkably primitive Franks crossed the southern Byzantine borders, they encountered not only fertile lands, prosperous trade routes, affluent cities, and a civilization that was advanced beyond their ability to comprehend. They also found fragmented states among the Arabs and the Seljuk Turks; political enmity among the Sunnis whose holy base was in Baghdad and the Fatimids (Shi’a) whose headquarters were in Cairo; and petty rivalries among brothers like King Duqaq of Damascus and King Ridwan of Aleppo whose excruciating fights further weakened the land of Syria at a time most crucial. So, while the Frank leaders marched united with a numerous army far more superior in the art of war as well as in gear (the knights’ armor was impenetrable to the arrows that the Muslim armies used as a primary weapon), the local rulers preferred to betray one another, allowing the conquering and absolute destruction of major cities, even confederating with the Occidentals to support their short-term interests.
Within this turmoil, Tripoli shone as the jewel of the Arab East, mainly due to its leaders, the Banu ‘Ammar family, who did not focus on fighting an incessant struggle for power but, instead, were scholars and qadis and had managed to secure for their region an era of peace and prosperity envied by many. The city was a center of bustling activity and remarkable opulence, as the trade was booming through the port and fertile fields encircled the town. On top of that, Tripoli was proud of its “House of Culture” (Dar al-Ilm) that included enormous library hosting around one hundred thousand volumes – a testimony to the city’s cultural welfare.
As the ferocious Frankish army marched towards Jerusalem conquering and pillaging everything on their way, and as the Muslims’ armies were massively defeated again and again leaving all citizens flabbergasted, the qadi of Tripoli chose to offer part of the city’s wealth to the enemy in exchange for the safety of his territory. Indeed, until 1103, and despite ongoing threats, Tripoli had managed to remain intact, just like most of the coastal cities of today’s Lebanon that initially chose not to engage in futile resistance.
In 1103, though, Saint-Gilles finally decided to attack Tripoli and, while besieging the town (which is surrounded by sea and can be attacked by land only by a narrow passage on the east side), he built the castle that bears his name, controlling hence the coastal roads and further tightening the noose around the city’s activity. The location was strategically chosen for its steep slopes that served as natural defenses, while no caravan could enter or leave the town without being stopped by the Franks. However, it seems that Saint-Gilles was not the actual founder of the citadel. Texts dating to the early days of Islam mention a fort built by Sufyan Al-Azdi a few miles from El Mina (the port of Tripoli), and various indications suggest that this fort preceded the Frankish settlement. Also, Saint-Gilles’ castle was built around a mashhad (a Fatimid mausoleum) which was transformed by the westerners into a chapel of a shape similar to that of the Holy Sepulcher and was respectively named “the Holy-Sepulcher of Mont-Pilgrim.”
The siege lasted for over five years – what Amin Maalouf refers to as “the two thousand days of Tripoli” in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes – and Raymond de Saint-Gilles was not meant to reap the fruits of his efforts since he was heavily wounded during one of the fiercest attacks by the Tripolitanians and died shortly afterwards, in 1105. Before dying though, he met with the notables of Tripoli and managed to secure a bizarre compromise: the locals would stop their assaults to the castle, and, in return, the Franks would unblock the trade routes. So, although the city continued to be besieged and Saint-Gilles kept bearing the title of the Count of Tripoli, the two sides preserved for a few years a fragile balance based on the tacit knowledge that each party was waiting for reinforcements which would annul this unusual arrangement.
Unfortunately for Tripoli, the qadi’s desperate pleads for help proved unsuccessful as neither the caliph nor the sultan in Baghdad committed to a timely support, even though they welcomed the qadi like an equal – such was the radiance of Tripoli back then – and, similarly, Egypt, representing the Fatimids, sent its fleet only too late, after the city had already been defeated and delivered to pillage and carnage. On the other hand, the Franks demonstrated a united front as the rulers of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa came to support the army of the Saint-Gilles’ heirs and, finally, with the help of the Genovese fleet that blocked the port, they conquered the city in July 1109. So, Tripoli became the fourth Frankish state in the Middle East and remained a significant power until 1289, when it was conquered by the Mamluks who set the old city (what is still called El Mina today) ablaze, building a new city at the foothills of the citadel (what is considered today as “the old town”).
The castle bears the signs of the several forces that conquered it and used it as their stronghold. The largest stones at the base on the walls are from the Frankish period, while, as years passed by, the Mamluks and, later, the Ottomans, continued to reinforce the edifice, increasing it in height and width, leaving their marks through the different gates, the dungeons, and the mosques.
Today, the castle covers an area of about 8000 sq.m. and is possibly the biggest in Lebanon and one of the most significant in the Middle East. Its architecture reflects the ingenuity of the Crusaders who managed to safeguard their conquered territories for almost 200 years despite their smaller numbers capitalizing on the strategic locations and the structure of their citadels – an important inheritance that was aptly adopted and exploited by the Mamluks and the Ottomans until the beginning of the 20th century.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
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