The Templar Fortress of Tartous

Although largely famous today for its role as a Templar fortress during the time of the Crusades,

the site had been equally renowned in antiquity for its strategic and military importance. Tartous was originally founded by the Phoenicians to complement the more secure but the less accessible settlement on the island of Arwad. For a long time it served a secondary role to Arwad, itself a major centre in Seleucid and Roman times. As a matter fact its classical name of Ataradus (meaning ‘anti-Aradus’ or 'the town facing Aradus' or Arwad) reflected this secondary role.


Plan of Tartous citadel and fortified city.

Tartous underwent a major programme of rebuilding in 346 under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, probably because it housed an important ancient shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was for a while consequently renamed Constantia, although it soon reverted to its ancient name or Tartous. It is under this name - or its Latinized form of Tortosa- that it became famous in Crusader times as one of the main Frankish littoral settlements in Syria, perhaps more importantly as the headquarters of the Templar knights. These warrior monks, known simply as Templars, were a religious military order of knighthood which came into being in the early decades of the twelfth century and rapidly grew into a powerful military force playing a major role in the defence of the Christian conquests in the Latin East and the protection of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In Christian hands the fortress was a very important and strategic outpost located close to the ‘Gate of Homs’ (in Arabic Nahr el-Kebir) a large gap in the formidable mountain ranges that stand behind the coastal strip and which allowed access to the valley of the Orontes River and to important towns of  Homs and Hama. For this reason Tortosa was not only an important military foothold on the shores of sea but also a useful commercial centre especially for  Genoese and Venetian merchants.

The fortress was first captured from the Saracens in 968 by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, and in 1099 it  was seized by the Crusader army on its way to Jerusalem. This initial Frankish occupation, however, was short-lived since the fortress was immediately recaptured by the Arabs wh held it tenuously until its recapture three years later by Raymond de Saint Gilles who left it in 1105 to his son Alfonso Jordan and became a fiefdom of the County of Tripoli. Under the Crusaders Tortosa became famous  as a pilgrimage centre to the sanctuary of the virgin, around which was built a new cathedral in the middle of the thirteenth century, which remained almost continuously in Crusaders hands until their final eviction from the Levantine mainland in 1291.

Tartus was briefly occupied by by Nur ad-Din, Atabeg of Aleppo, in 1152,but after the city was recaptured by the Counts of Tripoli, it was handed over to the Knights Templars, who in a few years built a citadel near the harbour and refortified the whole town with strong walls. The real threat to the safety of the Templar fortress came with Saladin, who attacked the fortress in 1188, and managed to capture nearly the entire town including the cathedral.

View of Tartous Citadel from the North, photographed around the 1930s (Picture source: private collection of Eng. Ali Souriti).

The Templar knights, however, managed to just hold on in single heavily fortified tower, from where they were eventually able to retake the rest of the town. After the final loss of Tartous in 1291, the Crusaders were never able to re-establish a foothold on the mainland again. They managed to hold out on Arwad for a further eleven years until 1302, taking the celebrated image of the Virgin Mary with them from the Cathedral, and re-occupied Arwad briefly in 1518. Arwad, therefore, is the Crusaders' last stand in the Near East. The original Crusader fortifications consisted of the city walls the harbor walls and the citadel. The later stands at the north-western corner of the walled town overlooking the sea. On the landward side it heavily protected by a triple line of defenses consisting of an outer curtain wall, a ditch, and an inner wall reinforced with rectangular towers. The heavily defended entrance is on the north side protected by a large square tower in the outer wall. Immediately inside the inner wall is the great hall, though completely built over by modern houses, with a small chapel adjacent. Over by the sea very badly ruined remains of the great donjon, or keep, from where the knights withstood Saladin's siege in 1188. Massive vaulted undercrofts can still be seen; though above them modern housing has all but obscured the keep. On the seaward side can still be seen the postern gate from which the last of the Knights Templar escaped to Arwad and Cyprus in 1291. Except from Athlit (the last remnant of the Jerusalem Kingdom evacuated on 14 August), Tortosa was the last point on the mainland held by the Crusaders.

In the middle of the town the Cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa is preserved virtually intact. The site was already a famous centre of pilgrimage in the Byzantine period, and several fragments of Byzantine masonry have been found re-used in its construction. As it stands, however, it is a remarkable example of French early Gothic architecture, with its façade almost exactly as the Crusaders would have left it. The altar of the chapel is believed to have miraculously escaped destruction by an earthquake in 487. An icon, said to have been painted by the evangelist St. Luke, was also venerated there. In 1841, the Cathedral was used as mosque and a minaret was built in its North-West corner. In 1922, it was registered in the Syrian antiquities, then converted in 1956 into the Lattakia and Tartous Museum. And until now it is the museum of Tartous.

The Cathedral of Tartous (now a museum) with an interior view and plan by Rey in 1871 .

Military architecture of Tartous Citadel

As their principal military base in the north, the Templars fortified the citadel heavily with a double enceinte in the form of a quarter circle strengthened by fosses, and a colossal donjon. The fortress city formed a large, irregular rectangle, its length 350m parallel to the sea. The outer (town) wall can be seen along the street which leads from the northwestern tower inland towards the modern main street. The point where it reached the sea and turned back northwards along the coast is marked by the remains of a tower seen along the seafront about 300m south of the citadel. The walls were 2.5m thick in parts and were surrounded by a rock-cut ditch filled with sea water. Baron Emmanuel Guillaume Rey (a French aristocrat who took a passionate interest in the Crusaders) follows this introduction with a more detailed description of the identifiable remains of the main fortifications including the Templars' great Hall "la grande salle" ,characterized as a European importation to the Near East. It was a vaulted room 44m long with six bays organized as paired aisles. In the northwestern segment of this outer compound were two inner defense walls roughly semi-circular in shape and behind them in the inner citadel.

View from within of the remaining inner defensive wall of the citadel. (Picture source: private collection of Arch. Zeina el-Cheikh).

At the heart lay the donjon where the Templars held out against Saladin. The concentric defenses thus consisted of: - Outer ditch and town wall, - Inner ditch and concentric defense walls around citadel, - Main citadel wall (almost half-circular in plan) with square bastions, - Central donjon On the north side of the square within the old city of Tarous, lies the 13th century great hall, 44m long. The south wall is incorporated into later housing; the north wall forms part of the fortification walls. The hall was on the upper floor; the ground floor being divided by a central row of five pillars into two naves vaulted in six sections. The chapel is a little more easily identified to the northeast, behind a reconstructed doorway up a short flight of stairs. The single-naved structure is windowless on the east side which is up against the inner fortified wall. The remains of the original (only the ground floor survives) adjoin the square on the west side.

The Great Hall of the Templars from outside (1871)

The great bastion in fact comprised two thicknesses of concentric square fortifications. The original kernel (pre-Templar) was later duplicated by a second equally stout-walled outer layer with a greater number of firing points except on the western side where it faced the sea. To the north, stands a recognizable gateway on the northern edge of the semi-circular walls. A mosque, standing a little to the east, was installed in a former tower of the Crusader castle.

View of the interior of the donjon (Picture source: private collection of Arch. Zeina el-Cheikh).

The western face of the donjon survives, indented between two stout bastions. The three doors on the lower face of the donjon allowed direct access to vessels berthed by the quay. This is from where the last of the Crusaders, in 1291, escaped the Muslim besiegers, quietly abandoning one of the last vestiges of their 200- year adventure on the Levantine coast. The donjon which was the strongest element of the fortress is nowadays only a fragmented remnant that survives interwoven into the fabric of later buildings.

View of the ceiling groin vault of the Templars' chapel.(Picture source: private collection of Arch. Zeina el-Cheikh).

The nearby castle chapel is only briefly described as having four bays and no apse. The style of both the Templars hall and the chapel was seen as quite elegant, with the use of marble capitals and archivolts that were decorated with interlaced arabesques, suggesting Byzantine influence to Rey.


Urban and architectural evolution of Tartous Citadel and its surroundings

Tartous Citadel (well-known now as the Old City of Tartous) remains today the only clear historical centre, and its main architectural features belong to two periods: the Late Ottoman and the French Mandate (between the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century). "The influence of Occidental architecture is very sensible in the plans of the Turkish houses since the 19th century. In fact, since 1839, in favor of the Tanzimat or new order.". The declaration of the Tanzimat reform (in Turkish: Reorganization) as series of reforms promulgated in the Ottoman Empire between 1839 and 1876 under the reigns of the sultans Abdulmecid I and Abdulaziz. These reforms, heavily influenced by European ideas, were intended to effect a fundamental change in the empire from the old system based on theocratic principles to those of a modern state, and to modernize society along secular and bureaucratic lines. It was at the same time a moment of change in architecture in the Ottoman building code. Social transformation was expressed in architecture;  feudal and wealthy families formed a social class and used the Central Hall House (three arched often) in many parts in the Old City to show off  their social and financial standing.

Photograph showing the road leading to Tartous Citadel said to be taken at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, in which appears the inner defensive wall (Picture source: private collection of Eng. Ali Souriti).

Above, view of the outer turreted wall of the citadel of Tartous with the old civilian dwellings grafted onto the ruins, the whole forming the oldest quarter of the city. Below, detail of the large drafted and embossed crusader masonry forming the base of one of the wall-towers of the Templar fortress.

Later on, a new building code was adopted and known as the 1930's building system, which was adopted upon the Prime Minister's decision No. 2390 issued on the 1st of September 1930: "Since the present laws are inadequate concerning those which deal with the building construction' rules in the cities either from the hygienic or the aesthetical sides, or those which provide convenience and comfort, it became necessary to put a decision which deals with building construction and streets to be applied in the municipalities of the Syrian State" (Elena Invernizzi).

By Arch.  Zeina El Cheikh for MilitaryArchitecture.com


R. Burns, The Monuments of Syria, a guide.

W. Ball: Syria, a historical and architectural guide.

E. Invernizzi, Tartus between archaeology and modernity: Observation on the urban evolution, in "Tartous" joint publication among the Municipalities of Alicante and Palma (Spain), and Tartous.

J. Folds, Reflections on the historiography of the art of the crusaders in the thirteenth century. Crusader Art in the Holy Land, from the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre 1187-1291. Cambridge University Press.

Z. El-Cheikh,  "A view on the architecture of the Old City of Tartous: in the late Ottoman and the French mandate periods", Villes et Territoires du Moyen-Orient (VTMO) May 2009, http://www.vtmo.info/?p=242


Photo credits

Some of the illustrations are taken from "Tartous", joint publication produced by  the Municipalities of Alicante and Palma (Spain), and Tartous, and from the private collection of Eng. Ali Souriti/Tartous.


Arch. Zeina El Cheikh for MilitaryArchitecture.com

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