No Crusader Army Camps Have Ever Been Found. Until Now, in Israel

Crusader knights lived on the move, which may explain why no camps have ever been found. Now one has, in Israel, and now we know how the soldiers whiled away their time while waiting for war

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Francesco Hayez: Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem
Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, painted between 1836 and 1850Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

And it came to pass that on the night of July 2, 1187, the knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem fought bitterly – with each other. They were arguing over whether to march onto Tiberias to regain it from Saladin, whose Muslim forces had overrun the city the day before, or to keep the troops for the nonce in camp by the bountiful Springs of Saforie, aka Tzippori.

Sensibly, the Crusaders tended to camp in the vicinity of a reliable source of water, according to historical sources and horse sense, and archaeologist Rafi Lewis. The question is what else was typical of medieval Crusader camps, but we did not know because none had been found, let alone archaeologically explored.

Now, for the first time a war camp intermittently used for over a century as Christendom and Islamic forces struggled over the Holy Land has been found, and archaeologically explored. The findings at the camp by the Tzippori springs shed light on what the soldiers would do while camping in wait for war – a tense period, to put it mildly.

Mainly, the evidence indicates, the commanders would be squabbling, while the rank and file would be distracted from the tensions not by drinking and carousing but by replacing the iron nails in their horses’ shoes.

Anyway, after that sleepless night in the command echelon, on July 3 the Franks marched forth from Tzippori, whether heading for Tiberias itself or possibly for the springs of Hattin – it was reportedly a blistering hot day. On the morrow, July 4, they were crushed by the forces of the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin in the Battle of Hattin.

The Crusader Camp excavation by Tzippori Stream and the Springs of Saforie (Tzippori)Credit: Courtesy of the IAA

The medieval camp at Tzippori was just 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Tiberias. Over a century, both the Christian knights and the Ayyubid warriors used the encampment site, explains Lewis, who researches the archaeology of conflicts and landscape archaeology with the Ashkelon Academic College and University of Haifa.

How could it be that so much fighting between Christian and Islamic forces during the medieval period produced no (known) encampments, until this one? Maybe they were overlooked as researchers focused on more “popular” sites such as castles and sites of siege warfare, Lewis suggests.

This encampment was discovered thanks to a project led by the Prehistoric Division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, directed by Nimrod Getzov and Ianir Milevski, taking six years.

What they found was very different from Roman-style camps, as indicated by medieval sources in La Règle du Temple (Rule of the Templars), describing what Crusader camps should look like and how they should be organized. The camp is described in the third chapter in the book “Settlement and Crusade in the Thirteenth Century.”

Yet again, the archaeological gem was discovered because of roadworks. This happens a lot in Israel: infrastructure works (or burrowing animals) leading to historical enlightenment. Given that Israel has been the stomping ground for humanity and our predecessors for at least a couple of million years, that’s only natural. Thank you, bulldozers and naked mole rats.

But this is the first material evidence of a medieval encampment site in Israel or anywhere, really, Lewis says. That is in contrast to the Romans who occupied the Holy Land a millennium or more before – Israel and the Levant as a whole are littered with Roman remains.

A lovely place to wait

The Springs of Saforie are a prolific water source in a small valley and, to be clear, this lush area was occupied from prehistory. The archaeologists unearthed superimposed settlements from the earliest advent of sedentarism, the pre-pottery Neolithic; one of the biggest known settlements associated with the Wadi Rabah culture 7,500 years ago; and from the Early Bronze Age (about 5,000 years ago).

The site housed a well-developed fortified settlement, enclosed by a thick stone wall. The Romans quarried stone at the spot. And come the medieval period, various troops would find it a comfortable parking place.

One snag about investigating the Frankish camp is that it doesn’t seem to have had stone and/or wood structures, unlike the earlier Roman Legion camps, which had both internal walls as well as outer walls marking the camp boundary.

The Tzippori stream fed by the Springs of Saforie: The Crusaders would camp by waterCredit: Abdullah Shama

The impression left by the remains of the medieval encampment in Tzippori is impermanence, Lewis says. Based on historical sources, Crusader soldiers were housed in tents; even the camp church was in a tent. The men were perennially ready to march for war, he explains.

So, no walls, but the archaeologists found a wealth of metal artifacts dating to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which existed from the year 1099 to 1291.

It isn’t clear when the Christian forces began using the Tzippori camp, but as of the 1130s this was a choice assembly point for armed forces, Lewis says. He lists specific examples: In 1168, King Amaury wrote to King Louis VII from the springs, asking for help following an earthquake in Antioch. And clearly, the Franks camped there time and again until the fateful Battle of Hattin in 1187. Then Saladin himself gathered his troops at this bountiful spring.

All in all, Lewis sums up, it seems both Muslim and Frankish forces used the site over more than 125 years. To do what, though?

For want of a nail

Among the metal artifacts found at the site were almost 200 dating to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including coins. The earliest of the coins found at the site was a bronze coin struck in Tyre at the end of Trajan’s reign and the latest (apart from the Crusader ones) was a Byzantine bronze coin, of a type minted in huge numbers in Antioch by Constantine I and following regimes, explain numismatists Robert Kool and Donald Ariel from the IAA in a separate paper.

Credit: Clara Amit / IAA

Some coins appear to postdate the young King Baldwin’s victory over his mother Queen Regent Melisande of Jerusalem, i.,e., they were minted after the year 1152.

And there were a lot of horseshoe nails, relatively speaking, as well as other items related to horses. These included shoes, bridles, pricks, harness fittings, and a currycomb, as well as three needles and four arrowheads.

Let us dwell on the horseshoe nails. Back then, the nail heads were not nailed to the hilt in the horseshoe, in order to better grip the ground, the team explains. So obviously the nails would break and need frequent replacing. This is all the more pertinent given that some of the people at the camp had come from afar, even hundreds of kilometers.

“I see an interesting pattern similar to that in contemporary army camps,” says Lewis: the men are awaiting the fight and are meanwhile bored, fearful and troublesome. In short, it is a dangerous situation and the last thing their commanders want them to do is have the leisure to think. And at Tzippori, a major activity seems to have been replacing broken horseshoe nails, which went beyond make-work for its own sake.

European-style horseshoe nail Credit: Clara Amit / IAA
Coin of Baldwin III (1143–1163 CE), Jerusalem, reverseCredit: Clara Amit / IAA

“Most of the nails we found were used ones,” Lewis explains. “It’s like, when you go to war you don’t want a flat tire on your jeep. They came from all over the place, some from Tyre, some from Ashkelon, and it would have been a few days’ ride to Tzippori. The first thing to do is replace the horseshoe nails.”

The domestication of the horse apparently goes back about 5,500 years, and one wonders when horseshoes were first invented. It seems that people began to protect equine feet with leather or other “hipposandals” in antiquity, and then the horseshoe may have arrived about 2,400 years ago, going by bronze specimens with seeming holes for nails in an Etruscan tomb in central Italy.

So back to our question: what did the men do in the camp between wars? One answer is, they reshoed their steeds and at least one good sirrah was brushing an animal using the currycomb.

Since we don’t know when the encampment might have sheltered Crusaders and when it might have housed Muslim forces, how do we know it was Christian soldiers changing their horses’ shoe nails?

Getzov, who directed the site together with Milevski, actually studies prehistory and was investigating the earlier layers of the site. But being an archaeologist of prehistory he sifted all the dirt – not all archaeologists do – and thusly found the nails, and identified them.

As he explains to Haaretz, the Crusaders used European-style horseshoes and nails that were not the norm in the Holy Land or among the Muslim forces. “We can’t say who sat on the horse – as an Israeli soldier, I used a Kalashnikov [made in Russia] – but I assume it was Crusaders,” he says.

The arrowheads are also interesting. Three feature the pyramidal shape that could penetrate medieval armor. This was no innovation of the time: rather similar though triple-vaned arrowheads go back to the Scythians 2,700 years ago.

Arrowhead found at the Springs of SaforieCredit: Clara Amit / IAA
"Aristocratic" object found at the Springs of Saforie, copper alloy and goldCredit: Clara Amit / IAA

The archaeologists also found one flat, kite-shaped arrowhead.

Lewis points out that, first of all, these arrows would have been the results of training during the waiting period or possibly from small-scale clashes at the springs themselves. The arrowheads that were found had broken off their shafts; ones that didn’t remained stuck in soldiers or horses and are gone, he points out.

Also, Lewis thinks the arrowheads may resolve a mystery: where exactly the Battle of Cresson of May 1, 1187, took place. True, that clash is named for the Spring of Cresson (Ein Gozeh) near Nazareth, which is assumed to be where the Battle of Cresson between the Muslim and Christian forces took place. But Lewis says not all researchers agree on this location.

Asked if just four arrowheads a battlefield make, he explains: usually even fewer are found, if any, unlike the great numbers found in the destruction layers of occupied castles, for example. If any are found in the open field (as in this case), one only finds the ones broken from the shafts and not picked up at the end of the bloodshed.

He stresses that the arrowheads may portend nothing beyond target practice ahead of war but, at least, suggests their discovery reopens the debate on the Battle of Cresson. “I think the Springs of Saforie is a good candidate, though I’m not convinced myself,” he says,

Two of the needles found at the Springs of SaforieCredit: Noa Shatil / IAA

Sleeping in formation

When marching to battle some distance from their encampment, the Frankish knights would go on a “fighting march”, i.e., in battle formation, typically dividing into three groups. The king would be in the central force, and if they were taking a religious relic (like what they thought was a shard from the True Cross) into battle, that would be in the central force too.

The central force would be flanked by a front guard and a rear guard, each force acting as necessary, maneuvering by itself and shouldering its own functions and responsibilities.

The location of the finds at the Springs of Saforie may tell an intriguing story. “The Latin forces cannot be described as an army, at least not in the modern sense,” Lewis says – they may all have been under the command of the King of Jerusalem, but each fought under its own leader and flag.

The artifacts were found in clusters, which may attest that the soldiers were camping out in their famous “fighting march” formation.

Another arrowheadCredit: Clara Amit / IAA

The king himself probably pitched his tent – had his tent pitched – on Tel Tzippori, a small mound overlooking the valley with its own water supply in the form of a well. “Nothing but the best for the king,” Lewis observes.

Indeed, the closer the archaeologists got to the water sources, the finer the goods became. They found the classiest artifacts, the most high quality, in the vicinity of the springhouse (the main water source), which had been built centuries earlier during the Roman period.

What kind of aristocratic artifacts? Gilded buckles and hairpins, manufactured in aristocratic European style. Asked if it was likely that the Crusader warriors decked out their hairdos out in hairpins, Lewis points out that not all men in the camp came from the same cultural origin, just as each group was riding under a different banner.

The Hospitallers and Knights Templar generally wore their hair trimmed and wouldn’t have needed hairpins, but maybe there were other types in the force. Alternatively, some of the pins could have been used as clothing fasteners; or the lot may have belonged to camp followers. “We know from a few years later from the siege of Acre, during the third crusade, there were all kinds of activities happening around these siege camps,” Lewis says.

So after fighting among themselves all night, the Crusader commanders gave the marching order, in formation, the following morn and thus the soldiers set out, to where we are not sure.

This is a hairpin, the archaeologists claimCredit: Clara Amit / IAA

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