Archaeologists excavating the ruined Crusader castle of Arsuf have chanced upon a unique Arabic inscription engraved on one of the ballista balls that were catapulted onto the stronghold by a besieging Muslim army nearly 800 years ago.
The text is too weathered to interpret definitively, but clearly says something like “aim” and “attack.” It was probably intended to boost morale among the attacking artillery units, the researchers say.
Writing propaganda messages on ammunition, from stone balls to steel bombs, was common in antiquity and is today too, but this is the first known occurrence in the battles associated with the Crusades, says Prof. Oren Tal, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who leads the dig at Arsuf.
Known in antiquity as Apollonia, the ruined town of Arsuf is located on central Israel’s coast just north of Tel Aviv, and was one of the last Christian outposts in the Holy Land to fall at the end of the Crusades. Arsuf changed hands multiple times during that bloody period and its nearby fields were the site of a major battle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in 1191, during the Third Crusade.
The local lords heavily fortified the castle in the 1230s, a few decades after that pivotal battle, but the fortress fell in 1265 following a bloody 40-day siege by the Mamluk sultan Baybars, who set the stage for the final expulsion of the Crusaders from the Levant.
A rolling rock
It was during this siege that thousands of stone spheres were launched by the Mamluk artillery onto the Crusader fortifications. Many of these balls were excavated during the 1990s and arranged in neat piles around the site.
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In the summer of 2020, Tal and his team were working on an excavation and restoration project at the site – more about that later, when they noticed that one of the piles had been disturbed, possibly by recent visitors, and one of the stone balls had rolled away.
“We noticed that this ball had an inscription that had been missed,” says Tal, who presented the find at an archaeology conference at Tel Aviv University earlier this month. “Of course this caused us to dismantle all the other piles and check almost 2,500 projectiles, but we found only that one text.”
The inscribed limestone orb weighed some 36 kilograms and carried two lines of writing, chiseled in Naskhi, a cursive Arabic script commonly used at the time.
The archaeologists can tell the writing is not a later addition based on the patina that developed on the inscription, as well as the fact that the ballista balls at the site have remained buried for most of the intervening centuries. The letters are worn and hard to read, but Tal and colleagues interpret them as spelling out the words niyya, which means aim or intent, and al-ghuzat” – a military attack or assault.
Essentially, the text could have been an exhortation for the attackers, the equivalent of a “charge!” cry for artillerymen, Tal says.
“I would bet that this was the first stone that was shot and there was a desire to boost morale among the soldiers manning the ballistas,” Tal tells Haaretz. “The message served the Mamluks. It was not aimed at the Crusaders who wouldn’t read it or understand it.”
The inscription follows the pattern of inscribing ammunition through the millennia, that was usually designed to shore up morale amongst the attackers, even if the text itself often addressed the enemy. Perhaps the most known examples of this are World War II soldiers graffitiing messages on bombs and shells dedicated “to Adolph” or other high-ranking enemies.
It’s raining balls
The Arsuf inscription is the first of this kind known from the Crusades and illustrates the different psychological mechanisms at play on both sides in the conflict, Tal notes.
The intensive use of ballistas during the siege was itself mostly a form of psychological warfare, rather than a means to damage the fortress or kill the defenders, the archaeologist says.
“If you find cover it’s not something that is likely to hurt you, but such a rain of stones has a strong psychological effect, so the idea was to spread terror among the defenders,” he says.
The artillery also provided cover for the effort that eventually won the siege for the Mamluks: they tunneled beneath the castle walls, undermining them and ultimately enabling the Muslim troops to storm the fortress.
After retreating to the central keep, the last defenders agreed to surrender in exchange for a promise of freedom. Baybars then reneged on his pledge, enslaving the survivors and using them to demolish the fortress, part of the sultan’s scorched-earth policy to destroy any coastal bases the Crusaders could use to regain a foothold in the Holy Land.
Since then, the ruins of the castle lay pretty much deserted until the arrival of Israeli archaeologists, who have been excavating the site for decades.
The Tel Aviv University dig wasn’t intended to find overlooked inscriptions. For the last few years Tal and his team have been working to excavate what is left of the main keep and the western side of the castle. Because the structure was built just on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, over the centuries its westernmost areas have eroded or collapsed into the water below.
The archaeologists have been working to salvage what they can while trying to understand how the original castle looked. They have already been able to virtually reconstruct the stronghold’s main chapel. This was done by uncovering a few surviving architectural elements, such as a beautifully decorated door jamb adorned with a monstruous creature (think of the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris), and by scanning into a 3D model remains recovered from the sea.
“This is an endangered site,” Tal says. “But fortunately we have the ability to build a digital puzzle and reconstruct the sections that have been eroded and all but disappeared.”