Archaeologists Find Debris From Crusader Attack on Queen of Jerusalem

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The Old City of Jerusalem, which Queen Melisende ruled in the stead of her minor son, Baldwin III, who thought his time had come rather earlier than his mother did.
The Old City of Jerusalem, which Queen Melisende ruled in the stead of her minor son, Baldwin III, who thought his time had come rather earlier than his mother did.Credit: Mount Zion Expedition UNC Charlotte

Excavations carried out on Mt. Zion have found a destruction layer dating to the 12th century C.E., when Baldwin III stormed the crusader citadel in order to wrest power over Jerusalem from his mother, Queen Melisende.

The intriguing layer of black ashy deposits, dated to around 1153 C.E., was discovered on the west side of the excavation site on Mt. Zion by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this summer, led by Shimon Gibson, James Tabor and Rafi Lewis.

“While excavating this area we discovered a 0.45-meter thick ash layer that was rich in carbonized materials,” says Lewis, co-director of the excavations.

Among the finds at the site were metal objects, mostly made of iron, such as crossbow bolts, arrows, and a hook. The archaeologists also discovered remnants of wood  and various other botanical materials remains such as olive pits, grape seeds and cereals, and mostly plain-ware pottery plus a few glazed items, suggesting an overall early medieval date (probably 11th-13th century).

Baldwin era coinCredit: Mount Zion Expedition UNC Charlotte

“There were clear signs of a very intensive fire, which suggested that the ashy layer originated in some conflict that took place in this area in the 12th century,” says Lewis, adding though that conclusions need further analysis and study of the ash layer and its well-preserved carbonized remains.

A princess is forced into marriage

That said, a coin found in this layer was identified by coins expert Robert Kool of the Israel Antiquities Authority as belonging to the “rough series” of coins issued by Baldwin III, possibly starting in 1152 or 1153.

The coin attributed to Baldwin III raises an interesting historical episode. It was in 1152 that Baldwin III (who reigned from 1143-1163) came to Jerusalem, to wrest power from his mother, Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem from 1131 to 1153 through no design of her own. Melisende at the time was residing in the palace next to the citadel on the west side of the city.

“Melisende was an Armenian princess who was forced to marry a French noble, Fulk of Anjou, who became the king of Jerusalem but died in a hunting accident," Lewis explained to Haaretz.

Portraits of the coronation of Queen Melisende, left, as queen of Jerusalem, and of her son Baldwin III, ditto.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Their children were infants and his death left Melisende to act as regent for her son, Baldwin, who apparently grew up with quite the aggressive streak.

“Baldwin, just like his father, liked hunting,"Lewis says – but his targets were chiefly the Muslims. "He engaged in combat from a very early age. When he was in his early 20s, in 1153, he conquered Ashkelon from the Fatimids (Egyptian rulers). After the conquest he returned to Jerusalem and claimed the throne from his mother."

Temper, temper

Queen Melisende however told her son that he was too young. Infuriated, Baldwin then brought his war equipment and laid siege to Jerusalem for more than a week.

Fishhook found in the destruction layer caused by the crusader Baldwin III when he attacked Jerusalem in order to oust Queen Melisende, his mother.Credit: Mt. Zion Expedition, UNC Charlotte

According to the 12th century chronicler William of Tyre, Baldwin “placed his camp before the city”, on the west side of the city and perhaps on the southern side as well, and then began his attack.

For whatever reason, the city's inhabitants decided to open the gates. Once Baldwin gained admittance into it, he “set up his engines in position for assault and, with ballistae, bows, and hurling machines, stormed it [the Citadel] in enemy fashion.”

Mother and son eventually laid down arms, came to terms, dividing the realm in between them. Baldwin III became King of Jerusalem while Melisende remained in charge of Samaria and Judea. Soon enough, though, Baldwin III returned to his beloved wars while Melisende would continue to rule the country for ten more years.

Finding the Ayyubid open market

Above the ash layer, the excavators discovered a large quantity of pig and fish bones, seashells, and eggshells (presumably from chickens), as well as various metal objects, including a bronze fishhook. The archaeologists believe the area in front of the gate-tower served as an open market during the Islamic Ayyubid period of Saladin (early 13th century).

This season, the archaeologists also reached the floor level of collapsed Abbasid Fatmid buildings (700-1200 CE), a period of history in Jerusalem that is little known.

“For the first time we are getting information about Abbasid Fatimid Jerusalem, not only public buildings but also domestic buildings too. We will be able to know how people lived and what items they were using that will enable us to say something about early Islamic Jerusalem,” Lewis concludes.