An Israeli archaeologist believes he has pinpointed the site of the Battle of Arsuf, where the Christian forces of the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, defeated the Muslim army of Saladin in the 12th century and solidified their foothold in the Holy Land. For a time.
This battle was known to have taken place near the ancient settlement of Apollonia, aka Arsuf, whose remains today lie on the Israeli coast just north of Tel Aviv. But there was debate among experts as to where exactly in the region the fighting took place and why the opposing generals decided to join battle precisely in this area.
Now archaeologist Rafael Lewis has combined evidence from medieval sources with a meticulous reconstruction of the local landscape and environmental conditions at the time, and has zeroed in on an open field just northeast of the ruins of Arsuf.
A brief archaeological survey has backed up the archaeologist’s identification of the battlefield by revealing artifacts from the Crusader period, including arrowheads and pieces of armor. The study, published earlier this month, also gives us clues as to why the English king and the Ayyubid sultan chose this specific spot for their showdown, says Lewis, a lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a researcher at the University of Haifa.
Saved by the forest
Control over the Holy Land has changed time and again over its blood-soaked history. After centuries under the Romans and the Christian Byzantine empire, the Levant was conquered by the Muslim caliphs in the first half of the 7th century. Christian control over parts of the region was reestablished for a time starting at the end of the 11th century, after Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher.
Apollonia was a Byzantine coastal town, whose name was changed to Arsuf during the early Islamic period; upon wresting the region from Muslim forces, the Crusaders built an imposing seaside castle at the site. Just like much of the Levant, this spot would see heavy fighting in the following centuries as Crusaders and Muslims continued to clash over Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
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The area around Arsuf was the site of a major battle during the Third Crusade, which was launched by European powers – mainly England, France and the Holy Roman Empire – to reconquer the Holy Land after Saladin had crushed the Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and captured Jerusalem.
After landing at Acre and taking this strategic northern port in July 1191, the Crusaders marched south to conquer the ancient town of Jaffa, today part of Tel Aviv, and reestablish their control over the entire Levantine coast.
Led by Richard, the Europeans marched along the coast, shadowed by their fleet, which provided supplies. Wary of the lessons of Hattin, where Saladin had defeated the Christians by cutting them off from water sources and fragmenting their army, Richard marched slowly, keeping his forces in a tight battle formation and planning frequent stops to rest from the summer heat and the almost constant harassment by Muslim troops.
Then, on September 7, 1191, Saladin launched a major attack on the Crusader rearguard, according to Muslim and Christian chroniclers.
Despite Richard’s orders to keep formation and lure more enemy soldiers into the fight, some of his knights broke ranks and launched a premature charge on the enemy. Once committed, the English king ordered two more assaults on the Muslims, ultimately routing Saladin’s forces. The Ayyubid troops fled through a forest which is said to have been just east of the battlefield, and the Crusaders halted their charges at the edge of the tree line, fearing they were being lured into an ambush.
That decision may have saved Saladin’s army from total defeat and may have had far-reaching consequences for the outcome of the Third Crusade.
The exact location of the battlefield in what is today known as the Sharon plain has been difficult to pin down, largely because the ancient forest and other landscape features have long disappeared under modern roads, towns and fields, Lewis says.
The archaeologist used medieval texts, maps from 19th-century surveys and early aerial photographs of the area to reconstruct how the landscape would have looked, where the major ancient roads in the area passed and where the forest began. He also looked at logistical and environmental factors: how far inland could Richard feasibly march without losing the ability to signal and rendezvous with his fleet? Where would Saladin likely position his troops so that the morning winds would blow toward the Crusaders, giving his archers greater range, while the sun rising in the east would blind his opponents?
All this pointed to a narrow strip of land in the trough between two ridges that run parallel to Israel’s northern coast, just a few hundred meters from the sea. It was through here that the Crusaders must have passed and where Saladin would have pounced, the archaeologist suspected.
A survey of the area with a metal detector turned up several artifacts that could be connected to the battle: an arrowhead used against horses and one with an armor-piercing tip; an iron plate, which may be a fragment of a medieval great helm; and a horseshoe nail of a type usually found in France and England during that period, Lewis reports.
The survey was conducted in 2014, but the findings were only published now as part of a broader monograph on archaeological digs in and around Apollonia-Arsuf, edited by Tel Aviv University Professor Oren Tal.
“We did find only a handful of artifacts and this is related to the extremely bad preservation of the battlefield,” he says. “I was very surprised we found anything at all due to the modern development in the area.”
The medieval battlefield is sandwiched between Israel’s coastal highway and the grounds of a former munitions factory, which were used as a testing area. There are also several modern villages and a park nearby, all of which are likely responsible for the relative scarcity of finds.
The identification of the battlefield does however offer us some insight into what was going on in the minds of the opposing leaders ahead of the battle of Arsuf.
“Once we know where the battle occurred we can try and understand strategically why it happened in this place rather than at other locations,” Lewis tells Haaretz.
For Richard it was crucial to destroy the Muslim army before he ventured east toward Jerusalem away from the coast and into the highlands, where his supply lines would be stretched and his forces even more vulnerable to ambushes.
But why would Saladin risk his entire army in an open engagement with the European invaders, instead of just continuing to harass them with hit-and-run attacks as he had done so far?
It turns out, based on Lewis’ findings, that the battle took place just next to a key ancient junction where north-south roads met with routes leading east. Geographically, this would have been the first opportunity for Richard to turn toward Jerusalem, and Saladin may have not known, or believed, that the Crusaders were really heading toward Jaffa. So it is possible that the sultan may have given the order to attack to prevent the Crusaders from taking the crossroads or at least pressure them to continue marching down south, Lewis speculates.
The eternal battlefield
Despite suffering a loss at Arsuf, which ruined his reputation for invincibility, Saladin’s strategy would prove winning in the long run.
Richard took Jaffa, but sustained Muslim harassment, and disagreements among the fractious European leadership meant that the Third Crusade was never able to mount an attack on Jerusalem.
In 1192, Richard and Saladin concluded a peace treaty, which left the holy city in Muslim hands, while allowing Christian pilgrims to visit. The Crusader states would remain in control of the Levantine coast for about a century or so, but their ultimate prize, Jerusalem, would elude them forever more.
The idea that the battle was an attempt by Saladin to preempt a move inland by his enemy makes sense, says Adrian Boas, a professor of Crusader-period archaeology at Haifa University.
Boas, who was not involved in the study, said that Lewis’ method of collecting evidence from every possible source before even digging at the site is groundbreaking and rarely used in battlefield archaeology in Israel. “The study gives us a fairly sound idea of where the battle took place and it’s probably as close we are ever going to get,” he tells Haaretz.
Interestingly enough, the military importance of the sandy fields around Arsuf doesn’t end with the Crusades.
In addition to the few Crusader-period artifacts, Lewis’s metal detector survey also uncovered a large amount of bullets and shell fragments dated to World War I. These were likely linked to the fighting that occurred around Arsuf at the end of the war between Allied and Ottoman forces, the archaeologist says. The Battle of Sharon, which was fought between September 19-25, 1918, was part of the broader final offensive under British general Edmund Allenby, leading Allied forces to break through at the Battle of Megiddo and capture Damascus and the entire northern Levant.
The fact that the offensive involved Arsuf, and the same spot where Saladin and Richard had fought 700 years earlier, shows that the site had maintained its strategic importance for any army wishing to control the Holy Land, whether coming from the north like the Crusaders or the south as Allenby did, Lewis notes.
“The same motivation of Saladin and Richard drove the British and Turks later on,” Boas concurs. “History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but events can be influenced by the same factors over and over again.”