An Israeli archaeologist believes he has identified the remains of a massive siege ramp built in today’s southern Israel at one the bloodiest and most contested sites of the Crusades - ancient Ashkelon. In a quirk of history, this work of engineering born out of conflict has been apparently serving an entirely different and more peaceful purpose: protecting the city from encroaching sand dunes for almost a thousand years.
The large rampart was built probably in the 12th or 13th century as part of one of the sieges suffered by this ancient port town during the Crusades, says archaeologist Rafael Lewis. Since then, it has stood as an artificial barrier against desertification, shielding the surrounding fields and even influencing the development of the modern city, says Lewis, a lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a researcher at the University of Haifa.
The supposed medieval rampart has not been excavated archaeologically, and its identification is based on field surveys of the area in 2010 to 2013 and the study of aerial photographs from the 1940s, says Lewis, who published his research in November as a chapter in the book “Crusading and Archaeology.”
While he specializes in studying ancient battlefields, the archaeologist wasn’t initially looking for relics of warfare.
“I was trying to understand the agricultural landscape of Ashkelon, how it was formed,” Lewis tells Haaretz. “It really struck me when I saw the aerial photographs and I realized there was an anomaly in the landscape that was blocking the movement of sand.”
To understand what he saw in those photos, we have to learn a bit more about this ancient and prosperous port town which has functioned as a gateway to the southern Levant for millennia.
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Ashkelon was first built as a Canaanite city in the Middle Bronze Age, roughly 4,000 years ago. The Canaanites raised huge defensive ramparts for their city in a shape of the letter “D” – with the vertical side running along the coast and the arch facing inland. Those walls took advantage of a natural gulley that separated Ashkelon from the surrounding ridges.
The Canaanite ramparts would shape the core of the city for millennia to come, and would be rebuilt and fortified by its subsequent occupiers: Philistines, Romans, Byzantines and finally Muslims and Crusaders.
What Lewis noticed in those photos was that by the 1940s, the southern part of the ancient mound, or tell, of Ashkelon had been largely overrun by sand dunes, which had even penetrated through the massive ruins of the old city walls. But following those walls northward, midway through the arch of that “D” the sand appeared to stop abruptly.
The blockage occurred right in front of the Jerusalem Gate, once the main entry point into the city, particularly for pilgrims and travelers heading to and from the holy city.
Perpendicular to this gate, it is still possible today to see a monumental ridge around 200 meters long and rising eight to 10 meters in height, Lewis says. This feature is what has been keeping the sand at bay: Everything to the south of it is covered in dunes, while to the north are green, fertile lands, Lewis notes.
This is visible not only in the photographs he studied, but also in maps going back to the 19th century, he says. But the crux of his thesis is that the ridge is not a natural feature. It cuts a straight line, from the nearby high ground and across the trough that surrounded Ashkelon, progressively rising toward the fortifications of the gate.
This is what you would expect from a ramp built to drive a large siege tower up to a city’s wall and breach them, Lewis concludes.
The many falls of Ashkelon
Siege ramps left over from the many conflicts that have bloodied the Holy Land are not an uncommon find in Israel. The most famous is perhaps the ramp at Masada believed by some scholars (but not all) to have been built so that the Romans could break into the fortress manned by Jewish zealots at the end of the First Revolt in 73 C.E. Other remains identified as siegeworks have been found at the ancient Judahite settlements of Lachish and Azekah, and have been linked to the invasion by the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E.
In the case of the newly-identified Ashkelon ramp, Lewis posits it should be linked to the time of the Crusades, when the city changed hands multiple times after protracted sieges. It could have been built either by the Christian forces who ousted the Muslims from the city, or by the reconquering Islamic armies.
At the end of the First Crusade, after capturing Jerusalem in 1099, the Christians won a major battle outside Ashkelon but failed to take the city, which the Muslims continued to use as a base to launch raids against the newly-established Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Only in 1153 did King Baldwin III manage to conquer Ashkelon after a seven-month siege. The chronicler William of Tyre vividly recounts the bloody conflict, describing how ship masts were repurposed to build siege engines, including a massive tower that was rolled up to the Jerusalem Gate to breach the walls. This could have been the event that led to the construction of the ramp still evident next to the gate.
Lewis however thinks that unlikely, because the Crusaders would have probably leveled the ramp so later attackers couldn’t use it. “It would be like asking to retake the city, so it is more likely that it was built during a later siege,” he notes.
Of these there were several. Ashkelon was briefly retaken by the Muslims led by the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin in 1187, but was lost again to King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade a few years later.
The final Muslim reconquest happened only in 1270, after which the Mameluke Sultan Baybars ordered the city and its fortifications demolished and abandoned. This was part of a scorched-earth policy that led to the destruction of most coastal settlements in the Levant, in order to deny the Crusaders a possible foothold should they ever attempt to return.
Which one of the sieges of Ashkelon led to the construction of the ramp may be impossible to determine even with a full archaeological dig of the structure, Lewis says. Possibly the ramp had been built by Baybars, who didn’t care about leaving it for future invaders, given that the city was no more.
In any case, the centuries that followed the Crusades are when the unexpected second life of the enigmatic siege ramp began.
In the Ottoman period, Arab farmers settled in the area of Ashkelon, particularly in the village of al-Jura, which was located on the heights just outside the ruined city. The area of the destroyed tell was then transformed by the locals into lush gardens and farmed for centuries, even as the desert threatened all around. The 19th-century British traveler Claude Conder called Ashkelon “one of the most fertile spots in Palestine,” noting that the ruined city now hosted flourishing vines, olive, almond and lemon trees. “Only on the south the great waves of ever-encroaching sand have now surmounted the fortifications and swept over gardens once fruitful, threatening in time to make all one sandy desert, unless means can be found to arrest its progress,” Conder ominously warned.
But if Lewis’ theory is correct, the Crusader-period ramp was already then acting as a bulwark preventing the sands from advancing further.
The lush gardens of Tell Ashkelon did not ultimately fall victim to the desert, but to war. The village of al-Jura was depopulated in Israel’s 1948 Independence War, with the Palestinian inhabitants fleeing to Gaza. (Among those refugees was the al-Jura-born Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of the founders of Hamas.)
Today, the remains on the ancient tell are protected as a national park and have turned into a bonanza for archaeologists. The nearby ruins of al-Jura are mostly covered by the modern Israeli city of Ashkelon, which was built principally to the north and east of the ancient tell.
This, again, is likely the result of the protective action of the medieval siege ramp, which meant those areas were clear of dunes and easier to develop, Lewis notes. Until this day, it seems, what was once a structure raised to bring death to a hated enemy continues to serve as a positive force whose protective effect on the landscape echoes through the centuries.