The County of Tripoli (1109–1289)

Posted April 11, 2017 12:01 pm by William Purkis under Guest blogs History

In the second guest essay for the Bearers of the Cross project blog, Dr Kevin Lewis (University of Oxford) presents an overview of the history of the county of Tripoli. The county was one of four ‘crusader states’ established in the Near East in the wake of the First Crusade, and was the source for many of the coins now held within the medieval collection of the Museum of the Order of St John.

The county of Tripoli was the last of the four traditional ‘crusader states’ to be founded in the Near East as a direct result of the First Crusade. By the time Tripoli fell into crusader hands on 12 July 1109, the other three – the county of Edessa, the principality of Antioch and the kingdom of Jerusalem – had been in existence for an entire decade. The man traditionally credited with founding the county of Tripoli was Raymond IV, count of Toulouse and Saint-Gilles in the south of France. Raymond had been a leading participant in the First Crusade and clearly desired to be recognised as its overall commander. Not only had he been the wealthiest magnate to heed Pope Urban II’s call back in 1095, but also his lands in southern Francia – at the time still culturally, linguistically and politically independent of the kingdom of France – included Le Puy, the city that was the episcopal seat of Adhémar, Urban’s papal legate on the First Crusade. Despite Raymond’s financial and political clout, his achievements during the crusade often fell short of his hopes and expectations, perhaps because of his advanced age – he was already in his sixties – and perhaps because he spoke a Romance dialect unfamiliar to his fellow crusaders – langue d’oc or ‘Occitan’ – rather than French. Thus Raymond lost out to relatively junior rivals in both Antioch and Jerusalem: respectively the somewhat lowly Norman Bohemond of Taranto from southern Italy and the imperial vassal Godfrey of Bouillon from what is now Belgium. Bohemond and Godfrey set themselves up as the first dynasts of newly-established polities in northern Syria and Palestine, while Raymond found himself serving as a sort of lieutenant to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos at Latakia in Syria, at least until Alexios ordered him to surrender even this post in c.1102. Soon after this, Raymond set up camp just outside Tripoli, perpetuating in charters the self-aggrandising myth that he remained the ‘leader of the Christian army on the road to Jerusalem’ (ductor milicie Christiane in Jerosolimitano itenere [sic]). Crusaders who had missed the original expedition to conquer Jerusalem joined Raymond at Tripoli, hoping to acquire some measure of glory, belated though it may have been.

The Conquest of Tripoli

Tripoli at this time was governed by the ʿAmmārids, a dynasty of Shīʿa Muslim religious judges or qāḍīs. Originally appointed by the Fāṭimid caliphs of Cairo, the ʿAmmārid qāḍīs had acted with increasing autonomy ever since a series of catastrophes – not least the Saljūq invasions in the second half of the eleventh century – had forced the Fāṭimids to withdraw from Syria. A Shīʿa traveller from Persia named Nāṣir Khusraw visited Tripoli a generation before the First Crusade and made note of the city’s impressive architecture: its imposing seawalls built to resist Byzantine naval assaults, its buildings constructed several storeys high in the Phoenician style to make efficient use of the limited space available on Tripoli’s narrow peninsula, and its many mosques funded by pious benefactors. Presumably all this Muslim architecture still stood when Raymond set up camp in 1103. Soon the crusaders added their own architecture as their siege camp became a semi-permanent suburb. At the heart of this was a fortified castle nicknamed the ‘Pilgrims’ Mount’. Appropriately, this was built upon the commanding position offered by a hill facing Tripoli’s single land gate. Although it has been subject to numerous renovations and extensions in the centuries since, this castle still stands and is known to locals today as qalʿat ṣanjīl – literally ‘the castle of Saint-Gilles’. What is more, the earliest parts of this fort exhibit architectural features distinctive of the southern French or Provençal heritage of Raymond of Saint-Gilles and the majority of his followers.

Coin of Raymond III, 1157–87. LDOSJ TRI10

Raymond’s death at the Pilgrims’ Mount in 1105 did not mark the end of the crusader siege of ʿAmmārid Tripoli. He was succeeded as commander of the Christian army by Count William Jordan of Cerdanya, a small Pyrenean town on the southern fringes of the late Raymond’s western domains. Traditionally given short shrift by historians, William Jordan was nonetheless a vigorous leader, pushing into the Syrian interior ‘as far as Damascus’ in Albert of Aachen’s rather exaggerated words and certainly up to the limits of Shayzar in the Orontes valley. The famous Usāma bin Munqidh could still remember as an old man how the men of his family had clashed with William Jordan in this area. Like Raymond of Saint-Gilles, William Jordan too failed to conquer Tripoli itself, largely because he – again like Raymond – lacked adequate naval support. This was to change when the late Raymond’s son Bertrand, whom many rumoured to be illegitimate, arrived in Syria in early 1109, bringing with him a combined fleet of Provençal and Genoese sailors. It was this huge boost to the crusaders’ naval forces that played a key part in the eventual conquest of the maritime city of Tripoli in June of that same year.

As well as bringing invaluable military support, Bertrand’s arrival in the East inevitably created tensions with William Jordan, and the squabbles between the two rival claimants to Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s conquests in Lebanon soon escalated. A full-blown civil war among the fledgling crusader states loomed when William Jordan and Bertrand sought the protection of Prince Tancred of Antioch and King Baldwin I of Jerusalem respectively. An attempt to solve this dispute was made at the council of Tripoli in 1109 by dividing the county of Tripoli in two, but this proved moot, first when William Jordan’s suspicious death allowed his enemy Bertrand to seize most of his lands in the north, and then when Bertrand’s own death in 1112 led to his underage son Pons acquiring the remainder of William Jordan’s possessions in an agreement between the Tripolitans and Prince Tancred. As an adult, Count Pons rebelled against two kings of Jerusalem – Baldwin II in 1122 and Fulk of Anjou in 1132 – in order to free Tripoli from lingering Jerusalemite suzerainty over the southern portion of his domains.

Internal Threats, External Challenges

Unfortunately for Pons, his rebellion against King Fulk in 1132 was to be a pyrrhic victory. Many of his soldiers were killed in open conflict with the king’s army and it is likely no coincidence that the county of Tripoli’s military fortunes deteriorated rapidly from this point on. This was exacerbated in no small part by the ascendance of the Muslim warlord Zankī who enjoyed some success reconquering lands lost by Islam to the first crusaders. A further problem facing Tripoli was the arrival of the radical Shīʿa Nizārī ‘Assassins’ on the county’s north-eastern border around the same time. The Assassins sought to foment anti-crusader agitation among the Shīʿa who lived in this mountainous region, leading in some places to the Assassins wresting control of towns and villages from crusader lords. Faced with an increasingly effective external opposition in the form of the Zankids and an increasingly seditious internal threat posed by rebellious locals, the county of Tripoli suffered a number of military defeats. Count Pons was killed in a battle with the Muslims of Damascus in 1137 and his son Raymond II soon thereafter lost one of the county’s four episcopal cities – easternmost Rafaniyya – to Zankī. Both disasters were attributed in part to the treachery of local people, including not only Muslims but also Christians.

Coin of Raymond II, 1137–47. LDOSJ TRI3

Crac des Chevaliers. Photograph: Jonathan Phillips

The counts of Tripoli never again had the means to go on the offensive without outside help and indeed became much more reliant upon the new military-religious orders of the Hospital and the Temple to provide the county’s essential defensive needs. Thus, in the 1140s, Count Raymond II donated to the Hospitallers the future Crac des Chevaliers – that most spectacular of all crusader castles – and to the Templars much of the diocese of Tortosa. Somewhat ironically Raymond II himself was killed entering Tripoli in 1152 by the Assassins, whose infiltration of the city the military orders in their grand castles had been unable to prevent.

Forging New Alliances

The military orders could only help the counts so far, forcing them to turn to more controversial allies. At the end of the Second Crusade in 1148 Bertrand – the illegitimate son of Alfons-Jordan, Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s own son born just outside Tripoli at the Pilgrims’ Mount – attempted to launch a coup against Raymond II. Unable to shift Bertrand from his base at ʿUrayma, Count Raymond turned to Zankī’s son Nūr al-Dīn, permitting this Muslim leader to invade the county itself and take Bertrand captive. Decades later in 1187, Raymond’s own son Raymond III turned in desperation to Nūr al-Dīn’s former servant and eventual successor Saladin in a conflict with Guy of Lusignan, a man who had managed to achieve Raymond’s own ambition of becoming king of Jerusalem.

Coin of Raymond III, 1152–87. LDOSJ TR19

Whatever the merits of this decision at the time, medieval Christians for generations to come would condemn Raymond III for this ostensible treachery, going so far as to claim that the count had undergone circumcision in order to become Muslim. That the great-great-grandson of the famous crusader Raymond of Saint-Gilles was subject to such scandalous accusations demonstrates just how far the reputation of the counts of Tripoli had fallen in the course of the twelfth century. The counts of Toulouse – Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s line in the west – were to fare little better when accused of heretical sympathies not long after Raymond III died in 1187. Upon his death, the childless Raymond III had no realistic choice but to pass Tripoli to his cousins, the princes of Antioch.

The Antioch Connection

Like the ‘Toulousan dynasty’ of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, the so-called ‘Antiochene dynasty’ ruled Tripoli for another century, prevailing through civil wars, baronial insurrections, earthquakes, Muslim invasions and indigenous uprisings – including a handful led by the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, whose loyalty had once been praised by Latin chroniclers. The last resident Latin ruler of Tripoli, Countess Lucia, was evicted in 1288 by a communalist rebellion against her, but even the resultant commune was swept away when the Mamluks of Egypt conquered the city in 1289. Fearful that the Christians might reconquer coastal Tripoli and use it as a beachhead for a future invasion of Syria, the Mamluks took the drastic step of destroying the city and rebuilding it five miles inland, surrounding the fortress built two centuries before by Raymond of Saint-Gilles. When the English traveller Henry Maundrell visited in 1697, he reported the impressive ruins of the old city, left to decay on the shore

The Materiality of Medieval Tripoli

Despite the Mamluks’ demolition of the city of Tripoli from where it had stood – not only during the crusader occupation but ever since the ancient Phoenicians had first founded it some eight centuries before Christ – some material traces of the county of Tripoli remain. Coins are one of the few surviving examples of material culture that modern researchers can use to peer into the county of Tripoli’s long-lost multicultural society. Already during the First Crusade, the chronicler Raymond of Aguilers wrote of the many and varied western coins circulating among Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s followers. The siege fortress of Pilgrims’ Mount at Tripoli, which Raymond of Saint-Gilles built, came to develop its own economy based in part on the varied coinage brought east by the crusaders. Almost the entire range of European coins described by Raymond of Aguilers has been uncovered by modern archaeologists at the site. Soon enough, the resident Latin rulers of Tripoli began to standardise the coinage, minting their own coins. Interestingly, the lower denomination coinage – the copper and billon – minted in Tripoli emulated the coins produced in the counts’ ancestral home of Toulouse, yet the higher value gold coins – at least until the later thirteenth century – rejected all western or Christian precedent and imitated instead the dīnārs of the Fāṭimid caliphate that had recently ruled Tripoli.

Imitation gold dinar, 1187–1260. LDOSJ TRI37

The quality of these imitations varied but the finest are almost indistinguishable from their Islamic prototypes, bearing Arabic inscriptions that praised the caliph and recited the Islamic creed that, ‘there is no god but God and Muḥammad is His messenger’. It was not until 1253 that the papacy cracked down on this surprising concession to Islam, no doubt inspired originally by a desire on the part of the crusaders to preserve as much of the vibrant economy of the Islamic Levant as possible for the sake of their own profits.

Despite attempts by the crusaders to maintain the very coins underpinning local networks of trade, the crusader occupation of the territory that became the county of Tripoli was undoubtedly disruptive to the peoples who already inhabited what is now northern Lebanon and part of the Syrian coast. The exact extent and nature of this disruption are debatable, but it certainly brought about a change in public displays of religion and associated ceremony in the county of Tripoli. In the southern city of Jubayl – Gibelet to French-speaking crusaders and Byblos to the classically educated chroniclers who knew this city from the Old Testament – all public celebration of Islam was repressed. The recitation of the Qurān and the call to prayer – the adhān – were displaced by the recitation of the Bible and the ringing of church bells. Ever since the dawning of Islam and the initial Arab conquests of Syria in the seventh century, bell-ringing and other loud Christian practices had been prohibited lest they drown out the comparatively quiet call of the muezzin. The crusader conquest reversed this, much to the local Muslims’ dismay – as reflected in poetry written by Saladin’s chancellor ʿImād al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī, who framed the suppression of Islamic practice in favour of Christian as one of the greatest oppressions. The crusaders built bell-towers throughout the Latin East, such as the still-extant example at the former Cistercian abbey of Belmont (Balamand) near Tripoli, and missionaries such as Jacques de Vitry encouraged local Christians to abandon their traditional wooden semantra in favour of louder western-style copper bells.

Just as the aural landscape was rendered Christian, so too were mosques converted into churches. The Pilgrims’ Mount – Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s siege castle outside Tripoli, constructed with Provençal architectural features and Byzantine money – was built in a former Muslim cemetery, as the discovery of distinctly Twelver Shīʿa gravestones by modern Lebanese archaeologists evidences. Raymond of Saint-Gilles donated an Islamic oratory in this cemetery to the canons of the Holy Sepulchre for the purpose of being their new chapel on the Pilgrims’ Mount. As the relevant charter reads,

the house on the Pilgrims’ Mount, which in olden times was dedicated to the foul superstitions of the pagans [i.e. Muslims], has already now become a worthy and everlasting dwelling place for God, all heinous ceremony of heathenism having thenceforth been driven off.

It was here in this building nestled among Muslim graves that Raymond of Saint-Gilles himself was buried in 1105, a sepulchral testament to his conquest of a previously Muslim region.

A generation before the First Crusade, the Persian traveller Nāṣir Khusraw had praised how his fellow Shīʿa had built many mosques in and around Tripoli. Although many Muslims did remain in the city, at least one of Tripoli’s mosques – the grand Friday mosque, which the crusaders dubbed ‘the king’s mosque’ – was converted into a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary for the newly Christian city. This was later rebuilt in the Romanesque architectural style popular in twelfth-century Europe – and evident in the county of Tripoli’s two extant cathedrals at Tortosa and Jubayl – but the wheel of fortune inevitably turned once more with the Mamluk conquest of 1289. Tripoli’s cathedral – like many Christian churches in the city – was torn down to be recycled for spolia in a new mosque built in the fourteenth century, its bell-tower becoming a minaret. It was then the turn of local Christians such as Sulaymān al-Ashlūḥī to compose poetry mourning the repression of their religion’s public ceremony in the city.

The crusaders’ restoration of Christian control to areas long ruled by Muslim governments encouraged local Syrian Christians to embark upon a new era of church construction and decoration, formerly prohibited by Islam. Art historians have dubbed this the ‘Syrian Renaissance’ and fine examples still survive in medieval churches throughout Syria and Lebanon, especially in the Qādīsha valley leading to Tripoli itself – an area that the Latin pilgrim Burchard of Mount-Sion noted for being thick with Christian monasteries and chapels in the thirteenth century.

Coin of Roger of Salerno with iconography of St George, 1112–19. LDOSJ ANT29

One especially popular theme for Syro-Lebanese Christian artists was the depiction of ancient military saints such as St Eustace – who was believed to have lost his family near Tripoli – and St Leontios – whose great Late Antique shrine in Tripoli was pillaged by the first crusaders – and even St George – who was lauded by Christians and Muslims alike for having fought paganism and slain the dragon near Beirut.

One of the most significant and enduring legacies of the First Crusade was undoubtedly how the quintessentially Syro-Lebanese veneration of such military saints spread to Latin Europe, with depictions of them first appearing in western churches around the time of the great expedition to conquer Jerusalem. The crusaders who settled in the county of Tripoli certainly embraced the local cults of military saints that they found there. In 1135, the widow Adelaide paid the canons of the Holy Sepulchre an annual stipend to pray for the soul of her late husband, Hugh Embriaco the Genoese crusader lord of Jubayl, on the vigil of the military saints Sergius and Bacchus. Similarly, a surviving icon at Mount Sinai in modern Egypt suggests that a Frankish woman probably living in the county of Tripoli commissioned a Syrian Orthodox artist to paint an icon of St Sergius.

This icon demonstrates that one of the best ways to understand the history of the long-disappeared county of Tripoli is to consider the material culture its residents left to posterity. The European and sometimes specifically Occitan architecture erected amidst Muslim graveyards and multi-storey Phoenician-style buildings tells a story of an often violent imposition of Latin Christian rule on a region with an exceptionally rich heritage. The imposing fortresses that overlooked coast, mountain and plain tell of how the Europeans tackled the daunting strategic challenges of defending their conquests. Copper coins in the western style and gold coins engraved with Islamic professions of faith in Arabic rest in collections around the world – or else lie still buried – as evidence of the county’s bilingual mint and the counts’ desire to profit from the local economy. Bell-towers stand now in silence or else repurposed as minarets where once they rang out a message of Christian dominance much to the upset of local Muslims, while medieval churches cluster around the foothills of Mount Lebanon as testament to the fact that local Christians at least benefited from the religious freedom granted by their new European overlords. Even in the modern age, Lebanese Christians have proudly claimed crusader ancestry, with the Maronite surname ‘Frangieh’ believed to mean ‘Frankish’. Returning to the icon of St Sergius, such Latin-funded artwork depicting military saints bears witness to an enthusiasm for such embodiments of the Christian soldier that would endure in Europe long into the modern age, inspiring even the flag of St George in far-flung England. Two centuries of rule ensured that western Europeans left their mark on the history, fabric and people of the Levant, but the Europeans themselves and their culture were transformed too by those Syrians and Lebanese who fought against, traded with, lived alongside and painted for them.

Kevin Lewis completed his doctorate in History at the University of Oxford, where he produced a thesis on aspects of the ‘crusader’ county of Tripoli during the twelfth century, under the supervision of Professor Christopher Tyerman. Previously he studied at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Crusades, taught by Professors Helen Nicholson, Peter Edbury and Denys Pringle. More recently he has held a Past & Present Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. His first book, The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century: Sons of Saint-Gilles, is now available from Routledge.