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The Frankish Settlements

November/December 2018

Crusades Manor HouseAmong the warriors and pilgrims who arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades were European immigrants eager to begin a new life in a new land. Historians have long assumed that the vast majority of these people, typically called Franks though not all were French, huddled in well-protected towns and avoided the potentially dangerous countryside. Five previously excavated but newly reexamined Crusader-era settlements, all located just north of Jerusalem, are now beginning to reveal how these Europeans made their homes in rural areas as well. These towns have long puzzled archaeologists, who in recent decades have exposed twelfth-century homes built of sturdy stone walls, some more than six feet thick, packed together along a central road facing the street. This layout is unusual in the Near East, where central courtyards are the norm, and homes are rarely built against one another except in cities. The structures often had two stories and barrel-vaulted ceilings, rather than the one-story buildings with domed or flat roofs typical of the region.


Since the 1940s when these small towns were first excavated, archaeologists theorized that they were built during the twelfth century when the Crusaders were at their peak of power and a measure of peace prevailed around Jerusalem. But archaeologist Elisabeth Yehuda of Tel Aviv University noticed that the buildings were themselves designed as miniature forts, with second stories accessible only by way of a narrow staircase or removable ladder, and therefore easy to defend from attack. She argues that the second stories were, in effect, temporary refuges in times of trouble.


Crusaders Manor FireplaceWhile conducting research in European archives, Yehuda found examples of stone houses of similar design in urban Europe also dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Though not quite as fort-like as the Crusader structures, they reflected the growing prosperity of artisans and merchants through their sturdy construction and careful attention to detail. She then focused on the decorative corbelled fireplaces in the main room on the first floor of many of the Frankish dwellings. These are unique in the Middle East, and she discovered they matched those of some well-to-do homes of the era in France and Germany. Used for heating and cooking, they signaled the wealth and sophistication of the owner at a time when open fireplaces were the rule. “They were showpieces,” Yehuda says. “It was the first thing you would see when you walked in the door.” Excavations also showed that residents of the settlements dined on fine tableware imported from around the Mediterranean.


The inhabitants of the Frankish settlements were neither peasants nor knights, says Yehuda, but skilled artisans and traders who intended to make this new land their permanent home. They also planned to maintain their European identity. “The settlers didn’t fuse with the local environment. They flouted their otherness in remarkable ways such as building in stone to say that they were here to stay,” she adds. They made a conscious choice to live in the countryside rather than living in the Crusader cities notorious for crowding and disease.