Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.09.12, Mesqui, Césarée Maritime

The Medieval Review

15.09.12, Mesqui, Césarée Maritime

Jean Mesqui is a civil engineer specializing in roads and bridges, who also happens to be a respected (and much-published) architectural historian with particular expertise in medieval fortifications. Between 2007 and 2011, he co-directed (with N. Faucherre) a French mission to Caesarea Maritima charged with studying the imposing vestiges of the thirteenth-century city wall built by the city's European occupiers. Mesqui and his colleagues meticulously documented and analyzed the standing remains of these fortifications, in conjunction with limited excavations directed by J. Martineau and F. Sanz-Pascual. This handsome and timely volume represents the final publication of the French team's results. While the 'Crusader walls' are the star of the show, Mesqui has attempted--as his title suggests--a much broader history of the city and its successive circuits of walls, from its obscure origins in the early Hellenistic period all the way through the centuries following its destruction by the Mamluk sultan Baybars in 1265, up to and including the story of the many campaigns of archaeological fieldwork conducted there since its incorporation into the state of Israel in 1948. The result is, in a sense, two books for the price of one: the first a valuable overview of Caesarea's topography and urban trajectory for the non-specialist; the second a meticulous technical publication of its medieval walls that should be required reading both for Caesarea experts and for students of medieval military architecture in the Levant and beyond.

Chapter 1 addresses the transformation by King Herod (r. 37-4 BC) of the small port-town formerly known as Strato’s Tower (pyrgos Stratonos) into Caesarea, a showpiece of monumental urbanism in the Greco-Roman mold, complete with a luxurious royal residence on a sea-girt promontory, an adjacent stadium/racecourse, a theater, a temple dedicated to Roma and Augustus, and the largest artificial harbor built anywhere in the Roman Mediterranean outside of Italy. This package of urban amenities was rounded out by a regular street-grid, an aqueduct, and an imposing circuit-wall, built in dressed ashlars and enclosing an area of ca. 64 hectares, whose standing remains are the subject of the second half of the chapter. Mesqui analyzes in detail the two extant tracts in the extreme north and south of the perimeter, surveys the meager archaeological evidence for their dating, adduces nearby typological parallels, and finishes by supporting the growing consensus that these walls were part of the Herodian building-program, and not, as Avner Raban and others maintained, a product of the earlier first or second centuries BC.

Chapter 2 traces the fortunes of the city from the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD, following which it was promoted to colonial status and made the capital of the Roman province of Palestine in reward for its loyalty to the Roman cause, up until the Muslim conquest of 640. New monumental construction in the later first and second centuries included a second theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome and a new administrative complex or praetorium, initially the residence of the financial procurator of Palestine, and later of the provincial governor. The second half of the chapter deals with the Byzantine wall, an elongated crescent with its northern and southern points anchored on the sea-shore that enclosed twice the area (128ha) of the Herodian circuit. After an attentive review of the meager archeological evidence for its chronology, Mesqui concurs with the communis opinio that puts its construction ca. 500. As for the small citadel or kastron built around the old Herodian theater, Mesqui is inclined to place its construction during the period of Persian occupation from 613-27, though he acknowledges that it might date a couple of decades earlier or later. While specialists will find little to surprise them in these first two chapters, Mesqui's survey is thorough, well-documented and judicious. Were it in English, I would happily assign it to students and archaeological volunteers in need of an up-to-date introduction to the site during its heyday in the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The really groundbreaking contributions come in chapter 3, on the Islamic period at Caesarea (640-1101), and chapter 4, on the century and a half of (occasionally interrupted) crusader occupation that began with Baldwin of Flanders' capture of the city in 1101 and ended with its destruction in 1265 and subsequent abandonment. In the last twenty years or so, the Islamic phases at the site have begun to receive the attention they deserve from archaeologists and historians, who have begun to reveal a much-reduced but thriving town centered on the ancient harbor that began to take shape in the eighth century, particularly after ca. 750, following a period of decay and near-abandonment in the later seventh century. Mesqui's summary of the current understanding of Islamic Qāysariyah sets the stage for the presentation of the first of the French mission's coups: the definitive identification of the Islamic-period circuit-wall, whose remains are indeed, as others suspected, entirely encased within the thirteenth-century crusader circuit. Built of mortared ashlars, ca. 2.5m thick and perhaps 10m high, the circuit traced a roughly rectangular, three-sided perimeter running parallel to the coastline around the ancient harbor, enclosing an area of ca. 24ha. Its two principal gates, both flanked by quadrangular towers, corresponded with the maincardo and decumanus of the Roman city, many of whose flanking columns were incorporated into the foundations of the wall itself. This circuit was the frame within which the densely-populated residential and commercial quarters of the Islamic town took shape; its identification restores a crucial missing element to the topographical picture of Caesarea, in addition to expanding the very limited corpus of extant city-walls built in the early Islamic period. While the three sondages conducted along its perimeter failed to produce definitive evidence for its dating, ceramics and two carbon-14 dates obtained from the foundations indicate a range between ca. 700 and 900; Mesqui plausibly inclines toward the years around 750.

The wall was reinforced and several additional projecting rectangular towers added to its external face in a later period, perhaps following the earthquake of 1033, or possibly early in the period of Crusader occupation. The principal reconstruction of the circuit, however, occurred over a period of four months in 1251 under the French King Louis IX ("Saint Louis" for Mesqui), according to a letter written by the king himself (120). The Islamic wall was thickened with the addition of new curtains of mortared stone on both its interior and exterior facings, reaching a maximum width of ca. 4.5m in places. A wide fosse 5-6m deep was dug along its exterior façade, exposing the foundations of the curtains and towers, which were then reinforced with the addition of a continuous, steeply-sloping stone glacis that reached to the midway point of the wall’s total elevation of ca. 15m, measured from the bottom of the ditch to the rampart-walk. While the circuit was cleared of ruins and excavated to the base of the glacis around its full perimeter already by the 1960s, Mesqui and his colleagues have created the first detailed plans and elevations of the structure as a whole, in the process producing the most complete study to date of any of the urban fortifications erected under Louis IX, in France as well as the Levant. The account in chapter 4 will likely suffice for the general reader, but dedicated students of military architecture can turn to chapter 6, much the longest in the volume, for still more meticulous analysis of the circuit, richly illustrated with photos, architectural diagrams and 3D reconstructions.

The brief chapter 5, "From the dead city to the archaeological park," concludes the historical panorama, beginning with citations from the medieval chroniclers and early modern antiquarians who happened upon the ruins of the city, and progressing through the first detailed depictions and descriptions of the site in the nineteenth century, the settlement of Bosnian Muslim refugees there in the 1880s, the arrival of Jewish residents in growing numbers after World War I, and the recent terrestrial and marine archaeological projects conducted almost continuously since the 1950s.

The second half of the book comprises the detailed presentation of the Crusader-period structural remains studied by Mesqui and his colleagues. Following chapter 6 on the thirteenth-century enceinte, chapter 7 focuses on the castle built on the peninsula at the southern extremity of the circuit, begun probably ca. 1220 and modified under Louis IX. Chapter 8 addresses the two extant churches at the site, the thirteenth-century cathedral and a second, smaller church built on the remains of a Byzantine-era warehouse on the northern flank of the harbor, as well as a substantial vaulted structure identified as the residence of a wealthy merchant. Chapter 9 is the full archaeological report of the excavations conducted at three of the wall's towers, which includes detailed ceramic typologies and stratigraphic diagrams. An appendix of textual sources stretching from the Muslim conquest in 640/41 into the modern period concludes the volume.

Mesqui's diachronic total history of Caesarea does not complement his meticulous publication of the city’s reduced medieval enceinte as seamlessly as he hopes (10). There is no physical connection or direct topographical relationship between the earlier walls and the reduced Islamic/Crusader circuit, whence the latter circuit might have been introduced very simply by noting that it was built to protect a small Islamic settlement, established among the ruins of a much larger Romano-Byzantine city, which for both practical and symbolic reasons occupied the area of the harbor and the adjacent eminence where the temple of Roma and Augustus had once stood. But no harm done: both components of the volume are expertly realized and independently valuable. The level of scholarship is extremely high throughout, including the historical synthesis of Caesarea’s pre-Islamic phases, which required the assimilation of an immense and scattered body of publications and archival materials produced since the 1950s. When he offers debatable interpretations or takes sides in ongoing controversies regarding the archaeological record, Mesqui calls attention to the opposing positions, including the relevant bibliographical citations in footnotes that are models of clarity, and explains his reasoning clearly enough to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. The publication of the Islamic/Crusader fortifications, meanwhile, is exemplary: lucid, punctilious, and accompanied by an exceptionally rich array of plans, photographs both recent and archival, and 3D reconstructions executed by the author himself. Even specialists can now know the walls as well, or indeed better, than they would upon visiting the site themselves. Chapeau, then, to Mesqui and his colleagues, also for providing another timely illustration of how consequential a place Caesarea remained after the Islamic conquest of 640. Caesarea can and should become as crucial a type-site for the history and material culture of the medieval Levant as its classical predecessor has long been for the Romano-Byzantine period.