First evidence of Crusader siege from July 15, 1099, uncovered at Old City walls
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'Some scholars even doubted its existence'

First evidence of Crusader siege from July 15, 1099, uncovered at Old City walls

920 years ago, Crusaders breached Jerusalem and conquered the walled Fatimid city. Now the Mount Zion Project has found a chronicled moat that to many scholars had seemed like myth

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Mount Zion archaeological excavations conducted by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in cooperation with Ashkelon Academic College, at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, 2019. (Virginia Withers)
Mount Zion archaeological excavations conducted by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in cooperation with Ashkelon Academic College, at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, 2019. (Virginia Withers)

Archaeologists excavating just outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls have discovered an 11th century moat, the first archaeological evidence of a historically chronicled Crusader siege conducted by Raymond of Saint-Gilles on the Fatimid-controlled city, which ended on July 15, 1099 — exactly 920 years ago today.

Although two contemporary 11th century historical texts refer to the moat, its discovery was only recently made at the Mount Zion Project excavations.

Prior to the moat’s discovery, “some scholars had even doubted its existence,” said excavation co-director Prof. Shimon Gibson, thinking it “a figment of 12th century chronicles… It’s a very exciting discovery.”

Founded in 2008, the ongoing excavations are located along the southern part of the Old City wall close to Zion Gate and are led by Gibson and Prof. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte in cooperation with Dr. Rafi Lewis of Ashkelon Academic College. The site is part of the Jerusalem Walls National Park, which is under the auspices of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority.

A Crusader-era earring discovered at Mount Zion archaeological excavations conducted by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in cooperation with Ashkelon Academic College, at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, 2019. (Virginia Withers)

In conversation with The Times of Israel, co-director Gibson laughingly said that contrary to public imagination, the moat was most certainly not filled with water and patrolling alligators. Rather, it was a somewhat shallow ditch (only 4 meters or 13 feet deep), he said, which would have been “an annoyance” to the invading Crusaders who could not stand their siege tower against the wall and gain a foothold into the city. In addition to the dry moat, other remnants of war include slingshots, arrowheads and pendant crosses.

A second unexpected find was a unique, large piece of Fatimid jewelry, discovered on the floor of an abandoned 11th century building outside of the wall. Made of gold, pearl, and semiprecious stones, the adornment is shaped like an earring, but at about 8 centimeters or 3 inches long, it “would have just pulled down the ear of the person,” said Gibson. Based on the borders of the Fatimid Caliphate and other jewelry examples, he hypothesized it may have Egyptian origins and could have potentially be used to hold three pieces of a garment together.

However, the discovery of such a large and luxurious Fatimid piece of jewelry left lying on the floor of a building begs for answers.

“Who actually lost it? Was it somebody hiding from the Crusaders? Was it something that was part of booty, spoils of war, from a crusader soldier? Or was it part of the gold handed out by the commander wanting to have this ditch filled in?” asked Gibson.

Shimon Gibson (YouTube screenshot)

According to two chronicles recording the five-week campaign, Raymond of Saint-Gilles from Provence offered his soldiers a gold dinar to fill the moat under the cover of night so a surprise siege tower could be placed next to the wall. While trying to break through, the Crusaders would have suffered showers of arrows — arrowheads were discovered at multiple levels and locations at the site — and cauldrons of boiling olive oil, said Gibson.

Despite the hardships, the soldiers completed their mission of filling the ditch and the tower was built, said co-director Lewis — but it was immediately burnt down by the Fatimids. A day later, other Crusader forces on the northern side of the city breached the walls. After their victory, the Crusaders spent another week slaughtering the city’s inhabitants, according to the archaeologists.

A 1997 article by David Eisenstadt paints the gruesome scene, “The Crusaders savagely murdered the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem. The dimensions of the massacre were so horrific that ‘rivers of blood’ flowed through the streets and even covered the horses hooves. William of Tyre described the victorious Crusaders ‘dripping with blood from head to foot, an ominous sight which bought terror to all who met them.’ The Jewish community was locked in the central synagogue and burnt alive. The few thousand survivors, out of a population of 40,000, were sold as slaves at the city gates. When they finished murdering thousands of innocent people the Crusaders gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks.”

The moat was initially discovered in 2014, said archaeologist Lewis, but it has taken these past five dig seasons to excavate it, layer by layer. Gibson said during excavations of the moat, the team found remnants of 11th century celadon ware pottery which hails from the Far East and is glazed jade green. He said it would have been imported to Jerusalem by the Fatimids, who had a fascination with the Orient.

Mount Zion archaeological excavations conducted by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in cooperation with Ashkelon Academic College, at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, October 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

According to Lewis, an expert on Crusader archaeology and battlefield archaeology, it is likely the Fatimids dug the ditch upon hearing the Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. Today it can be followed some 200 meters on the southern section, and he explained it is likely there would have been other ditches dug elsewhere, including on the north side of the wall near today’s Damascus Gate, but no remnants have yet been discovered.

During the five-week siege the Crusaders attempted to stand three siege towers, two on the north and one on the south, said Lewis. According to Gibson, breaching the wall at this southern site would have allowed the Crusaders access to the remnants of the Byzantine-era Cardo Maximus. “It would have given Crusaders immediate access to the main artery moving south to north,” he said.

While the moat discovery was only publicized on Monday, it is possible, said Gibson, that Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi also unknowingly excavated a portion of the moat in the 1970s in his dig on the east side of the Zion Gate. “In the light of recent discoveries, we may need to reinterpret his excavations,” said Gibson.

Mount Zion archaeological excavations conducted by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, in cooperation with Ashkelon Academic College, at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, October 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

During over a decade of excavations, the Mount Zion Project team has unearthed innumerable finds spanning over 3,000 years of history, from the Iron Age (8th century BCE)’s impressive First Temple mansion through to the late Ottoman period (19th century). Among the artifacts discovered are dozens of coins, including a rare gold coin bearing a portrait of a young Roman emperor Nero issued some 2,000 years ago, and ceramic vessels.

An earlier but still mysterious find is an inscription discovered on a stone vessel dated to the year 70 CE, which Gibson said was found in a large mansion and would perhaps have been used by a priestly family for hand washing. He said the team is publishing the find soon, but the cryptically worded inscription which he said was reminiscent of the Dead Seas Scrolls is still not fully deciphered.

A Roman coin showing the Emperor Nero, which was found in Jerusalem and is believed to date back to 56 CE. (Courtesy University of North Carolina)

“It has some sort of reference to a person who comes back and goes to the House of God, has the name of God, and other people’s names,” said Gibson. He hopes that following publication scholars will weigh in.

The Mount Zion Project will continue with excavations toward a goal of developing an interactive tourist attraction. “We would like to bring about a situation whereby tourists and pilgrims in the future will be able to walk through this time tunnel and see these remains dating from different periods,” Gibson said in a press release.

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