Castle of the Week 58 – Chastel Pelerin

Built in 1218, Chastel Pelerin was an imposing and extremely well defended stronghold that commanded the coastal pass between Acre to the north and the deserts of Egypt further south. Mount Carmel brings the rocky spine of inland Palestine to within a short distance of the Mediterranean and the natural defensiveness of the site is echoed by a convenient isolated promontory, some 270 yards long and 160 wide, jutting into the sea. The site is in effect defended on three sides by the Mediterranean and it was here that a visiting lord of Flanders, Gautier d’Avesnes, gathered knights from the Templars and Teutonic Order as well as a substantial number of pilgrims and constructed the castle. With the Muslim forces opting to fortify nearby Mount Tabor, a real threat to all the Christian communities existed and the coastal road left very much exposed.

Pelerin’s many defensive features include a ditch cut across the promontory, some 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep, and completed in approximately six weeks. Moreover, the sea at each end could be used to flood the ditch. Beyond, the first curtain wall rose 50 feet high and was 20 feet thick, stretching the whole length of the promontory. A huge inner wall housed two massive bastions and records indicate that a much earlier wall existed here, probably Phoenician, with the masonry being incorporated into the castle, masonry that dwarfs even the stonework found at Krak des Chevaliers. The frontal fire from this twin line of defences was impressive and well calculated; with the towers and walls fully manned, the castle was exceptionally powerful. An attacking force would have faced a double line of fire and the great towers commanded a clear sight to beyond the plain that lay in front of them. In the dry climate of the Levant, a cloud of dust would have given those on watch within the castle an early indication of an approaching force from some miles away.

Also known as Atlit, Chastel Peregrinorum (whose name relates to the labours of the pilgrims who built it) was never taken by siege. After completion the castle was entrusted to the Templars who held it whilst it remained in Crusader hands and asserting itself as their most important base in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Two years later, Sultan Malik al Mu’azzam launched an attack and brought forward several siege engines to aid the assault. They never reached their target, with one engine destroyed by the artillery of the defenders. The attack was a fiasco, largely due to Pelerin having a heavy garrison of its own. This is unlike the majority of Crusader castles, and in addition to this reinforcements were brought in from Acre and Cyprus. Months of fruitless labour and costly endeavour amounted to nothing and the Sultan abandoned the siege.

The Emperor Frederick II, when in Palestine, approved the strength of Pelerin, coveted the place and tried in 1229 to wrest it from the Templars. The monks within, no doubt aware of the Emperor’s reputation, were perhaps forewarned. When Frederick entered the castle, they closed the gate behind him and held him a virtual prisoner until he renounced all pretensions to the stronghold.

During the decline of Frankish power, the Saracens razed the considerable town that had grown up outside the castle walls to the ground. The castle remained impervious to attack. Then came at last the fatal spring and summer of 1291. Tyre fell on May 19, and Acre on May 23. Beirut and the Chateau de Mer at Sidon capitulated in July. Eventually Pelerin remained the sole Christian territory in the Holy Land. With the loss of the Kingdom, the reason for such a bastion was gone. On August 14 the Templars evacuated the castle and embarked for Cyprus. It is fair to say that when the last Latin vessel drew anchor, it marked the true end of the Crusades. It was an inevitable end as the Franks had lost not only the strategic initiative, but also the morale.

Pelerin was only slightly damaged in the subsequent years and it wasn’t until 1838 that Ibrahim Pasha used the castle as a quarry, removing much of the masonry to rebuild the walls of Acre. What remains to this day is still impressive, though not nearly as imposing as the stronghold that stood the test of time until almost 170 years ago.

Write-up and download by Sulis. The Middle East map is copyright Michael Martin and used with his permission.


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