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6546549Plan of Tartous citadel and fortified city.


Although largely famous today for its role as a Templar fortress during the time of the Crusades, the site had been equally renowned in antiquity for its strategic and military importance. Tartous was originally founded by the Phoenicians to complement the more secure but the less accessible settlement on the island of Arwad. For a long time it served a secondary role to Arwad, itself a major centre in Seleucid and Roman times. As a matter fact its classical name of Ataradus (meaning ‘anti-Aradus’ or ‘the town facing Aradus’ or Arwad) reflected this secondary role.

Tartous underwent a major programme of rebuilding in 346 under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, probably because it housed an important ancient shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was for a while consequently renamed Constantia, although it soon reverted to its ancient name or Tartous. It is under this name – or its Latinized form of Tortosa- that it became famous in Crusader times as one of the main Frankish littoral settlements in Syria, perhaps more importantly as the headquarters of the Templar knights. These warrior monks, known simply as Templars, were a religious military order of knighthood which came into being in the early decades of the twelfth century and rapidly grew into a powerful military force playing a major role in the defence of the Christian conquests in the Latin East and the protection of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In Christian hands the fortress was a very important and strategic outpost located close to the ‘Gate of Homs’ (in Arabic Nahr el-Kebir) a large gap in the formidable mountain ranges that stand behind the coastal strip and which allowed access to the valley of the Orontes River and to important towns of  Homs and Hama. For this reason Tortosa was not only an important military foothold on the shores of sea but also a useful commercial centre especially for  Genoese and Venetian merchants.

The fortress was first captured from the Saracens in 968 by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, and in 1099 it  was seized by the Crusader army on its way to Jerusalem. This initial Frankish occupation, however, was short-lived since the fortress was immediately recaptured by the Arabs wh held it tenuously until its recapture three years later by Raymond de Saint Gilles who left it in 1105 to his son Alfonso Jordan and became a fiefdom of the County of Tripoli. Under the Crusaders Tortosa became famous  as a pilgrimage centre to the sanctuary of the virgin, around which was built a new cathedral in the middle of the thirteenth century, which remained almost continuously in Crusaders hands until their final eviction from the Levantine mainland in 1291.

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