Tonghini — Shayzar I (Kagay)


shayzar-iCristina Tonghini

Shayzar I: The Fortification of the Citadel

Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2012. 539 pp.


This book, an immense assembly of transcribed inscriptions, re-established floor plans, chemical analysis of mortar and construction materials is very much like the building—or rather set of buildings—it proposes to discuss. It intently focuses on the fortress complex of Shayzar in central Syria in an effort to understand how the edifices of the site were built, destroyed, and rebuilt from ancient times to the rule of the Ottoman Empire. This worthwhile undertaking provides valuable information for crusade historians and general medievalists alike concerning the evolution of fortifications during the era of the First Crusade as well as in the century-long timeframe during which the Latin Kingdoms rose, fell, and were replaced by Muslim rivals. For most readers except those accustomed to wading through archaeological reports, this is often a difficult book to follow and understand. In the first chapter, the authors make the effort to firmly set the fortress complex in a clear historical framework and to describe its occupants’ military interaction with crusader, Byzantine, and Muslim forces. The lengthy findings resulting from the archaeological excavation of the site, which attempt to do much the same thing in regard to the change over time of the buildings themselves, is much less successful because of the complexity of its presentation.

For the historical reader, the most approachable section is that written by a specialist on early Islamic armies and Muslim Spain and Portugal, Hugh Kennedy. Shayzar, a small site upriver from Damascus on the Orontes River, possesses a long defensive pedigree that stretches back to Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times. Though a settlement of no great size, it happened to sit from the tenth century A.D. on a military fault line between the Fatamids and Byzantines. As these two dynasties began to fortify the hills beyond Syrian capital, the agricultural village of Shayzar was strengthened with larger walls and the expansion of fortifications across an increasing area. Despite its reinforced aspect, the site changed hands between Christian and Muslim masters several times. By the end of the eleventh century, the village came under the control of powerful Muslim clan of northern Syria, the Banū Munqidh, who ultimately won back much of Syria from its former Byzantine masters. Shayzar was not conquered, however, but was sold to an important member of this powerful family.

This change in ownership did not lessen the need to maintain Shayzar’s fortifications, since from the dawn of the twelfth century it began to come under increasingly regular attacks by Frankish crusaders and Berber bandits. Shayzar’s Muslim masters occasionally bought peace from more substantial invaders such as the Frankish forces of Antioch. This tactic did not always work, though, leading to a number of substantial attacks on Shayzar such as in 1138 when it held off a joint crusader-Byzantine offensive. The site’s rugged surrounding and complex fortifications meant that most of attacks launched against it involved an escalating use of manned and counterweight artillery among both the attackers and the defenders. Although quite capable at repelling those attacks, the one force the site could not hold out against was a serious earthquake in 1157 that eventually caused a catastrophic collapse of the site’s largest castle. Shayzar thus remained in ruins for decades, but was still fought over by Christian leaders such as Baldwin III of Jerusalem (r.1130-1163) and the sultan of Syria and Egypt, Nur-al-Din (r.1146-1174) throughout the twelfth century into the thirteenth until another Muslim family claimed the village by force. Shayzar then sank back into its former status as a small and rather squalid farming community when it was thoroughly ransacked  during a Mongol attack in 1299-1300.

Shayzar’s surprisingly complete historical record was not matched to its jumbled architectural remains until a decade-long archaeological investigation (the results of which this book records) set out in the first decade of the twentieth-first century to provide a detailed review of the current ruins’ construction history. Through a detailed analysis of inscriptions, mortar, masonry in Shayzar, and the road connections around it, the team of archaeological and scientific experts headed by Dr. Cristina Tonghini attempted to determine how the various defensive and residential structures within the ruined area were built, when they came into being, and what relationship they had to each other. By the assessment of scientific indicators such as the components of the mortar that still holds together some of the site’s walls or the linguistic variants of Arabic or Greek inscriptions found among the ruins–often in some very surprising places–, the archaeological team has solved the constantly evolving puzzle of settlement and fortress at Shayzar by reducing it to a series of phases determined by very specific forms of construction and use.

These specific construction eras stretch from the early ninth century, studied by the foundations and wall fragments still open to archaeological inspection, all the way to the twentieth century, when the residents of the small village resettled within the ring of deserted fortifications. From this very specific type of analysis, Dr. Tonghini and her colleagues have unraveled the confusing relationship of the various fortress sections and have demonstrated that the reuse of materials and even inscriptions was a normal occurrence in Shayzar’s construction life, an existence that stretched back centuries.

In many ways, this book is much more a set of archaeological field notes than a true monograph and is in severe need of consolidation and editing, at least to make it match the timbre of other history monographs in Brill’s History of Warfare series. Even considering the multi-national nature of the team of scholars working on Shayzar, it is absolutely essential that the entire work should have been presented in one language, preferably English, the language in which most but not all the book is written.  Despite these objections, some of which may be addressed in the proposed second volume of this work, Cristina Tonghini’s book contains invaluable archaeological insight both for Crusade and military historians. Not the least in this regard are the remarkably detailed architectural drawings of whole fortress sections and individual building elements of the Syrian castle complex, supplemented by over a hundred photographs of Shayzar from myriad angles. Again, and with the reminder that this is really an archaeological report, what this significant book lacks is an overarching sense of order that firmly places Shayzar in the violent military context in which it was born, lived, and died.


Donald J. Kagay

Albany State University (donald.kagay@asurams.edu)


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