The County of Tripoli: A Forgotten Past

By Natalie Mallat

The silent alleys of Tripoli still retain their medieval charms. They tell the stories of glorious counts, chivalrous knights in shining armour, and fighting men of order.

From the Pilgrim’s Mount, Raymond IV’s nostalgic laments sang the most wonderful view of a city ‘traversed by flowing streams and surrounded by gardens and trees’, as described by the great traveller Ibn Battuta. In the flowing waters of the Nahr Abu Ali River lies the distant memory of the Qanatr al Prince (The Prince’s Bridge). The echoes of a troubadour’s nostalgia still fill the Mediterranean breeze. It was somewhere here that the beautiful Princess Hodierna wandered through her lost Gloriete with many songs of good tunes that the noble Jaufré Rudel composed. What was to be remembered of Tripoli under Count Raymond II and his bride was lustful fantasies. Until one day, the poor count was miserably killed by the vicious Assassins at Tripoli’s gate. Every year, on the 26th of April the city celebrates its liberation from the Crusaders. Nothing remains in the minds of the Tripolitans of this past apart from a few vague memories and some Frankish family names that turned Arab.


Raymond’s Quest

On 28 February 1105, in the middle of a tough siege, Count Raymond IV de Saint-Gilles (c.1041-1105), the most powerful of all Crusader leaders, crashed through a roof into a burning building when he was surveying the battle from an elevated position outside Tripoli. Despite being one of the magnates of medieval France, the illustrious and magnificent Raymond eagerly joined the military pilgrims who moved with great enthusiasm to the Holy Land. Some of those Ifrinj, as the Arabs called them, were knights seeking the promises of eternal glory but many were peasants looking for absolution from sin. Taking advantage of the Muslim disunity, the Crusaders marked their first major success in the region.

In his quest for power, Raymond IV saw a very fertile and beautiful land that reminded him of his home in Southern France. It was growing amid the valleys overlooking the mountains with green plains lying in between. This land has been named since ancient times Tripolis. For more than two years, Raymond tried to capture Tripoli. There were good reasons for such determination. The Franks marvelled at the splendors of the city ruled by the Arab Lords of Banu Ammar. Their vast territory spanned from Tortosa and the fortress of Arqa and Khawabi to Jubeil and Jable. Thus, the desire of the count was not surprising. In an excellent place of strategic value, he built a castle that the locals still call Qalat Sanjeel (Castle of Saint-Gilles).


However, the count did not live to see Tripoli in Frankish hands. The siege was then continued by his nephew William Jordan who viewed himself as an independent commander. When Bertrand arrived in the Levant demanding his father’s possessions, William denied his claims. After tough negotiations, matters appeared to be settled. But one night, when William was riding, he was mysteriously shot with an arrow and Bertrand was left with no rivals. Over time, Tripoli’s isolation increased. Food became scarce and the anticipated aid never arrived. Despite seven years of tough resistance, the city was forced to surrender. After making safety promises, Bertrand did not keep his word. Tripoli was brutally sacked and the people were treated with abysmal cruelty. What followed was a huge massacre and those who survived were sold into slavery.

Castle of Saint-Gilles (Qalat Sanjeel). Count Raymond IV was buried in this section where the crusader church was located. Photo courtesy: Zauracvoyages / Instagram

A Crusader Paradise

In many ways, the County of Tripoli was more unique than any other Crusader state due to its geopolitical and demographic features. At its height, it controlled the coastline from Maraclea in the north to Beirut in the south. Its citadel was located on a hill opposite the city making it impossible for invaders to reach. The strongholds of Tripoli remained protected even without the assistance of European Crusaders. The Tripolitan network covered the plain of Akkar and incorporated Margat, Tortosa, Crac de Chevaliers, Arqa, Montferrant, Borton, the Fortress of Safed, Castel Rouge, Castle Blanche, Castle of Jubail, and Arima Fortress.

Foreign armies could not reach the city without being spotted almost immediately. Early warnings were given from neighboring castles. Communication over long distances was possible by sending messengers on horseback, smoke signals, reflections of sun rays on shiny surfaces, or using carrier pigeons, a trick they learned from the Muslims. Tripoli’s southern boundary was at the Nahr Ibrahim, north of Beirut. The county was divided into lordships based on its coastal ports. To the east was the territory of the Assassins and Muslim principalities of Hama and Emesa. Its trading routes connected the Franks to Europe and North Africa.

The County of Tripoli in the context of the other states of the Near East in 1135 AD – Wikimedia Commons

For many historians, Tripoli symbolized Occitanian ancestry, holding a distinct identity from other Franks. Right from the start, Raymond IV of Toulouse and Bohemond of Taranto had a strained relationship. The division of culture and language could not be kept aside. This was an early demonstration of pro-nationalist hostility. Raymond’s actions continued his anti-Norman sentiment. However, the result of his conquest was not a culturally homogenous Tripoli. The Frankish men quickly assimilated into the region with many marrying Eastern women and learning the local languages. The penetration of the Arab-Muslim culture created new generations of Crusaders attracted to Islam and believing in the two religions. This was echoed in Fulcher of Chartres’ chronicle:


We have already forgotten the places of our birth; already these are unknown to many of us or not mentioned anymore… Some have taken wives not only of their own people but Syrians or Armenians or even Saracens (Arabs) who have obtained the grace of baptism… People use the eloquence and idioms of diverse languages in conversing back and forth… mutual faith unites those who are ignorant of their descent. He who was born a stranger is now as one born here; he who was born an alien has become as a native. 

The Crusaders learned how to deal with the majority Arab and Muslim population that came under their rule. The new Frankish arrivals found this hard to understand. The Arab knight and diplomat, Usama ibn Mundiq who was appalled by the crude habits of the newcomers. He wrote:

Everyone who is a fresh emigrant from the Frankish lands is a ruder in character than those who have become acclimated and have held long association with the Muslims.


The Counts of Tripoli, who had Eastern blood running through their veins, forgot their European ancestry. This was reflected in their political dynamics. During Pons’ reign (1112–1137), the Tripolitans diminished their dependence on the Byzantines. They also found the opportunity to weaken their ties with Jerusalem. This started the long road of separation from its domineering influence. When the Council of Nablus was held, neither the Count of Tripoli nor his bishops attended. This flared tension between Pons and Baldwin II almost to the point of bloodshed. Baldwin II marched to Tripoli carrying the True Cross. The county emerged as an increasingly independent state with a distinct policy. The Tripolitans even formed discrete units in wars and had their banners erected on the towers of conquered cities.

Count of Tripoli, Remember Your Oath!

Pon’s grandson Raymond III (1152–1187) was well-versed in Arabic. Arab historians noted that Raymond III was a remarkably clever, shrewd, and capable leader. He also served as the regent of Jerusalem since the newly crowned King was a minor and a leper. The Arab Andalusian historian Ibn al Jubayr who passed by Tripoli heard local gossip that Raymond was ‘the one qualified for kingship and also a candidate for the position [of the king of Jerusalem]’. But, with the turn of events, Raymond placed himself under the protection of Sultan Saladin, inviting the Muslim troops to the Principality of Galilee.

Sibylla marries Guy while Raymond III of Tripoli and Bohemond III of Antioch attempt a coup. BM Lyon, Ms. 828, f. 268

Ibn al Athir wrote that Saladin promised to make Raymond III King of the Franks. ‘There is no doubt that you are on their side and favor them’, the reckless Reynald de Chatillon told Raymond III. In another incident, the Crusaders stormed at the count: ‘There is no doubt that you have become a Muslim, otherwise you could not have endured what the Muslims did to the Franks recently’. It became apparent that Raymond’s loyalty to the Christians was doubted. At Hattin, Tripoli’s position seemed to be secular. According to Ibn Shaddad, Raymond III left the battlefield before the fighting grew fierce. A rumor was spread that Saladin convinced Raymond III to abandon Hattin. This was reflected by a contemporary French minstrel who sang, ‘Count of Tripoli, Count of Tripoli, Remember your Oath!’

The distinctive character of Raymond III sparked the imagination of many fanciful stories. The medieval chronicler Alberic of Trois-Fontaines wrote that Raymond and Saladin had drunk each other’s blood in a wicked ritual to cement their alliance. ‘God had killed the count in his bed because he planned to betray the city to Saladin. The next day, Raymond’s body was discovered circumcised’ wrote a European author. Enthusiastic Muslim accounts recorded Raymond III abandoning his Christian faith. Imad al Din noted, ‘had it not been for fear of the people of his religion, Raymond would have become a Muslim’.


The Baybars Romance

When Raymond III died childless, the county witnessed a lengthy succession dispute between two members of the House of Poitiers, Bohemond IV (1187–1233) and Raymond Roupen. The new dynasty was not as successful in maintaining the Frankish inheritance. The star of a brilliant Sultan had threatened the very heart of the Crusader states. Baybars who rose from slavery had extraordinary military qualities. He campaigned relentlessly in the Levant, leading troops with a high level of mastery. After capturing Antioch, he turned his attention to Tripoli. In mid-April 1268, Baybars pitched camp in front of one of the last Crusader states in the Levant. It was here that Baybars got acquainted with the Tripolitan heroine, Aisha of Bishnata, daughter of Harb ibn Al Waleed of the Arab Banu Damra tribe.

In the popular Arabic Romance Sirat Al Zahir Baybars, Aisha’s brother Hassan appears as a military commander allying with Bohemond VI le Beau, The Fair Prince of Tripoli (1252–1275). In his diwan at the Bishnat Castle, he boasts arrogantly about his unmatched prestige and power. He was, however, challenged by the arrival of Baybars, a much more powerful man. Aisha who has beauty and courage, raises the sword in the face of her brother who disobeys the orders of Baybars. She descends to Tripoli to fight the Franks.

The fall of Tripoli, detail of a Mamluk horseman, MS Add. 27695, fol. Sr. © The British Library Board.

Aisha’s life, so celebrated in popular Tripolean imagination, was much more complex in reality. In the meadows of Tripoli, Aisha met a brave and noble knight, with gleaming eyes the color of the spring sky. This was Baybars, riding up to the city while the Muslim forces attacked the Frankish garrisons. Wild rumors of their courtly relationship circulated in Tripoli. The upset Hassan set off to Baybars’ camp in a brave attempt to murder him. But they turned to allies after Baybars married Aisha.

Baybars successfully captured every inland castle of the Franks and took the town of Montpèlerin at the foot of Pilgrims’ Mount. When the news of the Ninth Crusade arrived, Baybars accepted Bohemond VI’s offer of a truce and abandoned the siege. According to a local legend, Hassan chased Bohemond VI in the corridor of Tripoli’s castle, beheaded him, and presented the head on his shield to Baybars. From here comes the Tripolitan popular phrase: ‘Did you get the head of the Prince?’ Nobody knows if there is any truth to this story.

Crusader portal of Al Mansuri Grand Mosque. It was built on the site of a former Frankish cathedral where Bohemond VI was buried. Photo courtesy: Abdullahkanj / Instagram

The Road to Reconquest

With the death of the childless Bohemond VII (1275–1287), Tripoli went into a conflict of succession. The dispute between his sister Lucia and his mother, the dowager Countess Sybilla, challenged the city’s stability. The timing would not have been better for the ambitious Sultan of Egypt, Al Mansur Qalawun. In his youth, Qalawun was described as the most beautiful of boys. He was perfect of looks, the most handsome and most esteemed in manhood. Qalawun rose to power when the Mongols tried to control Syria after their failed battle of Ain Jalut in 1260.

The Sultan’s attention turned to a more ambitious target. He supplied arms to Guy, Lord of Jubail, who aimed to take Tripoli from Bohemond VII in 1282. When Lucia (1287–1289) came to power, two Frankish emissaries asked the Qalawun’s help to eject the dominant Genoese. Concerns over trade revenues provided a strong motivation for the Sultan to intervene. When the news arrived that the Franks captured and imprisoned a group of Muslim merchants, the truce between Tripoli and Egypt was breached. Qalawun decided to attack.

The capture of Tripoli by Qalawun, depicted in the early 14th century. British Library MS MS Add. 27695, fol. Sr.

Departing from Egypt, the Sultan dispatched secret letters to his Levantine deputies to prepare arms. He stopped in Damascus for a week and then marched across the snowy mountains of Lebanon. The exact number of the troops is unknown, but a rough estimate suggests 40,000 knights and 100,000 infantry with volunteers flocking from the Levant and the Arab world. Many officials participated including Husam al din Lajin, the Deputy of Damascus, Prince Saif al din Balban Al Tabakhi, Deputy of the Crac de Chevaliers, the renowned historian Abu Al Fida, his father King al Afdal, his cousin King al Muzaffar of Hama, and Prince Aybak of Sarkhad. On the way, the Muslim armies barely faced any resistance because the Franks preferred to fortify themselves inside the city.

The troops arrived in the cold month of February. The city was well-defended. Tripoli’s walls were so powerful that even Saladin did not attempt to breach them. Elaborate barbicans and other complex outworks strengthened its gates. Qalawun set his camp in a location that overlooked the coastal Tripoli. Its current name still commemorates his arrival; Al Qubba al Sultani (The Sultani Dome). Catapults fired into the city and the warriors attempted to breach the fortifications. Qalawun pressed the assault against the weakest place; the Bishop’s Tower. Thirty archers were deployed against each arrow slit in the city walls to prevent the Frankish defenders from firing back. No one dared to show themselves or they would be immediately hit. After 35 days, the Mamluk engines knocked down the Bishop’s Tower. Likewise, the Tower of the Hospitallers was split open and the Muslim armies passed through. When it became apparent the city was falling, the Franks fled their homes. The closest escape route was through the sea. Only a few made that long and dangerous journey while many drowned.

At 1:00 PM of Tuesday 26 April 1289, the Muslim armies marched victoriously into the city. When the Franks reached the Al Baqar offshore island, the Mamluk knights followed them, swimming with their horses. The Sultan permitted the last Countess of Tripoli to keep one small property. Qalawun then ordered the destruction of the coastal city, part of the area today known as Al Mina. The new city of the Mamluks, Tarabulus al Mustajadda, rose in the Crusader town of Montpèlerin. The harmonious blend of its architectural styles reflects Tripoli’s unique medieval past.

The Lombard Crusader-era minaret of the Al Mansuri Mosque, named after Sultan Al Mansur Qalawun in Tripoli. Photo courtesy: Abdullahkanj / Instagram

The Crusader era of Tripoli ended just as it began, with bloodshed. The champions of the reconquest marched into the city, stepping on the rubble, tripping over dead bodies, the horizon of destruction combined with the smell of death. A sight that the Arab poet Sulayman Al Ashluhi mourned in his zajjal:

Who could have ever have believed that Tripoli would be destroyed? Had I not gone there, and witnessed it with my own eyes? Alas! These great edifices were demolished! Not a trace of them or their walls remains. And I said: Alas! For the prince! Alas! Where is the prince and his might? He who spent happy nights in his castle.

Natalie Mallat is a freelance writer with a particular interest in Medieval Arab history. She enjoys running the history blog Biblioteca Natalie. You can follow her Instagram @medievalarabhistory and Linkedin @bibliotecanatalie for regular posts.

Further Reading:

Baldwin, M. W. Raymond III of Tripolis and the Fall of Jerusalem (1140-1187), (Princeton, 1936)

Concina, C., “The Cocharelli Codex as a Source for the History of the Latin East: The Fall of Tripoli and Acre,” Crusades, Vol. 18 (2019)

Izzo, J. W., The Frankish Nobility and The Fall of Acre: Diplomacy, Society, and War in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, c.1240-1291 (PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2016)

Lewis, K. J., The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century. Sons of Saint-Gilles (Routledge, 2017)

Piana, M. “From Montpelerin to Tarabulus al Mustajadda: The Frankish-Mamluk succession in old Tripoli,” Egypt and Syria in the Fatamid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras VI, edited by U. Vermeulen and K. D’Hulster (Leuven, 2010)

Sawaya, R., “A 13th-century Garshuni war poem by Sulayman al-Ashluhi: Critical Edition, comparative analysis, reconstruction and translation,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies, Vol. 22 (2022)

Tadmuri, O. A. History And Archeology Of The Mosques And Schools of Tripoli In The Mamluk Era

Tuley, K. A. (2012). “For We Who Were Occidentals Have Become Orientals:” The Evolution of Intermediaries in the Latin East, 1095-1291 (Ohio State University, 2012)

Top Image: The last Countess Lucia from The fall of Tripoli, BL Add. 27695, fol. 5r