Third Crusade site where Christian forces defeated Muslim army identified

Framework used to pinpoint site involves historical records, archaeological remains, and environmental studies.

View of the Arsuf battlefield (photo credit: RAFAEL LEWIS)
View of the Arsuf battlefield
(photo credit: RAFAEL LEWIS)
Modern inhabitants of Israel experience the Sharon Plain as a highly congested and intensely populated environment. For those approaching Tel Aviv from the north driving along Route 20, the Glilot Junction – which marks the last opportunity to turn inland before entering the traffic of the city – might not appear significant in any way.
However, it was in its immediate proximity, albeit in a very different landscape, that an iconic historical event took place over 800 years ago. On September 7, 1191, Christian forces led by Richard I of England, celebrated as “The Lionheart,” defeated the troops of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin, in the Battle of Arsuf.
While the confrontation represents one of the most famous events of the Third Crusade, the memory of its exact location had been long lost. Or so it seemed, until Israeli archaeologist Dr. Rafael Lewis, using a combination of historical records, archaeological sources and innovative techniques, managed to pinpoint a specific area between Herzliya, Kibbutz Shefayim and the villages of Rishpon, Kfar Shmaryahu, modern Arsuf and Arsuf-Kedem, as he explained in a recent paper in the Monographic Series published by the Tel Aviv University Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology.
“Our profession as archaeologists starts with researching time,” Lewis, a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a researcher at Haifa University, told The Jerusalem Post.
“In most cases, the discipline considers prolonged periods of decades, if not centuries. However, the area of battlefield archaeology focuses on events that last only a few hours or at most a few days, whose sites are therefore challenging to investigate archaeologically.”
The researcher explained that the framework he developed to overcome these difficulties involves the use of history and archaeology but also environmental studies, “which usually are not considered but provide a lot of information.”
The study about the Battle of Arsuf started from the historical accounts of the event, sometimes produced by first-hand witnesses.
In 1187, Saladin managed to defeat the Crusader states and reconquer Jerusalem, prompting Richard to initiate another military campaign to regain Christian control over the Holy Land.
After Acre surrendered to him, the king started to descend along Israel’s coast with his forces.
“Ultimately, Richard and the Crusaders wanted to reconquer Jerusalem, but first the monarch decided to march south to capture Jaffa,” the archaeologist explained.
The march along the shore allowed the troops to be protected by the Mediterranean Sea on their right side and to receive the logistical support of their fleet. Lewis pointed out that Richard proved to have important leadership skills, keeping his forces united, allowing them to frequently rest near sources of water to recuperate both from the fatigue of a campaign conducted in the hottest period of the year – August – and from the constant incursions against them carried out by Muslim soldiers.
In order to identify the exact site where the major battle occurred, the scholar analyzed elements such as the number of hours of sunlight that troops could take advantage of to advance, also in consideration of factors such as at what time of the day the sun would be high enough in the sky to be out of the archers’ eyes. The movements of the moon, the temperature and humidity and the winds direction were also taken into consideration.
Ancient maps and accounts from different periods provided insights to help reconstruct a landscape which looked very different from how it looks today, and especially the location of a long-gone oak forest where the battle is said to have taken place.
The network of roads in the area, some of which dated back centuries if not millennia, was also studied by Lewis.
“Ultimately I believe that one of the reasons why the battle happened in the particular spot I identified is because Saladin did not believe that Richard was marching towards Jaffa but that at that point he and his troops were going to turn inland in the direction of Jerusalem, not so differently from what happens today,” he told the Post.
Only at the last stage of the research project, which was part of his postdoctoral studies at Tel Aviv University, Lewis conducted an archaeological survey on a very limited portion of the area using a metal detector. The process uncovered several artifacts in the shallow ground compatible with the material culture from the period of the Crusades, including two arrowheads and a horseshoe dating back to the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century.
As for the Jewish population of the Holy Land at the time, the researcher told the Post that they did not appear to be involved or affected by the Battle of Arsuf.
“Jews were mostly established in the major cities, except Jerusalem, where they had been banned since the Crusaders had conquered it in 1099,” he said. “However, a flourishing community featuring major yeshivot and important contacts with Jews in Europe and Egypt was living in Acre, and they continued to prosper after Richard retook the city.”
While throughout the centuries the Battle of Arsuf was depicted as the big moment that avenged the Crusaders against Saladin, Lewis pointed out that it was probably less significant.
“Richard won the battle, but failed to destroy the Muslim forces,” he concluded. “The Crusaders never managed to reconquer Jerusalem, which was their ultimate goal.”