Country Directory

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Fortress Portugal

Portugal's development into a unified country took centuries and involved the "reconquering" of the area from Muslim states and then the consolidation of smaller feudal counties and kingdoms into the final state that became Portugal. This, along with conflicts relating to Portugal's imperial status throughout the 15-19th centuries, has created a country with many forts, castles, walled cities, and watchtowers.

City walls of Évora. Image source: Commons.

In the process of mapping all of the extant classical fortifications in Portugal (including current overseas territories), I noticed that many were in a ruined state or were simply rather small which is one reason it has taken such a long time for me to finish the country. Ruined castles among Portugal's beautifully rugged terrain aren't exactly easy to identify when there's no Wikipedia entry for them, and few sources even provide descriptions of lesser known sites.

So how many castles and forts are in Portugal? For this #FortressEarth project, I was able to identify 575 castles and other sites. I know that there's at least a dozen watchtowers that are missing from my map, but I simply could not find their actual locations.

If you notice any fortified structure that I have missed (that was built or in use between the years 1000 AD and 1945), then please contact me and I will add it. Regardless, I am fairly certain that the Google Earth map I made has the most complete and accurate listing of fortified sites that is available in a single place.

Fortifications of Portugal.

As you can see from this image, most of the sites are located along the coast and border with Spain. The interior sites reflect Portugal's territorial evolution during the Middle Ages as the country evolved from the County of Portugal centered on Braga and Porto through the 9th and 12th centuries to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139, and to the final reconquest of Algarave (far south) nearly a century later. These changes necessitated the continual construction of fortifications as Portugal's frontiers were ever growing.

Later, larger fortresses were built to defend sea ports and key border areas with Spain as sporadic conflicts with them arose and as Portugal grew to become a major empire. Other fortifications were built in response to the Napoleonic Wars which saw the temporary occupation of the country by his forces. Many of the coastal watchtowers and several inland fortifications from Lisbon and to the south were built as a result. A key example of this are the "Lines of Torres Vedras".

Small map showing the various parts of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Some more Portuguese sites include....

Castle of Belver

This castle was constructed in 1194 and was the first castle to be built by the Hospitaliers in Portugal. It was built to protect the country's new frontiers along the Tagus River against Muslim powers on the other side. The castle consists of a strong central tower surrounded by a roughly circular wall. The hill it sits on was also surrounded by a wall but nearly all of that has been lost to time.

By the time the castle's construction was completed in 1212, it had been turned into one of six fortified repositories of the country's wealth. It was modernized until the 17th century instead of being demolished as other castles had been. However, it lost its importance and had become largely forgotten by the 19th century. An earthquake in 1909 severely damaged the castle but it was reconstructed from 1939-1946 and today sits largely as it was long ago.

Forte Sao Julio da Barra

I was able to locate 28 fortifications in the city of Lisbon. The most important is the Forte Sao Juliao da Barra which defends the entrance into the Tagus River and the city. The fort is the largest Vauban-style fortress in Portugal and was built from 1553-1568. It is part of a larger complex that includes four other forts and an arsenal.

Castro Marim

Within the small town of Castro Marim, near the Spanish border, are two fortifications. One is an older 13th century castle that sits on an even older ancient fortified settlement and the other is a "newer" fortification, the star fort Forte de São Sebastião.

The large fortress was constructed in 1641 by King João IV as part of the "Restoration of Independence" when Portugal sought to reestablish its autonomy from the Iberian Union with Spain (1580-1640). It is polygonal in shape and has five bastions.

Castelo de Montalegra

This is a stout but dominating castle with three towers connected by a curtain wall and a main keep on the northern side. The castle was built from 1279-1325 and sits across from Portugal's northern border with Spain.

The castle was sporadically repaired and improved through to the 1580s. From there it underwent a modernization program in the mid-1600s to help it withstand the weapons of the time as part of the Restoration War. The major earthquake of 1755, which destroyed Lisbon, had little impact on the castle (lying 360 kilometers to the north) except for damaging part of the curtain wall. The castle was slowly abandoned starting in the 18th century and now serves as a tourist destination.

Sources and Map

Like with mapping all countries, I try to use as many techniques and sources as possible to help locate, name, and describe places. This ranges from simply zooming around Google Earth in the hopes I find something that I couldn't find anywhere else (as was the case with the ruined fortress of Almendra in Guardra) or finding other databases that may have lists of known sites. Some of these databases/websites include Portugal's official heritage site, Wikipedia,, and the blog Miscastillos. I also used some information found on OS-Culture. Unfortunately, many of their locations are incorrect, so I had to geolocate the sites myself and correct them for this #FortressEarth project.

Here is an explorable Google map.

If you'd like to get the Google Earth KMZ file for more casual exploring, you can directly download it here. It organizes sites by district and includes a lot of additional links to help people learn more about different sites. Since this project is based in the English language, I've tried to add English sources where possible, but they aren't always available. However, simply using the Google translate function will easily translate Portuguese webpages so you can read them.

--Jacob Bogle, 7/16/2020

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

South Korea's Fortress Island of Ganghwa

Ganhwa is a large island at the mouth of the Han River and lies less than 50 km from Seoul. Its strategic location allows it to serve as a defensive bulwark against invading naval forces to protect the city, and it has played this defensive role for centuries.

Forts of Ganghwa Island (left side) with Seoul in the lower right.

Prior to the division of Korea in 1945, Seoul had served as the capital of a unified Korea for over 550 years. The country struggled against successive attacks including from Japan and even the United States prior Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. Thus, the Korean authorities built what became a ring of 27 small forts around the island. A twenty-eighth site, the older, large fortress city of Ganghwasanseong, served as an anchor point.

Ganghwasanseong actually dates to the 13th century and was a fortified palace-city for King Gojong of Goryeo during a time of conflict with the Mongols, who had by then occupied parts of China and were at the borders of the Korean kingdom of Goryeo. Much of the early wooden fortifications were later destroyed. The site was rebuilt in stone and survived attacks in 1637 by the Qing Dynasty. This invasion brought Korea (then called Joseon) into the Imperial Chinese tributary system.

While this brought relative stability to the area, it did not prevent other powers from trying to seize Korea for themselves.

Cheomhwaru Gate, Ganghwasanseong Fortress. Image:

As mentioned, Ganghwasanseong is the largest of the fortifications on the island, occupying ~194 hectares. The other forts are much smaller and only take up between 600 and 1,000 sq. meters.

Korea had long sought to keep itself closed to foreign trade. This became a problem once China had been forced to open to the French, British, and Portugese, and then after Japan had undergone the Meiji Restoration. Squeezed between longstanding powerful countries and the arrival of younger Pacific powers (Western nations), a clash of civilizations was inevitable. Ganghwa Island saw several attacks during the 19th century. The French punitive expedition of 1866, the American expedition of 1871, and the 1875 Battle of Gangwha against Japan all played their part in wearing down Korea's antiquated defenses and eventually led to their annexation by Japan in 1910.

Of the smaller forts on the island, one is Chojijin. Built in 1655 by King Hyojong, the fort was the site of a number of battles. During the 1870s the fort was attacked multiple times including in 1871 by an American expeditionary fleet and then nearly destroy in 1875 when the Japanese warship Un'yō helped to force Korea into opening their ports.

Another is Gwangseongbo Fortress, along the short "Seele River" that runs north to south and separates the island from the mainland. Like Chojijin, it was also built in the 17th century. Unlike Chojijin, however, it is part of a combined fortified area made up of two small forts with other fortifications and batteries in between. Gwangseongbo is the largest of them, with the circular Sondol Mokdondae lying 300 meters to the south.

Google Earth image showing the forts of Gwangseongbo and Sondol Mokdondae.

The island forts take on a variety of layouts: square, rectangular, and circular, with a few being irregularly shaped.

An example of the square-shaped fort is Mangyangdondae. It is approx. 30 x 30 meters in size.

Other than Sondol Mokdondae mentioned above, a great example of the circular forts is Odudondae.

Odudondae as seen from the air. Image from the Ganghwa government website (2019).

The design of these forts underscore how behind Korea was technologically. Most lack space for cannons or other gunpowder-propelled artillery, and they are simple stone structures. Star forts had been developed a century before and were spreading out of Europe across the rest of the world, as they were designed specifically to withstand cannons and give defenders a better field of fire.

Although remaining closed off from the wider world allowed Korea to develop and maintain their own distinct cultural and religious heritage, it greatly handicapped them (as it did with China and Japan before) when confronted with a rapidly advancing world.

Today, these forts remain an important part of Korean history, both good and bad, and also allows us insights into seven hundred years of history. And while these individual forts no longer stand to protect the area, Ganghwa's military importance continues to this day, as it helps protect modern-day South Korea from future invasions. Not from foreign imperialism, but from their fellow Korean cousins in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. And unlike centuries ago, South Korea now has access to some of the most modern and powerful weapons anywhere in the world.

You can explore the location of all of these forts here.

--Jacob Bogle, 4/1/2020

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Lone Star of Afghanistan

By every measure, Afghanistan is an interesting place. It sat along the Silk Road and more modern history had it squeezed between two of the largest imperial powers in history: Great Britain and Imperial Russia.

The "Great Game", as it came to be known, was a long lasting 19th century conflict between those two powers for control over central Asia and as Britain's attempt to keep India for itself. Mountainous, tribal Afghanistan ended up being a keystone and the focus of foreign intervention that continues to this day.

The Great Game began in 1830 when the UK attempted to establish a new trade route through central Asia, and in the process, take the Emirate of Afghanistan as a protectorate. In doing so, they would have a wall of buffer states to defend their control over India against perceived Russian aggression.

The Emirate of Afghanistan was a new state that had been the successor to the Durrani Empire. Fiercely independent, the Afghans didn't want to be a pawn in the games greater powers played. This resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1839 to 1842. What began with British success ended in unmitigated disaster in 1842, as the British forces were annihilated during their retreat from Kabul.

Later in the century, the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) ended in British victory, with Afghanistan becoming a protectorate. Even though the British left Afghanistan once it became a protectorate, the country was nonetheless under a level of imperial control. To protect the country against another costly invasion, the Afghans constructed the county's one and only star fort: Qala-i-Jangi.

Star forts originated in Italy in the 15th century as a response to the devastation that cannons can bring to traditional castles and forts. The strength of a star fort is its bastions (which is why the other common name for them is "bastion fort"). The bastions are triangular features which helps to deflect the blow from cannonballs. Their projection away from the main wall of the fort also enables defenders to fire farther and eliminates "dead zones" (blind spots) where attackers could otherwise be shielded from fire.

The advancement of powerful artillery and other military technology meant that these classical stone and brick forts were largely obsolete by the end of the 19th century (something the 1862 barrage against Fort Pulaski during the American Civil War proved). However, Afghanistan is remote and colonial forces rarely kept the most advanced weaponry along the fringes of empire.

I couldn't find very much information about the fort, other than the basics of construction, until modern times. Finished in 1889, the fort took twelve years to build, with 12,000 people constructing it. It is roughly 550 meters long and 270 meters wide. The bastions were up to 24 meters high and the whole structure was largely made of wood and traditional mud brick. Thankfully for the bricks, the region is very dry, so erosion due to rain has taken a long time.

After its construction, history kind of falls off until the NATO/US invasion of Afghanistan. (Although it is almost certain that the fort saw at least minor action during the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war with the Taliban). The most famous battle the fort took part in was the 2001 "Battle of Qala-i-Jangi".

After a battle in the city of Kunduz, hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners were transfered to the fort. The fort's ability to serve as an effective prison was always in doubt, as many of the buildings had been destroyed or were damaged over time. On November 25, 2001, CIA interrogators began to question the prisoners, it was at this point that they revolted and attacked the US and Northern Alliance soldiers holding the fort.
The battle lasted until December 1 and resulted in the death of the majority of prisoners as the full weight of the Coalition military was brought to bear against the terrorists. The number of Coalition soldiers killed is unknown, but there was at least one US fatality, a CIA operative named Johnny Spann. Of the surviving terrorists, one was John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban".

Image comes from Stars and Stripes. 

The fort is largely unoccupied today, with Afghan and Coalition forces using modern bases nearby. Like much of Afghanistan's historical treasures, a lot has been lost over the last 50 years, and there is little hope that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Qala-i-Jangi is Afghanistan's lone star and it reflects the tumultuous history of the country. But, perhaps, we can wish upon this star for more peaceful times.

 --Jacob Bogle, 8/21/2019

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A Castle by Any Other Name

One of the cool things about having a project that requires searching the whole world and trying to find information about castles and forts in numerous languages, is that I actually get a learn a few words in those numerous languages. I'd like to share the translations of some of the more common words that I deal with every day. While having a full dictionary of fortification-related words would be interesting, words like couvreface aren't exactly applicable to locating relevant sites. The list of words included are: bastion, battery, blockhouse/pillbox, bunker, casemate, castle/chateau, fortress, gatehouse/barbican, palace, star fort, and tower. Most words share identical or very similar spellings (especially among Romance languages), but greater variations do occur and it's always nice to have a handy guide to help out just in case.

1. Bastion 

A bastion (or bulwark) is a defensive work that protrudes out from a curtain wall. They can be towers or angular features like in the image.

"Bastion" is the same in Dutch, English, French, and German. In Spanish it's baluarte; Italian is baluardo; Hungarian is bástya; Russian is Бастион; and Turkish is kale burcu.

2. Battery

Battery Ledyard, Angel Island, California. The two large guns have been removed.

A battery is any unit of artillery that is grouped together to help facilitate greater firing power (concentration of power), to defend a specific part of the fort, and to help communication and general functioning. 

In Bosnian it's baterija; Danish is batteri; Dutch is batterij; French and German is batterie; Spanish is batería; Polish and Portuguese is bateria; Russian is Батарея; and Turkish is batarya.

3. Blockhouse and Pillbox

Blockhouse at Fort McClary, Maine, US 

A blockhouse is a small stand-alone fortification (built of either wood, stone, or concrete) that is meant to serve as a defensive strong point. The 14th century Cow Tower in the UK is an early example of blockhouses. Over time they became shorter in height as artillery became more powerful. Most are squared in design but others are round, hexagonal, and come in other shapes as well. Smaller blockhouses were built during World War I and because of their familiar shape, they were nicknamed "pillboxes". During WWII, over 28,000 of these were constructed by the British to help repel the anticipated Nazi invasion. Pillboxes are generally smaller than typical blockhouses.  

In Dutch it's blokhius; German is blockhaus; French is fortin; Polish is blokhauz; Spanish is blocao; and Russian is Блокгауз

A small pillbox in Crimea.

The Spanish word used to describe pillboxes is fortín (diminutive fort). In Turkish it's korugan.

4. Bunker

A bunker in Hirtshals, Denmark

Bunkers are pretty much anything designed to protect people and material from bombs or other forms of attack. They can be small concrete structures or enormous underground complexes. In Europe, most think of bunkers in relation to World War II, particularly along the Atlantic and West walls, however, Albania has a very interesting (though largely pointless) system of over 170,000 bunkers

"Bunker" is largely the same in most languages. In French, though, it's casemate. However, in English, bunkers and casemates represent different things with subtle differences. In Polish, it's schron; Portuguese gives it some flourish with búnquer; Russian is Бункер; and in Turkish, sığınak.

5. Casemate

An integrated casemate at the 15th century Fort Bkar.

Like the aforementioned bunker, a casemate is a hardened defensive structure. However, casemates are different in that their main function is firepower. A bunker can be to hide in or shot from, casemates are fortified gun emplacements. Until the 19th century, they were integrated parts of larger fortifications. During the 19th century, free-standing casemates were developed.  

In Czech it's kasematy; Danish is kazemat; Spanish is casamata; Polish is kazamatta; and Russian is kаземат.

6. Castle and Chateau

Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland.

At its most basic definition, a castle is a fortified residence for a noble or other important person (like a bishop or military commander). The French word for castle is chateau, however, chateau is also used to describe any manor house. These include structures built well after "real" castles stopped being constructed (the vast majority of real European castles had been built by the 16th century). Because of this, chateau has come to be strongly identified with 16th-18th century manor houses and estates (that often produced wine) and with French Renaissance architecture. While these can be very impressive structures (like Chateau de Chambord), they are not true castles/chateau in the original meaning of the word. This makes it important to do a little research on each place to know for certain if they are fortified places, or simply extravagant homes.

Castles can also be used to describe tower houses, which were fortified homes that are a simple tower and no attached curtain wall. An example of a "castle tower house" is Kinlochaline Castle in Scotland. Tower houses are most identified with the UK and Ireland, but they exist in other parts of the world as well.

As mentioned, "castle" in French is chateau (may also be chateau fort); Bosnian and Croatian is dvorac; Czech is hrad; Danish is borg; German is burg; Spanish is castillo; Italian is castello; Lithuanian is pilis; Hungarian is vár; Dutch is kasteel; Polish is zamek; Portuguese is castelo; Russian is Замок; Turkish is kale. An additional variation on kale that is common among Central Asian nations is qala. In German, a castle that was built completely surrounded by moats (or another source of water) is called a wasserschloss. The Polish zamek can also be used to describe a manor house or palace (see below).

7. Fortress

Fortress at Deal, UK

A fort is a military construction (a single building or larger complex) that is used to defend a particular area. Forts can be anything from a 3,000 year old hillfort, a castle that no longer serves as a primary residence, a massive star fort, and any number of other things. They can be relatively small (like Fort de la Conchée) or positively enormous like Pakistan's Ranikot Fort. While soldiers will obviously live at a fort, a fort isn't their primary residence except for their duty tour; whereas castles are primarily a home.

In Dutch it's vesting; German is festung; Italian is fortezza; Polish is twierdza; and Spanish is fortaleza.

8. Gatehouse and Barbican

Gatehouse of the 16th century Château de Fleury en Bière

There are subtle differences between a gatehouse and a barbican, but many times the words are used interchangeably. A gatehouse is the entrance point into a building (any kind of building, basically) to control the flow of people. It can be simple or well defended. A barbican is a strictly defensive work that often protects a city or castle as a fortified gate. 

Warsaw's reconstructed Barbican (destroyed during WWII)

Gatehouse in French is porterie; German is torhaus; and Spanish is casa del gaurda.
Barbican in French is barbacane; German is barbakane; Spanish is barbacana; Polish and Croatian is barbakan; and Russian is Барбакан.

9. Palace

Palacio Real Aranjuez (Royal Palace of Aranjuez, Spain)

Palaces are large, typically royal, residences. They are an evolution of the castle but one that has lost all of its defensive features (with some exceptions, as always). Palaces are often constructed on the site of a former castle or incorporate older structures, like keeps, into them. 

In German, the schloss is a related term. They can be manor houses, palaces, or castles that have been expanded and turned into grander residences. To review, chateau, palace, schloss, and zamek all have similarities and are often used interchangeably with "castle". However, there are technical differences between a palace and a castle, as well as distinctions based on time period between a chateau, schloss, and zamek, so the history of the building needs to be taken into account.

In Czech it's palác; Danish is palads; French is palais; German is palast; Hungarian is palota; Italian is palazzo; Latvian is pils; Polish is pałac; Spanish is palacio; and Turkish is saray.

10. Star Fort

The Citadel of Jaca, Spain.

Star forts, aka bastion forts, were developed in Italy in the mid-15th century as a response to the ever growing threat cannons posed to earlier fortifications. As artillery advanced, these forts evolved into "polygonal" forts which continued to be constructed into the 19th century. Aerial warfare and super cannons made static fortifications obsolete. Star forts are my favorite type of fortification, and to-date I have been able to locate over 1,600 of them worldwide.

The Italian term for these forts is trace Italienne (which literally means Italian outline); Spanish is traza italiana; Hungarian is Olaszbástya; Dutch is gebastioneerd vestingstelsel; Polish is twierdza gwiazda; Portuguese is fortificação abaluartada; Russian is Бастионная система укреплений; and Turkish is Yıldız kale.

11. Tower

Towers in Strasbourg.

Towers have long been an important part of fortifications. They have been included as part of city walls, castles, and as stand alone structures (such as Martello towers). The tower's height lets defenders see potential dangers at a greater distance, they make it possible to fire arrows or cannons farther, and they provide a projection of force, enabling defenders to fight attackers before they get to the main fortified structure.

There is also the related bergfried, which is a "fighting tower" of a castle. Bergfried's are different from donjon's (or keep) in that they were not meant to have permanent living quarters. Sometimes these towers make up the bulk of the remains of ruined castles.

In German you may come across either wehrturm or simply turm; French is tour; Italian and Spanish is torre; Dutch will be either weertoren or toren; Polish is baszta or wieża; and in Russian it's башня.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/30/18

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Fortress Moldova

Moldova is a small Eastern European country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Much of its modern history has been dominated by its relationship with Russia (first by being ceded to Russia in 1812, then by being a Soviet Republic, and now having Russia as a main trading partner after independence). But before all of that, Moldova was a principality; Moldavia (and later Bessarabia, the more direct territorial ancestor of modern Moldova).

Moldova shares a lot of its Medieval history with Romania and partially because of that the country was beset by conflicts with the Byzantines, Ottomans, struggles for independence, and internal strife. So one might expect the country to hold a wealth of castles and forts, after all, its two neighbors each have hundreds. The reality is, modern Moldova is only a fragment of the former Principality and its geography is steppe with small hills. Squeezed between two rivers which serve as natural barriers, and being small in size, the area of Moldova simply doesn't allow for that many fortifications, nor was the modern territory a hotly contested region time after time (like Belgium or the Netherlands). As far as I have been able to determine, Moldova has exactly 3 sets of fortifications, and all three are along the Dniester River.

In the north is Soroca Fortress (Cetatea Soroca)

This 5-tower fortress was constructed in 1499 in the city of Soroca by Stephen the Great (aka Stephen III of Moldavia). The original fort was built out of wood and was the key in a chain of four forts along the Dniester River (two are in modern day Ukraine). Between 1543-46, the fortress was rebuilt in stone by Petru Rareș who served as voievod (military governor) of Moldavia.

The fortress saw action during the Great Turkish War, the Pruth Campaign, and during the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739. It was built during the transitional period between stone projectiles being flung by wooden trebuchets and the spread of cannons. As a result, its walls and four of five towers are curved, which better protects from projectiles. But they hadn't yet made the leap to the bastion fort which served as the gold standard to defend against cannons all the way up to the 19th century.

Centrally located along the Dniester is the next fort, the largely ruined Orhei Fortress (Orheiul Vechi)

Map of the fortress and old city. Click for enlarged view.

This fortress is actually a series of fortifications including a central fort and four main defensive trenches that defend the old city of Orhei. Only two of the trenches, the foundations of the citadel, and some of the earthworks of the southern fort remain.

A map I made using Google Earth of the main sites. Click for enlarged view.

Like Soroca, these fortifications were built by Stephen the Great, however, the area has been inhabited since at least the 6th century BC.

Finally, in the south is Tighina (Bender) Fortress (Cetatea Tighina)

Stephen the Great, ever the fort builder, constructed this fortress out of wood. After the Ottoman invasion in 1538, it was extended and rebuilt in stone and had eight towers as well as an outer wall with at least four additional towers.The fortress saw multiple attacks across the centuries and in the early 1700s, it was further enlarged into a massive fortress and employed modern European designs. These upgrades were done by the nobleman Antioh Cantemir.

The fort last saw fighting during the 1992 War of Transnistria, which is a breakaway territory occupying all Moldovan lands east of the Dniester.

--Jacob Bogle, 7/29/2018

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fortress Israel

The countries of the Levant are one reason why I decided to place a defined limit on the scope of the #FortressEarth Mapping Project. It's practically impossible to walk more than a few meters without tripping over an archaeological site, and if you go back far enough, just about every old city and settlement was fortified at one time or another. So having the limit of 1000 AD to 1945 is very helpful at making the project actually feasible.

Aerial view of Masada. (Source: Traveler Corner)

Before I get into things, for the purposes of the project, I've included as "Israel", the official state of Israel, the disputed Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza), and the occupied Golan Heights since all of the territories are under some level of Israeli control.

I've actually written about the ancient history of Israel for another blog of mine, but I didn't really touch on military history and I stopped at 614 AD. Without going into too much detail on the history of the area (since it is generally widely known), and because I want to get to the castles as quickly as possible, I'll just give this rundown of post-Roman history.

After the fall of Western Rome, the Byzantine successor-state retained its hold over the area from 390 to 634 AD. Conflicts with the rising Islamic world led to the loss of the territory to a series of caliphates (634-1099). The Crusader Period began in 1099 and lasted for nearly 200 years, coming to an end in 1291 (although the last Christian foothold in the Holy Land wouldn't be lost until 1303). Next came the Egyptian Malmuks who ruled from 1291 to 1517. Afterwards, the Ottoman Empire captured the area and held it until the end of World War I and the partition of the Empire. The modern state of Israel was born in 1948.

The conflicts of the Byzantines with the Sassanid Persians occurred in and around many ancient cities and strongholds. Conflicts between different Muslim factions and throughout the Crusader-era likewise happened in many of the same places. However, the time of the Crusades led to the construction of some of the largest and most impressive castles in the region. Despite its importance, Israel is one of the few countries/regions of the world without any star forts. I can only surmise that this is because the West's active attempts to retake the Holy Land ended before the 14th century and that Palestine was rather securely Ottoman throughout the main star fort-era.

The Castles of Israel.

I was able to find 31 extant castles/fortifications, but I'd be willing to bet that there are more, particularly lesser known sites or ones that are in a severely ruined state. However, the US Congress passed a law in 1997 which limits satellite resolution over Israel (and the various territories). This limit is imposed on every commercial satellite company that is based in the US. The practical result of this is it's all but impossible to identify small sites like watchtowers or ruined castles or to tell them apart from the surrounding terrain.

With that, let's look at some fortifications!

Section of the wall around Jerusalem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The City of Jerusalem has been surrounded by stone walls for 3,000 years. Unfortunately, due to war after war (and occasional earthquakes), only scattered and buried archaeological remains of these walls still exist. The oldest large sections of wall that can still be seen above ground, date from the early period of the Herodian Dynasty (37 BC - 92 AD). The four kilometers of walls that still surround today's city are from the Ottoman Period, and were constructed between 1535-38. Their average height is 12 meters (just under 40 feet).

The next place I want to highlight is the fortress city of Acre (also known as Akko).

View of the massive land walls of Acre. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With over 5,000 years of history, Acre is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Like Jerusalem, its system of walls stretch back for thousands of years. But like much in the Levant, the Crusader and Ottoman periods have left their enduring marks and are the legacy we see today.

After centuries as a regional Christian center, the city was given over to the Rashidun Caliphate in 638 following the defeat of the Byzantine army. The city thrived and became an important trading and naval post. Starting in 1100 during the First Crusade, after four years of siege, the city fell to King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. Acre's population around this time was 25,000, second only to Jerusalem, and its mighty walls remained standing. At the end of the Crusader Period, the city was captured by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1291. During this siege, the city walls were destroyed. By the end of the 16th century, only a few hundred people still lived inside the town.

In the late 1700s, the city's walls were rebuilt. Napoleon actually attempted to take the city in 1799 during his campaign to take Egypt and Syria from the Ottomans. Acre's walls held and its defenders gave Napoleon one of his few decisive defeats. The earlier walls range in height from 10 to 13 meters (33-43 feet), but are relatively thin at only 1.5 m (4.9 ft). A much more massive land wall (as seen in the picture) was constructed between 1800-14.

So far I've been talking about walled cities, so let's look at a fort and a castle.

Forts and castles can often be confused with one another as they're both fortified facilities, but there is a key distinction: a castle is a protected residence, whereas a fort is primarily a military site used to garrison troops and protect a certain area.

At 110 by 110 meters (360 x 360 ft) Belvoir Fortress is the largest fort in Israel.

Belvoir Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Belvoir was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller in 1168. Aside from its size, what makes Belvoir really interesting is its 'double-fort' design; a smaller inner fortress lies within the larger outer walls. This can be easily seen in the diagram below.

Only after an 18-month siege did the fortress fall to Saladin in 1189. What's impressive is that the fort wasn't actually taken, but was surrendered because all of the surrounding lands had already been captured and the defenders had no hope for rescue or breaking out. The fort was purposefully demolished by its Ayyubid rulers in 1219. The fortress has remained in that ruined state ever since, even despite being ceded to the Franks from 1241-63. Serious archaeology has only been occurring since 1963 to uncover the secrets of Israel's biggest fort.

The romantic ruins of Montfort Castle. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The final site I'll detail in this post is Montfort Castle, located in the north of Israel, about 6 km (3.7 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

Classified as a "spur castle" as it sits on a narrow ridge projecting off a mountain, Montfort Castle was built by members of the Teutonic Order on land that belonged to a wealthy French family in 1220 as the events of the Third Crusade (1189-92) meant that the land the castle sits above became more important. The castle was originally supposed to house members of the Order's administration, its treasury, and archives.

Despite the common understanding of the Crusader-era being one of Christian vs. Muslim, the Crusades themselves were full of factionalism and competing interests. The need to move the administration to such a high and remote location was spurred on by conflicts with other Christian groups like the Knights Hospitaller and Templar's.

The castle first came under Muslim attack in 1266 but was able withstand the assault. The castle eventually fell and was later abandoned completely in 1291 as the Teutonic Knights were forced to make their headquarters in Venice, Italy once the Crusader-era drew to a close.

To see all of the sites in Israel, here is a Google Map. You can download the map as a KML (Google Earth) file by opening the map in a new window, clicking the 'Options' button (3 dots) and hitting "export to KML".

As always, if there's an error or a missing place (that you have the exact location of), please let me know! Projects like Fortress Earth only work when people share their knowledge.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/15/2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Star Forts of Ukraine

An 1830 map of the Kiev Fortress, which was one of the largest such systems in the world at the time. Here's the full-scale version.

Star forts ('Фортеця-зірка' in Ukrainian), were developed in Italy in the late 1400s and spread outside of Italy by the 1530s (you can read more about them in my post "A World Filled With Stars"). Ukraine's location meant that throughout the 15th and 18th centuries, it had to contend with invasions by the Russians, Ottomans, Poles, and from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (as well as smaller other entities).

While I am not finished mapping the whole of Ukraine as part of Fortress Earth, I have managed to find a number of star forts, including a line of them that stretches 285 kilometers (177 miles)! Ukraine's 36 star forts* were constructed over a period of several centuries and addressed a number of problems, from large to small-er.

A map of the 36 Ukrainian star forts.

If you're familiar with the distribution of star forts in other European countries, I think you'll notice how sparse Ukraine seems to be. Ukraine suffers from its geography in that most of the country is made up of flat plains which are difficult to defend. Other than a few major cities like Kiev and Sevastopol, the forts are clustered into two regions. The first is Ukraine's western uplands region and the second is a long line of forts along two small rivers that feed into the Donets and Dnieper rivers respectively.

The line of forts is the "Ukrainian Line" (Українська лінія) which consisted of 16 forts and 49 redoubts connected by a series of earthen walls/trenches, of those sites that still exist, 15 fit the definition of a star fort. Built over the course of 33 years (1731-1764, with the bulk in 1731-21), the line was constructed by Imperial Russia to protect its lands from the Tartars. Up to 30,000 Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants were forced to work on the Line and countless people lost their lives. The Line was abandoned in 1770.

Like many enormous defensive projects (such as the Great Wall of China), the Line met with only limited success as the Crimean Tartars simply forced their way through gaps and the distances between the forts and reinforcements were often too great for the reinforcements to be of use.

Many of the forts are have been greatly eroded over time and some are barely visible beneath the farmland, like Kozlivska Fortress.

Kozlivska Fortress has been nearly completely plowed under.

On the other hand, Orel Fortress (also called Ninth Fortress) in Dyachkivka, remains in amazing condition.

The Line's wall (marked in yellow) is also visible and extends across the image.

Moving away from the Line, as mentioned earlier, some cities were major strongholds and have large star forts. Kiev, Ukraine's capital, has a series of large fortifications that were built over the course of the 17th and 19th centuries.

Some of the fort's features are hard to discern, so I've added white outlines to the first two images to help show them.

Kiev Main Fortress

Construction of the main fortress began in 1655. Currently it houses a museum and church.

Zverynets Fortress is in near total ruins and today sits inside of a park and botanical garden. It was in use between 1810-1918.

Zverynets Fortress in the Vydubychi National Botanical Garden.

Finally is the Lysohirsky Fortress (Лиса гора). Lysa Hora means "bald mountain" and the fort was constructed in 1874.

Lysohirsky is the southernmost of Kiev's major forts.

World War II was the final time these forts saw any real military action. Fighting was extremely fierce during the war.

The last type of star fort I'll talk about are ones that served as small strongholds and often as residences of important noblemen.

Zolochiv Castle (Золочівський замок), located in the city of the same name, was built in 1634-36 for the Polish Sobieski noble family. It was constructed using Crimean Tartar slaves. It contains two 'palaces', the Chinese Palace and the Grand Palace. However, despite being a luxurious home, it was a very real castle (castles = fortified residence, fortress = primarily a military establishment). In 1672 the castle came under siege by the Turks and fell after six days of fighting. A mere three years later was the sight of another attack. In 1737, the castle went from the Sobieski family to the princely Radziwiłł family. After being sold a few more times, it has served as an art exhibit and museum since 1985. 

To explore the other Ukrainian star forts, check out this map.

As always, if there's an error or a missing place (that you have the exact location of), please let me know. Projects like Fortress Earth only work when people share their knowledge.

Regarding the rest of my progress mapping the sites in Ukraine, I have found over 110 additional fortifications. *It's possible further star forts will be found as well.

--Jacob Bogle, 10/22/2017