Guard Towers of the Lebanon Coast

Bruce Condè, 1955 and 1960

The modern tower of the Lady of Maghdouche built near the site of a Crusader tower.

Of the scores of medieval guard towers that once formed an unbroken chain of line-of-sight observation posts along the Lebanese coast from Ras Nakura in the south to the Nahr el-Kebir in the north, nine still remain in more or less recognizable form today.

These nine are so evenly distributed that Beirut residents making a Sunday trip to any point above Junie (20 km. north of Beirut), or 14 km. below Sidon can visit at least one of the lonely watchtowers in the course of a trip to other places of greater scenic or historic. interest.

What is the significance of these towers ? Why were they built? Who built them?

In general it is safe to say that the remaining ones were built or adapted by the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, vanquishers of the Crusaders in the late 13th Century, to guard the Lebanese coast against future landings of Crusader fleets from, Cyprus or Europe bent on regaining their lost Kingdom of Jerusalem.

But this does not exclude the possibility that some of the missing ones and the foundations - of some of the nine extant towers are of earlier origin.

Nakura Farthest South

The one farthest south, Bourj an-Nakura, a bare 4 km. above the Palestinian frontier, certainly includes antique blocks of classic masonry, although whether the stones came from an earlier tower on the spot or a non-military Greco-Roman ruin in the vicinity is hard to say.

Wadi Fidar's Bourj al-Muhaij, a few kilometers south of Jebail (Byblos) has certain features, including a zigzag and rosette decoration over the east window, which many antiquarians have ascribed to the Crusaders.

Byzantine work appears to be incorporated into the foundations of the "Tower of Empress Helena" on the north point of Junie bay, while the tower on Tell Ayat, north of Tripoli - the farthest north in Lebanon, only 8 km. below the U.A.R. border so baffled French archaeologists that they merely assigned it to the "Middle Ages", either Crusader or Mamluk.

Line-of-Sight Relay

In general, the present form of most of the coastal guard towers is square and they are all located on rocky points, hills, or headlands overlooking the sea and within line-of-sight relay of similar towers, or sites of fallen towers to the north and south.

This line-of-sight feature and the persistence of ancient names connecting many of them either with fire, torches, or with the Empress St. Helena herself, lends substance to the legend or tradition which tells us that in the 4th Century A.D. the mother of Emperor Constantine caused to be flashed from Jerusalem to Constantinople, by means of prepared signal fires on coastal watchtowers, the news of the discovery of the True Cross.

Anyone who has observed the fires lit on the rooftops of Mount Lebanon's Christian villages today, during the annual celebration which still commemorates this memorable event, cannot doubt the distinct possibility and even probability of the fire tower tradition.

Byzantine Towers Gone

Byzantine construction being what it was, however, there is no reason to doubt that very little indeed remained of the Empress' towers a thousand years later when the Mamluks were obliged to provide this coast with security against a surprise Crusader landing.

The Crusaders, with their series of strong coastal and inland castles, linked in line-of-sight groups, in control of the seas, and fearing only incursions of the Arab princes of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo through the mountain passes, certainly had no use for such a series of towers.

Most Are Mamluk

This brings us back to the Mamluks, on whom we will have to fix more than 90 percent of the credit for Lebanon's coastal towers, mostly of 14th Century construction or restoration.

Since there is a great deal of similarity between these structures we will only discuss three or four of the outstanding ones in detail together with a running list of the entire chain, in two groups, going south and north from Beirut, respectively.

From Beirut South: (62 km.) Bourj el-Khader, in ruins, on a promontory on south bank of Wadi al-Akhbiyeh overlooking the sea; (88 km.) Bourj el-Mogharibe ("the Moroccan Tower", ruins of a tower which originally formed part of the Crusader town walls of Tyre near their southeast corner, overlooking the south, "Egyptian" port. Now in a suburban orchard - Tyre having receeded far within its now-buried medieval walls - the ruined tower probably derives its name from the stationing of a Moorish guard detachment in the reconstructed tower in late medieval or early modern times; (108 km.) Bourj an-Nakura, a rectangular building partly of antique stone blocks, its upper story half - ruined, built on a great rock overlooking the sea.

Beirut's Own Tower

The reader will by now have recognized in "Bourj" the Arabic word for "Tower", and if this causes him or her to wonder why "service" taxi drivers refer to Beirut's central square - officially "Martyrs Square", - as the "Bourj" it is only fair to point out that they are joining other native Beirutis in perpetuating the square's oldest surviving placename, dating from the 17th Century.

During that century the square formed part of the famous gardens of the Emir Fakhreddin II el-Maani, Prince of the Druzes and paramount Arab Prince of Lebanon, Syria and Galilee. These gardens and the mighty prince's classic Italian-style palace, just outside the east walls of Beirut of those days, were overlooked by a 60 foot guard tower, which stood in the general vicinity of the Empire and Metropole cinemas of today.

Long after the Turks overthrew the Druze prince in 1634, sacked his palace, smashed the statuary and destroyed the luxuriant gardens, the old Tower of Fakhreddin - the "Bourj" remained standing, well down into the 19th Century.

No government, Turkish, French, or Lebanese, seems able to make any other official name of the square strong enough to stick in place of the name of Beirut's last guard tower - a fond memory of the tolerant, prosperous, happy days of Lebanon's most beloved ruler.

Empress Helena's Tower

From Beirut north: (25 km.) Bourj Qadiset Hilena - ("Tower of Empress Helena" (described below); (38 km.) Bour al-Muhaij - (described below); (67 km.) Bourj es-Selaa ("The Fire Tower"). This is reached by going a little over a kilometer to the west, on a rocky point over the sea, from the village of Qubba, which is to the left of the highway and up the hillside just after crossing the Jaouze River bridge 3 km. north of Batroun; (99 km.) Bourj es-Saba ("The Lion Tower") near el-Mina, Tripoli, and (100 km.) Bourj Ras en-Nahr (both of these having been described in an earlier article), and (120 km.) Bourj Tell Ayat.

This farthest north of the towers is about a kilometer back from the sea and between it and the small hilltop castle of Qulai'aat, for whose defenders it watched the coastal road to Tripoli and the road junction to Homs as well as being able to surveil the coast itself. This is the structure whose type of construction and location farther back from the beach than the definitely Mamluk guard towers has caused some archaeologists to list is -as "possibly" Crusader.

Back at the Wadi Fidar, a few kilometers south of Byblos, is the best preserved, although small, tower, Bourj al Muhaij, or "alMuhaish". Save for a small breach in the second story of its north wall, this square structure, set in the midst of luxuriant banana groves on a rocky cliff over the sea, is completely intact and preserves, as most of the other towers do not, most of the corbels of its machicolated battlements.

Possibly Crusader-Work?

Its walls and arrow slits, as well as the zig-zag and rosette decorations over the east window, above the doorway, are not easily distinguishable from Crusader work in nearby Byblos. As it is probably an early 14th Century tower, perhaps the same masons worked for both the last Crusader Lord of Jebail and the first Mamluk emir who succeeded him in 1299.

Finally, the picturesque, half -ruined Tower of Empress Helena on the north point of Junie bay comes to our attention. Nearest of the surviving guard towers to Beirut (25 km.) and seated on a grassy shelf over some low limestone cliffs, with an incomparable view of the bay, it makes an ideal picnic spot, for cars may be parked on an unused side road just off the main highway across the gulley to the east, near a "cold drinks" concession.

This tower's Byzantine foundations are only of academic interest, but the Mamluk arched and circular windows, surrounded with white and yellow stone bands and other features of interior construction, make good photographic studies, as does the whole tower in its attractive setting.

From this tower, Beirut, far to the south, almost appears as an island, but one strains one's eyes in vain for a signal fire on top of Beirut's vanished guard tower, which once flashed the news of the discovery of the True Cross in 4th Century Jerusalem.

From See Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960


Created 972205