This morning Roger’s face and hands were red from scrubbing. His beard and hair had been trimmed and he was wearing a fresh tunic as well. Balian smiled at him. “You look like you’re going to either a wedding or a funeral.”
Roger cleared his throat. “Ah, no, sir, it’s just my wife, sir. She thinks—ah, she wanted me to make a good impression on you, my lord.”
“And so you have, Roger. It started with the guards searching everyone entering the city yesterday. I noticed the number of men on the walls as well. And so far I have not seen a single man-at-arms who looked drunk or disorderly.”
“Oh, you’ll see plenty of those if you go out the Water Gate to the harbor, my lord; that’s where the taverns and brothels are. But I—um—if I catch ’em drunk on duty, I give ’em a kick in the backside they don’t forget so easy. Still, we’ve been too long without a Constable, my lord. With this firebrand Salah-ad-Din preaching jihad, we’re on pins and needles awaiting the next attack.”
Balian nodded at that. It was astonishing that Salah-ad-Din had bypassed Ascalon on his way to Damascus two years ago. Had he succeeded in taking the city, it would have bolstered his position and might have made it easier for him to lay claim to Damascus. On the other hand, a defeat might have shattered his chances in Damascus, and he had evidently preferred to go for the jugular by taking Damascus directly. This left Christian Ascalon a thorn in his side, however, constantly threatening his lines of communication between Damascus and his power base in Egypt. Balian mused that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was lucky Salah-ad-Din had faced so many internal revolts and plots against him that he had no time or troops to focus on his jihad.
“Come, Roger. I want to walk all the way around the city while you tell me everything I need to know.”
“Yes, my lord. Let’s slip out the back, then, so we won’t get caught by the crowd outside.”
Balian agreed and followed Roger through the kitchen courtyard, past the stables, and out into the street by a service entry. Roger led him through a series of narrow alleys to a stone stairway that led up the back of the wall to the wall walk, and here Roger paused to point out the major landmarks of the city spread out at their feet.
“As you can see, the walls are essentially a semicircle on the landward side and straight here along the shore. There are just four gates to the city. The Sea Gate that gives access to the harbor and shore is there.” He pointed to a tall, modern gatehouse with the peaked arches that were becoming popular, and Balian nodded—although he couldn’t see much of the harbor itself, since it was hidden behind the wall.
“If you follow the wall past the harbor you see the Gaza Gate, leading south to Gaza and Egypt.” Roger pointed to the massive square gate that loomed over the wall to the south. It was crenelated and windowless, sporting only narrow slits at strategic places.
Roger continued. “Then, over there, on the far side of the city, is the Jerusalem Gate by which you entered—and finally, way over there is the Jaffa Gate, leading north along the coast.” The gates were relatively easy to find, because the barbicans reared up above the walls themselves, and Balian’s eye turned inward to the city itself. From here Balian could also see how green the city was, with countless inner courtyards filled with palm trees, cypress, and lemons.
“The Muslim population of the town was expelled when we took the city,” Roger explained.
“I know. My brother Hugh was there,” Balian told the Sergeant.
“Ah, good.” Roger seemed to digest this fact and then remarked, “Then you know that there was a large Coptic Christian population that remained when their Muslim masters left. They lived mostly in the northern quarters, but after we had control of the city, many Copts moved here from Egypt. They took over many of the areas vacated by the Muslims.” He pointed as he spoke.
“How much of the population is Coptic today?” Balian wanted to know.
Roger weighed his head from side to side and then made a guess. “Fifty per cent, my lord. There are also remnants of a Greek community that survived the centuries of Arab domination—maybe 15 per cent of the population now. They have three churches. Then there’s the Ethiopian community with a church, and the Jewish quarter is up there.” He pointed toward the Jaffa Gate. “It is quite small. About two hundred souls, I’m told.
“Near the Gaza Gate there is one mosque that is allowed to operate for visitors, and there are also four caravansaries run by Arabs who have been allowed to resettle here. The largest Latin church is St. Paul’s Cathedral—that large, domed building there. It was built on Greek foundations, but was almost completely rebuilt by Baldwin III because the roof had caved in and the Arabs had used it as a quarry. St. Mary’s by the Sea is also a Latin church, and the Venetians have their own church, of course, St. Mark.” He pointed. “St. Mary’s gets lots of donations from seafarers who make it safely to Ascalon after a difficult voyage, and from pilgrims blown off course heading for Jaffa.”
Balian nodded, taking it all in. Roger waited but then prompted, “Shall we continue?”
“Yes,” Balian agreed.
Roger led first to the Sea Gate, where they had a splendid view of the harbor, enclosed by a man-made sea wall.
“The port is not particularly busy,” Roger admitted. “Mostly coastal traffic. Some wood and iron from Cyprus. Almost no pilgrims, unless they get blown off course, as I mentioned. There’s good fish, however, especially octopus and squid, in the dockside taverns, and a daily fish market where your cook gets the best of the daily catch.” Balian nodded, satisfied, and Roger continued with the tour.
On the Gaza Gate Roger explained, “This is where the wealth of the city is made. Through this gate pass some of the most valuable caravans in the world. They bring gold all the way from the source of the Nile, along with incense, ivory, rock salt, papyrus, scents, and spices. All the cargoes from the Nile and many from the Red Sea funnel up through here on their way to Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, Constantinople, and beyond. The traffic going the other way includes sugar, grain, olives, horses, silks, jade, other gemstones, and silver—a lot of silver.”
Balian nodded. This was what made Ascalon so important to whoever controlled it—and was also what made it vulnerable.
“Tell me about the garrison. For a start, how large is it?”
“We are just 114 men at the moment, my lord, mostly men-at-arms and eight sergeants. But really, we are many more.” Roger paused again and turned toward the city. “I wasn’t the only crusader who chose to stay here after the siege ended, my lord. See there, that smithy: the smith’s an old comrade-in-arms, an Englishman like myself. And there, that fine house with the bright red shutters—that belongs to Joachim, a German crusader, now owner of the best carpentry shop in Ascalon, with five or six journeymen and twice that many apprentices. He’s made half the furnishings in your palace, but he’s just as skilled at building siege engines. I can’t name all the crusaders still here, my lord, but in an emergency we can reinforce the garrison with another hundred men at least—good, experienced men. Add their sons and sons-in-law, and we can mount a defense three hundred strong.”
“How many knights?”
“Ah,” Roger licked his lips. “Ah, is the young man who rode in with you yesterday a knight?”
“Not yet,” Balian admitted.
“Then I think you are the only knight in Ascalon, my lord.”
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