You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
A view of the Old Town with the Great Mosque and the sea in the distance from the Citadel
The old city of Tripolis, now called Trablous, is situated at the entrance
of a narrow valley between the hills, and to the east of a low
promontory, that extends about a mile into the sea, but is not
above half a mile broad. On this promontory were the three cities
which were colonies from Tyre, Sidon, and Aradus; they were a furlong
distant from each other, but seem at length to have been joyned by
their suburbs, and to have made one city; on that account it was called
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
Pococke based his account on texts by Diodoro Siculus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder who were all consistent on the origin of the name of the town (similar, but not identical to that of Tripoli in Libya). Tripoli was listed among the richest towns along the Phoenician coast and references were made to the fertile land which surrounded it. In the Sibylline Oracles it is mentioned with Berytus (Beirut) and Sidon to indicate the whole of Phoenicia. It was greatly damaged by the Beirut earthquake which occurred in 551.
In five hours we reached the sea shore; the sea here forms a bay extending from the point of Tartous as far as Tripoli. (..) At half an hour's walk below the town at the extreme angle of the triangular plain is El Myna or the port of Tripoli which is itself a small town. (..) The remains of a wall may still be traced across the triangular plain from which it appears that the western point was the site of the ancient city; wherever the ground is dug in that direction the foundations of houses and walls are found; indeed it is with stones thus procured that the houses in the Myna are built. (..) The inhabitants of the Myna are chiefly Greek sailors or shipwrights. From the Myna northward runs a chain of six towers at about ten minutes walk from each other evidently intended for the defence of the harbour; around the towers on the shore and in the sea lie a great number of columns of gray granite; there are at least eighty of them of about a foot and a quarter in diameter lying in the sea; many others have been built into the walls of the towers as ornaments. To each of the towers the natives have given a name.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt - Travels in Syria and the Holy Land - 1822.
The presence of so many granite columns is explained by the fact that the ancient town or at least its most important neighbourhood stood at El-Mina rather than in today's Old Town of Tripoli.
(left) 1630 map of Tripoli showing the towers protecting the harbour and the town at the foot of the Citadel; (centre/right) Borj es-Sabaa: window with a lintel designed to reduce the impact of earthquakes and interior
Umayyad Caliph Walid I rebuilt and fortified the ancient town in the early VIIIth century and chronicles of the Xth century describe the great wealth of Tripoli. The towers were built by the Mamelukes after they seized the town in 1289. They razed it to the ground and rebuilt it inland where it could not be attacked from the sea. The surviving tower was named after a lost relief depicting lions, the heraldic symbol of Baibars, Mameluke Sultan of Egypt whose son Qulawun conquered Tripoli. In 1300 vassals of the Count of Tripoli who had fled to Cyprus, the last Christian Kingdom in the Levant, made a failed attempt to besiege the new town.
Over the south east corner of the city, there is
a large castle on a hill, thought to be built during the time of the holy
war. (..) Baldwin, king of Jerusalem, took Tripoli with the
help of the Genoese fleet, after seven years siege, and made Bertrand count of it, who was son of Raymond, count of Toulouse (and of
Saint-Gilles, a small town near Arles, see a relief in its Abbey Church). His territory
extended from the river Lycus (see map) to the river Valania, as it was then called,
being the river Eleutherus of the antients, which falls into the sea near
Over time the northern limit of the County of Tripoli was set at the fortress of Marqab on the border with the Principality of Antioch, another Crusader state (see a section on some of the castles built by the Crusaders in the region).
Evidence of a Christian chapel/Muslim mausoleum in the Citadel
There is a mosque in it, which was a church dedicated to St. John. Pococke
The castle was built in ca 1103 by Raymond of Saint-Gilles on a hill along the road leading to Tripoli in order to block supplies to the town. The castle incorporated a small Muslim mausoleum which was turned into a church. The rulers of Tripoli however could receive supplies by sea and they sent ambassadors to the Fatimid Caliph of Cairo and to the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to seek help. The siege went on for years. In 1105 Raymond of Saint-Gilles was wounded during an attack and died shortly afterwards. A sort of undeclared truce followed. Eventually the Christian side, thanks to the support of a Genoese fleet, had enough strength to conquer the town, but Bertrand, Raymond's son, had to declare himself vassal of the King of Jerusalem for the help he received.
Citadel: (above) interior; (below) terrace with cannon embrasures
In 1187 Saladin conquered Jerusalem, but in the following year he failed to seize Krak des Chevaliers and Safita, two fortresses built by the Counts of Tripoli to check the passage of the enemy through the Gate of Homs (in Arabic Nahr el-Kebir), a large breach in the mountain ranges which divide the coastal strip from the interior of Syria. Because the Counts did not have enough military resources to garrison these fortresses they called in the Knights of St. John or Hospitallers at Krak and the Knights Templars at Safita.
What joy if she will hear my prayer
And will welcome from far away
A pilgrim she might lodge somewhere
Either near her or far away.
Jaufré Rudel - from "In May, long daylight warms the air" - Translation by Carol Anne Perry Lagemann.
In Europe the life of the knights who lived in the Christian States of the Levant was idealized. Jaufré Rudel, a troubadour, chanted his love for a Countess of Tripoli he had never seen. As a matter of fact the history of these states was characterized by infighting and cruelty.
Citadel: details including a Byzantine basalt door (see a finer example at the Museum of Maaret an-Nouman)
In 1201 Bohemond I, Count of Tripoli became also Prince of Antioch as Bohemond IV. All his successors held both titles, but they usually lived at Antioch. Their fiefdoms were separated from each other owing to the loss of the fortress of Saone, south of Antioch. The Principate of Antioch was often at war with the adjoining Kingdom of Lesser Armenia, a Christian state founded by Armenian noblemen who fled their country. Only in 1254 a marriage between the Prince of Antioch and an Armenian princess ended this feud. The fate of these small Christian states was doomed, but the decline of the Ayyubids, the successors of Saladin, in favour of the Mamelukes and the invasion of Syria by the Mongols gave the Princes of Antioch some respite. In March 1260 Bohemond VI entered Damascus together with Hethum I, King of Lesser Armenia and Kitbuga, a Christian Mongol general. In September however the Mamelukes defeated the Mongols and in 1268 Baibars besieged Antioch and in a relatively short time he captured the city when Prince Bohemond VI was away at Tripoli.
Citadel: Ottoman entrance with an inscription celebrating Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent
The Saracens (i.e. the Mamelukes) took it by sap (by digging a tunnel),
in one thousand two hundred and eighty nine, and entirely destroyed
it, but the city was afterwards rebuilt by them. Pococke
Peter Embriaco of Gibelet (Byblos/Jbeil), a vassal of the Count of Tripoli, retained his fiefdom for a few more years. The Knights Templars held Tortosa until 1291.
Upon the summit of the hill stands (..) the castle built in the time of the crusades; this castle has often been in a ruined state, but it has lately been put into complete repair by Berber Aga (Mustafa Agha Barbar 1767-1835, Ottoman governor of Tripoli for many years). Burckhardt
The Citadel was modified and strengthened by the Mamelukes and after them by the Ottomans who conquered the region in 1516.
In the afternoon Mr. consul
Hastings carried us to see the castle of Tripoli. It
is pleasantly situate on a hill, commanding the city;
but has neither arms nor ammunition in it, and serves
rather for a prison than a garrison. There was shut
up in it at this time a poor Christian prisoner, called
Sheck Eunice, a Maronite. He was one that had
formerly renounced his faith, and lived for many
years in the Mahometan religion: but in his declining age, he both retracted his apostacy, and died to
atone for it; for he was impaled by order of the
bassa two days after we left Tripoli. This punishment of impaling is commonly executed amongst the
Turks for crimes of the highest degree; and is certainly one of the greatest indignities and barbarities
that can be offered to human nature. The execution is done in this manner. They take a post
of about the bigness of a man's leg, and eight or
nine feet long, and make it very sharp at one end.
This they lay upon the back of the criminal, and
force him to carry it to the place of execution:
imitating herein the old Roman custom, of compelling malefactors to bear their cross. Being arrived
at the fatal place, they thrust in the stake at the
fundament of the person who is the miserable subject of this doom; and then taking him by the legs,
draw on his body upon it, until the point of the
stake appears at his shoulders. After this they
erect the stake, and fasten it in a hole dug in the
ground. The criminal sitting in this posture upon
it, remains not only still alive, but also drinks, smokes,
and talks, as one perfectly sensible; and thus some
have continued for twenty-four hours. But generally after the tortured wretch has remained in this
deplorable and ignominious posture an hour or two,
some one of the bystanders is permitted to give him
a gracious stab to the heart; so putting an end to his
Henry Maundrell - A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter - 1697
Architectural details in the souks around the Great Mosque which show that some materials were taken from the destroyed town
The present city of Tripoli is about two miles in circumference; it
stands low, and a river runs through it, which, after great rains, overflows, and does much damage to the city; there are also some buildings
on the side of the hills. Many of the bazars, or streets of shops, seem to have been made out of
old convents and nunneries, as may be seen by the manner of the buildings. Pococke
We arrived at Tripoli and alighted at the house of the English agent Mr Catziflis. This city which is called Tarabolos by the Arabs and Tripoli by the Greeks and Italians is built on the declivity of the lowest hills of the Libanus and is divided by the Nahr Kadisha into two parts of which the southern is the most considerable. (..) Many parts of Tripoli bear marks of the ages of the crusades amongst these are several high arcades of gothic architecture under which the streets run. (..) Tripoli stands in one of the most favoured spots in all Syria as the maritime plain and neighbouring mountains place every variety of climate within a short distance of the inhabitants. The Wady Kadisha higher up than Tripoli is one of the most picturesque valleys I ever saw (it was visited also by Maundrell and Pococke). Burckhardt
Portals of mosques and madrasas near the Great Mosque; the image used as background for this page is based on a detail of the central portal
Tripoli was rebuilt by the Mamelukes at the foot of the Citadel where most likely some Christian churches/buildings already existed. The character of the town is definitely Mameluke and it brings to mind corners of Jerusalem which also was largely rebuilt by them. The influence of Ottoman architecture is almost negligible.
The construction of the Great Mosque began in 1294 soon after the Mameluke conquest and it was completed in 1314 by An-Nasir Muhammad, Sultan of Egypt and Syria.
Brussels Art & History Museum: Parade helmet of Mameluke Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad
Many travellers and art historians have suggested that it incorporated elements of a previous church and in particular its main portal and its bell tower. The series of chevron mouldings of the portal is typical of Norman architecture and it can be noticed in many Norman monuments in Sicily. The founder of the Principality of Antioch was Bohemond of Taranto, son of Robert Guiscard, the Norman ruler of Southern Italy.
Minaret of the Great Mosque
There are five or six mosques in the city, which, they say, were
churches; they have square towers to them, one of which, in particular, is built after the European manner. Pococke
The minaret has been repaired many times and its final octagonal shaft is recent. It most likely was the bell tower of the Church of St. Mary, known to have existed at the foot of the Citadel. Square minarets however were not unusual in the region and those at Damascus and Sanliurfa (Edessa) both resemble bell towers.
Courtyard of the Great Mosque
The design of the mosque testifies to the overall Islamic character of the complex because the courtyard, its porticoes, the fountain and the prayer hall all comply with the standard arrangements for the main mosque of a large town.
Great Mosque: prayer hall
The prayer hall takes up the entire qibla side (that oriented towards Mecca) of the building and consists of two aisles divided by six large piers to form fourteen areas. The minbar (pulpit) was paid for by Amir Qaratay. He was twice governor of Tripoli, from 1316 to 1326 and from 1332 to 1333. During his first term he built a very fine madrasa adjoining the mosque which you can see in the introductory page.
In most of the largest early mosques (e.g. Damascus and Kairouan) the size of the prayer hall is smaller than that of the courtyard. A major exception is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, but its prayer hall is the result of three enlargements.
|Other great mosques in this web site:|
The Great Mosque of Bukhara
The Great Mosque of Cordoba
The Great Mosque of Damascus
The Great Mosque of Divrigi
The Great Mosque of Diyarbakir
Selimiye Camii at Edirne
Shah Abbas Mosque at Isfahan
Suleymaniye Kulliyesi at Istanbul
The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Blue Mosque of Tabriz
The Great Mosque of Xian
This mosque stands alone in the middle of a garden and it can be viewed from all sides, unlike the Great Mosque. It is characterized by four domes of different size and shapes which reflect the unusual structure of the interior which has two consecutive prayer halls. It was built by order of Taynal Al-Nasiri, governor of Tripoli in 1336. On feast days it was used as a musallah (or namazgah), an open air mosque, and people gathered in the garden which was covered with carpets as at Hayat Bin Kays Turbesi at Harran.
Taynal Mosque: (left) entrance; (right) minaret
The finest mosque has an
octagon tower, and was formerly the church of St. John. Pococke
The complex built by Taynal was modified in the following centuries; the canopy and the main entrance were built at a later time. The rather unusually shaped minaret does not necessarily belong to a previous church. It has two sets of separate stairs, one from the mausoleum attached to the mosque and the other from the outside of the building.
Taynal created a waqf (a charitable trust) for the maintenance of the mosque and its activities in favour of the poor: inscriptions list a number of shops, warehouses, markets, orchards and even villages which provided the waqf with substantial revenues.
Taynal Mosque: (left) first prayer hall; (right) one of its ancient columns
The layout of the mosque is based on two prayer halls linked by a portal. The first prayer hall is divided into three aisles by four ancient columns. Their presence led some travellers to deduce that it was the remnant of a previous church or even of a temple, but more simply the columns might have come from the town which the Mamelukes razed to the ground. The tall portal leading to the second prayer hall catches the eye of the viewer because of its size and elaborate decoration. Today some art historians suggest it was the original entrance to Taynal's mosque and that the whole first prayer hall was added at a later time, also because the portal contains the inscriptions about the foundation of the mosque and of the waqf.
Taynal Mosque: detail of the internal portal
The central panel is surrounded by the founding inscriptions; it consists of three equal vertical rectangles of marble marquetry; a central plaque of red marble with a star motif in white marble, from which radiates a whole maze of geometric patterns in black and white; and side panels of two squares each containing a rotating swastika pattern in red, black, and white. This panel is surmounted by a muqarna hood with corner shell motifs on two colonnettes and a top row of stalactite muqarnas. The half-dome at the top of the muqarnas is decorated with a large zigzag motif in relief accentuated by the layers of black and white running in from the sides of the gateway. These patterns are often found in Mameluke monuments, e.g. at Sabuniyya Medrese in Damascus and in many buildings of Aleppo.
Taynal Mosque: (left) inner prayer hall; (right) its second dome
The second/inner prayer hall is the one which houses the mihrab (niche indicating the qibla wall) and the minbar and it is entirely Islamic in design and decoration. The second dome in particular is interesting for its ribs, a rather unusual feature which is more typical of Central Asia or other areas under Persian influence, e.g. Mardin. The use of squinches, elements filling the the upper angles of a square room, were most likely first designed in Persia and they were used in many Seljuk mosques, e.g. at Isfahan and can be seen also in Norman-Arab monuments of Sicily.
(left) Madrasa Nasiriya (ca 1360); (right) Madrasa al Mashad (near the Great Mosque - ca 1385)
The presence of many madrasas does not indicate a particular religious fervour, but rather it is an indication of the past wealth of Tripoli. Pupils of the madrasas learned the teachings of the Qur'an, but followed also courses on physical sciences, literature, history, etc. Most madrasas were founded by members of the Mameluke élite, because there were limits to their right to pass on their properties to relatives, so very often they chose to found a madrasa to which they bequeathed them.
(The town) is the residence of the pasha of
Tripoli, from which city the whole pashalic is denominated. Pococke
The Khan of the soap manufacturers is a large well built edifice with a water basin in the middle of it. Burckhardt
In the XVIth century Tripoli became the port of Aleppo which was the third largest city of the Ottoman Empire. In particular Aleppo was renowned for its soap which was exported from Tripoli. In 1579 Tripoli became the capital of an eyalet or pashalik, an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire which included approximately the same territories of the County of Tripoli.
Khan el-Khayattin, the restored souk of the tailors, not to be compared with the souks of Beirut
The fall of the Ottoman Empire brought about major negative changes for Tripoli. In 1920 French authorities created the State of Greater Lebanon (in 1926 Lebanese Republic) which separated Tripoli from its natural hinterland in Syria and in addition they favoured the development of Beirut which was situated at the centre of the new nation. The region to the south of Tripoli began to gravitate towards Beirut.
In theory Tripoli, with its monuments and its location by the sea which is embellished by small islets, has a great potential for attracting holidaymakers, but it first needs not to be labelled as a dangerous place to visit. Personally I did not feel at risk, but I was shown around by a trusted person.