Chastellet Castle and the Siege of Jacob’s Ford (1179 AD)

In this modern era of advanced project delivery methods, one might think that public-private partnerships (P3s) are a new thing. Currently it is the favored delivery method for many large-scale public works projects. And with the spate of new P3 legislation proliferating all over the country, and a cottage industry of consultants, law firms and organizations now hosting conferences on this seemingly novel approach for building, reaching the conclusion that P3 is innovative, cutting-edge, is understandable.

The reality is, in fact, P3 is not new. It has been used throughout history, modern and ancient, by the public sector to carry out major public works projects with private sector assistance.

This article is about the design-build-finance-operation-maintenance of Chastellet Castle during one of the greatest clashes in human history: the Crusades, the battle between the Christian and Muslim world in the late 11th century. The story involves the mysterious Knights Templar, a holy order of Christian Knights that ultimately became an international financial powerhouse, offering an array of financial services from lending, collections, letters of credit, and management, to basic banking. The Knights Templar, ironically enough, were among other things, P3 concessionaires.

The Clash Between King Baldwin and Salah ad-Din

In 1177 AD, Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, achieved a mighty victory against the military genius, Sultan Salah ad-Din, at the battle of Montgisard. King Baldwin – the leper - was only 16. And untested. Yet he routed Salah ad-Din handily, destroying about 90% of the Muslim army, forcing the survivors to flee back to Egypt.

It was a glorious victory for the Jerusalem Christians, but left them severely weakened financially and in a defensive military position. King Baldwin and his advisors concluded that Salah ad-Din would be back. The war for primacy of faith was not over. 

King Baldwin and the Knights Templar thereafter devised a strategic plan both offensive and defensive to build major fortifications and a castle on a hill overlooking Jacob’s Ford, a key river crossing on the main road from Acre to Damascus, approximately 100 miles from Jerusalem. The thought was that such a fortification could protect Jerusalem from a northern invasion by Salah adDin and put pressure on the Sultan’s stronghold at Damascus. The Ford was the principal intersection of the two cultures, both geographically and spiritually.

The City of Jerusalem, however, could not afford this major public works project. That is where the Knights Templar stepped in.

The Knights Templar

The Knights Templar was formed in 1119 as a holy order of Christian Knights whose main purpose was to protect Christians making their pilgrimage to sacred sites throughout the Holy Land. Their beginnings were humble, known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici – poor fellow soldiers of Christ of the Temple of Salomon. Very quickly the Knights Templar grew into a vast military order with a network throughout Christendom and the Holy Land, and eventually established a complex financial business network as well. Many scholars refer to the Knights Templar as history’s first multinational corporation. Warfare was not their only business.

The Knights Templar loaned considerable monies to various countries and rulers, such as King Philip IV of France, to finance their wars against other nations. Apropos to this story, the Knights Templar also partnered with some kings to finance and build key military strongholds and other public works projects.

Chastellet Castle, a Historical P3 Project 

Historian and medieval fiction author KM Ashman, in his novel, Templar Stone – admittedly weaving historical fact and taking some artistic license — described the partnering between King Baldwin and the Knights Templar, written in parchment, as follows:

Firstly, the castle will be fully built and paid for by the Order of the Knights Templar, with such cost being reimbursed by the administering of a toll upon all those who cross the ford, excluding those who cross on the king’s business.

Secondly, the castle must be built with all haste, with the outer defensive walls to be finished no later than twenty-four months from the date of this decree.

Thirdly, the castle will be fully garrisoned by the Order of the Knights Templar, or their subordinates, at their own expensive, for the term of five years from the date of completion.

And finally, upon repayment of the building cost, tolls will be forfeit to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, less one-tenth, which will be paid to the Order of the Knights Templar, in perpetuity, in return for maintenance of a garrison there controlling the ford and serving the king

History documents that construction of the castle did in fact commence under the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar also fully garrisoned the site during the construction, as King Baldwin was concerned that Salah ad-Din might launch an attack to derail the construction. Understanding the tactical significance of this location, Salah ad-Din initially offered King Baldwin 60,000 gold dinars to stop construction and tear down the fortifications – a king’s ransom for the financially strapped Jerusalem - and after King Baldwin declined the offer, returned with an offer of 100,000 gold dinars. King Baldwin rejected that offer, too, and accelerated construction, recognizing the elevated risk of attack by Salah ad-Din.

By mid-1179, the Knights Templar had constructed the castle’s massive stone wall 10m high and one of the planned towers. Salah ad-Din was on the march by then. In June of 1179, he decimated King Baldwin’s army at Marj Ayyun. The King barely escaped the battle, retreating to Tiberias to recover. Salah ad-Din laid siege to the nearly-completed Castle Chastellet several months later, attacking with traditional weaponry and the siege strategy of “sapping”. Sapping involved tunneling under the castle walls, reinforcing the tunnel with wood structural members, and then when it reached a key tower or wall structure, lighting the tunnel on fire, causing the castle structure’s collapse. Within six days, Castle Chastellet fell in a fiery inferno, stormed by the overwhelming forces of Salah ad-Din. The weakened King Baldwin, for reasons still debated, was not able to arrive in time with a reformed army to rescue the besieged. Over 700 construction workers, architects and knights were slaughtered, and over 800 enslaved. Salah ad-Din ordered the castle to be torn down, but some remains exist today. 

The battles at Marj Ayyun and Jacob’s Ford were the turning point, with the momentum fully in favor of the Muslim army. King Baldwin’s efforts from that point were primarily defensive, and he ultimately succumbed to his disease in 1185. Salad ah-Din finally captured Jerusalem in 1187, expelling all Christians. Some readers may recall the chilling scene from Ridley Scott’s 2005 movie, Kingdom of Heaven, with its drawn-out siege finale, ending with Baron Balian of Ibelin walking across the shattered fortifications and a field of the massacred, asking Salah ad-Din what was Jerusalem worth. Salah ad-Din says “nothing,” turns and walks away, only to turn back with fists clinched together, saying “everything”. The Third Crusade to regain Jerusalem shortly followed.

Putting aside the romance of the Crusades, and the mysterious shroud of the Knights Templar, practically speaking, King Baldwin hired the Knights Templar on a P3-basis to develop Castle Chastellet. As he did not have the financial resources to undertake this important public works project, he contracted with an entity capable of handling all aspects of the building, financing and operation of the project. The Knights Templar not only fulfilled their mission to protect pilgrims and the Holy Land, but hoped to recoup the cost of the building through tolls and provide some profits in perpetuity in exchange for a long-term garrison (i.e. maintenance). The remainder of the profits would revert to the king after the castle was completed. 

This historical partnering is the archetype of a P3: a private entity undertook the design, build, finance, operation and maintenance (DBFOM) of a public works project on behalf of a public entity, repaid its capital costs through the exercise of tolls, and profited to some degree in the process. This arrangement between King Baldwin and the Knights Templar is the equivalent of a modern-day toll road project, with a P3 concessionaire undertaking the DBFOM of a highway system, and being repaid and profiting from the revenue serviced by tolls. The public gets its road, the private entity makes a profit.

So while P3's natural association with cutting-edge projects such as automated people movers, toll road projects, power grid modernization, space infrastructure, and so forth, could seem like a product of modern finance, P3-like structures have been employed throughout history, where the public and private sectors collaborated to deliver important infrastructure to the public -- including a medieval fortress with toll facilities at a transportation crossroad for Christian pilgrims.

The Knights Templar may be long gone, but their financial lessons – whether that be lending, letters of credit, financial services or even P3 – enlighten us to the continued possibilities of public-private collaborations. Castle Chastellet ultimately could not stand up to Saladin’s onslaught, but the publicprivate partnering was valid. P3 remains a key tool for government entities to consider in their delivery of public works projects.