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D - 21: What are Saracen Towers?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

On our trip from Genoa to Tunis, the coast line changes constantly. The green Apennine Mountains accompany us first, the rougher peaks of Corsica follow and the round hills of Sardinia are the last we see before saying goodbye to Europe. These three coast lines have one thing in common though. They are dotted with old watch towers. Every three or four kilometre there is one. They seem to have no other purpose than looking out to the sea. There are round towers dating from the 12th century and square ones from the 16th century. Everybody always asks, what were they for?

Torre Kelura, a watch tower in Cefalu, on the north coast of Sicily

In several previous blogs we talked about how unsafe the Mediterranean became with the end of the Roman Empire. The peace of the Mare Nostrum, which the Roman Navy kept free from pirates for several hundred years, was shattered.

First came plundering German tribes, followed by Arabs operating from Spain, succeeded by the Fatimids from Tunisia. The last wave were Corsairs like Barbarossa or Turgut whom we met before. Life on the coast was dangerous. People either moved inland to the hills or built giant walls around their coastal settlements. Watch towers were erected everywhere. These towers were round and tall. They served as observation platforms to alert the population of approaching pirates by smoke (day) or fire (night). The round towers have no windows and had to be accessed from the top using a retractable ladder. Most of them were built on the coast, a few a bit further inland. Usually, the ones further inland were less fortified.

Round tower in Costa del Sud at the south coast of Sardinia

The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean necessitated an upgrad. The Turkish Sultans saw in the Corsairs an opportunity to wage asymmetric war on their Spanish-Austrian opponents. They adopted the Corsairs as vassals, supplied modern firearms and help to extract Jews and Moros from Granada, the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, when it fell in 1492. With new recruits and new arms, the corsairs were now more numerous and more lethal.

It became quickly apparent that the old towers were no good any longer. Thus, ramparts and gun platforms were added. Sometimes old towers were torn down and replaced entirely. With guns the guards on the towers could fight back. Canon balls were a lethal threat to the lightly built galleys when fired from above. They easily penetrated the hull and sunk the vessel. For that the interval between towers had to be shortened. Following a decree from Charles V, the German Emperor, a tower with two to three guns had to be built every 4’000 – 5’000 steps and manned by 10 guards. Now 3 men could be permanently on guard.

Saint Marks Tower in Malta from the later 16th century

For decades guards and corsairs played a cat and mouse game. Corsairs tried to sneak on the towers and take them by surprise. Advance parties landed often at night. The defending soldiers responded with noisy creating obstacles, positioned dogs and geese around the towers and went on frequent patrols. It was a catch me if you can game, but lethal. Both sides had their successes. Albeit when the defence failed, the damage was much bigger.

Torre del Mandre, Altavilla on the Sicilian North Coast

After Lepanto in 1571, the Ottoman threat slowly receded. The Turkish fleet did not venture into the Western Mediterranean any longer. Corsair attacks became less frequent. But they never fully stopped until the Napoleonic wars. Most towers were thus maintained. For the last 200 years, however, they are let to decay. Unless a charity can raise funds to convert one into a cultural or heritage centre, they wither. There are simply too many. From a distance they look still impressive though. But as we get closer, we start to see that they are ruins.

Torre Paola San Felice Circeo in Lazio

In some parts of Italy, the watch towers are called Saracen Towers, using a medieval name for Arabs. In other parts it is simply Torri. During our first three years of sailing when we followed Venetian trade routes, we noticed that within one day’s sailing distance there was always a fortified town, a harbour, a church and a protective fortress. The same pattern applies to the Western Mediterranean. But here it is complemented by Saracen Towers every 4’000 – 5’000 steps.

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