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G - 141 : Building ships makes independent

Noli during Summertime - the Beach is covered in a Sea of white Umbrellas

60 kilometers west of Genoa, there is Noli, a quaint Ligurian coastal town with 2’800 people. It is a busy place during the summer months. Visitors love it for its medieval architecture and the long beach with its turquois water. In September, when the tourists are gone, the town celebrates its “independence” with the Regata dei Rioni. Noli was one of the seven Italian maritime republics and independent for 605 years. It had a strategic defence alliance with Genoa and enjoyed substantial trade privileges in the Holy Land during the Crusades.

The Regatta Winners celebrate their Victory - Celebrations continue in the Evening in Town

Wonder how this small community pulled off such a feat. Noli was treated like a Great Power without being one . What made it so valuable? It took me a while to figure out. Eventually, I found the answer in the "Regata dei Rioni" – Noli built ships!

Artist Impression of a Medieval Ship in the 13th Century

The town was probably founded by Greek settlers – its old name was Naboli (Nea Polis for New Town). During the Punic wars it was destroyed by Carthage. The Romans rebuilt it. As every Ligurian town, it was raided by Fatimid corsairs towards the end of the first millennium. The castle overlooking Noli is testimony to these grim times. The central tower dates back to 900 AD. People of Noli though did not want to be sitting ducks and wait for the next attack. They took the fight to the enemy. With plenty of timber from the surrounding forests, they started building ships. The wide, flat beach was their perfect wharf.

Noli's long Pebble and Sand Beach which served for Centuries as natural Wharf

Wish that Noli’s history was better researched. There are no documents in English and few in Italian only. But Noli’s fleet building capacity must have been impressive. Old town maps show the beach inside the town walls – their natural wharf was as valuable to the Nolians as the Arsenale to Venetians. To this day, Venice’ Arsenale is surrounded by medieval walls.

On this Map from the 15th Century, Noli's natural Wharf is protected by Town Walls

There are a few more clues we can build on. We know that Noli’s ships supported the first Crusade. They supplied the advancing armies with everything they needed. Once arrived in Jaffa, the ships became even more valuable. They were dismantled.

Shipbuilding in Noli continued until the 19th Century - albeit Fishing Vessels only

The Crusader Knights were not very successful in taking Jerusalem. The Fatimid defense were strong. The situation changed when Genoa's and Noli's ships arrived in June 1099. Once dismantled, their timber and iron was brought on mules’ back to Jerusalem where two siege towers and a battering ram on wheels were built. Jerusalem's walls were breached on 15 July 1099. The following day the Crusader knights massacred the entire Jewish and Muslim population. 40 – 70’000 civilians were killed. A day of shame in Christian history. For European siege technology though it was a day of triumph.

King Baldwin I at his Coronation in Jerusalem in 1100

King Baldwin I of Jerusalem did not hesitate to show both Genoa and Noli his gratitude. Jerusalem would not have fallen without the siege towers. He also needed the two maritime powers to support his expansion plans. In 1100 his kingdom included Jerusalem and a few surrounding forts. By the time of his death in 1118, he ruled over one of the most formidable military powers in the Middle East. He defeated the Fatimids in battles twice and conquered Caesarea in 1101, Acre in 1104, Tripoli in 1109 and Beirut in 1110.

Due to the Weakness of the Fatimids, the

Kingdom of Jerusalem was quite powerful

King Baldwin needed the two naval powers to re-start commerce and generate taxable income. His trade concession may have looked generous, but they were vital for the survival of his kingdom. Thanks to its fleet, Noli made lucrative profits in exporting military goods to the Crusader States and importing luxury products from Asia. Noli became so rich that it could shake off its feudal lords in 1192. Its independence was confirmed by the German Emperor Henri VI in 1196.

The 35 independent or semi-independent Italian States - Noli was one of them

The second clue for Noli’s importance lies in its relationship with Genoa. Threatened by Savona and its old ruling lords, the Del Carretto family, Noli entered into a strategic alliance with Genoa. The terms of this alliance are interesting. It is an alliance of two partners who promise to help each other when necessary. With around 10’000 citizens, Genoa had three times as many inhabitants as Noli. But in terms of ships they were almost equal. We know that Genoa bought ships built in Noli until the 17th century and that their combined fleets fought against Pisa and Venice. When Genoa lost its eastern Empire in 1453, Noli did not have the means to adjust. It fell into a beauty sleep for the next few centuries. Its business was reduced to fishing, coral diving and making olive oil. Noli remained as it was in the 15th century and became the best preserved medieval town on the Ligurian coast.

Italy's seven Maritime Republics - Ragusa (Dubrovnic)

is now part of Croatia (Dubrovnic)

In 1797, Noli shared Genoa’s fate and lost its independence. Napoleon integrated it into the Ligurian Republic. In 1815, it became part of Savoy and in 1866 part of Italy. But people still celebrate its 605 years of independence (1192 – 1797) with the Regata dei Rioni. We visit the town this July thus sadly miss the historical regatta and the medieval celebration in the evening. But it is the perfect excuse to return and learn more about a little town which has a history as rich as Venice and Genoa.

On the Eve of the Regatta, the citizens celebrate their "Independence" in historic costumes

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