What are the Aims of the ICRS

What are the activities of the ICRS


Chairpersons/ Corporating Research Scientists & Historians


The people who created the exhibitions 

It took them months to achieve this, studying the history of building and constructing in the European Middle Ages, and using their knowledge to create models of some outstanding specimens of that architecture. They were friends and members of the International Castle Society ( ICRS ) who worked under the expert guidance of Mr. Bernhard Siepen, graduate and Master of Engineering of Aachen Technical University and castle afficionado. These were supported by more than 20 assistants of Aachen College of Design sng their one year’s internship in Mr Siepen’s team, being instructed in the art of combining models of buildings and figurines to create a large-scale exhibit and learning how to mount an exhibition as well as creating information and internet sites on the topic of castle building and reconstruction.

These activities correspond to the aims of the ICRS, which was founded in 1996 and now has a membership of some 60 people from Germany as well as abroad. From the beginning, the ICRS’s activities were directed towards castle culture covering the period dating from Carolingian times to the waning Middle Ages, i.e.ca 800 to 1450 AD. The society’s research concentrates on the study of medieval fortifications as well as residences, uses state-of-the-art scholarly and scientific research and collaborates with similar institutions.

The ICRS's main aim is to further a general interest in and appreciation of secular historic buildings dating from the Middle Ages and educating a wider public about these aspects of culture.

To achieve this, the ICRS organises exhibitions and invites experts for talks, offers excursions and study tours. The exhibitions reach out to a wider public, recreating the fascinating world of the Middle Ages using texts, illustrations and models. These models, to the scale 1:25, are created as authentically as possible, and the additional figurines serve to give an impression of what life in a castle was like during war times and peace times.

The ICRS always welcomes new members who are willing to support its activities in whatever way possible. For further information  visit us at http:www.burgenkunde.de, or write to us at Gesellschaft für Internationale Burgenkunde, Grindelweg 4, D-52966 Aachen, Germany. 

French Donjons

For over 15 years now Mr. Bernhard Siepen, Master of Engineering and architect, has been working on the donjons, fortified residential towers of medieval France. Together with his wife, Iris and an architect friend, he researched and measured some 130 donjons, correcting existing plans and drawing up new ones. This research work was used as the basis of the exhibit French Donjons that was created 1996 – 1998.

Why French donjons ? In the Middle Ages, centuries of conflict between France and England furthered the development of the art of building castles. The donjon, always placed at a strategic point of the castle, became the prominent part of castle architecure. It stands for residential quarters as well as symbol of power.

Kings, dukes, princes, counts, barons, even simple knights, they all had residential towers erected in their castles. France alone has almost 1,100 of them. The exhibition includes the most important French donjons. Information and illustration boards presented in three languages offer a tour d’horizon, stressing the historical importance of these constructions. There is also a catalogue to accompany the exhibit, in four languages, which can be bought at the exhibition or it can be ordered from the GIB
’s office.

An authentic model of the donjon that graced Coucy castle, situated some 120 km northeast of Paris, is the centre-piece of the exhibit. This donjon survived for a long time, only to be blown up in 1917, during the World War I. This donjon had been built in just three years’ time, it was 174 feet high, had a diameter of 100 feet and walls up to 24 feet thick. It was the biggest residential tower not only in France but the Occident. To recreate the model, at scale 1:25, in the context of the whole castle and in order to show up its giant size, it was placed on a base of 19x19 feet.

The model shows the castle being besieged, in 1339, when it successfully repulsed English troops. In countless episodes, the story of this siege is being illustrated using some 2,500 handpainted figurines that are shown in mid-movement. All kinds of people involved in the siege, both defenders and attackers, are represented. The buildings both inside and out as well as the weapons are presented to scale. This for instance allows us to observe the courtly society at the knights’ banquet or during a knighting scene, as well as dancers and musicians, jugglers, pages, cooks and artisans.

We also observe the action of soldiers, either on foot or on horseback, using bows, crossbows and siege machines. There is also a scene showing an exchange of prisoners and last but not least the treatment of the wounded.

In addition, the model of a knights’ jousting tournament, which is presented on a base of 4 sq.m, uses more than 600 figurines to bring to life another aspect of courtly activities in fourteenth-century France.

The exhibition French Donjon has been shown so far, with great success because ot its authenticity and lively depiction of medieval life, at different sites in Germany, Europe and the USA. It was shown in Strasbourg, Soissons, Frankfurt on the Main, Coburg, Meissen, Dusseldorf, Monchengladbach, among others, and in Washington D.C., reaching well over 500,000 people altogether, among them 1.000 school groups.

The exhibition also received a tremendously positive echo from the media.

An important aim that the exhibition pursues is to find private and public sponsors to fund the work of excavating the remains of the Coucy donjon, still buried under a massive layer of debris, as well as restoring and making it accessible to the public.


Castles and bazars in Crusader Times

Encouraged by the great success achieved by French Donjons, in 1999 a new project was taken in hand. It was to recreate the everyday life and world-views of people who lived in the age of the crusades: Castles and Bazars in Crusader Times.

For this purpose, a board of experts was assembled by Mr. Siepen. Its scholarly members, using their international contacts, made valuable contributions to achieving historical correctness in all aspects of the exhibit. The experts also contributed to a publication on the project. The information and illustration boards carrying the scholarly information were designed and created by Mr. Siepen and the interns.

These boards, some 60 of them, give an overview how the age of the crusades was like, they also present, by way of illustrations and descriptions, some of the castles of the time, which are to be found in present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus and Turkey.

The information contained in the texts is based on the most recent research.

The crusades widened the horizon of most members of European nobility, both geographically and intellectually. About 1500, there was hardly any noble family that could not point to a crusader in its family. The lords of Coucy, to take an example, who were the owners of one of the most impressive castles in Europe that boasted to be the biggest residential tower of the time, had eight members of their family who had gone to Jerusalem.

Going to the Holy Land did not only mean following a military-orientated calling called a crusade. There was always the meeting of cultures on the way, especially in Asia Minor and the Middle Eastern countries. The remains of the civilizations of the Greeks and Romans as well as Islamic culture left their imprint on the crusaders’ way of thinking and their everyday life. Luxury items such as precious silks arrived in Europe coming via the big markets of the Middle East, for instance Aleppo and Damascus.

Along with hitherto unknown goods, innumerable loan-words made their way into the German language. Contact with Middle Eastern culture helped to improve hygienic circumstances in Europe’s castles and towns, and recipes for salves, perfumes and medicines came to be known and were used.

Not surprisingly the impact of the crusades also affected the residences of the European nobility and their castles. Knights from all European nations were drawn to the “Holy Land”. After capturing it in the First Crusade, 1096 – 1099, these knights came to see themselves as being a small minority in foreign surroundings. To secure their hold on the land, constructing castles was absolutely necessary. The holy sites of Christianity had to be protected, ports important for their supply had to be fortified, trade routes as well as fertile lands had to be protected.

The crusaders brought their own ideas from home on how to build castles but they also were confronted with intact fortifications of late antiquity, Byzantine and Arab master builders, which they studied and checked out to see if they were of any use to them. The crusaders labouriously experimented using what they had found in the way of military elements and structures, accepting and developing some aspects, dropping others. Their main aim always was to hang on to a place as long and as effectively as possible, defending it against superior numbers while using their small military contingents they had at their disposal. In this process, of course, the enemy was also involved, especially so as the history of many castles is full of stories of conquering and reconquering a place. Also, the crusaders had to fall back on local supervisors, masons and stone-cutters.

Many aspects of castle construction that were found to be useful to the crusaders in the Middle East also had their impact on European fortification architecture. The following improvements were taken up and adapted to local European conditions: improvements in laying out approaches and defensive parts of towers, improvements to the inner walks along the walls, to talus and other outside defensive structures as well as improved water supply using better cisterns.

The ICRS’s exibition is dominated by the most impressive model of the Krak des Chevaliers, placed on a base of some 36 sq.m.

This is the year 1271 when Mamluk sultan Qalawun besieges and finally takes the castles, and several thousand figurines, scale 1:25, are shown in their different activities at that time.

This is the last phase of the siege after the outer walls have been mined and are crumbling and when the attackers using siege machines and ladders are near reaching the central castle.

Inside the castle the exhibit shows what everyday life, both civilian and military, is like. One can see the large dormitorium, the room that can take some 2,000 people, also the castle yard, the knights’ hall and the kitchens. Members of the Order of St. John and their associates are trying to repulse enemy attacks, in order to protect their castle, themselves, the people of the surrounding areas that have come to seek shelter along with their cattle, and a great number of pilgrims on their way either to or from Jerusalem who have sought refuge in the castle.

After it had become evident that further resistance was useless, preparations for rendering the castle were made and free departure of the people inside the castle was arranged.

The model of the Bazar of Aleppo tries to present the colours and shapes of market life as it was in the Middle East at the end of the Middle Ages. It has some 750 figurines and thousands of bits and pieces arranged on an area of 13 x 13 feet. Aleppo was an important trade centre and it had a bridging function at the meeting point of the Islamic and Christian worlds.

Aleppo was an important stage on the Incense Road that came from Arabia as well as the Silk Road from China. The city also received goods from India, such as spices and indigo, via the port town of Basra and the Euphrates. Important trade roads joined Aleppo to Baghdad and Mosul to the east, Damascus to the south, and Konya to the northwest. There was coffee from the Yemen, salves and silks from Iran, as well as cotton, pistachios and soap produced locally. This supply also attracted European traders. Aleppo in 1517 had some 70,000 inhabitants, compared to Cologne’s 30,000 and Nuremberg’s 25,000.

Still today the source of Aleppo’s wealth is its large market, the bazar situated in the middle of the city. Here trade and everyday life are inseparable, the traders’ quarter enclosing the central civic buildings such as the Great Mosque, Koranic shools. caravanserais, public baths and latrines. The narrow lanes are lined by small workshops, shops and supply stores, most of them using wooden shutters. The bigger buildings are stone buildings making them weather-proof and safer from fires.

These rows of shops of the bazar, dating from Roman times, were originally arranged along the main road but in the course of time spread to other streets. Thus, in 1930, the bazar of Aleppo had its largest Extent, comprising some 16 hectares. The diversity of goods on offer was easy to manage as each trade was assigned its own specific zone, producing for instance the ropemakers’ bazar or the coopers’ bazar or many others. 

Even today, the bazar is where Aleppo’s economic heart is. Textiles, spices, luxury items as well as foreign currencies and articles for everyday use give the market its liveliness. Modernity and older traditions and goods seem to coexist happily.

To keep the exhibit manageable, a small section of the whole bazar had to be picked out. This is an area of some 258 x 258 feet just by the Friday Mosque, the Citadel Hill and the big caravanserai, which is a place to stay and trade for merchants and traders. Also included is a typically oriental bath, the Hamam Nahassine.

The bureau of well-known Syrian architects did the measuring and documenting of the bazar, supplying the ICRS with the necessary information to create an authentic reconstruction.

Producing the model meant massing a huge range of goods in the quarter represented, thus attempting to document the variety of goods on offer: goldsmiths, silversmiths, ironware workers, potters, carpetmakers, booktraders, goods such as incense, spices, vegetables, fruit, meat and fish, wool and textiles, also furniture, tools, slaves, cattle, all being watched by the buying public. Caravans are shown, along with snake charmers, story-tellers, musicians and belly-dancers. There is a also a group in front of the great Mosque listening to the Koran read to them.

This exhibition Castles and Bazars, presented by the ICRS, aims to reach an even wider public than did French Donjons.

To facilitate this, all texts are presented in four languages, Arabic, English, French, and German, which makes it easier to show the exhibition in Europe, America and the Middle East.

In this project, we do not want to hush up the problematic aspects of a conflict-laden chapter of our common histories.  However we point to the importance of a common cultural heritage, hoping to contribute to a better understanding among our peoples.


Copyright: International Castle Research Society
Stand: 10_05_2005


Dr. Jürgen Jansen, Aachen
Claudia Buchsteiner, Aachen
Copyright: International Castle Research Society
last update: 06_05_2005