Tartus is thought to have been established by the Phoenicians as a service town for the island of Arados (Arwad) and given the name Antarados (meaning ‘Anti-Arados’ or ‘Opposite Arados’). It wasn’t until the time of the Byzantines that Antarados became important – it’s said that the emperor Constantine preferred the Christian community on the mainland to the island pagans, and the town became known as Constantina. With the Byzantine empire’s collapse, the town passed into the hands of the Arabs, from whom it was wrested in 1099 by the Crusaders.
Under the new moniker of Tortosa, the town was strategically important for the Crusaders’ sea links with Europe. They turned Tortosa into a fortified stronghold and built a cathedral in honour of the Virgin Mary, who had long been associated with this site. In 1152, after Muslim forces had briefly taken Tortosa, control of the town was given to the elite Knights Templar.
In 1188 Saladin led another Muslim assault and forced the Crusader knights to fall back to the main fortified keep, the town’s last defence. This they held, and eventually the Muslims withdrew. The Knights Templar set about refortifying the town and defending the approaches with a series of castles. These precautions enabled them to hold Tortosa against a further two major attacks by the Mamluks, but eventually, as the remaining Crusader strongholds in the Holy Lands fell, the knights retreated to Arwad. There they maintained a garrison for 12 years before finally departing for Cyprus.
The town languished – hence its modest size – and only began to flourish once Syria gained independence. With the subsequent partitioning off of Lebanon and the handing over of the Antakya region to Turkey, Syria found itself with only one functioning port (Lattakia), making it necessary to revive Tartus.