Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne
Location and site
Carcassonne is in the Languedoc-Roussilllon region, 60 km from the Mediterranean, at the foot of the Pyrenean Mountains, on a hill overlooking the Aude Valley.
Carcassonne divides into two parts: the basse ville on the banks of the Aude, and the fortified cité. The latter has a double defensive wall 3 km wide. The interior wall, which has 26 turrets including the imposing Narbonne Gate, mostly follows the remains of the Roman ramparts. The base of the walls, whose masonry dates back to the Dark Ages, was reinforced with crenellations in the thirteenth century when the outer wall was built. Its 19 turrets are open on the inside to prevent possible intruders from hiding in them. A ditch adds extra protection to the inner walls. The Counts’ Castle is built up against the western interior wall. It has its own defensive walls and turrets which protected the main part of the building.
Traces of the Roman walls can be seen in these ramparts. The church dedicated to Saint Nazaire and Saint Celsus is found in the north part of the site. Its Roman nave harmonizes with the thirteenth century Gothic transept. Designated a historical monument as early as 1840, this basilica was largely restored by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. As the church was part of the fortifications, he added defence features on the west façade. All in all, the restoration work of Viollet-le-Duc saved the town from destruction, but his slightly too perfect reconstruction has always been controversial.
The historic town of Carcassonne is an excellent example of a medieval fortified city whose enormous defenceworks were built on ramparts that date back to antiquity. It owes its importance to the restorations by Viollet-le-Duc in the second half of the nineteenth century which were formative in the development of conservation principles and practices (criteria ii and iv).
- In the sixth century BC an oppidum, or fortified town, was built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Aude Valley. This site was a commercial crossroads between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and between the Iberian Peninsula and other parts of Europe.
- As part of the Roman Empire from the first century BC, the town was given the name Colonia Iulia Carcaso in 27 BC.
- The ring of fortifications was reinforced during the fourth and fifth centuries by Visigoths from the Danube region who had settled in Languedoc. They held Carcassonne until 725, when the town fell to the Saracens.
- The Saracens ruled until 759, when Pepin the Short conquered the Moors in Frankish territory and hounded them out of Carcassonne.
- Between 1082 and 1209, under the feudal rule of the Trencavel dynasty, Carcassonne was immensely influential and even opposed the Pope by offering asylum to the Albigensian heretics, or Cathars.
- In the twelfth century, the Trencavel Viscounts undertook to rebuild the Counts’ Castle on the west part of the remains of the Roman ramparts. In spite of its defensive earthworks, Carcassonne fell under papal rule in 1209 after a two-week siege during Pope Innocent III’s crusade. With this defeat came the decline of the Trencavel dynasty and the fall of the Cathars.
- Carcassonne was later annexed to the French Crown and surrounded with fortified walls, making it almost impenetrable. It is this look of a late thirteenth century medieval fort that still characterizes the appearance of Carcassonne.
- Now an inaccessible royal fort, Carcassonne was never to be conquered again. Even the battles of the Hundred Years War and the sixteenth century Huguenot attacks could not touch it. At the foot of this fortress-town grew up a new district called “Bastide Saint-Louis.”
- Under the former government and during the Revolution, Carcassone was a genuine arsenal. But removed from the list of military fortresses in 1820, the site became a simple stone quarry.
- In 1850, the destruction of Carcassonne was almost a fait accompli when the archaeologist and historian Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, accompanied by Prosper Mérimée, stepped in to suggest how it could be saved. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, renown restorer of French monuments, took over and made Carcassonne his restoration showcase. He worked on it until his death in 1879. The work, not without its detractors, was completed in 1910, when the classically medieval appearance of Carcassonne began to draw many visitors.