The History of Coastal Towers goes hand in hand the political and military evolution of the Kingdom of Naples. Fortifications were built in Southern Italy over and eight-hundred-year period from the 9th to the 17th centuries. The original towers were cylindrical in shape, tall and with small windows. Their main function was to sound the alarm when pirate ships were sighted through the lightning of fires, allowing the local population to find shelter into the hills and grottoes inland from the coast.
Increased Raids during the 16th Century led to Development of More Complex Coastal Defenses
Naples Viceroy Don Pedro of Toledo ordered the construction of massive, square-shaped towers with thicker external walls. The transition from circular-shaped towers to square-shaped ones was spurred by the introduction of artillery requiring fortifications whose functions now included sighting, signaling, shelter as well as the use of offensive weapons that could hit a ship approaching the coast.
Communications were carried out through a series of visual signals – smoke in the daytime, fires by night as well as acoustic signals such as bells, or shots from a cannon or arquebus, a precursor of the rifle. When a pirate ship was sighted from one tower, one of these signals would be used to warn the people of the area to prepare to fight or flee. The signal would be passed from tower to tower, up and down the coast, passing the word quickly and effectively. The ground level floor had no windows and was set directly above a large cistern to guarantee a constant water supply. This space was used to store food and munitions and contained a millstone for grinding wheat, making the tower self-sufficient.
Saracen Towers can be viewed along the Southern Italian coastline from Gaeta to the Sorrento peninsula, the Amalfi and Cilento coasts. There are over 350 towers, including 30 along the coastal strip from Vietri sul Mare to Positano. Some have been restored and incorporated into modern buildings in small harbors such as San Marco, Pisciotta and Marina di Camerota. Further south, around Cape Infreschi just before reaching Scario, there are cliffs along the coast unreachable by road; here the original coastal towers stand just a few hundred yards apart.
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The Term Saracen has shifted over time. Ptolemy’s Geography from the second century mentions Sarakene as a region in the northern Sinai Peninsula and refers to a people called the Sarakenoi. For Italians during the middle ages it meant Muslim invader, from the Arabs who rode the initial wave of Islamic expansion into Spain and Sicily in the 8th and 9th centuries to the Ottoman Turks who took Constantinople in the 15th century.
Coastal Watchtowers were also as a point of reference for friendly ships. The towers were generally manned by a military team of four guards and a horseman, who often remained outside the tower ready to ride into town to carry a warning as soon as possible.
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