On the morning of the 31st March, 1282, the Sicilian Vespers came to an end. The night of rioting and massacre which had started on Easter Monday proved crucial in the history of Sicily and also had a significant impact on the broader history of the Mediterranean in this period.
The revolt, which gets it name from the Hour of Vespers ceremony where it supposedly began, started on the 30th March and is believed to have been triggered by an Angevin soldier stopping a Palermitan woman outside the church of Santo Spirito di Palermo, to search her for weapons. Although details of the event of course vary depending on the source, it seems the soldier somehow offended the woman, triggering a riot against the Angevin-French among the local community.
Reflecting the deeply ingrained tensions in Sicily’s multicultural society, the rioting spread through Palermo and then the whole of the island. The local Sicilian population attacked and killed Angevin people wherever they could be found, going as far as murdering monks and nuns. The rioters supposedly used a simple test to determine the Sicilian population from Angevin. Anyone believed to have originated from Anjou was asked to say the word “ciciri”, something native French speakers could not do in a convincingly Sicilian accent.
In the annals of Medieval history, the revolt was a unique event. A spontaneous, popular uprising which affected political change. Following the night of the 30th to the 31st March the Angevin-French fled Sicily, and the people of the island eventually secured the support of the King of Aragon who sent troops there in August 1282. Although the revolt seemed to have occurred without any pre-planning, it is important to acknowledge that the uprising against the Angevin-French rulers was not completely without premeditation.
Since 1266 Charles of Anjou, with the support of the papacy, had ruled Sicily from Naples. Deeply unpopular in Sicily, Charles’ strict rule incurred the wrath of normal Sicilians, but his unpopularity in a broader context was just as significant. A group of Italian nobles, known as the Ghibellines, supported the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor rather than that of Charles and the papacy. Peter III of Aragon, a rival of Charles for the Neapolitan throne and one of the main beneficiaries of the uprising, also had a clear interest in altering the status quo on Sicily. The Night of the Sicilian Vespers may have been a demonstration of popular dissatisfaction at Charles’ tyranny, but there were a diverse range of groups with an interest in ending the Angevin presence on Sicily.
The revolt was followed by series of sea skirmishes and land battles between Angevin and Aragonese forces, sometimes referred to as the War of the Vespers. The fighting finally came to a close in 1302, with the Peace of Caltabellotta. The treaty saw Charles II, the son of Charles of Anjou, concede Sicily to King Frederick, a relative of Peter of Aragon. Sicily was now firmly under the sphere of Spanish influence, a situation which would persist for another five centuries.
Historians have since argued that the Sicilian Vespers, and the subsequent war, proved crucial in the failure of the crusades in the Eastern Mediterranean. Charles of Anjou and the Vatican had been planning to send troops to take Constantinople when the uprising started. The need to divert resources to Sicily put this campaign on hold. Although one of many factors which ultimately led to the failure of the crusades, it is not a coincidence that the fall of Acre in 1291, a pivotal defeat for Christians in the Middle East, took place during the War of the Vespers.
Indeed, the significance of events in Sicily in the broader context of Mediterranean history in this period can be seen in the theory that the Aragonese and Sicilian forces received financial support from Byzantine. Although the scope and nature of this support cannot be confirmed, it hints at the complex political workings of the period.
The Sicilian Vespers revolt was an expression of popular dissatisfaction at the harsh rule of Charles of Anjou over Sicily. This moment of rebellion by Sicilians however, can only be truly understood in the broader context of Medieval history.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Enzian44
By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com
Memo to visitors to Israel: If you get a chance, don’t miss the crusader fort at Acre, a ride of about an hour and a half from Jerusalem. You’ll spot it on the map (it’s alternately called Akko) a little north of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. To understand what you’ll see there, here’s a short history of the port – starting with a meeting in the 11th century thousands of miles away.
Nov. 27, 1095, was a red letter day in medieval history. Actually, it was a red cross day, that symbol having been proclaimed by Pope Urban II as the icon of a planned crusade to retake the Holy Land from its Muslim invaders.
Speaking at the Council of Clermont — a meeting of hundreds of clerics, noblemen and onlookers in southern France — the Pope hoped to recruit fighters with this pitch: “Here (you) are poor and miserable sinners; there, (you) will be rich and happy. Let none hesitate; (you) must march next summer. God wills it.”
So in the fall of 1096 a crusader army of tens of thousands of knights, vassals and serfs went charging off to the Holy Land using “God wills it” as their battle cry. Three years later, after slashing their way across Europe, Constantinople and the Mediterranean coast of the Holy Land, the Christian forces not only took the city of Jerusalem but went on to create the Kingdom of Jerusalem – a 360-mile-long strip of land stretching from Lebanon south through modern-day Israel and western Jordan down to the Gulf of Aqaba – among several crusader states.
Fast-forward two centuries, through seven more major crusades (and several smaller ones) and many more battles. During this period Muslim armies recapture the Kingdom of Jerusalem, then lose part of it again during the Third Crusade led by King Richard the Lionheart. The crusaders carve out another kingdom, but fail to take Jerusalem. Instead, they build a new capital at the Mediterranean port of Acre.
But things go south for the crusaders again, and by the late 13th century the conquest of the Holy Land has pretty much fizzled out. The caped knights have been booted out of just about every place they took, and now they’re down to their last “God wills it” stronghold — at Acre, where the cross of the crusaders had been flying (on and off) since 1104.
The crusaders’ last big holdout crumbled in 1291 when the flag of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt was raised over Acre. Later on, the Ottomans captured the port and held on to it until the onset of World War I, when the Brits took over. The Union Jack flew over the port until the State of Israel was created in 1948.
Visitors to Acre will see the remains of all these cultures – and before them those of the Romans, Greeks and Canaanites, among others – in what’s left of their walls, battlements, churches, mosques, baths and courtyards. Tours of the city typically wind up in an underground labyrinth of domed halls and walkways, once the home of monastic military orders such as the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers.
Among subterranean eye-poppers awaiting tourists is a 1,150-foot-long stone tunnel used by the Templars as a protected passageway between the fortress and the port. Also featured down there is a commercial street that passed through the Hospitaller quarter, high-domed knight halls, a huge dining room and a central courtyard – all painstakingly restored to offer a jump back in time to the days when guys wandering around with crosses on their tunics ruled the roost around these parts.
In 1087, a joint Pisan and Genoese force attacked the North African town of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia. Christian forces returned to Italy triumphantly and used their spoils of war to construct commemorative churches.
A number of Arabic and Latin sources from the time testify to the events surrounding the raid of Mahdia.
One of the most important Latin sources is the poem Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum, ‘Song for the Triumph of the Pisans’. The Carmen, written by a Pisan cleric only months after the raid, commemorates the expedition.
It has often been argued that the raid on Mahdia – conducted under the banner of St. Peter against a Muslim ruler – was a direct precursor to the First Crusade which followed eight years later. The Carmen is often viewed as providing context for the development of a crusading ideology in the eleventh century.
A pioneering new study has taken a fresh look at the Carmen. Matt King, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the Carmen as a means of understanding Christian perceptions of Islam.
“An examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade,” King writes in his article, published in Hortulus, a graduate journal on medieval studies.
It is usually suggested that Pisan interests in North Africa were primarily commercial, with military activities receiving less attention. King argues that there was a certain level of coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and Islamic states, while the Carmen reveals a different side of the story where religiously-charged rhetoric could be applied to justify violent ends.
The Mahdia raid can be located in a wider context of Pisan military activities in North Africa. Pisa had been involved in military actions against Muslims throughout the eleventh century; briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.
“The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean,” King notes.
Importantly, the Carmen makes frequent Old Testament references in an effort to locate Pisan activity in a Biblical tradition. Within this framework, the inhabitants of Mahdia take the form of Old Testament villains who feel the wrath of God. In contrast, King argues, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favour of God, are able to defeat their adversary.
“Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story,” King notes. “In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient narrative.”
The portrayal of Islam in the Carmen is a multi-faceted one. Pisan attacks are understood as an epic confrontation, similar to the Old Testament and classical tales. Further, the doctrine of the Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia is portrayed as a form of heretical Christianity. Taken together, these depictions of Muslim Africa reveal a medieval Latin understanding of the area as a place and people of the utmost evil.
King notes that the Carmen is, however, a triumphant poem. The author is consciously contextualising the Pisan-Genoese raid in a tradition of God-willed triumph. Simply taking the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam at face value, therefore, may misrepresent the Latin understanding of Islam.
“If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa,” King concludes, “we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifriqiya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims.”
For more information: www.hortulus-journal.com
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: DrFO.Jr.Tn
By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com
On the 13th January 1128, Pope Honorius declared the Knights Templar to be an army of God, providing official papal sanction to the military order. Works of fiction, speculative history and conspiracy theories about the Order have since generated a cloud of intrigue and mystery, with modern myths defining the Knights Templar as much as historical reality.
The Order was founded in 1118, in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1095-99). Following the success a number of ‘Crusader States’ were established in the Middle East, centred around Jerusalem, and pilgrims from Western Europe began to venture into the Holy Land. A weakened military presence in the region however, meant that the hold on these newly captured territories was precarious, and Christian pilgrims were frequently attacked by Muslim raiders.
A group of French Knights, led by Hugues de Payns, vowed to protect Christian pilgrims, and created a religious community towards that end. The king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, gave the Knights quarters in the the Temple of Solomon. For the first few years the Knights Templar consisted of only nine French knights (and their entourages), restricting them purely to escorting pilgrims. From such humble beginnings however, they grew into something far more significant and powerful, in both Europe and the Holy Land.
The organisation and regulation of the order was based on the Benedictine Rule, and in particular the interpretation adopted by Cistercians. The white robe with a red cross, the insignia of the Order, was based on the white robes of Cistercian monks. The Knights had to swear a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, and renounce the world. They took on lives reminiscent of monks, although they did not devote themselves to the study of scripture, and were not constrained to a single monastery. Individual knights were prohibited from owning property, but the Order itself was not, something which would come to be a cause of great controversy.
In 1127 de Payns started a tour of Europe, with the aim of recruiting more knights and securing donations. The tour was successful, with the nobles of Europe making substantial donations of land and money, and scores of new knights being recruited. The increase in numbers and resources saw the Knights take on greater importance in the Holy Land. Assuming responsibility for the protection of the Christian states located there, they invested in the construction of castles and fortifications, as well as fighting against Muslim armies. It has been estimated that some 20,000 soldiers of the Knights Templar lost their lives during the Crusades.
The fall of Acre, the last Crusader stronghold, in 1291, signaled the failure of the Crusades, and the role of the Knights Templar came into question. By this point they had become hugely significant in European politics and economics. The Order owned large swathes of land across Western Europe, as well as in the Holy Land. Their network of property and military strength meant they were often employed as bankers, used to transport money from Western Europe to the Holy Land, and back. They had become far more than a military order, and there is evidence to suggest that many secular leaders, including royalty, found themselves in debt to the Knights Templar.
A combination of the mystery surrounding the Templars, their growing secular power and the failure of the Crusades, ultimately brought about their end. The initiation rituals of the Order were shrouded in secrecy, as was much of the knight’s day to day practice. In 1307 the Order’s grand master Jacques de Molay was arrested at the behest of King Philip VI of France and Pope Clement V. The Order was accused of practicing heresy, sacrilege, Satanism and homosexuality. Under torture de Molay and other leading Templars confessed to the charges, and were burned at the stake in Paris. It seems the charges were a calculated move, such accusations led to popular mistrust of the Templars, and the secrecy surrounding the Order gave the charges an air of credibility. It should be noted however, that it has since been proved that the charges were fabricated. In 1312 Clement officially dissolved the Order, awarding their assets to a rival order, the Knights Hospitalers.
Since its destruction, the fascination with the Knights Templar has expanded, sometimes with tragic effect. Whether considered as a secret force for good or evil, it seems they continue to linger in the world’s consciousness, and continue to be associated with secrecy. The Templars are often linked with the legend of the Holy Grail or with conspiracies involving the Catholic Church. In the eighteenth century they were accused of starting the French Revolution, and linked to the Freemasons. More recently, novels such as the ‘da Vinci Code’ have tied them in with international clandestine activity, while an American historian has rather sensationally argued that the Templars in fact fled to North America, settling there a century before Columbus discovered the New World. Most disturbingly, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Brevik made heavy reference to them in his manifesto, claiming to have reformed the order.
As mentioned above, the Knights Templar were ultimately dissolved as a consequence of their growing power, and the secrecy that surrounded them. It seems that these same factors have facilitated the development of the legends, myths and conspiracy theories that surround the Order. The story of the Knights Templar tells us a great deal about Europe during the time of the crusades. The story of how we remember them can tell us a great deal about the world in the seven centuries since their dissolution.
By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com
The northern city’s rich heritage is blighted by neglect, casting a shadow on its many gems, including the Turkish bath, Crusader citadel and knights’ dining hall.
Acre is a dreamy, ancient Mediterranean seaside resort. It goes back millennia, which you can see on the spot.
“There are very few cities like Acre – it has a lot of history, a mixture of religions and unusual sites that you can weave a good story around,” says Kawas, manager of the new hostel at the entrance to Acre’s Old City.But Acre is, in many respects, a place that has failed to realize its enormous tourism potential.
In 2001, Acre and Masada became the first two places in Israel to be declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. But there is no comparison today between the number of visitors to Masada – which for several years running has topped the list of the most visited sites [requiring entrance fees] in Israel – and the still meager number of tourists who stroll through Acre. A one-day visit to the northern coastal city reveals why: There is a huge gap between the formal sites, which have been developed over the past few years by various tourism bodies, and everything in between. Wandering through the Old City’s alleyways, I was overcome with sadness. So much has been invested in the city over the last few years, yet these side streets, even the ones closest to the main market street, exude neglect.
The main section of the Old City, which is home to several thousand people,is quite small. It takes no more than 20 minutes to cross from one end to the other, but it lacks signs and is not particularly inviting to visitors. Each official site in the old quarter is a gem, but because these gems are not strung together, they fail to create a single piece of jewelry.
Acre is a fascinating city, but it can and should turn into a place that showcases not only isolated tourist sites, but also one that opens a window on contemporary life in the old quarter. In the meantime, here are a few of the gems worth viewing.
The Hospitaller’s Citadel
Something about medieval knights, who came to the Holy Land during the Crusades, sparks the imagination, conjuring up visions of courage. But the reality of the lives of these men in armor, who passed this way just under a thousand years ago, was apparently less glamorous than what the movies portray. Among other things, they required medical treatment and hostels where they could find refuge and safety in the untamed land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The Knights Halls in Acre’s Hospitaller Citadel were the jewels in the crown of the city. It is worth coming to Acre just to see them.
The spacious, lovely halls, which were built in the late 12th century and during the course of the 13th century, have high ceilings and thick walls. The lighting adds a fitting dramatic touch to the visit. The Hall of Columns, which was probably the knights’ dining hall, is the most impressive in the fortress, and causes a sigh of renewed wonder with every visit. A beautiful attraction such as would probably draw hundreds of thousands of tourists if it was in a European city.
Arranged around it are the Northern Hall, the Sugar Bowl Hall, the Art Hall, the Beautiful Hall and the Hall of the Imprisoned.
The Templar Tunnel
The 350-meter-long tunnel runs from the fortress to the seashore, adjacent to the port. It opened to the public in 2007, and for the past few months animated clips have been screened on the walls depicting the history of the Templars. Members of the order helped the Crusaders and the sick and moved to Acre from Jerusalem after its conquest by Saladin in 1187.
The Al-Basha Hamam
The 18th-century Turkish bath is probably the most well developed site in Acre’s Old City. It was built during the days of Acre’s governor Jazzar Pasha, when the city experienced its biggest construction boom. It is obvious that much effort was invested in making a visit here into a multidimensional experience: films are screened on the walls, dolls have been placed in the center of the hall, assorted accessories are scattered around the rooms and pictures and sounds enhance the atmosphere. It is even a little overwhelming, distracting from the beauty of the structure.
The large traders’ khan next to the port is one of the city’s nicest structures and unfortunately has not been developed at all yet. It is neglected and dirty, and visits there are limited to the entrance hall. This beautiful khan deserves better. It was built in the 18th century by Jazzar Pasha, at the same time as the hamam, and when I stood outside it, I tried, unsuccessfully, to understand why such huge sums were put into the hamam, while the khan was left untouched. The Acre Development Company plans to turn the Khan al-Omadan and the adjacent Khan a-Shuneh into a large hotel with 170 rooms, but there are no signs of this happening. In any case, such major plans are always a cause of concern when they involve a designated landmark.
The Treasures in the Walls Museum is the most interesting of the city’s three museums. The building located in the eastern wall of the Old City is exquisite, and the display features many items meant to preserve the local history, crafts, furnishings and arts. The collection is not organized or displayed scientifically, giving one the sense of visiting a big antiques shop. Address: 2 Weizmann Street, in the Eastern wall.
The Okashi Art Museum is located in a 300-year-old arched building. It is a fascinating structure, but one that distracts considerably from the works hanging on the white-washed walls. The permanent exhibit includes works by Avshalom Okashi, who lived in Acre for most of his life, and had his workshop in the museum. Alongside them are rotating exhibits of contemporary Israeli art. Currently on display is the “First Exposure 2012,”a photo exhibit featuring the works of 10 young photographers.
The Underground Prisoners Museum depicts the history of the place when it was a British-run jail that housed members of the pre-state Jewish undergrounds who fought to end the British Mandate. It may be a fascinating place, but memories of a long-ago visit during my school days prevented me from properly viewing the current exhibit and led to a hasty exit.
The Al-Jazzar Mosque
The mosque is known in Arabic as the Jama al-Basha (the Pasha’s mosque ) and is another relic of Jazzar Pasha’s extensive building activity 250 years ago. It is the largest mosque in Israel, after the al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem, and the biggest one built here during the Ottoman period. The trapezoidal courtyard is a beautifully landscaped garden that exudes great tranquility. Scattered around are benches that allow a visitor rest and contemplation. In the center of the courtyard, there is a covered fountain that was used for bathing. The inside of the mosque is filled with decorative touches, rugs and colored glass windows. It is said that a clipping of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair is stored somewhere in the depths of the mosque and displayed once a year. I did not see it. Address: Al-Jazzar Street. The mosque is open all day and closes for short periods at prayer times.
There is evidence that the Acre port existed over 2,500 years ago. In recent years, extensive excavations next to the southern seawall have uncovered fragments of a stone pier, large stone anchors and clay vessels from the Mediterranean isles. The port reached its peak during the Crusader era in the 12th century. It achieved its greatest notoriety in the 18th century when Napoleon besieged the city and was blocked from reaching the port by ships that had been intentionally sunk.
The old port is now a marina; the main attraction is the Pisani port several dozen meters to the west. Two veteran restaurants, Abu Cristo and Doniana, compete for customers. Both have large balconies with views of the port. Not much has changed here in the last 40 years. The children who, in the 1970s, used to jump into the water from the walls above, are today responsible adults and have been replaced by other youngsters leaping into the sea with the same fervor.
The sites listed above have been developed over the last few years by various tourism bodies, including the Old Acre Development Company, the Antiquities Authority and the Ministry of Tourism. A glance at the list of projects the Old Acre Development Company is planning reveals how much work still remains. The list includes the Khan al-Shawarda, the city’s largest khan, where a commercial center and hotel are to be built. The small hamam, currently a dilapidated building beside the Khan al-Omadan, is slated to become part of a hotel. A facelift is also in the works for the Burej al-Quraim, an intriguing site northwest of the city that is considered to be the largest and most fortified seaside fortress – and offers fantastic views. All of these projects, if and when they are completed, will increase the number of hotel rooms in Acre, enhance the state of some buildings and further highlight the necessity of developing the alleyways themselves.
Getting there: Take Highway 4 from Haifa to Acre. At the Ein Hamifratz junction turn left (west ) and travel along the sea. At the first traffic light turn left, and follow the signs to the Old City.
Entrance fees: the Old Acre visitors’ center is in the Enchanted Garden on 1 Weizmann Street. Joint entrance ticket to many sites listed here (the Knights Hall, the Templar Tunnel, the Okashi Art Museum ) may be purchased. Sites are open from 9:00 A.M.-6:00 P.M. daily, including Saturdays. For more information see: http://www.akko.org.il
More than 800 years later, Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, west of Tiberias, still echoes in modern history.
For James Reston Jr., the conflict between the Arab warrior Saladin and Richard I, King of England – one of its climatic battles was fought 810 years ago – still echoes not only in the modern politics of the Middle East, but throughout modern history, from Afghanistan to Lebanon. Reston is not alone in his thinking, reflected in his recently published book, “Warriors of God.” The entire world knows that the Arabs are waiting, with growing impatience, for another Saladin. His total victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, west of Tiberias, is engraved on the collective Muslim memory as one of the greatest achievements of the Arab nation.
It was not by coincidence that the late president of Syria, Hafez Assad, used to meet his Western guests in an office where the victory was depicted in a painting that covered an entire wall. In Damascus, the Syrians still hold demonstrations in front of the heroic, equestrian statue of Saladin near the entrance to the central Al-Hamadiya market. And after the collapse of Camp David 2, all of the Gaza Strip welcomed the uncompromised winner, Yasser Arafat, with a blaze of banners, proclaiming him to be the “Palestinian Saladin.” Watching the inflamed crowd, even Israeli writer Amos Oz had to admit, in The New York Times, that “the specter of Saladin” was once again hovering over the Middle East.
The heroic legacy of Richard I of England, known as Lionheart, has also not been forgotten. The brave king was a cruel warrior, a superb tactician and a well-known lover, and is still one of the most romantic figures in all of English history. Generations of children grew up reading about his adventures at bedtime and riding with him and his knights through countless Hollywood films. According to Reston, he had a brilliant military mind and understood the strategy and tactics of large forces far ahead of his time. However, Richard did not return victorious from the Third Crusade, which he commanded.
The Arabs, of course, see Israel as another Crusade. It is an article of faith for them that through the slow, mysterious, but inevitable forces of history, the Israelis, like the Crusaders, will eventually be forced out of Palestine. “Arab ideology,” writes Reston,” embraces the long view of history: It took 80 years to displace the Crusaders; the State of Israel is scarcely more than 50 years old.”
At this point, one is compelled to remind the American author, who quotes repeatedly from the Koran, that the Jews have ties connecting them to the Land of Israel for 3,000 years. Judea and Samaria are the cradle of Hebrew culture, and Jerusalem was “great among nations and princess among the provinces” – to quote the Book of Lamentations – hundreds of years before the first Muslim reached it. The Israelis do not consider Richard the Lionheart to be their model. In any case, as David Passow, a veteran of the early Zionist struggle, now a professor of history at the Hebrew University and a friend of the author, explained to him, “the difference is that we made it and he didn’t.”
`The city stank’
“Only the First Crusade, was successful, in the sense that it managed to capture Jerusalem,” Reston writes. “In its wake, an orgy of slaughter began. For two whole days, the Christian soldiers massacred every living creature not of their own kind. At the Temple Mount, it was said that 10,000 were killed. In the city as a whole, an estimated 40,000 Muslims were slain – men, women and children, and the narrow alleys turned into rivers of blood. This was something no Muslim could forget.
“If the city itself still stank six months later from the carnage,” Reston writes, “the memory still stank 90 years – and 900 years – later. It was burned into Saladin’s mind and psyche, central to his education and his determination, abhorrent in the extreme.”
The legendary commander, according to Reston, was actually not even an Arab, but a Kurd. He was born in Takreet, in 1137, 40 years after the Europeans had captured Jerusalem. By that time, the Crusaders’ kingdom, although somewhat smaller, was essentially still intact after eight decades of continuous warfare. It was comprised of the greater part of Palestine and the coast of Syria, from Latakia in the north to Gaza and Darom in the south, and from the river to the sea.
However, the constant war of attrition eventually took its toll. The grandchildren of the warriors of the First Crusade gradually lost their European discipline and values and grew accustomed to the pleasures of the East. In due course, some of the occidentals intermarried with Syrian, Armenian and Byzantine women and these unions created a new class of European Syrians, known as Franks. “The Franks shed their woolens and donned the burnoose and turban, the kaffiyeh and the upturned soft slippers of the East. They sat crossed-legged on patterned carpets and feathered divans … perfumed their ladies with cosmetics and their rooms with incense and started to talk Arabic.”
In the 12th century, writes Reston, “Visitors from Europe to the East were shocked at the corruption and hubris, the softness and even effeminacy of their distant cousins. `Hardly one in a thousand,’ wrote the bishop of Acre about his wicked flock and their city, `takes his marriage seriously. They do not regard fornication to be a deadly sin. From childhood they are pampered and wholly given to the carnal pleasures, whereas they are not accustomed to hear God’s words, which they lightly disregard. Almost every day and night people are openly or secretly murdered. Men strangle their wives and wives poison their husbands. The city is full of brothels. Even clergymen, nay, even monks, rent their houses all over the city to public brothels.'”
Resentment of the Crusaders grew steadily. “`They are for the most part untrustworthy,’ wrote the same bishop. `Double dealers, cunning foxes even as the Greeks, liars and turncoats, lovers of success, traders, easily run over by bribes, men who say one thing and mean another, who think nothing of theft and robbery. For a small sum of money they become spies and tell the secrets of the Christians to the Arabs, among whom they are brought up, whose language they speak rather than any other, and whose crooked ways they imitate.'”
Twelve thousand knights, virtually the entire noble population of the kingdom, gathered at the citadel of La Safuri on July 3, 1187. Twenty thousand foot soldiers – the largest Christian army ever assembled in the Holy Land – supported them. Saladin’s army had about 30,000 warriors – other sources later claimed that the actual number was 80,000, perhaps even 180,000, and after the defeat the estimate would soar to 800,000. In any case, the vast plain, west of Tiberias, north of Mount Tabor, was too narrow to accommodate all the warriors and “the dust cloud of their march darkened the eye of the sun.”
The heat was almost unbearable. The fields were barren. The blinding sun rose higher into the east. The Christians were without enough water, and as usual a dispute broke out. The hawks urged the King of Jerusalem, an unimpressive character, to allow them to charge into the enemy. The doves wanted to retreat, even to compromise on Tiberias (“Saladin’s army would probably disperse if it captured Tiberias”). Saladin, as Reston surely knows, was well versed in the Koran and knew that the devil had seduced his enemies into doing the opposite of what was wise.
They charged, were flanked by the Muslims, cut off from behind, pushed into a trap and defeated. After the victory, the prisoners were bound and taken to Damascus. The poor foot soldiers were sold into slavery. Some of the rich knights, who were able to ransom themselves, bought their freedom. However, the will of the Templars and Hospitalers – the very heart of the Christian army – could not be broken. They were unshakable in their dedication and commitment to the cause, and as such they had to be killed.
`”I shall purify the land of these two impure cults,'” Saladin promised, and executed all of them. James Reston, who seems to tread very cautiously around the dignity of the Muslim leader, writes that this massacre was “a singular blot on his record of generosity.”
After the victory at Hattin, the Muslim army moved south and took over Caesarea, Arsuf (which was once Appolonia, north of Herzliya) and Jaffa, and stood outside the walls of Ascalon, the southernmost stronghold of the Latin Kingdom. While negotiating the surrender of the outpost, Saladin’s army took over the lightly defended Gaza, Latrun, Ramla and Darom, and went up to Jerusalem.
“The sanctity of Jerusalem,” reports Reston, in his politically correct manner, “was the very heart of Islam.” 583 years earlier, according to the Muslim canon, the Prophet Mohammed took off from Mecca, landed at the farthest mosque of Jerusalem and, after a lavish feast with all the prophets of the past, including Jesus, ascended to heaven. “The nocturnal journey of Mohammed from the Dome of the Rock,” marvels the American writer, “is one of the great mythic stories of all religions.”
Saladin entered Jerusalem on Friday, October 2, 1187. The sad evacuation of the city lasted 40 days. Among the captive population, women were the big prize. To the Arab scribe Imad ad-Din, “the wailing of the women was amusing, for he regarded all European women as licentious whores, glowing with ardor for carnal intercourse. The mere thought of them sent him into rapturous flights of medieval pornography. European women were `proud and scornful, foul-fleshed and sinful, ardent and inflamed, tinted and painted, desirable and appetizing, exquisite and graceful, seductive and languid …'”
It seemed as though the Muslim men took revenge only against the women of Christianity, states Reston. At the same time, he determines that the manner in which Saladin took charge of Jerusalem secured his reputation for gentility and wisdom forever. His actions “seemed to define what it meant to be a good Muslim.”
Richard Lionheart set sail from Famagusta on June 5, 1191. Three days later, he sailed into Acre bay with his battle group of 25 galleys and took over the command of the Christian army, which laid siege to the city. Soon after his arrival, Saladin sent him baskets of fruit and tried to confuse him with conciliatory gestures and a willingness to make peace – while waging war. All the gifts, the advances and the gestures of compromise throughout the campaign, assumes Reston, were designed merely to determine the king’s state of mind and to undermine his fighting spirit.
Richard was unimpressed. He returned all the lavish gifts and even rejected the rumors that Saladin was contemplating conversion.
After conquering Acre, when it became obvious that Saladin could not fulfill his promise to produce some 600 prisoners of war, the king ordered to that 2,700 Muslim soldiers be tied together. He marched them out of the city and had his soldiers slaughter them, one by one, on the road to Nazareth.
On that fateful day, September 7, 1191 – exactly 810 years before the writing of these lines – the second battle of Hattin, the biggest of King Richard’s life, took place south of Jaffa. Saladin decided to defend Jerusalem on the ground between Alonei Hasharon forest and Arsuf, southeast of Kfar Shmaryahu. Ten thousand Bedouin riders, “blacker than soot,” charged against the Christian phalanx, inching its way toward Jaffa. The terrified Crusaders closed ranks. The danger intensified. Lionheart displayed restraint and maturity, ordering the soldiers to hold back and not to charge. “Why do we not charge them at full gallop?” his men shouted at him. “We shall forever deserve to be called cowards. Never has such disgrace befallen so great an army in combat with unbelievers!”
Finally, a spontaneous charge erupted. The infantry line parted at the center and without the king lifting his hand, the cavalry charged. The Muslim ranks broke in terror and general confusion. The front line was cut down totally. King Richard, the bravest of them all, cut down Arabs in every direction. None could escape the force of his arm. Wherever he turned, brandishing his sword, he carved a wide path for himself. “`Bearded heads lay thick as swaths at harvest time,'” Reston quotes one of his sources. Over two miles, the Muslims could be seen fleeing in all directions. “`Fear alone added wings to the feet.'” Across a wide expanse, the bodies of Muslims were strewn in the sand by the thousands, amid the carcasses of horses and camels.
The Third Crusade lasted for five years. Toward its end, King Richard gave up and did not lay siege to Jerusalem. On September 2, 1192, the two sides signed a peace agreement. The only rights left to the Christians in Jerusalem were those of pilgrims, for a fee. Acre was recaptured by the Muslims about 100 years later and gradually Europe lost interest in the Holy Land. In 1492, Columbus discovered America and everyone turned west, to the New World. Palestine was left in the hands of the Muslims until the 20th century, the British victory in World War I and the rise of the Zionist movement.
“Warriors of God; Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade” by James Reston, Jr., Doubleday, 2001, 240 pages, $27.50
This article was written a few days before the suicide attacks on New York and Washington [in 2001].
On this day in 1096, the armies of the First Crusade officially set out for the Holy Land. They were responding to Pope Urban II’s call the previous November for people of the faith to travel to Jerusalem and liberate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Muslims. The pope chose August 15 because it is the date of the Feast of the Assumption.
His armies were preceded by the so-called People’s Crusade, which was organized several months earlier by the itinerant preacher Peter the Hermit and decimated by the Seljuks in Anatolia before ever making it to Jerusalem.
While reclaiming Jerusalem was the pope’s nominal goal, he was also responding to an appeal for help from Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, who too was fighting off Seljuk Muslims from the east. Only on June 7, 1099, the pope’s Crusaders, led by Raymond of Toulouse, Robert of Normandy and Tancred, arrived in Jerusalem, which the Fatimids of Egypt had by then wrested from Seljuk control. After a siege of more than a month, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on July 15. Their new Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted until it was routed – almost completely – by Saladin in 1187. The Crusades continued until early in the 14th century.