Knights of Malta
MODERN authors don’t have to look far for inspiration. Often, it’s right there on their shelves in learned tomes of history.
Some of the stories are truly fantastic. Others are simply amazing examples of human behaviour.
Dr Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University school of History and Politics says she finds the use of history in popular modern fiction fascinating.
“These are clearly engaged with much of the historic literature, particularly for the medieval period,” she said. “And, as a historian, you watch it, and you’re constantly thinking ‘yeah that’s good’, and ‘no, that wouldn’t happen’, except it’s fantasy so you can’t get annoyed!”
Dr Barclay points out that history and fantasy have had a long and close relationship: The first novels were called “histories” and purported to be based on real events.
“They often were,” Dr Barclay said, “at least to the level that they featured real historical characters if re-imagined to suit the sensibilities of the era”.
And such “re-imagining” is central to the history-fantasy link. The same story is often retold in different ways over hundreds of years, with each incarnation pitched at the tastes and expectations of a new generation, she said.
“But the most inspirational tales for modern writers and audiences are not necessarily those based on the most outlandish stories or supernatural events, but those that relate to unexpected human relationships.”
Here’s just a sample of some of the most eye-catching historical sources you may recognise in popular books, films and television shows.
CAUTION: There are some Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
SCOTLAND’S ‘RED WEDDINGS’
The “Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones had fans in shock, with several characters cut down. However there is a precedent — clan-based slaughter in the north of Britain.
“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” Dr Barclay said.
The brutal slayings, while not weddings, were regarded as particularly heinous as they breached strict moral codes of hospitality.
In 1691 a terrible betrayal saw most of the key members of clan MacDonald massacred.
The Scottish clans had been summoned to produce a signed document swearing allegiance to King William of Orange. The MacDonald clan, delayed through a series of misfortunes, delivered their oath several days “too late”.
Several months later, a troop of 120 men under the king’s Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonald’s estates in Glencoe and claimed shelter from the harsh weather.
Hospitality was duly offered, but, after a fortnight of enjoying the MacDonalds’ food, drink and card-games, the soldiers slew about 40 of the clan as they slept in their beds in what would become known as the Glencoe Massacre. The 40 or so women and children that escaped died of exposure.
An earlier, similar, massacre has gone down in history as “The Black Dinner”.
In 1440 the young Earl of Douglas (traditionally called the Black Douglas), 16, and his younger brother David were invited to dine at Edinburgh Castle with 10-year-old king James II.
The story goes that the young nobles were getting along like a house on fire, enjoying food, entertainment and each other’s company until deep into the evening. Suddenly, legend has it, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the dining table.
The two Black Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, and beheaded.
The young king was not likely to have been to blame. The Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, had issued the invitations as he felt the Black Douglas clan had grown too powerful.
THE REAL DRAGON SLAYER
If “Smaug” the dragon from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gets your blood racing, imagine what impact the real thing would have had on medieval Europe.
The only encounter with a “dragon” recorded in history happened on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in the 1340s. The question is, what was the beast really — a crocodile? A giant lizard?
According to the Order of St John’s archives, the beast had established a lair to the south of the fortified city of Rhodes. There, it had begun preying on the local livestock and maidens.
Several Knights Hospitaller are said to have set out to prove their valour by tackling the dragon. After they failed to return, the Order’s Grand Master firmly ordered a stop to such expeditions.
One, however, ignored the order. The French knight Dieudonne de Gozon decided to take on the beast personally. He gathered as many descriptions as he could of the animal from the country folk who had seen it and built a scale model.
He then trained his dogs to attack the creature and practised angles from which he could attack it with his sword and lance.
Once confident, he sallied forth into the countryside and slew the dragon. He was then summarily expelled from the Order for disobedience.
But the public outcry from the peasants about how poorly their hero had been treated soon saw “the Dragon Slayer” restored to the Order and he ended up becoming Grand Master himself in 1346.
“The Rhodes story is not the only crocodile as dragon story going around,” Dr Barclay said. “There is one for St George too — only the crocodile got to Essex! We don’t really know if it was a crocodile, that’s just what a 19th Century scientist thought when he saw a skull in Rhodes that they claimed belonged to the dragon. Given that selling relics was big business during the medieval period and there was 600 years for a ‘dragon skull’ to go missing, decompose (or never exist in the first place) and be replaced with that of a crocodile by an entrepreneurial relic salesman, we don’t really know the truth here. Maybe there really was a dragon!”
HISTORY’S HORRIBLE FAMILIES
There is a reason why the likes of the Tudors keep appearing in books and on our screens. Many were truly awful people from absolutely horrible families.
“Games of Thrones is fascinating,” Dr Barclay said, “not just because of the gruesome deaths and sex, but because these are families defending lineages, committing incest, being wiped out in a single generation.
“We get behind the families because of their relationships to each other, not just because they have dragons.
“Wendy Moore’s Wedlock (a tale described by The Independent as a “misery memoir” of how Georgian Britain’s worst husband met his match; it is “crammed with corrupt surgeons, questionable chaplains, fallen women and gossips”) is also fascinating because of the manipulative and abusive relationship between husband and wife. Then there was Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire — which became the movie The Duchess — a story about a dodgy threesome.”
There is also the true story of James Annesley, the heir to the estate of Anglesea. He was abducted as a child in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Britain to discover his uncle had inherited his estates. He won the first trial, but died during a drawn-out 10-year appeals process. This inspired stories such as Memoirs of an Unfortunate Nobleman, Peregrine Pickle and The Wandering Heir.
The magic of a glittering, all-dominating sword is a powerful icon of hope and victory. In the case of magic swords, it may be an idea burnt onto our cultural heritage by history.
Some say the legend of Excalibur could have been born from the impact a high-quality Roman sword would have had if it had survived into the Dark Ages of Britain. Such a refined, well-made and strong weapon could indeed win almost magical status among its enemies.
This is likely what happened some centuries earlier, as the Bronze Age collapsed before the onrushing Iron Age. The new grey metal swords cut through bronze as if it was butter. Whole armies could fall in the face of a smaller band of iron-equipped men.
Iron’s impact was not just felt on the battlefield. The entire economy and social structure of Europe was turned on its head as it shifted away from bronze to the tougher, easier, more common metal.
Even the story of pulling Excalibur from the stone may be a cast-back to a long-forgotten time. Bronze blades were cast in moulds of stone before being pulled out and polished.
Iron was to experience a similar revolution when the refinement of steel emerged. It’s an arms race that has never ended. And each age would most likely have had its own “Excalibur”.
But such magic-history links are rare, Dr Barclay said.
“The ‘magical’ element of fantasy allows us to set aside our practical concerns (’that wouldn’t happen’) and go with the story (‘it isn’t real, so that’s fine’), despite the fact that what drives the story could often happen without the magical elements,” Dr Barclay said.
THE BLACK WATCH
The romantic notion of a band of outcast warriors living on the fringes of civilisation who have taken a binding oath to protect the ignorant and ungrateful people they left behind is a common one.
It was no less popular when it was a reality.
The Knights Templar are well known for their supposed mystical secrets and the staged trial that accused them of such. But their real purpose also has passed into legend.
In the early 1100s, a small band of knights resolved to police the roads of the newly captured Holy Land for pilgrims making the dangerous journey from Europe.
To save their souls and prove their devotion the knights adopted the rigid rules and lifestyle of monks, with the added responsibility of protecting Christendom from all its enemies.
The idea spread like wildfire: Soon every second son in Europe was clambering for permission to win glory (and a secure lifestyle) within a rapidly expanding network of farms, forts and fleets all designed to feed equipment, knights and soldiers to a distant chain of castles protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Many other Orders sprung up, imitating the idea: The Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights were among the largest.
However, the trials and tribulations of the hot and volatile Holy Land soon caused the chivalric dream to lose much of its gloss. As such, many in the later ranks of the Templars were drafted from “grey knights” who had committed crimes or lost the support of their lords. In return for their service, these warriors were promised the limited freedom the Order offered — as well as a chance to fight, pursue a career and save their souls.
WINTER IS COMING
In fact, it’s already been. Several times.
We’re talking weird seasons that last for years — not the typical annual event.
In 536AD a 10-year winter kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere. Scribes in Europe and Asia reported bitterly cold conditions that seemed to never end. The sun was darkened, they said, and remained “small” even into the depths of summer.
Famine, war and plague quickly followed as crops failed and hungry hordes started streaming south.
Tree rings and ice core samples have since confirmed these events and tied the decade-long winter to the eruption of a supervolcano in El Salvador. But many academics consider that is in itself not enough to explain the duration of this winter. Some say Earth may have also passed through Halley’s Comet’s dusty tail.
Another unusual winter struck Europe in 1816. Known as “The Year without Summer”, hunger once again quickly swept across Europe as crops shrivelled up.
This event has been tied to the 1815 super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dust in the upper atmosphere from this eruption produced an average 1C drop in temperatures worldwide.
From Game of Thrones to The Narnia Chronicles, myth continues the reality.
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.
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
In 1565, being on the small island of Malta in the Mediterranean meant the possibility of war. The Ottoman and Christian empires were scrambling for position. Frequent raids on trade routes and territory battles were commonplace. For the Knights of Malta, war was business as usual. Little did any of them know that their preparations for war in the spring of 1565, and the way they fought through the summer, would define the outcome of one of the greatest territorial battles in medieval times. Jean Parisot de Valette, grandmaster of the Knights Hospitaller (later to be known as the Knights of Malta), was given the terrifying honor and opportunity to lead the knights.
They did their research: War took a long time to get off the ground in 1565, and Valette, a seasoned and dynamic leader, knew this. He sent his spies into Constantinople (not Istanbul) in the fall of 1564 and received intelligence well in advance that the Ottomans were amassing a force and planned to assault the Mediterranean. Although historians are unclear on the exact number, it is estimated that more than 48,000 men in 193 ships launched from Constantinople to attempt to take territory, including Malta. The Knights of Malta: 500 strong.
They prepared: Valette’s response to the intelligence was immediate and focused action. He created coastline garrisons and started recruiting fighters from the civilian population. Training commenced for the civilians while crops were harvested early or destroyed on the majority of the island, preventing the presence of easy supplies for the enemy forces. He became an active voice in his community, quickly rallying allies and uniting dissenters in the population. By May, as the Ottoman fleet made landfall on Malta, he had grown his force to over 6,000 men.
They picked their battles: As bombardment started on Malta from the Ottoman invaders, the knights patiently waited to engage the enemy. More than 100,000 cannonballs fell on Malta during the summer of 1865. Civilians and knights took refuge. At St. Elmo, a courageous force of 1,500 men would hold their positions despite overwhelming odds while under siege. St. Elmo, a strategic fort in the harbor, would hold for sufficient time to allow the knights to call for reinforcements from Europe to Malta. Although all 1,500 defenders were killed during the fight for the fort, taking St. Elmo cost the Ottomans more than 6,000 men, and nearly a month of the summer. (War was a seasonal business back then.)
They leveraged their advantages: As the Ottomans shifted their attack to St. Michael/Birgu, Valette was careful to take account of their strategic advantages. On receiving intel that the Ottomans were building siege towers, a crew of engineers and knights tunneled out under the wall of the city and destroyed the apparatus. When the Ottomans broke through the walls of the city, Valette rallied a small force of 100 men, and with focused attacks, he drove the Ottoman force through the narrow streets of Birgu and out. Valette was 70 at the time. In each case in which the Ottoman forces overextended themselves, Valette took full advantage and committed only necessary responses, eventually causing complete desperation among the Ottoman forces.
They knew when to strike: As the Ottomans loaded their artillery back onto ships in preparations to leave, reinforcements pressed the retreat, further decimating the Ottoman fighting force, pushing them onto their ships and ensuring that Malta would be uncontested in the near future. Though about a third of the knights had perished and only about 600 men able to fight remained, the knights had inflicted more than 35,000 casualties on the Ottomans. Malta would not fall until the invasion of Napoleon some 200 years later.
Courage is rewarded: Valette’s efforts during the siege of Malta were recognized widely. Money began pouring into the island to strengthen the knights. With this sudden growth in resources, Valette founded the current capitol of Valletta, and strengthened Malta as a strategic defensive position for Europe.
History teaches many lessons, and the student of history begins to see patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed. For the business owner or the business banker, defining and using these key lessons can put us in good company.
In: Vail Daily
By: Ben Gochberg, commercial lender and business finance consultant.