Middle East

Saint George Versus the Dragon

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Saint George is traditionally considered the patron saint of England. His legendary victory over the dragon is seen as symbolic of the power of the English people to subdue their powerful enemies. His red cross on a white background is the basis of the British Union Jack flag. In earlier years it was carried into battle as a standard. The image of George the dragon slayer has been used since the 1800s on English gold coins. However, none of the stories connected with this figure describe him as coming from the British Isles. The story reached England in the medieval period – the time of the Crusades. People were attracted to this tale of bravery and chivalry. In the course of time its foreign origins were forgotten and it began to be seen as an English tradition. It is not a coincidence that George has been the second most popular name given to English monarchs.

The George and the Dragon story

There are several versions of this story. Usually it is set in North Africa. One story recounts how the brave knight arrived in Libya after a very long and arduous trip by land and sea. Here he met a hermit who told him about a terrifying dragon that was terrifying the people of Libya. The dragon had an unpleasant habit of devouring young maidens. The problem the country faced was that all the young maidens had been eaten with the sole exception of the king’s daughter. It was her turn to be the dragon’s lunch tomorrow. The King of Egypt was offering his daughter in marriage to any brave knight willing to rid the land of this dragon.

This was exactly the kind of challenge George was searching for. He galloped off the valley where the beast lived just in time to see the princess of Egypt being led to this grisly death. He comforted her with the news that he was off to kill the dragon and she need not fear. True to his words he rode on to the cave where the dragon lived. The huge beast with a fifty foot long tail and a huge head was understandably furious at this intrusion on its territory. It came out of its cave roaring like thunder. George charged at the dragon and speared it but its scales were so thick his spear broke. George was dismounted but found refuge under a magical tree conveniently on hand for some emergencies. The tree’s magical powers shielded him against the dragon’s poison. When he had recovered from the failure of the first attack he went after the dragon again with his sword. The dragon doused him in poison and his armour fell apart. Everything was almost lost but George noticed just in time that there were no scales under the wings of the beast. He struck it under its wings with his sword and at last succeeded in dispatching the monster.

Interpretations

On the most basic level George and the dragon is an attractive fairy story. We learn about the triumph of good over evil in a manner that leaves no room for alternative interpretations. On a deeper level it is easy to detect in the persona of the dragon a symbolic representation of our fears of the unknown, or situations we perceive as very threatening. The dragon can be seen as almost insurmountable obstacle or approaching terror threatening our very existence. The conquest of the dragon shows that we have the abilities to overcome our most dreaded enemies with sufficient determination and courage. These ideas appeal to individuals. They also clearly held appeal for an island nation fearing invasion from its more powerful Continental neighbours.

If you want to connect the dragon slaying with some episode in early history, there is no evidence that Saint George is modelled on a person whom we know lived in a certain historical period. However, it is interesting to note that many cultures have stories featuring dragons. Some scholars suggest that one explanation for this maybe the survival of dinosaurs into a much later period than we used to believe. The theory has always been that dinosaurs died out before man came on the scene. These scholars postulate that early man might have seen dinosaurs and conceivably needed to defend himself against them. If this really was the case there may have been a real prototype for Saint George – an ancient warrior who fought and killed one of these prehistoric monsters. His exploits would have been talked and sung about for generations and so this story may have a germ of truth in its origins. More prosaically the stories of dragons may have been sparked by the discovery of dinosaur skeletons, which would certainly have the power to terrify a superstitious and uneducated farmer. In truth, we will probably never know.

By: Zoran Krdzic in newhistorian.com

 

The Travels of Marco Polo

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Originally dictated in a Genoese prison cell, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ straddles the line between travel literature and adventure story. The teller of the story, Marco Polo, claimed that the work was based completely on fact, compiled from his travels around the world. The book was hugely popular in Medieval Europe, despite being widely referred to as ‘The Million Lies’.

Marco Polo was not the first European to venture into Asia, but he traveled much further to the East than any before him, and, according to the book at least, became much more integrated into the cultures there. The real key to the work’s success is the imagination and energy put into the descriptions of Asia, Africa and the Mongol Empire. The work often seems fantastical, partly because some of the things Polo described were indeed made up, but also because the language used is so colourful it seems unbelievable.

The adventure to the East actually started when Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle, set off for Constantinople in 1260. From this journey they ventured into the lands of the Mongolian tribes, eventually reaching the court of Kublai Khan. The Polos returned to Europe, eventually arriving in their home city of Venice in 1269. Upon his return, Nicolo discovered he had a son, Marco Polo. The Polos, who had promised Kublai Khan they would come back to Mongolia with Catholic missionaries, eventually set off on their return to Asia with Marco and two Catholic friars, in 1271. Although the friars eventually gave up on the journey, the Polo’s returned to the Khan’s court, where Marco became a confidant of Kublai Khan.

Marco Polo remained in the Khan’s court for seventeen years, and was sent on a variety of missions and errands, allowing him to travel in previously uncharted territories. Through his service he explored much of what is now China, as well as venturing into India, and crossing over to Sri Lanka. A recently revealed map, attributed to Polo and signed for authenticity by his three daughters, is believed to sketch out the coast of Japan and Alaska. The origins and veracity of the map have not been confirmed, but some researchers have claimed that it proves Polo’s travels actually took him as far as the shores of North America.

‘The Story of Marco Polo’ details his experiences in this period of his life. It includes descriptions of the journey from Acre (in what is modern day Israel), through Persia and then onto the Khan’s palace in what is now Beijing. The Polos traveled over a series of overland trader’s routes, what would eventually become known as the Silk Road. As well as providing detailed descriptions of Polo’s experiences in the Khan’s court, the book is just as crucial for its depiction of the journey along the Silk Road, providing information on the cultures and landscapes the Polo family encountered.

Some critics question the validity of the text, pointing out that there is no mention of Polo in the detailed records of the Khan’s court from the thirteenth century. They also point out that despite Polo’s extensive stay and travels in Asia, he never made reference to major landmarks, such as the Great Wall, or distinctive cultural traits, such as eating with chopsticks or foot binding.

Polo himself eventually returned to Europe in 1295. He became involved in a conflict between Venice and Genoa, during which he was captured and imprisoned. While incarcerated he met Rustichello, a writer from Pisa who started to write down Polo’s stories.

Whether these stories were a complete fabrication, or just heavily embellished by Polo or Rustichello, they remain a fascinating document. The book was pivotal in shaping opinions on Asia and the Mongol Empire, long after its publication. Whether the book is factually accurate or not, it cannot be denied that the stories within, as well as the history of Polo himself, make it a fascinating read.

By: Daryl Worthington in newhistorian.com

Mounted Archers’ Fearsome Arsenal Revealed

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Military history is often obsessed with innovation. Length of spear or range of firearm are viewed as decisive factors in the rise and fall of civilisations. If one group gains a particular advantage, they gain in power and conquer those reliant on an outdated method of fighting. This is, however, not always the case.

In Iran, incredibly few military innovations occurred in the 800 years after the year 550 CE. We must understand this period as one of essential functionality in terms of the military system. It would be incorrect to view Medieval Iran as a dysfunctional society, under continual upheavals as a result of constant military innovation.

Eduard Alofs has been examining this period of Iran’s history. He notes that by understanding Medieval Iran as a stable and well-functioning military system, we are able to view how Iranian soldiers behaved. “It also opens up the possibility of using the vast amount of sources from this period to reconstruct this military system,” Alofs writes in the report of his findings, published in the most recent edition of the journal War in History.

One of the most enduring images of Iranian warriors is of the mounted horse archer. It was these fearsome warriors who defeated Roman legions when they ventured eastward into Arabia.

Of course, the Iranian military did not solely consist of mounted archers. Alofs notes that numerous sources from Medieval Iran attest to a large contingent of unarmed support personnel.

“The armoured horse archer, could only function in battle with his full equipment, some of which might be his personal property,” Alofs explained. “[Numerous sources describe] clerks carefully [noting] the equipment each soldier had brought at his own expense, so that he would be compensated and the deficiency would be supplied from the government arsenal and stables.”

Throughout the Medieval period, the equipment of Iranian mounted archers remained incredibly consistent. Reports of what weapons and armour each soldier had reveal that every horseman was required to carry a bow and lance; swords were also common. For protection, a metal shirt, helmet, and armour for both arms and legs were worn. Round shields were used frequently and armoured hoods were commonly worn underneath the helmet as added protection for vulnerable areas. Horses, also, were usually well protected.

Alofs notes that large numbers of support personnel were required to facilitate large, heavily-armed cavalry forces. These included “various kinds of craftsmen, such as masons and bricklayers to repair or erect fortifications, carpenters to build artillery, bowers and blacksmiths to repair the arms and armour of the soldiers, and tailors, cobblers, and saddle-makers to repair their other equipment.”

It is clear that the mounted archer, prevalent in Medieval Iran, was a formidable fighting force. For 800 years they were the most effective military entity in the Arabic world, as evidenced by their continuity throughout the Medieval period.

Alofs’ work allows us to properly glimpse their full power, as shown through their fearsome array of weapons and armour. He also emphasises that these warriors required significant support from unarmed personnel.

This stratification of people in the Iranian military allows us to glimpse the social structure of the time: those who could afford arms and horses were superior to those who could not. Interestingly, these lower ranks were expected to follow armies on campaign, providing support and maintaining the army.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Yaan

By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com

Acre: The Crusaders’ Last Stand

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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 Huffingtonpost

Medieval European Perceptions of Islam

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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

Acre is hungry for another crusade, this time against urban decay

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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.

Khan al-Omadan

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.

Three museums

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.

The port

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.

Future facelifts

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.

Useful information

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 Haaretz.com

Saladin’s long shadow

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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.”

Spontaneous charge

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].

in Haaretz