On a Bird and a Bastion
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
The ousel cock so black of hue/With orange-tawny bill/The throstle with his note so true... Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, Scene 1
They are among my favourite birds. I love them for their unpretentious beauty and for their song. They come to my garden, rustle about in the soil seeking worms, bath in the fountain, the females speckled and subdued, the males debonair in their pitch-black plumage, bold orange beaks and legs. Their song is the most beautiful, melodious fluted warble, repeated and subtly varied.
The thrush or common blackbird (Turdus merula) is known as the merle noir in France, the colley (for its coal-blackness) in parts of England. Turdus conceivably is for tardiness, for it is a migratory bird and those from Scandinavia and north-west Russia arrive in south-western Europe and the British Isles at the very commencement of winter. The beauty of its song explains the well-known nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, which is a homage both to the blackbird's abilities as a performer, and perhaps to its tastiness, for they were indeed eaten, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for perceived medical benefits as a cure for dysentery or diarrhoea. What else was in its symbolism? In Christian lore the blackbird appears sometimes as a temptation - St Benedict was tempted by the Devil in the form of a blackbird, sometimes as a trial. An example of the latter is described in a poem by Seamus Heaney, St Kevin and the Blackbird, in which a blackbird lays an egg in the saint's open hand and he must remain through rain and sun, his hand open to serve as a nest "until the young are hatched and fledged and flown."
Merle, Marle, Mirla, Merula, Merlu, Merlon or Merla Templi - these were the diverse forms of the name of a small castle located at Tantura or Tel Dor on the Mediterranean coast between 'Atlit and Caesarea. It stood and its remains are still to be seen on a southwestern promontory of the ancient tell overlooking the entrance to a small bay on the south. The castle was surrounded by steeply dropping rock down to the sea and had a moat on its east beyond which extended the site of the ancient town. I have a special affection for this place. Dor was my first dig, sadly not the crusader remains but a few metres and several millennia to its east in what I think was known as Area D. That was where I first participated in a somwhat frustrating two-week excavation into sterile sand. The pleasure of the coastal setting made up somewhat for the disappointing lack of finds, and I came back later to be employed variously as driver to the dig director, field-artist set to draw the small finds (mainly erotic Roman lamps reserved especially for me by my colleagues in order to witness my reaction to their very explicit scenes) and finally as an area supervisor. I did not give much thought at the time to the castle, of which almost nothing could be seen. Later some remarkable finds were recovered near to it, including some exceptionally fine pieces of intact, glazed Cypriot pottery of thirteenth century date. More recently excavations of the castle have begun and I eagerly await their publication.
But what was Merle to the crusaders? Was the name an old one, perhaps translated or distorted as so often happens or was it a family name carried over the sea? It seems likely that it was the latter. A certain Walter of Merle (Gualterius de Merula), appears as a signatory in a document recording a grant of properties and tax reliefs made by the lord of Caesarea to the Hospital of St John. Who was this Walter of Merle, and who were Wido de Merlon/Merlou and Eude dou Marle who appear in other documents? We are frustratingly in the dark with regard to these characters. They must have been minor landowners who settled here in the early twelfth century and were granted holdings by the lord of Caesarea. There are places and families named Merle in Spain and in France. The ruined Château de Chantemerle is located in the French department of Savoie in the commune of La Bâthie overlooking the hamlet of Chantemerle and the Valley of Isère. Better still, for it is connected to a Merle family, is the rather spectacular Tours de Merle, a group of fortified towers in the commune of Saint-Geniez-ô-Merle in the Corrèze département of France. These towers were built in the eleventh or twelfth century and occupied by the Merle family and their allies, the Veyracs, the Saint-Bauzilles, the Rochedragons and later the Carbonnière and Pesteils families. Was it one of these Merles who went East, settled at Tantura and built the castle? Did he perhaps have a connection to the Templars, or was it one of them who sold the castle to the order at some point in time?
Merle in later times became known as Khirbet el-Burj. But there is nothing in that; it is merely a generic name, applied to many Frankish towers. Remains of the tower, battered and decayed like a rotted tooth, were still partly standing in the 1870s, but collapsed in 1895. In the Survey of Western Palestine, it is described briefly before the tower fell:
"The Tower is apparently Crusading work, and stands on a low promontory, the harbour being on the north and a sandy beach and bay on the south. A deep moat separated the tower from the town. The height appears to be about 40 feet, and the base measures 20 feet by 40. It formed the corner of a fortress and the foundations of another corner tower are visible near. The whole is built of rubble and small stones in hard cement, and faced with ashlar... Remains of a circular staircase can be seen on the south side of the tower, and on the east face there is a pointed arch in the wall about half-way up."
Merle's history has all but vanished. The fort was a Templar possession until 1187 when it was occupied by Saladin as he proceeded south through the defenceless coast after the Battle of Hattin. When the army of the Third Crusade led by Richard I took the same route in the autumn of 1191, marching south from Acre they rested here briefly before proceeding to Caesarea. The coast was recovered, and at some point the Templars returned to Merle. In the thirteenth century (the date is uncertain) when Château Pèlerin was under attack, a certain Templar brother named Baudoin de Borages who served as commander of the knights and who had been outside the castle at the time of the attack, pursued the Muslims "as far as Mirla". He did so against the advice of his scouts and in spite of the fact that the enemy far outnumbered his men. The Muslims surrounded him at Merle and when he attempted to lead a charge and break through their lines to reach the shore it ended in disaster. Most of his men died or fell into captivity and Bauduin permanently lost his position of authority and was sent off in shame to the West "until the things were forgotten". This is a minor episode, but with so little else one clings to it as a fragment of Merle's past, which is about as nebulous as are its present physical remains. Merle was, however, important enough to appear in two lists of places that were lost to the Muslims, alongside many far more important places; first in 1187 after the Battle of Hattin and in a second list summing up all the places lost by 1291.
If Merle had any degree of eminence it was because of its Templar ownership. Like Château Pèlerin it was ascribed by John of Ibelin to the Lordship of Arsur, rather than to that of Caesarea although it was clearly in the territory of the latter. Perhaps, as Steven Tibble suggests, this reflects the semi-independent status of the Templars. They had come to possess extensive territorial holdings that included several properties, prominently among them these two castles and Cafarlet (Habonim) between them.
1. Revised Regesta [online - http://crusades-regesta.com/] nos. 302, 322; John of Ibelin, Livre des assises de la haute cour, Recueil des Historiens des Croisades: Lois, i, Paris, 1841, p. 424.
2. Claude R. Conder and Horatio H. Kitchener, Survey of Western Palestine. Memoirs of the Topography, Orography, Hydrography and Archaeology, London, 1881-83, p. 8.
3. Helen J. Nicolson, The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, p. 241.
4. Janet M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge, 1992, p. 164, no. 640.
5. Revised Regesta, no. 1239; Nicholas Coureas and Peter Edbury (trans.), The Chronicle of Amadi, Nicosia, 2015, no. 476, p. 223, n. 6.
6. Steven Tibble, Monarchy and Lordship in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099-1291, Oxford, 1989, p. 101.