On a Castle of Sand
Walking along the north shoreline, we came upon a dead sea turtle on the sand, seemingly intact and beautiful, hiding, but for the telltale hint of putrefaction in the air, its inner corruption. Very different from this castle, which flaunts its wounds like a beggar flaunts his sores.
'Atlit is a symphony of decay. Its massive walls are shattered by vast fissures; its broad vaults have mostly collapsed. In the west, where it faces the full brunt of the westerly wind and the waves, the soft windblown sandstone has crumbled almost entirely away, and what remains is like a mouthful of rotten teeth. In this state, it is deceptive. T.E. Lawrence (then not yet "of Arabia") visited 'Atlit in 1909 and came away with a complete misunderstanding of this colossal Templar fortress. He saw in it evidence that the knights had learnt nothing from the Byzantines, and that rather than following long established and proven precepts of fortification, they had built "a stupidity", a castle that was "simply unintelligent" and that relied solely on "brute strength".* In this Lawrence was uncharacteristically very far from the mark, but he may be excused as at the time of his visit the castle was encrusted with village houses. It was only two decades later that excavations exposed enough of it to enable an appreciation of its true nature, and to reveal that it in fact possessed a very sophisticated design incorporating many of the elements that Lawrence had lamented on it having lacked.
Later the fortress was cut off from public viewing, sealed within a military compound. It quickly receded into its former disease, the slow leprous dismemberment by the wind and rain and the ceaseless pounding of the waves. Only now, after seven centuries of abandonment, and seven more decades of neglect, the first steps are being taken to preserve and record what has survived.
We are in awe at 'Atlit, but like Shelley's traveller from an antique land, not by its grandeur, but by its ruin. It is a portrayal of futility, and a testimony of the pitiful truth that even the most flamboyant displays of insuperability do not stand the test of time.
* T.E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles, Oxford, 1988, p. 71.