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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Note from the Past

One must flow with the times, but who does not miss those simple things of the past. I recall forgotten and cherished possessions: a pocket warmer that ran on lighter fluid, a tiny Sony transistor in its leather cover, a Kodak Brownie box camera, my first small record player in its pale blue fake-leather case. So many things have vanished, things that once had seemed to be as permanent parts of our lives as bottle openers and toothbrushes. Vandalised and abandoned public telephones remind us how our lives have moved on. Post boxes, formerly found on street corners, are now found on computer screens. How rarely one gets to experience the anticipation on tearing open an envelope. Our mail, like so much else has become "virtual"; a word the meaning of which says it all - having the essence or effect but not the appearance or form. Our lives have become two-dimensional. But letters... one unfolded them, the paper had a feel to it, a texture, a scent. Letters were prized possessions.

In the early 1920's, during repair work carried out in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, workmen examining a pier in the south-east of the building found two pieces of folded paper, one inside the other, hidden under a layer of plaster between stones. The outer one, poorly preserved, was written in cursive Arabic, possibly by a local Eastern Christian and addressed to the Templar seneschal, Gerard of Ridefort. It concerned the provision of materials intended for restoration work on the Temple Mount. Unfortunately it appears to have been lost since the discovery. The inner piece has survived and is today kept in the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount. It is regarded as important less for its contents, although that too is very interesting, than for the fact that it is the sole known surviving Latin document found in the former crusader states.

Of the information it contains, not a great deal can be said. After its discovery it was shown to the Dominican priest and scholar, Félix-Marie Abel, and he published a brief description of the discovery and a short translation and analysis of its contents.* A few scholars have returned to it in discussing the Templar presence on the Temple Mount.** The letter is so brief and so out of context that indeed little can be said. It was addressed to the Templar preceptor in Jerusalem, Brother Eudes de Vendôme. It contains two names, that of the writer and that of the subject of the letter. The writer was the seneschal himself. Gerard is an important historical character at the most dramatic time in the history of the kingdom of Jerusalem and so we are reasonably well-informed of him. He was a knight of Flemish or perhaps Anglo-Norman origins who became a Templar after recovering from a serious illness. He rose in the ranks of the order, and, as noted, at the time of the letters served as the seneschal, a senior administrative position usually involving the overseeing of staff, servants and labourers. Subsequently, in 1184 or 1185, he was elected to the highest office of Grand Master. This was shortly before the Battle of Hattin. Gerard had been a supporter of the royal faction of Queen Sibylla and her husband Guy de Lusignan in the succession struggle that followed the deaths of Baldwin IV and Baldwin V. In the Battle of Cresson in 1 May 1187 he was wounded but was among the few survivors. His Hospitaller counterpart, Grand Master Roger de Moulins was among the dead. Gerard was one of the chief supporters of Guy’s fateful decision to march against Saladin in July 1187 with disastrous outcome for the Franks. He was a prisoner until 1188. On his release he defended Tortosa, against Saladin led the Templar contingent in the Siege of Acre, fell once again into captivity and was executed by Saladin on 4 October 1189.

Of the other character, the protagonist of the letter, Robert of Sourdeval, we know nothing at all beyond what Gerard wrote. This was basically that he had arrived in Tyre, and having carried out some sort of misdemeanour was arrested, deprived of his habit and transported under guard to Acre from where he was to be sent back to Europe by ship. But who was he and what crime had he committed? His name informs us that he was either himself from the town of Sourdeval, which is located in the Avranches region in west Normandy, or at least that he was a descendant of a knight from that town, and indeed we know of a Norman knight also named Robert Sourdeval or Sourval (Rodbertus de Surdis Vallibus) who was active with Roger de Hauteville, led the besiegers of Catania in Sicily in 1081 and subsequently participated in Bohemond of Taranto's contingent of the First Crusade. This Robert appears to have remained in the East and his son, Walter (Gualterius de Surdavalle) held the title of constable in 1134, possibly serving as the personal constable of Alice of Antioch. Of Robert's crime we can only guess. Was it a serious breach of the order's protocol or perhaps there was some political scheming behind it? We have no way of knowing. The Templar Rule gives a long list of crimes for which a brother would lose his habit, but this crime was serious enough to warrant banishment from the kingdom, which would suggest that it was of a particularly grave nature. And how did the letter end up buried in a pier in the palace? Who put it there and why? As with all great discoveries we are left with more questions than answers.

* Félix-Marie Abel, "Lettre d'un Templier trouvée récemment a Jérusalem", Revue Biblique 35, no. 2, 1926, pp. 288-95.

** Benjamin Z. Kedar and Denys Pringle, "1099-1187: The Lord's Temple (Templum Domini) and Solomon's Palace (Palatium Salomonis)" Where Heaven and Earth Meet. Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade, Jerusalem and Austin, 2009, pp. 146-47; Benjamin Z. Kedar, "Vestiges of Templar Presence in the Aqsa Mosque" in, Karl Borchardt, Karoline Döring, Philippe Josserand, Helen J. Nicholson, eds., The Templars and their Sources, Crusades Subsidia 10, 2017; Denys Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, vol. 3, Cambridge, 2007, p. 432.

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