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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Place of Endless Violence

Wilson44691 / Public domain

The black Golan shimmers in late spring heat. The hills are already tawny and spotted with stunted trees like a hyena's hide. Far to the north there is still snow on the Hermon. The vista seems peaceful, but it is a lie. Not so very long-ago shells rained down on farms and towns. It is an endless cycle. Death lurks beyond the river in the dry summer soil, and on wire fences yellow and red signs warn that these fields are mined. This is truly a land that eats up its inhabitants, a place of perpetual violence. Perhaps it has to be so; the landscape more or less demands it. It would not do for this to be a casual place of mundane doings. After all, this is the rift between Africa and Asia. This is where the continental plates clash, where the rock has been torn asunder.

How appropriate then that perhaps the shortest-lived crusader castle ended its life here in violence and death. The Templars had been like bothersome flies on a horse's flank, and in a week in August 1179 Saladin shook them off. In October, the previous year they had the audacity to begin constructing a fortress on a low hill, a strategic position controlling one of the few fords across the Jordan on the road from Damascus and in territory he regarded as Muslim. Threats and offers of gold had only entrenched the Templars and encouraged the king, Baldwin IV to come north and support their efforts with a large contingent of soldiers (cum omni regni viribus - "with the entire strength of the army" in the exaggerated rhetoric of William of Tyre).* Within days of commencing the siege and with a partially successful mining operation in the north, the castle fell, some 600 Templars were slaughtered and survivors of the garrison were taken into captivity. Saladin's army then set about systematically dismantling the castle, but before they completed the task plague broke out among his troops and they were forced to leave.

The violence did not end in the summer of 1179, but it was nature's turn next. In May 1202 an earthquake, the most violent of the crusader period, struck the region. "It hit the entire world in one hour" wrote the Muslim historian Ibn al-Dawādārī, and by medieval standards this must not have seemed such a great exaggeration.** Its magnitude is estimated to have been 7.6 Ms and the devastation covered a broad area. In Egypt it caused death and destruction. It created a tidal wave that struck the shores of southern Cyprus. On this Al-Dawādārī wrote: "It divided the sea of Cyprus and created a huge mountain and hit the boats along the coast." In was felt all the way across the Mediterranean, as far as Sicily. Closer at hand it caused damage in the kingdom of Lesser Armenia (Cilicia). It shook the earth far to the east, through Iraq and northwest Iran and throughout all of Syria and the Holy Land. The great Hospitaller fortresses of Margat and Crac des Chevaliers were damaged, the latter was so badly hit that when it was subsequently rebuilt the Hospitallers encased its inner ward with the greatest glacis ever constructed in the Latin East. Other castles were hit and both Muslim and Frankish cities were devastated; Aleppo, Hims and Hama, Baalbek, Damascus, Tyre and Acre among others. In Nablus, al-Dawādārī writes: "...not a wall was left standing." It struck Banias and Hunin (Chateau Neuf). Vadum Iacob, more than two decades abandoned, stood directly over the epicentre, on a branch of the fault line that created the six thousand kilometre long Great Rift Valley, so directly over it indeed that the exact line of the fault can be easily observed today in the north and south where the 4.3 metre thick walls are torn as if they were nothing at all, and the entire eastern half of the hill has moved intact 1.6 metres to the north.

One can read brutality in some locations, even when they appear superficially placid, and past violence continues to echo across this landscape. But there is calm here too. Time has enabled that. Time has smoothed things over. The Upper Jordan flows by, swift but silent, a narrow white ribbon snaking its way between the low hills that close in on either side. To the south the land opens out like the broad wings of an eagle, and in the open space beyond, the Sea of Galilee is a plate of blue glass.

But if we are to think this place has suffered enough indignities, we are rudely shaken out of that fallacy. Someone has torn the great basalt slabs from the bathhouse in an act of wanton vandalism.

* William of Tyre, Chronicon, 21.25(26), ed. R.B.C. Huygens, Turnholt, 1966, vol. 2, p. 997.

** Quote from Sarah K. Raphael, Climate and Political Climate. Environmental Disasters in the Medieval Levant, Leiden and Boston, 2013, pp. 139-40.

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