In my youth summer meant spending a great deal of time at the beach, swimming, exploring rock pools, poking beached jellyfish, walking out in the shallows onto the sand banks and feeling the pleasant hard pressure of the sand ribs on the soles of my feet, clambering over the twisted tea tree scrub above the beach, tasting the salt in the air, sucking the sourness out of stems of sour grass, drinking Coke and eating sandwiches that in spite of occasional intruding grains of sand tasted like heaven. And mostly I recollect lying on my back on the soft sand, imagining myself floating on a wave-less sea, pleasurably observing the variations of the red to orange of sunlight through my closed eyelids and enjoying the caress of the cool breeze on my warm skin. Summer was a time of complete release, a way of making up for the tedium and the pressure of a seemingly endless school year.
My summers are rather different now. They involve a great deal of walking over rough and steep terrain in the heat and humidity of a Mediterranean August (admittedly less walking than in the past as we now have access to a 4 by 4 jeep), lifting heavy stones, not so easy as I approach my eighth decade, digging in the dust that billows up as the eleven o'clock breeze arrives; dust in my hair, eyes, ears, my nostrils, bits of stone in my shoes, thorns, the recollection, revived by occasional encounters, that scorpions are under some of these stones and snakes not very far off. Sometimes the thought momentarily arises - why not forgo excavations this year and stay at home, sleep in my own bed, sit in the garden with a book, a cup of coffee and the company of my step-cat (I have been adopted), enjoying for one entire summer the comforts of home. But these thoughts never last. The anticipation of what we might find, the pleasure of teamwork, the intimacy with these ruins and the beauty of these Galilean hills are enough to enable me to overlook such minor discomforts.
We have just begun removing the uppermost debris that fell into these vaults when after taking Montfort in the summer of 1271 Baibars and his army set about systematically dismantling the fortress. This basement that we are digging stood below the ceremonial hall of the castle and below sumptuous apartments where the castellan probably resided. We know of the luxury of these upper storeys from previous seasons and something of this nature is now again indicated in some of the ashlars we have uncovered, decorated with pink, ochre and white painted plaster, fragments admittedly, but reconfirming the quality of life in a military order castle.
Everywhere at Montfort the extent of Baibars’ dismantling operation is obvious. In a manner it must have been a more dramatic event than the conquest itself, even though it was of somewhat shorter duration. Both events were brief, the siege and conquest taking fifteen days and the dismantling another twelve. The evidence for the siege is discernible in a few places: in two unsuccessful attempts at undermining (one below the vault we are now excavating), in the presence of some 40 or so stone projectiles found on the western side of the upper ward which had been hurled there during the siege, and in hundreds of iron arrowheads. But these are minor when compared to the evidence for dismantling which is everywhere and is substantial. Walls throughout the castle are shattered, all of the upper storeys are destroyed (with the single exception of the base of a pier – the only still-standing remains of the halls where the brothers lived) and only two of all the vaulted chambers in the castle are still partly intact.
The dismantling operation must have shaken these valleys to their very roots. In imagining it I recall once observing a heavy shelling that took place in a valley further north, and the sound that accompanied it, a great noise that reverberated through the valleys and between the hills and that to my mind sounded like nothing more than the clang of a giant iron door being slammed shut.
4-5 August 2019