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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Theory of Relativity

Northwest corner of Jerusalem on the twelfth century Cambrai Map. Turris Tancredi stands just inside the corner (from Wikipedia Unknown author/Public domain)

My son has just given me a collection of essays by Umberto Eco, On the Shoulders of Giants, that was recently translated into English.* The opening essay discusses the well-known medieval aphorism that Eco himself put into the mouth of his main character, William of Baskerville in his novel The Name of the Rose: "We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants...", meaning that though we cannot ourselves reach the heights of achievement of those great men who came before us, their attainments lift us up and enable us to go further than they could. Eco begins his discourse by stating that he had always been fascinated by the historic tension of dwarfs and giants. I might well say the same. In my childhood a dwarf who lived in our neighbourhood fascinated me, and though I had not personally met any giants, I read about them often enough in children's stories. My interest found a form of expression many years later when my sons were small and I would invent stories for them about two characters, one being a dwarf giant, the other a giant dwarf (so basically both the same size and neither giant nor dwarf).

This brings me back to the topic I considered in my last post in which I discussed the Tower of David in Jerusalem. I mentioned that in the eleventh century the Fatimids had added a new tower to city's defences and named it Burj or Qasr Jālūt - Goliath's Tower (برج جالوت/قصر جالوت), no doubt a play on the presence of the far more important David's Tower at a topographically lower position on the western defences. The presence of Goliath's Tower just inside the north-west corner of the city is logical at this vulnerable point in the defences where the land rises beyond the wall.

Goliath's Tower may have served a role in the 1098 Fatimid attack on the city, then in the hands of the Seljuks, but there is no detailed description of that offensive. However, it certainly did so the following year. During the June-July siege by the armies of the First Crusade, the corner of the city and the tower came under direct assault by troops led by the Norman knight Tancred. When in July the crusaders finally got their hands on enough wood to build three siege towers, one of these was used by Tancred's men at this location until it was destroyed by the Greek Fire hurled at it by the defenders.

Because of his importance in the crusade and in the capture of Jerusalem, when, after the conquest a new tower was built to replace the damaged Goliath's Tower, it was named Tancred's Tower - Turris Tancredi. Probably its construction took place fairly soon after the conquest, as refortifying the city, then still under threat, would have been a priority. It was certainly in existence by 1130 when it is referred to by the pilgrim, Rorgo Fretellus. Its importance, however, does not appear to have been great, and we hear no more of it in accounts of the city through the twelfth century, indeed not until quite late in the thirteenth century when the city is under Mamluk rule. At the end of the century the Dominican friar, Burchard of Mount Syon, wrote:

Now the rock whereon, as aforesaid, the west wall of the city was built was very high, especially at the corner where the west part of the wall joined the north part. This place was much loftier than the rest and here was built the tower called Nebulosa, and an exceedingly strong castle, whose ruins are still there. From it one has a view of Arabia and Jordan and the Dead Sea and many other places.**

So, it would appear that by Burchard's time, although Tancred's Tower had been destroyed, remnants of it still stood sufficiently high to allow the view of far-off places. He refers to it not by the Frankish name, which, no doubt the Mamluks had dispensed with, having had no great affection for that Norman knight, but by a third name, one that expresses its prominence, even as a ruin. Nebulosa (nebulous) means cloudy/foggy/misty (like the nebula in space - interstellar clouds of dust and gases), which might be interpreted as referring here to it being of ruinous and unclear form. That was certainly how it appeared by Burchard's time, though it appears, as if intact, on the fifteenth century on the Comminelli map of Jerusalem where it is labelled Palaz[z]o Antico. Its remains can still be seen on nineteenth century photographs as a massive lump of shattered masonry of no clear form.*** But more likely, Nebulosa refers to the tower being lofty and reaching the clouds (hence the word's application in the name of a variety of North American and western Eurasian owl - Strix nebulosa).

* Umberto Eco, On the Shoulders of Giants, Milan, 2019.

** Burchard of Mount Sion, Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, English trans., Aubrey Stewart, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 12, London, 1896, p. 65.

*** Parts of these can still be seen at the external base of the Ottoman walls and inside the city, incorporated in the building of the Collège des Frères.

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