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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Apocalyptic Times and Dubious Reliance

Based on images by NASA, Public Domain

In a second-hand bookshop I noticed the title: The Unfinished History of the World. Well, I thought, thank Heavens! And how very astute of the author to qualify his title in this manner, and thereby reassure those of us who feared that the end was, if not already here at the very least imminent. What with this raging pandemic, and more important, the astronomical news accompanied by some very explicit visual dramatizations of recent near misses with asteroids and predictions of more on the way, it has seemed that not only the end of humanity is approaching, but indeed the end of all forms of life on the planet, except perhaps cockroaches - creatures from which we have much to learn. Of course, there is really no need for us to panic. Humanity can rely on NASA to send up a rocket with a nuclear warhead that will destroy the asteroid before impact... Am I not mistaken?

For the Frankish settlers in the crusader states, it would have frequently seemed that the apocalypse was imminent. It must have been so in the summer of 1187 and pretty much constantly through the later decades of the thirteenth century. And it must have been the case for the Frankish citizens of Jerusalem in the summer of 1244. A mere fifteen years after the Holy City had been recovered through a treaty between Frederick II and the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil, Jerusalem was once again under siege. There is no detailed account of the days leading up to its fall, but it was, beyond doubt, a very fearful time for the small Frankish population within the city walls. I have elsewhere discussed conditions in Jerusalem in the period between 1229 and 1244.* Textual and archaeological evidence suggests that, although it had not returned to its pre-1187 state, Jerusalem had in fact revived and even flourished in those years, but there is very little information on the number of Franks living in the city. That it had a fair-sized population is at least suggested by the patriarch of Jerusalem, Robert of Nantes' who wrote in a letter to western prelates, that more than 6,000 citizens fled prior to the slaughter.** This time the besiegers were Turks from the region of Khwarezm, today in northwest Uzbekistan. After the Khwarezmian Empire had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1220 these warriors became mercenaries, and particularly aggressive ones at that (Robert referred to them as "the cruellest of all men). In 1244 hordes of Khwarezmians came to the aid of the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt in his efforts against the Franks. Sultan al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub had offered them the Holy Land as an alternative to their lost homeland. They arrived suddenly in the north in the region of Tiberias and Safed, then came south and occupied all the territory between Le Toron des Chevaliers (Latrun) and Gaza. The patriarch wrote that the Franks had been relying on Muslim aid against such threats, and were expecting to be provided protection by the sultans of Damascus, Homs and Kerak, as well as of the local Muslims, with all of whom they had made treaties. Considering the century and a half of belligerency between Christians and Muslims this might seem remarkably unrealistic, but it is just an example of the pragmatism that guided both sides, Christians and Muslims, on more than one occasion, not least, in the case of the 1229 treaty itself that had returned the Franks to Jerusalem. But relying on these promises proved in this instance to be fatal. When the Khwarezmians attacked most of the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem had no choice but to flee. Robert writes: "With their families and possessions they started out through the mountainous country, trusting in the local inhabitants, but these cruel inhabitants killed some of them and captured others - men, women and even nuns - to sell to other Saracens." The siege of the Holy City began on 11 July and on 23 August the Tower of David capitulated. Robert writes that " front of the Sepulchre of the Lord they disembowelled all the remaining Christians who had sought refuge inside its church. Two thousand Christians were killed below the city walls and in the plain of Ramla the Khwarezmians massacred most of those who had survived.

* Adrian J. Boas, “Return to the Holy City: Historical and Archaeological Sources on the Frankish Presence in Jerusalem between 1229 and 1244” in Tell it in Gath. Studies in the History and Archaeology of Israel. Essays in Honor of Aren M. Maeir on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday, Ägypten und altes Testament 90, eds. Itzhaq Shai, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Louise Hitchcock, Amit Dagan, Chris McKinny and Joe Uziel, Münster, pp. 1028-1050.

** Malcolm Barber and Kieth Bate, trans., Letters from the East. Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th and 13th Centuries, Farnham and Burlington, 2013, no. 68, pp. 142-46. Ibid., p. 143.

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