• Adrian J. Boas

On Bethgibelin - an Elusive Settlement

The Founding of Tel Aviv, 1909 [National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept. Goverment Press Office]

As I was only about three at the time, I am not at all certain that this is a real memory. Perhaps it was something I was told or imagined, but it certainly had its roots in something real, and I can picture it in my mind as a real event. I had been taken by my father to a place on the edge of the countryside where a new suburb was being laid out. We had come to look at the plot on which my parents would build their own new house. This suburb was part of the vast post-war expansion of suburban Melbourne, and my father had purchased the plot of land from the sale of an old weatherboard house that he had received through a program of compensation for returning soldiers after spending five years away from home during the Second World War. There were open grass fields and a dirt road along which my father navigated between the potholes, and plots of land marked by posts and string or wire. What makes me hesitant about the veracity of this memory is that when I returned here many decades later, the narrow road had become a broad and busy highway and the open fields were so densely built up that it seemed this could never have been such an untouched country landscape in my lifetime.

One day, around the middle of the twelfth century, a group of settlers gathered at the Hospitaller fortress of Bethgibelin, ancient Beth Govrin. There is no description of the actual gathering but perhaps we can imagine it having been similar to the founding (pictured above) of Ahuzat Ba'it (later Tel Aviv), where, on a fine spring day in 1909 a group of settlers gathered on the sand dunes north of Jaffa and held a lottery in order to fairly assign the plots of land among the settlers. A document regarding the conditions of settlement at Bethgibelin, has however survived. Dated 1168, it records the names of the settlers (32 families), the size of the properties they received from the order (about 62.5 hectares each), what they were required to do in return (mainly to pay taxes and tithes in the form of agricultural produce), and what their rights would be as free settlers and residents on the Hospitaller-owned land.* The land was divided up, the stone houses were built, olive trees and grape vines were planted, mills and wine presses were set up and a church was constructed against the south wall of the fortress.

Bethgibelin was just one of many Frankish settlements that appeared following the conquest of Ascalon in 1153, sprouting like mushrooms after the rain throughout the southern part of the kingdom. Fortresses like Bethgibelin had given the land owners and the settlers a sense, an illusion perhaps, of security. It was one that would prove to be very short-lived, but at that time the idea that the danger of raids and perhaps even invasion had receded appears to have seemed real enough to allow the Hospitallers to convert their fortress from its military role to entirely administrative one. Less than two decades later, with the rise to power of Saladin, the threat would return with a vengeance.

The village of Bethgibelin has so far proved elusive to the archaeologist's spade. Although extensive excavations have been carried out in and around the fortress, they have not revealed a single Frankish house, and only the presence of the parish church points to the existence of the settlement recorded in the document. Possibly it lies across the modern road to the south, but following the excavations of the fortress and fortifications, the church and the Byzantine amphitheatre (which in the Middle Ages served as a stable), nothing more has been done to seek its whereabouts. It is perhaps understandable that the authorities who plan, direct and fund large scale excavations, particularly in national parks and with tourism in mind, show less of an interest in domestic remains than monumental ones. But it is unfortunate. Discovery of the village might take us closer to that mid-twelfth century day and to that handful of local, southern French and Italian Franks who gathered with the aim of living and cultivating the countryside in the south of the kingdom of Jerusalem.

* J. Delaville Le Roulx, Cartulaire général de l'Ordre des Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem, 1100-1310, vol. I, Paris, 1894, no. 399.