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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Birds, Crusaders and Imitation

Lyrebird. Leopold Joseph Franz Johann Fitzinger

There is a bird in Australia that has a remarkable ability to repeat to perfection any sound it encounters, natural or artificial. The Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae/ Menura alberti ) is named for its tail that appears remarkably like the musical instrument (no imitation there however, as the bird would never have witnessed the Old World musical instrument, nor, for that matter, could the manufacturers of the first lyres know of this then undiscovered antipodean). Its extraordinary vocal abilities enable it to perform perfect mimicry, its repertoire including absolutely anything it hears, from chainsaws, to passing trucks, fire alarms, rifle-shots, barking dogs, human conversation and phone ring tones.

Imitation is not always a positive thing. Copycat murderers for instance cannot be said to contribute much toward human advancement. But all great efforts contain something of imitation. The advancement of the arts and sciences consists of building on earlier creations combined with new and original contributions.

When the crusaders occupied Jerusalem in 1099 they saw the remains of monumental Herodian architecture typified by the use of huge bossed ashlars. They imitated this in their fortresses, so well indeed that when in the American traveller William Thomson saw Montfort Castle in 1854 he compared the stonework of the keep to the "Jewish or Phoenician bevel" and the British geographer and archaeologist, Charles Wilson concluded from his observations that it was indeed Phoenician, later rebuilt by the Romans or Syrian Greeks.* He could not conceive that medieval Europeans were capable of such splendid masonry. It took a very intelligent and observant member of the British Survey of Western Palestine (much better known for his pivotal role in the Boar War and the First World War), Horatio H. Kitchener, to recognise that although these stones indeed resembled Phoenician work "there are undoubted remains of pointed arches, which seems to prove that the art of building had not degenerated in more modern times."** We now know beyond doubt that the keep is entirely a work of thirteenth century Frankish masons, and there are many other similar examples in crusader castles.

There are also other instances of imitation and adaptation. For example, the Franks imitated the ancient courtyard castle design known as the quadriburgium, the Early Islamic machicoulis (a balcony over gateways with openings in the floor from which defenders could pour boiling liquids or drop rocks on an attacker, the technique, form and design of Muslim ceramics, glass and metalwork, the design of Roman period ossuaries imitated in Frankish wooden chests, Muslim weapons and armour, and perhaps most remarkably, the Fatimid gold dinar coin, copied in its entirety, including the Muslim text in Arabic script. George Bernard Shaw referred to imitation as being not just the sincerest form of flattery but also the sincerest form of learning, and that certainly sums up case of the Franks.

The Lyrebird uses its extraordinary mimicry to improve its chances of finding a mate, but as it performs not only during mating, it would seem to have an almost human pleasure in showing off. The Franks made practical use of their imitative abilities in order to survive in hostile surroundings, but also, in some of their more monumental architecture, they clearly were intending to make an impression. Perhaps there is not that much of a difference between the two.

* R.G. Khamisy, "Montfort Castle in Travellers` Descriptions and Illustrations", in Montfort. History, Early Research and Recent Studies, ed. A.J. Boas and R.G. Khamisy, Leiden and Boston, 2017, pp. 62, 66. **H.H. Kitchener, "Lieutenant Kitchener`s Reports", Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1877, pp. 176-77.

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