On Borders, Boundaries and Frontiers
Updated: Sep 29, 2018
I grew up in a country without borders, or at least, without a line on the ground which, to cross over meant that one was entering a foreign land. It might seem that an ideal world would perhaps be one made up entirely of islands, but, in truth, even if that would remove much of the tension that creates international conflicts, it would certainly not resolve all disputes (not a few islands - New Guinea, Cyprus, Timor, Hispaniola and Great Britain, for example, are proof of that). Even on an island, there can be political, physical and virtual borders and borders exist not only between nations, but between neighbourhoods, streets and houses. We live in a world where tribalism and individualism divide us, and competitiveness in the workplace, family identity between neighbours, and individuality within the family unit, separate, brew competition, disagreement, and sometimes animosity. Even for the individual there are boundaries, not necessarily visible, but identified. Umberto Eco referred to a "bubble of respect" that every animal recognises around itself, within which it feels secure.* We are communal animals. We need to belong. We also need our own space. Borders and boundaries are what identify both.
This has always been the case and in the Latin East it was certainly no different. Borders were drawn, most obviously, political borders between Christian and Muslim states, but also internal religious and ethnic borders. The former in particular were often not very precise. Examining any modern books on the history of the crusader states one notices how rarely the borders appear the same. On the occasions when they do appear similar, it is because one historian had borrowed his map from another. Part of the reason for this imprecision is because the crusader states were in a constant state of flux, expanding and shrinking as the result of invasions, conquests and treaties. Another reason was that treaties delineating borders were not always very clear, and were not always entirely agreed upon by both sides. There are no contemporary maps that accurately (or even inaccurately) delineate the borders of the crusader states. Physical features such as rivers were not always enough to define a border. The twelfth century chronicler, William of Tyre used rivers, as well as rather more amorphous features like deserts and forests, to define state borders. For example, he recorded the border between the kingdom of Jerusalem and the county of Tripoli as being a stream between Byblos and Beirut, and a stream between Maraclea and Valenia forming the border between the county of Tripoli and the principality of Antioch.** Nonetheless, a dispute in 1178-1179 over the position of a section of the eastern border of the kingdom of Jerusalem adjacent to the Jordan River, was behind the destruction by Saladin of a castle that the Templars were building overlooking a ford over the river (Vadum Iacob). The Templars were quite certain it was on their side. Saladin disagreed.
In regions where no well-defined physical feature existed, not only were there no clearly defined borders – there were hardly borders at all in the modern sense. Some historians have preferred to refer to frontier areas rather than borders, and one historian, Ronnie Ellenblum, has defined these frontiers as being “those [areas] which they [the Latins] believed to be more prone to enemy attack and over which they found it difficult to impose their rule”.*** That is not a bad definition at all.
If borders between the crusader states and their neighbours were not always clearly defined, and not, it would seem, given physical form in the landscape, regional divisions such as seigneuries were often recorded in some detail in documents, making use of natural landmarks such as trees and streams, and the property of institutions and individuals was occasionally marked on the ground. Of the latter, some examples can still be seen today. The boundaries of the land granted by the king of Jerusalem to the Genoese commune in Acre, was marked by carving the name Genoa "IANOA" on large boulders along its border. Three of these markers still exist on the land today possessed by Kibbutz Shomrat. Similar inscribing of symbols of the Templars and the Teutonic order and of churches and monastic houses, can be observed in open land in the western Galilee, and even on individual houses in Jerusalem. To observe these isolated and now meaningless fragments today, is a lesson in the pointlessness of borders and the pathetic needs of possession that we, as human beings, remain tied to.
*Umberto Eco, Turning Back the Clock. Hot Wars and Media Populism, transl. Alastair McEwen, London, 2006, p. 77.
**William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R.B.C. Huygens, vol. 2 p. 756.
***Ronnie Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, Cambridge, 2007, p. 145.