• Adrian J. Boas

On Deserts, Drought and Desolation

Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

My first encounter with the desert was in June 1969, the very month that two Americans set their feet in the dust of a far distant desert in the sky. (My own passage through space had been shorter than theirs, though probably not much more comfortable; from Melbourne via Sydney, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Saigon, New Delhi and Teheran to Tel Aviv). We then took one of the enormous Mercedes taxis that used to ply the country between cities; my parents, brother and sister, and myself aged sixteen. From Tel Aviv we drove south, through the suburbs and southern coastal plain, my father telling us how it had been when he had come this way in reverse in 1941 with his unit of the Australian army, travelling up from Gaza, and sand everywhere... but we saw settlements and orange groves and wheat fields. And then gradually the landscape changed and we were in a dusty plain with occasional stumpy trees and no civilisation except for Bedouin encampments and the stark unimpressive town of Beer Sheva.

By the time we reached our destination, the small and very recently founded town of Arad, culture shock had set in. The expectations we had been given by the very enthusiastic and not very accurate emigration authorities at the Jewish Agency in Melbourne, were replaced by a different and depressing reality, and I had developed an aversion to the desert. Over time, this has changed to an admiration of its beauty and majesty, but I retain to this day, a strong desire to see the desert watered and forested.

The landscape of the Middle East is varied, and ranges from sand dunes and endless expanses of naked rock and dust, to forests and fields not very different from those of Europe. Much of the countryside is fertile, but it is also fragile. When the rains fail, streams and marshlands dry up, lakes shrivel, the sky turns leaden, the land pales, soil crusts, cracks, crumbles to dust and is whipped up by the wind, field grasses turn brown, leaves on the trees curl and hang limp, flowers and immature fruits drop to the ground, crops wither in the field, livestock become bony, drained and listless. In the past, the effects of drought were immediate and more profound. Food became scarce in the markets, failing crops resulted in sharp price rises, and poverty, which was always present on the margins of society, spread into its heart.

Fernand Braudel blamed the frequency of drought on the way in which the Mediterranean climate separates warmth and water, "...with predictable consequences" (as opposed to the monsoon climate, that fruitfully combines them).* Drought in the eastern Mediterranean lands arrives with irregular inevitability. It appeared right at the beginning of the period of crusader rule and returned every few years, often accompanied by other evils. The spiritual inspiration that powered the crusading movement, all the prayers, fasts and feasts were of no avail when nature rose up in opposition. Around 1120, Warmund, patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote to the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela complaining of four consecutive years of drought that the Frankish settlers had suffered, accompanied by outbreaks of locusts and grasshoppers. Droughts are recorded in 1154, in 1177-81 and in 1185. A four-year treaty reached that year between Raymond of Tripoli, regent for Baldwin V and Saladin, appears to have been primarily motivated by drought conditions and the promise of food from the sultan to relieve the resulting famine. Droughts returned in 1199-1201, 1230-31, 1263-64, 1294-96, and 1304.

Droughts in neighbouring regions could also affect life in the Latin states. In 1201, for example, the Master of the Hospital, Geoffrey of Donjon wrote that the drought in Egypt that year resulted in Muslims entering and occupying Latin lands “ swarms of locusts.”** Droughts are recorded in Lusignan Cyprus. One of the worst came in 1308-9. No rain at all fell in what are usually the wettest months, December, January and February. The crops in fields and gardens dried up. Inevitably the population sought spiritual aid, masses were sung in Greek and Latin churches and processions were made with the king and royal court participating. In this case, it seemed to help, and the rains returned at the end of February. But they brought no blessing, as with them came a variety of blight that destroyed all the wheat.

The Latins avoided settling in the arid and semi-arid areas where there are no flowing streams and which have low annual rainfall. The Negev desert made up for about a quarter of the territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but remained almost entirely unoccupied. This was also true of other desolate regions such as Oultre Jourdain (the western part of the modern kingdom of Jordan), which were avoided except on their fringes, where the few settlements, monasteries and castles made use of winter storms and flash floods to fill their cisterns and enable the settlers to carry out whatever agriculture was sustainable.

It was, no doubt difficult for people arriving from temperate climes to adjust to the harsh landscape and extreme weather conditions. In this, the Latins differed from some of the earlier peoples such as the Byzantines and Nabataeans who appear to have had few qualms about settling in the desert regions and did so on a remarkable scale, learning to make the most of desert conditions.

*Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol. 1, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1995, p. 239.

** Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate (trans.), Letters from the East, Ashgate, Farnham U.K. and Burlington U.S.A., 2013, p. 95.