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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Evolution

Aerial view of Khirbet Dustrey, courtesy of - Khirbet Qarta (Dustrey)

We walk across the dusty parking lot, under the plantation of tall Eucalyptus trees and along to the right until we can cross to a track where the ridge rises sharply, and there we climb single file to the top. A broad vista opens up: the ridge running south and sloping down to the west, low vegetation in clumps of dark green and yellow, outcrops of grey stone and the occasional Washintonia palm. Below are the abandoned, shallow-vaulted railway sheds and the tracks where every so often a train, like a long red caterpillar, slides past. Beyond are salt pans reflecting a pale sky, and the fortress in the sea with its bold north tower, and all around and beyond is the deep blue that stretches to the horizon.

At the heart of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution was the understanding that adaptability is the most important quality for survival, more important than strength or intelligence. If this is applicable to living organisms it is equally so to civilisations, societies, and institutions. The Roman Empire achieved its greatness more through its ability to adapt than through those other qualities, although it certainly was not lacking in strength or in intelligent leadership. Adaptability was the quality that in the early centuries of Islam enabled it to develop its remarkable art, architecture and other cultural and scientific achievements, and the rapid and broad spread of its influence was very much the result of this quality, and not merely because it wielded a very powerful sword. So too, the surprising endurance of tiny European enclaves in the Levant in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had more to do with adaptability than anything else. Certainly, with the exception of those limited periods when there were major European campaigns, the Franks were not particularly strong. In the battlefield they were invariably greatly outnumbered by the Muslim armies, sometimes tenfold. As for intelligence, the Latin East was not a major centre for intellectual activity and there is little reason to believe that they possessed that quality in excess of their opponents. Their intelligence is found in adaptability and it was this that set them apart. The Frankish society in the Latin East was extraordinarily adaptable and innovative, and nowhere can these qualities be better observed than in the development of their military architecture.

This is probably best seen at a place on the coast south of Haifa where two castles stand within a short distance of one another; a simple one of twelfth century date and the highly complex one that replaced it in the thirteenth century. Together they display the immense advances made by the Franks in the space of less than a century, and how they adapted themselves and through imitation, innovation and invention progressed from something effective but very basic, to state-of-the-art.

Khirbet Dustrey is today confusingly identified as Horvat Qarta, Khirbet Carta, apparently because the fourth century Bordeaux Pilgrim mentions a station called Mutatio Carthae or Certha- a place to change horses. That name, however, probably belongs to a site further to the north. The other Arabic name, Khirbet Dustrey, appears to be a distortion of the Frankish name - Le Destroit, itself a Frenchification of the Latin appellation, Districtum*, meaning "restricted place" referring to the narrow defile where the coastal road passes through the sandstone ridge that runs parallel to the coast. For the same reason, the name appears alternatively as Petra Incisa or Lapis Incisus.** A favourite haunt for robbers to attack travellers passing through, in 1103 Baldwin I of Jerusalem was wounded here, and although we have no information as to when it was built, the tower that stood just north of the passage was intended to prevent such attacks. It was a fairly typical Frankish keep; a rectangular tower built on a rock-cut podium, measuring 15.5 by 11 metres, with walls two metres thick, two cisterns and staircases. Almost the entire construction above the podium has been dismantled. Adjacent to it the Templars, who had built or obtained possession of the tower, built amenities for travellers including stables, the numerous mangers of which can still be observed. Little is known of the history of the tower. In 1191, after the conquest of Acre, the army of the Third Crusade led by King Richard I of England camped here. In the winter of 1217-18 a new Templar fortress was constructed on the peninsula opposite, and shortly afterwards the tower was dismantled so that it could not be used as a place of assault by an enemy, well-timed it would seem, as the Ayyubid sultan of Damascus, Al-Mu'azzam 'Isa, attacked the area around 'Atlit in 1220.

Château Pèlerin ('Atlit Castle) adapted from אסף.צ at Hebrew Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>

The new fortress, Château Pèlerin ('Atlit Castle) is a whole different story. It is a tour de force, a huge and brilliantly designed structure, a complex of fortifications and vast halls, which, although built on a comparatively level tongue of land extending out into the sea, displays the same principals of the greatest Frankish castles that were built in mountainous regions, castles like Crac des Chevaliers, Montfort and Saone, the spur castles that relied on the slopes of their hillsides as natural defences. Here, however, this role was fulfilled by the sea that provided defence on all sides but one, and that one defenceless side was fortified with parallel lines of massive walls, towers, bent-access gateways, and indirect passages into the interior. Even today in its ruin it is a powerful image, and it gives us an idea of the vast financial resources that the military orders could draw upon. Its strength is perhaps best proven by the fact that it was the last place to fall as the kingdom systematically collapsed in 1291.

It is the physical proximity of these two fortresses that I find so fascinating. They stand so close, yet they are worlds apart in technology and complexity, in the functions they would have been able to discharge and in their military effectiveness. Districtum belongs to the early years of the kingdom, to the period when the Frankish settlers were new to the game, when they had few financial means and little technological knowhow, and perhaps were still uncertain what roles their fortresses could effectively fulfil. Château Pèlerin is at the other end of the scale. It is a castle for which no expense was spared. It employed all the knowledge that had been gleamed in a century of facing ever-improving weapons, new tactics, and increasingly bold opponents. If one wishes to get an idea of where the Franks were and where they got to - this is the place.

* William of Tyre, Chronicon, in R.B.C. Huygens, ed., Guillaume de Tyr, Chronique, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, Turnhout 1986, 63, 63A, X, 25 (26), 32; XIII, 2, 22, 3, 11.

** Ibid., X, 25 (26); 30-31; XI, 17, 12; XIII, 2, 21.

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