On Fears and Illusions
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
"Safety in numbers" is an expression that often proves false. It is a fact that we feel safer in what might be a situation of potential danger when there are others with whom we are sharing it. However, in some situations it is the very numbers that create danger. For example, crowd panic can cause disasters where they would otherwise not exist. And sometimes being in a group encourages us to take risks that we might not take when alone.
Many years ago, I joined a friend who led a team of archaeologists and volunteers in the excavation of a cave in the hills northeast of Jerusalem. I was unaware when I agreed to participate, that in order to reach the cave I would be required to hold onto a thick and somewhat springy rope, and drop off the sheer edge of a cliff. This was necessary in order to reach the cave mouth that was several metres below and several tens of metres above the valley floor. There was probably no real danger involved, but as a sufferer of acrophobia (as I have admitted to in an earlier post), it seemed to me that this could only end in disaster. However, being part of a group, and never being one to (I would like to say, back out when faced with a challenge, but I will be honest about this) let others see my fears, especially when no one else seemed to share them; I followed those who had gone before me, over the edge and into the abyss. We swung ourselves into the cave, which was dark and cool, and remarkably deep. The excavation, which took place far into the interior, was both fascinating and enjoyable, but my pleasure ended as soon as I stood once more at the mouth of the cave and looked down at a tiny goatherd and his flock, no more than tiny specks on the distant rocks below. That was the moment when I made the decision to spend the rest of my life in that cave. There was no way that I was going to grab hold of that rope, swing myself off the edge and scramble back up to the clifftop.
But somehow I did. And that is an example of how a group presence can enable, or more accurately in my case, force one to go beyond one's safety zone. That of course can be a good thing. I am, after all, here to tell the tale, and perhaps the better for having overcome my fears.
For medieval pilgrims fear must have been a frequent companion. On Holy Saturday of 1119, a group of about seven hundred pilgrims trekked down the dusty road leading east from the Mount of Olives. The desolate landscape drops away and then rises again to a final high point known as Ma'ale Adumim, before descending all the way down to the base of the rift valley where the Jordan River, or what remains of it (a pitiful site) flows into the Dead Sea or what remains of it (an even more pitiful site).
Into this desolation this large group headed, on their way to the place of Christ's baptism in the Jordan River, not very far from the city of Jericho. A mere two decades had passed since the conquest of Jerusalem and the hold of the king over his territories was tentative at best. Even on the main highway from the port of Jaffa to the Holy City and on the coastal road the dangers were considerable. Nonetheless, they were, after all, seven hundred strong. But they were also unarmed and unaccompanied by an armed escort. They were men and women who, as the chronicler Albert of Aachen records, had been fasting and were weary from their walk. When they were attacked by a hoard of armed Muslim raiders, the results were predictably disastrous. Three hundred of the pilgrims were slaughtered and sixty were taken captive. The rest presumably managed to flee back to Jerusalem.
This disaster may have been behind the decision of the Patriarch of Jerusalem to appoint to the newly formed Templar knights (the first military order that was founded that very same year), the task of defending travellers on the road. Its memory may certainly have been behind the Templars' decision somewhat later to build two castles along this road, the most impressive of these being Maldoim or the Red Cistern, the former name preserving the ancient Hebrew one slightly Frenchified, and both names originating in the red rock that the Templars cut to build this fortress. The disaster of 1119 was one of many that in the early decades of the kingdom befell travellers on the road. But it may have been one that gave purpose and direction to the military orders. And it may have inspired the Templars' program of roadside castle building that was to substantially improve the internal security of the crusader states and leave an enduring mark on the landscape.