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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Highways and Byways

The Route of the Pilgrims (Districtum/Destroit), where it cuts through the sandstone ridge at 'Atlit.

I live in Jerusalem but my work is in Haifa, a two hour drive via the toll-road known as Route 6, which since it was constructed has taken nearly an hour off my travel time to the university. But the ever-increasing number of vehicles using the road, and the inability of public transport to lessen the road congestion, will probably eventually lead to its declining into just another massive traffic jam.

Roads are vital to the viability of a nation, to the effectiveness of its rulers in running the economy, in providing security, and in their capacity to effectively administrate. When the road system is poor, centralised administration is difficult to maintain. In post-Roman Europe the decay of the sophisticated Roman road network was both a facilitator and a symptom of the decline and in many places of the outright collapse of urban life and inter-urban trade. The road system only began to revive with the resurgence of cities, trade and pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle East, however, cities had never really declined, and the roads on the whole continued to function under Christian and later Islamic rule, but the high level of road maintenance that had existed under Roman rule was not sustained. The German orientalist, Adam Mez noted that Arab rule was not conducive to the development of road-building. In his opinion the Arabs as riders "had no taste for military roads or wheeled transport".* This view is supported by the tenth century geographer al-Muqaddasī who complained to his uncle that the Umayyads gave preference to building monuments over the upkeep of roads,** and indeed, by the end of the eleventh century some roads in Syria/Palestine had declined into little more than overgrown tracks. However, the main roads were generally cared for, and continued to be maintained under Frankish rule in twelfth century. Contemporary sources give several references to roads that were paved and in a good state of repair. The road from Samaria to Jerusalem was entirely paved with stone and the road from Damascus that passes through the territory of Tiberias was possibly also paved. However, the road through Tibnin was reserved for mule traffic because although it was a more direct route, it was in rough condition. Some Roman roads, although not actually paved had been excavated into the natural rock and required little upkeep. When Joannes Phocas wrote that the road from Samaria to Jerusalem was paved with stone he was probably referring to stretches of the Roman road which were levelled in the bedrock (and can still be observed) while elsewhere he records the unpaved state of roads such as the road in the region of Wadi Qelt which was "long, narrow, and very rough [with] no stone pavement, but, nevertheless, the outline of it can be faintly traced…"***

Certainly, the condition of many roads had declined. The Gesta Regis Ricardi records the coastal road used by the army of the Third Crusade as "considerably obstructed by thorns and many luxuriant green plants" and notes that the army was forced to advance through the mountains because they could not get through the road along the coast which was blocked by the thick vegetation.**** The pilgrim road that led from Jerusalem to the Place of Baptism on the Jordan River was rough, steep and precipitous in places and, in addition to its rough physical condition it was exposed to attack by Muslim raiders, as were many roads in the kingdom, including the so-called Route of the Pilgrims, the narrow section of the coastal road at ‘Atlit where it passed through the sandstone ridge (pictured above).

Among the important roads that traversed the kingdom was the so-called Upper Road that ran through the Lower Galilee, and the inland road, much used by pilgrims, that led from Acre through Nazareth, Samaria, and Neapolis, to Jerusalem. The road leading from Jerusalem to Hebron, an important route for travellers in general and pilgrims in particular, was called the King’s Highway, Via Regia. Perhaps the most important road linking the mainland crusader states was the Via Maris, the route used by pilgrims, merchants and armies. It extended along the coast from the principality of Antioch all the way to the Sinai Peninsula. For most of this distance it maintained a close proximity to the shoreline, moving inland only where topography or sand dunes and swamps necessitated.

The road system in the Roman Levant has been comparatively well studied. Little research has been done on the roads of the crusader states, a surprising lacuna perhaps considering how vital they were for the survival and functioning of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the other crusader states.

*A. Mez, Die Renaissance des Islams, Heidelberg, 1922, p. 461. **Al-Muqaddasī, Bibliotheca Geographicorum Arabicorum vol. 3, aI-Muqaddasi. Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī ma‘rifat al-aqālīm. Descriptio imperii moslemici, ed. Michael Jan de Goeje, Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum, vol. 3. Leiden, 1877, p. 159. *** Joannes Phocas, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, English trans. Aubrey Stewart, vol. 5, London, 1896, p. 17, 26 ****Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, trans. Helen J. Nicholson, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, 4.12, p. 240.

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