• Adrian J. Boas

On Historical Intrusions

Talithakumi. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, I was involved in the excavation of a Frankish village that was identified and partly exposed in a northern Jerusalem suburb. Of the many important finds relating to the crusader period, one of the more salient discoveries was evidence that the occupants of the village had heated their houses using open-hearth fireplaces with wall-chimneys. In the twelfth century this was a technological breakthrough, and not only an innovation in the Levant, but also one that preceded its appearance in the houses of European villages, perhaps by well over a century. Some months after this discovery I attended a conference in which a well-known archaeologist was presenting a paper on the introduction of chimneys in Palestine. He referred to the chimney as an innovation in the Middle East that was introduced in the late Ottoman period, and he suggested that one of the earliest examples of its use could be seen in Talithakumi, a school for girls founded in Jerusalem in 1868 and demolished in 1980 (the chimney itself is oddly preserved and reconstructed nearby as a monument to the past, though one might more correctly say, a monument to poor judgement in the preservation of the past). Having seen this colleague's abstract, I spoke to him shortly before he presented his paper and with some misgivings (well aware of how annoying such a disclosure might be at this late stage) I informed him of our discovery so that he would have the opportunity of relating to it if he should wish to do so. He did indeed mention the discovery in his presentation, but concluded that it was irrelevant to his theme, as the Crusader period was nothing more than "a transient phenomenon".

I can quite understand the awkwardness of being presented with information that negates one's entire thesis, particularly when it occurs a few minutes before you are about to present it to the world. Nonetheless, brushing aside two centuries of eventful history in this manner was, I think, less than an elegant solution.

Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the French Orientalist and archaeologist who wrote extensively about the Biblical periods, also carried out some useful and insightful early scientific studies on Crusader period discoveries, including his recognition of the importance of masons' marks and the European diagonal tooling of masonry as a means of identifying Frankish building in the Crusader states. He also recorded and deciphered numerous Frankish inscriptions. Yet he too appears to have been of the opinion that two centuries of Frankish rule was "a transient phenomenon":

The temporary occupation of Palestine by the Crusaders, if it did not actually arrest the continuous internal development of the destiny of the country, did nevertheless form an abrupt breach with the past … This sharply defined intrusion of the West into a province of the Eastern' world, plays pretty nearly the part of one of those intermediate strata by means of which the geologist can classify the beds which it separates. It is like a fused layer of trachyte interposed between two systems of sedimentary strata.*

The period of Frankish rule is just eight years short of two centuries (1099-1291). Can two hundred years be regarded as nothing more than an "intrusion"? At what point does the presence of a rule and an accompanying culture evolve into a bona fide historical period. If the Crusader period might be regarded as nothing more than an "intermediate stratum", then the 110 years of Herodian rule must be of even less substance. And if the occupation of Palestine by the Franks was an intrusion (an idea attractive to some present-day opponents of Zionism), then the Crusades themselves should perhaps be regarded as an intrusion in European history rather than a substantial part of it, and by the same token, the Napoleonic era and the Third Reich might be dismissed as being of no historical consequence considering their brevity. Clearly the length of a phase in history has less bearing than the impact of that phase.

Clermont-Ganneau's statement is all the more remarkable coming from a scholar well-acquainted with the archaeological evidence of two centuries of Frankish rule. To use such terms as "temporary occupation", "intrusion" and "intermediate strata" is to make light not only a major religious/political entity but of a cultural and economic presence that would leave an indelible mark not only on the Levant but on the Islamic world and Europe as well.

* Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological Researches in Palestine, vol. 1, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1899, p.1.