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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Historical Recurrences

Photograph by Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster) Wilson44691 [Public domain]

Immediately after the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel recovered or occupied (depending on one's point of view) the Old City of Jerusalem, a solution to the most volatile and potentially explosive problem of how to deal with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif was proclaimed by Israel's defence minister, General Moshe Dayan. A frail status quo was established, which has survived for over half a century despite not infrequent flare-ups.

Meeting with the Muslim religious authorities (Wakf) at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on June 17, Dayan announced that the Jordanian Wakf would have complete control over the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims would be permitted to visit, but in a decision strongly condemned by certain Jewish factions, they were prohibited from praying there.

In 1229 a treaty was ratified between the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II and the Ayyubid Sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil. Strongly opposed by factions on both sides, the treaty gave the Franks control over the entire city of Jerusalem except for the Temple Mount. The Muslim diplomat and historian, Jamal ad-Din Ibn Wasil (1207-1298) recorded that according to the terms of the treaty the Franks would be permitted to visit the sacred precinct. However, it seems that they were not allowed to worship there. This becomes apparent from Ibn Wasil’s description of the emperor’s visit to the Temple Mount together with the qadi of Nablus. The qadi informed Ibn Wasil that when he and Frederick approached Al-Aqsa they encountered a priest holding in his hand a bible and about to enter the mosque. The emperor’s reaction was unequivocal:

The Emperor called out to him: “What has brought you here? By God, if one of you comes here again without permission, I shall have his eyes put out!”

According to Ibn Wasil, the priest made off, quaking with fear.

Battle of Montgisard by Charles-Philippe Larivière [Public domain]

One of the most poignant and iconic images of the Six Day War was of the abandoned boots of Egyptian soldiers lying in the desert sands, an image signifying the swiftness of the campaign and the collapse of Egyptian control over their defeated troops.

In late October 1177, taking advantage of the fact that the Frankish army was on an expedition near Antioch, Saladin invaded Frankish territory. He passed through el-Arish, Darom and Gaza, arriving at Ascalon on 23 November. Learning of this, King Baldwin IV mustered whatever troops he could and left Jerusalem. According to William of Tyre, Baldwin's troops included only 375 knights (he gives no numbers for other mounted troops or foot soldiers), whereas the Muslim force was estimated to including 26,000 light-armed cavalry (not counting those mounted on camels and mules).* The vast disparity in numbers led the king to follow the usual Frankish policy of avoiding direct confrontation. Saladin’s troops advanced towards Ramla, Lydda and north along the coast beyond Jaffa to Arsuf, and then moved inland towards Jerusalem. Perhaps it was the fact that the Ayyubid army was still scattered about the countryside that led Baldwin to overcome his fear of facing the Muslims in direct battle. His army intercepted Saladin at Mongisart (Tel Gezer). Saladin had not expected a direct attack. Not only were his troops still scattered; his baggage train had been bogged down while crossing a river, perhaps the small stream on the north side of Tell es-Safi. In a state of panic, Saladin's warriors scrambled to form battle lines. Although they were augmented by returning foraging parties, the Franks were able to draw up in organised and disciplined battle array. In the conflict that ensued, the Franks suffered large numbers of casualties (750 seriously wounded and 1,100 fatalities) but nonetheless effected an overwhelming victory over the Ayyubids. The son of Saladin’s nephew, Taqi ad-Din, was killed and Saladin himself barely escaped being taken captive. The Franks took the baggage train and pursued the fleeing Muslims towards the desert until nightfall. William of Tyre described the flight of the Egyptian troops:

To assist them in their flight, the stronger men and those who had swift horses threw away their arms and apparel, abandoning their packs, and, leaving the weaker behind, fled with all their might… When those who had escaped by flight reached the marsh just mentioned [Cannaie des Etourneaux], they cast into the sedges and into the water itself whatever they still carried, namely their breastplates and ironshod boots, that they themselves might proceed unimpeded. Even weapons were thrown into the water...**

* William of Tyre, English translation, E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History if Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, pp. 429-30 (21.22, 23).

** William of Tyre, pp. 431-32 (21.23).

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