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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Proportions and Rhetoric

The steep talus, pale grey stones with shallow and narrow margins, is twelfth century. It is crowned with a reconstructed crenelation of comparatively recent date. A few metres behind the tower rises, a surge of rock, almost orange in the mid-morning light. It creates a seeming chronological quandary, for as we rise we are stepping back two millennia to the podium built by Herod the Great. All that king's megalomania is expressed in its ashlars: huge, rugged, boldly cut, where pigeons find easy perch on the bosses. They create a mountain of mass. Above this behemoth we are back into a satisfactory order, Mamluk, Ottoman, a touch of twentieth century at the crown.

For all its history, age upon age, for all its bombastic display of masonry, the tower appears somewhat squat, stunted. This is the outcome of two events in its past. The first took place in the 1170s and the second in the 1230s.

The Holyland Project - Adiel lo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The first has to do with proportions. Several years ago, a monstrous construction started to rise on the far side of Jerusalem to the south-west, on a hill named for a hotel that had formerly stood there – "Holyland". At first a single apartment building rose. It was immediately condemned by most people who saw it, as it was vastly taller than all the surrounding buildings and its elevation on the hill made it seem even more immense and entirely out of place. Then a second identical building arose next to it, and then a third, a fourth and a fifth, and bridges were constructed between each adjacent building so that the whole became a single unsightly construction. Finally, another tower was added, this one far taller still. The result of this was that the former construction seemed to appear less of a mammoth, though the whole complex together became even more formidable. Fortunately, not for those involved in the project but certainly for the city, a highly publicised scandal of bribery and corruption brought this development to an end and earned the project the appropriate title - "Unholyland".

I recall this incident, not for any medieval scandal relating to the expansion of the Tower of David in the 1170s, for sadly we know of none, but because when at that time the citadel was expanded and took on the form we see today, the addition of towers, walls and courtyards similarly detracted from the prominence of the original ancient, solitary tower.

The second event that resulted in the squatness we observe today, took place in 1239. The chronicle known as the Rothelin Continuation of William of Tyre described the fate of the Tower of David at the hands of al-Nasir Daud of Kerak. In 1239, at the end of the ten-year term of the Treaty of Jaffa and Tell Ajul, this Ayyubid emir, son of Saladin's nephew, al-Muazzam 'Isa, advanced on Jerusalem. After dismantling the new fortifications that the Franks had constructed in the north of the city, the emir besieged to Tower of David, allowed the garrison to depart and then set about dismantling the tower. The Rothelin chronicler describes this in detail:

Once the Saracens got possession of the Tower of David, they immediately put their miners into it and had the whole fortress taken down and razed to the ground. The size of the enormous stones astonished everyone. The masonry was so strongly mortared with lime, sand and cement, and the stones so firmly bound with the lead and huge bands of cramp-iron which fastened the sections together, that tearing it down was very difficult and needed great force.*

We are acquainted with the use of strongly mortared masonry strengthened by iron cramps in crusader fortresses (Château Pèlerin, Belvoir, Montfort and many others), and in all likelihood what al-Nasir Daud destroyed was not the Herodian construction, but only the Frankish one that rose above it. We should not pay too much attention to the remark that he had razed the whole fortress to the ground. It is after all only one of many such examples of discrepancies between what is found in historical sources and what we can actually see today and therefore know to be true, although, appearing in a Christian source it is not perhaps the usual bombastic propaganda so often found in the accounts of victors. Rather it is like William of Tyre's similar claim that in 1179 Saladin razed to the ground the Templar fortress of Vadum Iacob.** It is simply the typical rhetoric of medieval chroniclers.

* Janet Shirley, trans., Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century. The Rothelin Continuation of William of Tyre with part of the Eracles or Acre text, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, chapter 21, p. 40.

** Excavations carried out at Vadum Iacob in the 1990s have shown that although considerable dismantling had been carried out imediately after the castle fell, parts of it remained standing to a considerable height and can be observed today. See William of Tyre, Chronicon 21.29(30), English trans. Emily Atwater Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, p. 444. See also Ronnie Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 258 ff.

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