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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Rural Footholds

The narrow dirt track, deeply ridged from the recent rains, passes uncultivated fields and vineyards where the twisted vines are just breaking into leaf. Among the already drying grasses are the last of the spring flowers - purple clover, deep crimson heads of Helichrysum sanguineum, locally knows as Blood of the Maccabees, and the very last of the Mediterranean orchids, tiny spires of purple and pink, the brief appearance of which is so in accord with the brevity of these delightful days. Spikes of hyacinth squill vie in height with Queen Anne's lace and globe thistles. The track curves right and skirts the hill, then gradually climbs up towards the low ruin, still hardly discernible from the natural rock. We reach the tell-tale signs of the former village - a few old olive trees and almonds, a single date palm, and clambering over the fallen stones that most tenacious, tumbling, and poignant indication of these lost and abandoned settlements - the paddle-leafed prickly pear.

Beit Itab is recorded in a document of 1161 when the village (Bathaatep/Bethahatap) was sold to the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, for 1400 gold bezants. The record informs us that the sellers were a Frankish knight named Johannes Gothman and his son Ancherius, and the document states specifically that the sale was undertaken with the agreement of his wife Amandala and other family members. In fact, it seems that this sale was carried out by Amandala in order to raise the ransom required to free her husband who had fallen into captivity near Jacob's Ford north of the Sea of Galilee in 1157. At the highest point in the heart of the village was a fortified two-storey hall-house, of which today only the ground floor survives. It was a "maison forte" a fortified residence, and it served the steward (locator) who ran the estate for Gothman, and perhaps Gothman himself had resided here on occasion.

In its architecture and the changes that it underwent, this administrative compound at Beit Itab illustrates the increased hold the Franks achieved and managed to maintain over the hinterland of the kingdom for a few decades in mid-twelfth century. As with other similar complexes, the original fortified hall-house was expanded by the addition of vaults and enclosing walls, evolving into the courtyard compound that with some difficulty we can still observe today. The expansion came as a result of an increased sense of security that followed the fall of Fatimid Ascalon in 1153 and the cessation of Muslim incursions into the region. The expansion of the building enabled the steward to more effectively fulfil his role as administrator, and the compound to more efficiently serve as a depot for collecting and storing the agricultural produce from the surrounding villages of the fief.

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