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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Sandcastles

Aqua Bella. A Hospitaller foundation on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem

Whenever I think of a country house, a Wodehouseian vision comes to mind, a rather grand ivy-covered Palladian or Neo-Gothic mansion with a gatehouse, a grand entrance, wings and turrets, a library, an orangery, filled with archaic furnishings and archaic residents, surrounded by broad vistas of lawns, trees, lakes and follies. For me, the image is formed from memories of visits to Chiswick, Longleat, Kenwood and Hatfield when in the mid-70s I lived for two years in London. Those houses, on a rather grander scale, reminded me of antipodean equivalents that I had encountered in my childhood, suburban goldrush-era, Italianate mansions with names like Como, Ripponlea, Labassa. Every country has its own particular version; rural estates, halls, manor houses, palatial countryside residences; the German salhof, for example. In recollecting his amble through Germany and Austria in 1933, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor referred to the archetypal schloss, somewhere between castle, monastery and farm, and this definition sums up many such constructions including those encountered in other countries such as the châteaux or manoirs in France (maisons-fortes when fortified) and the casa solariega in Spain. In Holland there is the hofstede and the dwór or dworek in Poland. Such houses might be fortified, but generally were not, as they were residences rather than places of refuge or defence. They were also centres of rural administration, and were symbols of ownership, wealth, and power, ever more grand when their owners were higher in rank and greater of means.

Many buildings in the countryside of the crusader states fall somewhere under this category and in the past were often referred to as manor houses. They were not the palatial stately homes such as some of their European counterparts became, nor indeed, were they truly manor houses, as there were no manors in the Latin East. Today they are often more appropriately referred to as rural estate centres, for that indeed was their primary function - to serve as residences of stewards administrating the largely non-Frankish peasantry, and containing what was needed to sustain rural administration, such communal installations as mills and ovens that the peasants were required to use, wine an oil presses, and barns, byres and vaults used to store produce collected from the peasants as tithes and taxes.

All of them today are in various degrees of ruin, and this is because they were anomalies, unknown in the Levantine landscape before the arrival of the Franks, and purposeful only as long as the society that introduced and required them existed. Once the Franks had been expelled there was no need or desire for their upkeep. In this, to a degree, they are like the fortresses that also largely disappeared at the end of Frankish rule; symbols of a society that for a period imposed its way of life, until, like sandcastles built on the shoreline, they were washed away and only a memory remained.

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