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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Sense and Insensibility

There is something about human resilience that has to be admired, even when it is entirely irrational. Anyone who has lived in a war zone has witnessed how, as long as it is possible, and often when it appears not to be, people go about their daily lives while the world around them is crumbling. It is precisely this quality that enables cities to thrive on the slopes of volcanoes or along geological faults, on the edge of creeping desert dunes or behind dikes holding back the peril of the sea.

But danger is not limited to war zones or the edges of volcanoes. It is part of human existence, even in the most docile of surroundings. From early on we learn the ability to get on with our lives in spite of what may be lurking around the corner. Sometimes, for the immediate fulfilment of our desires or for the thrill of living on the edge, we even promote danger by rash behaviour such as smoking, over-eating or driving irresponsibly.

There was a period of a few decades in the twelfth century when the Franks lulled themselves into an imprudent and entirely false sense of security. There was nothing to support it, no decline in the rhetoric or intentions of their neighbours. Yet the Franks were suddenly feeling very confident. For several decades they had been careful not to expose themselves to danger, and had settled exclusively behind city fortifications or within strongly defended fortresses. But in the 1140s this began to change, increasingly so in after 1153. In that year, Ascalon, the one coastal city that remained in Muslim hands after the occupation of Tyre in 1124 and the most active threat to their internal security, was finally occupied. Its conquest was like the removal of a bothersome thorn. It had been the source of continual raids into the heart of the kingdom, and had kept the settlers in a perpetual state of siege.

Now there was a change in the mindset of the settlers. The border had seemingly moved back towards the desert. Egypt seemed so much further away. A movement began of settlement outside the protective embrace of city walls. By the 1160s Frankish rural settlement in the hills around Jerusalem was in full swing. Indeed, it was so extensive that on almost every hill and in every valley around the city one can observe the remains of Frankish villages, farms, estate centres and agricultural installations.

Aqua Bella (seen in the photograph above) illustrates better than any words, the notion of security which appears to have grasped hold of the settlers. This large rural estate centre, east of Jerusalem on the road to Jaffa, was built unfortified, and with half of its ground floor excavated deep into the side of a hill, which left it particularly vulnerable if an enemy were to approach it on that side. It seems that the Hospitaller owners of this building did not consider that as a likely occurrence.

This apparent confidence in their welfare was repeated in the adoption by canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and perhaps by other land owners in the kingdom, of the European street-village design for their rural settlements in the countryside around Jerusalem. The layout of these villages with single rows of houses either side of a single street, because of its narrow, elongated form, was extremely difficult to defend.

Were they burying their heads in the sand, or did the Frankish land-owners and settlers genuinely believe that with the occupation of Ascalon and other defensive measures taken, the threat to their presence in the Levant had been largely resolved? Having once observed people sunbathing at a beach resort a short distance away from a battle in full swing, and returning to my earlier reference to cities on the edge of volcanoes, I tend to think the former. Either way, the bubble burst in 1187.

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