On the Lost Forests
"When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity."
Seneca spoke of the sacred, a theme often repeated; the forest as a temple. When I think of a forest, I think of beauty, purity, growth and renewal, but also of power, danger, decay, and of infinite time and space.
Like the abundance or dearth of water, the existence or lack of forests had a powerful impact on many aspects of life in the Latin East. It influenced warfare, settlement and labour. The presence or lack of forests had a decisive influence on the progress and outcome of battles and sieges. It was the cause of the protracted siege at Jerusalem in June-July 1099, as there was no available timber for the construction of siege machines, and it played a major role in events at the Battle of Arsuf that took place during the Third Crusade in the autumn of 1191, when Saladin encamped in the oak forest that extended south of Caesarea, a place recorded as frequented by thieves and wild beasts. Even during the battle when they were under attack, the Muslims took refuge in the dense groves. The crusaders feared to enter because of the danger of ambush, and there was also the fear that the Muslims might set it alight. The use of fire by Saladin’s army was certainly not forgotten from three years earlier at Hattin.
For settlers, the scarcity of forests required a significant change in how they built their houses. The street villages set up in the Judean hills were modelled on planned settlements in the West. But if the model they chose was one remembered, the method of building it had changed. Lacking an abundant supply of timber such as was available in Europe, the Latin settlers were obliged to adapt to local conditions, and that meant embracing stone construction. This necessitated a degree of expertise, which they apparently had been able to pick up, learning from their neighbours what for many must have been largely unfamiliar skills of stone-quarrying, stone-working and masonry construction.
So, the lack of forests turned a nation of carpenters into a nation of stone-masons. This is more remarkable than we might think. Within a very short time the Latins managed, efficiently and skilfully, to take on these new crafts. People who in the West had built and lived in wooden houses or wattle and daub huts, whose acquaintance with stone buildings was limited to churches, a few manor houses and occasional houses of wealthy bankers, money-lenders and merchants, and even whose fortresses had often been constructed of earth and timber, were now building everything in stone. They became so proficient at it that, within almost no time, the quality of their construction and the originality of their design was as good as, and often better than that of their Muslim and Byzantine neighbours.
Forests were not only a source of timber for use in construction and for fuel. They also supplied bark and resin used to extract tannins for tanning leather, honey, berries, aromatic and medicinal herbs, mushrooms, and game such as deer and wild boar.
The Arsuf (Arsur) Forest, Sylvam Arsuri or la Foresta d’Arsur as it was known in medieval sources, no longer exists. Part of it had survived into the late eighteenth century and was recorded as the only existing forest in Syria. Its demise was chiefly due to the extensive use of the timber by the Egyptian governor, Ibrāhīm Pasha, for fuel and ship-building. By the twentieth century it had all but disappeared, the last trees being chopped down for use by the Turkish army during the First World War. Today, a few scattered specimens of Tabor Oak (Quercus ithaburensis arenaria) are all that remains.*
There are references to forests south of Hebron near the town of Tekoa, a forest called Marith or Marash at the edge of the county of Edessa, the “Templars’ Woods” called Moncucu near Tripoli, the cedar forests of Mount Lebanon, pine forests around Beirut, forests at Saforie, between Chastiau Pelerin and around Caesarea. Other forests, some of which, like the Arsuf Forest no longer exist, are recorded in medieval and more recent written sources, and some, unnamed, still exist, in pockets here and there in the countryside. They hint at an erased landscape, as lost and forgotten as are the inhabitants of Outremer.
*On the Forest of Arsuf see in Benjamin Kedar, "King Richard's Plan for the Battle of Arsuf/Arsur, 1191," in The Medieval Way of War. Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach, ed. Gregory I. Halfond, Farnham, 2015, pp. 117-132.