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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Inconsequence of Size

Beit Jubr at-Tahtani, a Templar tower above the Plain of Jericho

What is it about small things that captivates us? In some ways it is quite the same as what fascinates us about large things. On recently reading a popular book on the sciences, I found the chapter discussing the nano-world of atoms, protons and quarks as entirely captivating as the discussion on the universe and its unfathomable vastness. In reality, size is not all that important, and it is always merely comparative. A thing is only big when we compare it to something smaller. And that has nothing to do with its importance, worth or effectiveness. The value of a tiny diamond is vastly greater than that of many objects of comparatively immense size and a microscopic virus can prove to be far more deadly than an army composed of soldiers, tanks and missiles. As Mark Twain put it, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog", a remark that always reminds me of a childhood pet, a diminutive dachshund that would stand at our garden gate and charge out with remarkable bravado at every large-sized canine that passed by (admittedly, if one ever held its ground or turned to face her, Maggie's retreat back into the garden would make Napoleon's from Moscow seem a casual stroll).

The words "castle", "fortress" or "citadel" conjure up images of vast and massive constructions. Leafing through my grandfather's similarly vast and massive two volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1933 edition, I find that the word "castle" is variously defined as "a large building or set of buildings fortified for defence", "a large ship", "a tower borne on the back of an elephant", "ancient earthworks" and finally "a [chess] piece, made to represent a castle" (the latter, presumably being a fortified building, a ship, a tower borne on an elephant, earthworks or a chess piece). For our purpose, we can dismiss all the above and consider only the "large building or set of buildings fortified for defence". Unfortunately, the dictionary, for all its vastness and massiveness does not enlighten us as to what is intended by the adjective "large". Is it as large as an apple, a tree, a mountain? Common sense would say somewhere between a tree and a mountain. But, just where in between? It appeared that the term "castle" is pretty vague. How about "fortress" then? On looking that up I found that the dictionary was reluctant to be any more enlightening on that. It merely informed me that a fortress is a strong place. Well, I knew that, of course. But how strong? Is it as strong as an ox... or perhaps as a tank... or an atom bomb? The dictionary preferred to remain tight-lipped about that. It would only add that a fortress is a place "capable of receiving a large force". But how large? I seemed to be back to square one. In desperation, I looked up "citadel". Here, at least there was a qualification. A citadel is a fortress commanding or dominating a city. But if I should wish to know how big it might be, it seems, the answer would not be coming from Oxford.

If a contest were to be held for the smallest building in the Latin East to qualify for the title "castle", Beit Jubr at-Tahtani would surely be at or near the top of the list. In the 1881 Survey of Western Palestine this tiny castle is recorded as:

"a small fort on the south side of the Jerusalem road, commanding the ascent from the Jericho plain. The building stands on a rock-scarp artificially formed, and consists of a single tower 25 feet by 12 feet interior measurement."*

The survey goes on to describe it as having a pointed-arch door on the east with a loophole above, a second entrance on the south and a simple barrel-vaulted roof, constructed with rubble and thin unworked stones wedged together. The exterior has rough bossed quoins and there is a fosse (ditch) on the west separating the scarp on which it stands from the rest of the hill. Archaeologist Denys Pringle identified it as part of the Templar defences on the pilgrim route from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, along with the similar but more developed Cisternum Rouge or Maldoim, a fortress further south-west at a high point on the road opposite the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Like the latter, Beit Jubr at-Tahtani appears to have been a manifestation of the Templar effort to fulfil their role of defenders of travellers, on a frontier road passing through dangerous territory with a history of brigandage (see my post on Maldoim - On Fears and Illusions - Apr 25, 2019). But here the Templars seem to have made the minimum of effort. Perhaps they felt that if the traveller had reached this point, just above the plain, Jericho, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, he had passed the worst of it, having survived that section of the road that crosses the wilderness east of Jerusalem, the favoured stomping ground of Muslim brigands. The tower measures 9.5 by 6.6/8.1 metres, with an interior of a mere 7.6 by 3.6 metres; just enough space to contain a handful of horses, and for a handful of warriors to occupy the long vanished storey above - not what we would regard as constituting much of a fortress. Which brings us back to the dilemma of whether we can justly attach to these tiny structures such grand appellations as "fortress" or "castle". Most writer have done so, T.E. Lawrence did, calling the Norman keep a "fortress" albeit "rather an ineffective" one.** Hugh Kennedy included them in his study of Crusader Castles,*** in which one tower at al-Habis in Petra is even tinier than Beit Jubr at-Tahtani, measuring a mere 8.4 by 5.3 metres (although, as the tower at al-Habis is only part of a larger site Beit Jubr need not forfeit its prestigious position). Denys Pringle included Beit Jubr at-Tahtani along with Maldoim and Casel des Pleins (Azor/Yazur) on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road under the title "castle", and his monograph on Burj al-Akhmar refers to that small structure as "a Crusader castle in the Sharon Plan".**** I suppose that, if the Templars regarded Beit Jubr at-Tahtani as substantial enough to fulfil its important role, and if the distinguished scholars mentioned above see fit to refer to it as a castle or fortress, there is no reason why I should not do the same.

* Charles R. Conder, Horatio H. Kitchener, Survey of Western Palestine, vol. 3, London, 1883, p. 190.

** T.E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles, Oxford, 1988, p. 23.

*** Hugh Kennedy, Crusader Castles, Cambridge, 1994.

**** Denys Pringle, "Templar Castles on the Road to the Jordan,", in Malcolm Barber, ed., The Military Orders. Fighting for the Faith and Caring for the Sick, Hampshire, 1994, pp. 148-66; Templar Castles between Jaffa and Jerusalem, in Helen Nicholson, The Military Orders. Welfare and Warfare, Aldershot, 1998, pp. 89-109; The Red Tower, London, 1986, p. 1.

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