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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Usefulness of a Threat

Château de Guédelon, a project of castle construction near Treigny, France. Asmoth [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

When a few years ago the Jerusalem municipality was building the first phase of its light rail network, it was commonplace to joke about the slowness, the mismanagement and the noticeable waste of time and energy spent on the project. I recall, at the height of work, walking down Jaffa Road, the main Jerusalem artery along which the lines were being laid, and seeing only two workers, both of them seated on the ground and supposedly involved in some highly technical activity, though perhaps just relaxing a bit, while dozens of shop-owners along the way were struggling to maintain their businesses in the upheaval of what was beginning to seem like an eternal construction site. Eventually, after several years the job was completed and soon enough the shop owners, at least those who had managed to survive the extended loss of clientele, forgot the length of the process and the appalling way in which it had proceeded.

In October 1178 the Templars began building a fortress, Vadum Iacob (Jacob's Ford) on a small ancient tell overlooking the Upper Jordan River. They may have started out at a leisurely rate but soon enough the urgency of erecting their fortress as quickly as possible became apparent. What motivated the Templars to put rather more effort into it than the municipal workers of Jerusalem's light rail, was a threat by Saladin, one that must have carried considerably more weight than the loss of livelihood for some shop-owners. The Ayyubid sultan claimed that the land on which they were building belonged to him and he demanded that they immediately cease construction. He even offered to pay them the vast sum of 100,000 gold dinars for the work already carried out. The Templars' response was to speed up work so that the fortress might be defensible before the sultan could attack it. In order to facilitate this they requested aid from King Baldwin IV and he sent out troops to participate in the construction. The chronicler, William of Tyre writes that "within six months they had erected a fortification of solid masonry in the form of a square, of marvellous thickness and adequate height."*

William goes on to say that the fortification was "completed" by April 1179, but the excavations carried out by Ronnie Ellenblum on the site (which I had the good fortune to co-direct with him for three seasons) show a rather different picture. Far from having completed the construction, the fortress as it was exposed in the excavations was at the time it was finally occupied and destroyed by Saladin in August 1179, still very much a building site. The massive outer walls had indeed risen to a considerable height but they were largely covered with soil used to aid in raising the masonry. Only a very small section of the vaults that were being constructed within the outer walls had by then actually been completed. But, considering the massive thickness of the walls, the need to quarry all the stone and carry it from a quarry some distance away, and the complex building process where, due perhaps to the lack of appropriate timber available vast amounts soil had been used in place of scaffolding and would subsequently need to be removed, it is not surprising that eleven months had not been sufficient for the work to be concluded.

Other than its remarkable and unique value as a medieval building site and the dramatic evidence of the earthquake that in 1202 tore the then ruined castle in two, Vadum Iacob is full of evidence for its hasty construction, evidence for the pressure placed upon the Templars to erect it before it could be attacked. Examples of this are the remarkably poor foundations, quite untypical of Frankish construction, and the use of finely cut ashlars for purposes that they had obviously not been intended, such as temporary dividing walls within the castle. Nonetheless, the quality of construction is by and large quite high and it sets one to wondering if it might not be a good idea, when the next stage of the light rail commences, for the Jerusalem municipal authorities to instil in the workers the fear of some modern-day Saladin.

*William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. A.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, vol. 2, 21.26, p. 437.

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