On the Wind
Here in Jerusalem, as is usual in late October, the easterly wind has arrived. This is one of the least pleasant periods of the year, when for about two weeks the dry wind from the desert brings its bounty of sore throats, sniffles and coughs. It carries sand and dust, and scatters the dying leaves in a rather pathetic autumn display compared to that of Europe or the Americas. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything positive with regard to this wind.
But in the twelfth century the easterly wind of mid-October was greatly valued, as was the mid-April westerly. In those days ships avoided sailing beyond the two very brief periods in the spring and autumn known as the passagia. Sailing was entirely dependent on favourable winds and currents, and ships could be held up in port for some time awaiting the right conditions. The spring passagium began in mid-April, when the west wind began to blow steadily, more or less until the end of May. The autumn passagium was briefer, beginning with the arrival of the easterly in mid-October, and lasting for only about two weeks. It was a fleeting opportunity for ships to set sail. For the rest of the year, wind and currents made sailing extremely hazardous.
Life in the Latin East revolved around this seasonality, and these two brief spans of arrivals and departures. In the passagium the great fleets of Venice, Genoa and Pisa arrived from Europe carrying their goods and human cargoes. Merchants and pilgrims from the West would remain in the kingdom at least until the spring when the arrival of the next passagium enabled their return. This created extended pilgrimages, often for a year or more. The resulting presence of a transitory pilgrim population in the crusader states had positive aspects, such as the creation of a labour force, as pilgrims often had to find some form of employment while they remained in the Holy Land. It also created the need for the establishment of merchant colonies in the ports of the Levant, which had a very pronounced and generally positive influence on the development of medieval commerce.
Contemporary writings sometimes throw light on the dependency of travellers on the wind, on the unreliability of its arrival, and on the tension this sometime created. In October, 1184 the Andalusian Muslim traveller, Ibn Jubayr, waited on board ship in the port of Acre for twelve days for the wind to pick up. Finally, he and his fellow travellers went ashore, and in the following morning when they returned to board ship at daybreak, they found that it had departed. They were forced to hire a large boat and to undergo a perilous chase that fortunately enabled them to catch up with the ship after an entire day at sea.
Some decades earlier, in the spring of 1141 the great Hebrew poet Yehudah HaLevi waited on board a ship at the port of Alexandria for the westerly wind to pick up and enable his ship to sail for the Holy Land. It may have been now that made use of this waiting to deploy his skills and compose a beautiful poem – West Wind (though some think this poem was from another trip):
…Winged from the west,
Come not from the cavern of winds
But from the storerooms of a spice merchant:
Scented like incense,
Swift as a bird,
Bearing my freedom…
Stay not your hand from us now.
Fill our sails, long becalmed.*
* abbreviated excerpt from The Poems of Yehuda HaLevi, translated and annotated by Hillel Halkin, Lexington, Massachusetts, 2011, p. 35.