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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Trees and Timber

The forest along the Kziv Stream below Montfort Castle

My grandfather, a chemist by trade became involved in the timber industry in Australia. He made a quest of resolving the difficulties in manufacturing paper from Australian Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus, a hardwood, was not regarded prior to his efforts as suitable for paper manufacture, and consequently his success in this endeavour opened up the vast resources of expansive forests to the industry. As with the success of an individual, the success of a society lies to a considerable degree in its ability to make the most of existing resources and to find ways to overcome what it lacks through initiative and invention.

The state of forests in the Levant had a significance impact on many facets of life and warfare in the Latin East. Having come from a timber-wealthy region, the Franks who settled in the East displayed their resourcefulness to perhaps a greater degree than in many other endeavours, by appropriating Eastern methods of stone construction. This is abundantly evident if we compare the type of primitive wooden fortifications that typified much of the Europe they came from in the eleventh century, to their own vast stone creations in the later part of the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century.

To the extent that it was available, wood nonetheless remained essential, and the forests that did exist were important as a resource for building material (timber for scaffolding, roofing and doors), for war material (wooden arrow and spear shafts, siege machines, combustible material for sapping), for heating and cooking (timber and charcoal), for industries (resins and galls used in tanning) and for food (feed for livestock such as acorns, and game). Forests were also important as a natural feature that could be taken advantage of, or constitute an obstacle during warfare. This is illustrated by events of 1099. When early in the year the crusaders passed near or through the forests of Lebanon, perhaps not appreciating the necessity, they did not carry away timber for use in the construction of siege machines. Consequently, they ran into difficulties when they arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem in June and found the area barren in that resource. Most of the native forests had been cleared during the Roman siege in 70 AD and what little had survived in the vicinity had probably been removed by the Fatimids for use when they besieged the city in 1098 at the time when it was still held by the Seljuks, and then again in the following months in order to prevent any timber falling into the hands of the approaching crusaders. Indeed, the crusading army was only able to find enough wood to construct a single ladder - not of much use when an army of tens of thousands wishes to storm a ten metre high wall. This lack of foresight resulted in a protracted siege that was only overcome when, according to one account, timber beams that had possibly been hidden in a cave at the time of the Fatimid siege of 1098 were by chance discovered by Tancred, or by another account, timber was brought up from dismantled Genoese ships from Jaffa.

Many of the medieval forests that once covered parts of the landscape of the Holy Land and the northern crusaders states no longer survive, but some are at least preserved in written records. There are references to the forest at Arsuf, Sylvam Arsuri or la Foresta d’Arsur that played a significant role in the Battle of Arsuf in 1191. James of Vitry mentions a forest called Marith at the edge of the county of Edessa. He also records the forest at Beirut, and the Muslim traveller, Muhammad al-Idrisi writes about the pine forests south of Beirut, which extended for a distance of twelve miles in each direction. These forests are recorded as having supplied timber beams for the Cathedral of Beirut and they are also mentioned by William of Tyre who notes that they had earlier also supplied timber for machines used during the crusader siege of Beirut in 1111. The Templar of Tyre records the “Templars’ woods” called Moncucu, near Tripoli, and there were forests between 'Atlit Castle and Caesarea which are recorded as having supplied the Mamluk army with wood for hoardings in 1290 in preparation for their siege of Acre.

The Mediterranean maquis (scrubland), consisting of small and frail oaks, bay trees, arbutus, mastic and styrax trees, constitutes much of what is termed forest in the Levant. It seems almost pitiful when compared to the great European forests. It nonetheless, along with the more substantial pine groves and cedar woods, fulfilled an important, indeed vital role in the life and survival of the Frankish settlers and crusading armies in the Latin East.

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