Terrorists endanger Templar sites

A photo I took inside Karak castle in 2013

The news that Karak castle in Jordan had been attacked by members of the so-called Islamic State is horrifying and shocking. Much worse that a Canadian tourist, Linda Vatcher, was killed in the skirmish along with members of the Jordanian security forces. Linda’s son Chris was also injured. Our thoughts go to them at this terrible time.

I visited Karak (or Kerak as I spelt it then from the Arabic) in 2013. It’s a stunning place to see and underneath is a warren of mysterious tunnels. The fortress was the stronghold of the notorious Raynald of Chatillon who apparently wasn’t averse to chucking his enemies off the battlements. And I can assure you that the drop is steep and vertiginous. It eventually fell to the forces of Saladin but not without a long and bitter fight.

IMG_3797Sadly, I will not be returning to Karak anytime soon. This is one of many Templar sites across Syria and Jordan that are off limits as war rages in the region. The splendid Krak des Chevalier was reportedly damaged during fighting in 2014, the BBC reported. While the outside walls looked pretty much intact, the interior had taken a pounding and there was rubbled strewn everywhere.

We might say – well, tough for those buildings but people come first. And that would be right. However, the deliberate demolition and vandalism perpetrated by so-called Islamic State against historic buildings is calculated to destroy the spirit of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi peoples. The terrorists know that when they release film of Roman, Templar or ancient Muslim sites being reduced to dust, that it cuts deeply.

This is part of their year zero strategy to convince us that everything before them was false and sacrilegious and that history now begins with their self-proclaimed “caliphate” – rejected by most Muslims worldwide. So we must do whatever we can to defend these great places and assist in the rebuilding and repair after the wars have dissipated. We must preserve the past to build the future.

Fans of the Templars and fans of the Saracens will need to come together to protect the heritage of the Middle East that means so much to all of us.

And on that note – Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2017!


The ancient souk of Aleppo in Syria is destroyed

Gosh – what can one say? The horror being faced by the people of Syria is stomach churning and to add to their misery, the very buildings that have given them both pleasure and a livelihood from tourists are being bombed and severely damaged. Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman monuments have suffered. Now we have news that the souk of Aleppo – a UNESCO protected site – has been set ablaze in fighting. It’s doubtful the building as it was now exists. Read more HERE.

Syria – historic sites being blasted in civil war

Coat of arms of Syria -- the "Hawk of Qur...
Coat of arms of Syria — the “Hawk of Qureish” with shield of vertical tricolor of the national flag, holding a scroll with the words الجمهورية العربية السورية (Al-Jumhuriyah al-`Arabiyah as-Suriyah “The Syrian Arab Republic”). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo...
English: Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo Deutsch: Die Zitadelle von Aleppo, frontale Sicht (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th ce...
Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th century castle and was used in the Crusades. It was one of the first castles to use concentric fortification, ie: concentric rings of defence that could all operate at the same time. It has two curtain walls and sits on a promontory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Southern part of inner wall of Krak d...
English: Southern part of inner wall of Krak des Chevaliers, Syria Français : Partie sud du mur de l’enceinte intérieure du Krak des Chevaliers, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wish that headline was a bit of journalist hyperbole – but the pictures say otherwise. We’d all like to think that in the current civil war in Syria, its Roman and crusader sites – jewels that should be treasured forever – would be respected. But a civil war is always a brutal affair. YouTube videos of summary executions, torture and abuse of ordinary people show how the country has descended into hell. So what chance for its antiquities?

Before anybody says it – yes, people come before old buildings. And I don’t wish to be accused of being indifferent to the fate of Syrians because I’m a great supporter of the Arab Spring and the awakening of democracy in the Middle East. But on the ground – Syria is revealing all the worst aspects of human warfare.

When I heard that Aleppo was under fire from government troops – I naively thought the exchange of bullets would be reserved to the suburbs. But no – the main gate to the ancient citadel has been shelled and Time magazine has revealed the damage – click HERE for more. But worse than this is the smuggling and looting of antiquities – and shame on those dealers and buyers in the west who are aiding and planning these activities. As Time reports, the smuggling is not only for money now – but also for weapons. Priceless statues and artifacts are being traded for guns and bombs.

UNESCO has put out a statement – click HERE – warning that all of its six major historical sites have been damaged. And you have to remember that Syria has entire Roman and medieval villages dotted all over the country with incredible temple ruins. None of this has been spared in the fighting. A Facebook page has been set up to monitor the destruction including videos showing the bombing of old houses in Damascus and elsewhere. Click HERE to visit.

But surely – amidst all this madness – you would expect the magnificent crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers to be left untouched. It’s located in the desert near Homs and has remained in near pristine condition for eight centuries. Well, take a deep breath. It has been shelled and the chapel has been damaged. Click HERE for veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk‘s gloomy account in The Independent newspaper. He describes archaeological sites as having been ‘pulverised’.

What Fisk reports – and made me gulp – is the use of temples, castles and even a Roman amphitheatre as places for rebels to hole up. Inevitably, they then come under government fire with horrific consequences for human life and the heritage of Syria.

Aleppo – a great medieval city under threat

English: Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo...
Frontal view on the Citadel of Aleppo 

The civil war in Syria now threatens one of the historic gems of the Middle East that loomed large during the crusades. Aleppo was stormed many times by the Byzantines and the crusaders as they tried to eject the Saracens. Originally part of the Roman Empire – it had a large Christian population but fell to the Islamic caliphate in the year 637.

The Byzantines – under the expansionist Macedonian Dynasty – managed to take Aleppo for several decades but it eventually fell to the Seljuk Turks who would become the greatest threat to Christian forces in the Second Crusade. Aleppo was ravaged by a huge earthquake in 1138 with a massive loss of life but the citadel re-emerged as it can be seen today with its elegant bridge and thick walls.

In 1260, the city fell to the Mongol armies that massacred the Muslim and Jewish populations but spared the Christians – possibly because of Nestorian Christian influence among the Mongols. Their rule last barely a year before the Mamluks recaptured the city for Islam.

Today, a scene of horror presents itself with government forces bombarding the city and the BBC has reported a flood of refugees from Aleppo making their way into Jordan.  Our thoughts must go first to the people of Aleppo and let’s hope the population and their beautiful city survive this onslaught.

The Battle of Hattin – from the Saracen point of view

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

For eight centuries, fans of the crusades have rightly held their heads in shame at the memory of the battle known as the Horns of Hattin. It was here that Saladin brilliantly ran rings round the Templar and Christian forces achieving a stunning victory. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.

I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.

As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.

The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary. The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly of the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.

And of course – here’s the Battle of Hattin as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven (how I wish Orlando Bloom had not been in the film but hey ho)