Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

Were bombs used in the Crusades?

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

OK – you read that headline and thought…sensationalist tosh! But no, it’s a serious point and the evidence is pretty strong.  I visited Ajlun castle in Jordan last week – a fort built by one of Saladin‘s generals guarding nearby iron mines. There’s a small museum in the castle and it includes some mysterious circular bottles made of glass and mud.

These strange vessels have been found all over the Levant – and in areas where fighting occurred between Saladin’s Ayyubid forces and the crusader kingdoms. Some have been found to have traces of mercury while others were filled with oil or so-called “Greek fire” – a petroleum like incendiary substance used originally by the Byzantines.

Their narrow base allows them to roll fast when they hit the ground and the small size of the top doesn’t really allow for serving any liquid. It’s quite clear to many historians that these were used for military and not any domestic purpose. They were – basically – bombs.

Please excuse slight blurring on the close up shot but they were in glass cases in a dark room and there’s only so much my camera can cope with.

Ajlun castle bomb Ajlun castle bomb

 

More from the biblical city of Gadara – modern Um Qais

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Staying with Gadara – the city where Jesus cured two demoniacs. Other Roman remains here include the main street with identifiable shops and a basilica later converted into a Byzantine Christian church.

The mysterious Templar attack on the Assassins

Français : Bohémond III et Raymond III à Jérusalem

It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades and one to ponder if you get bored with your family’s company over the Christmas dinner – which I am sure you will not. But just in case!

The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.

When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Almaric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Almaric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.

Almaric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Almaric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Almaric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.

The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Almaric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Almaric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.

So when Almaric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Almaric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.

Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.

Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Almaric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.

Almaric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.

The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack. The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.

But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Almaric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Almaric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.

Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?

Turcopoles – a Crusader’s best friend?

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

From the Roman empire onwards, armies have always vexed over how to get hold of the necessary manpower. This is particularly an acute problem when an empire is expanding far from home. Supply lines have always needed to be maintained and recruits found to replace the dead and wounded. It’s also been a trick of every conqueror to absorb the fighting tactics of their enemies and the closest available manpower. The Romans never let a good enemy tactic go unnoticed and adopted – and they would cheerfully enlist the sons of the conquered.

Equally with the crusader states that sprang up in the Middle East after the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, there was a need to soak up some of the local fighting talent. The Christian invaders were never going to hold on to the kingdoms and principalities they had created without some of the locals coming on side. There were, of course, plenty of Christians living all around them. The religion had, after all, begun in the Middle East. Every shade of Christianity could be found in the crusader states and to the north was the ancient and still very active eastern orthodox Christian empire of Byzantium.

It couldn’t be automatically assumed that any of these Christians would wield a sword for their new masters – who often regarded them as heretical.  In appearance, they looked a little too much like their Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their church services were distinctly lacking in any Latin. But some were prepared to take up arms with the crusaders – and especially the Knights Templar. These obliging eastern warriors were known as  ‘Turcopoles‘.

I’m told this word derives from old Greek meaning ‘sons of Turks’ – but as my Greek is non-existent, one of you can put me right. It’s certain that these lightly armed auxiliaries weren’t necessary Turkish by ethnicity, though many may have been. They were easterners for sure and in the Templar order, they formed a useful fighting force. However, any hope they might have had of rising to be a full blown knight – let alone a brother serjeant – they could forget.  Not that racism as we understand it was prevalent – but they were never to be admitted to the Frankish noble inner circles of the crusader states.

In my book Quest For The True Cross (click on title to go to Amazon) – I have a turcopole main character called Pathros. I made him a man from Aleppo whose family had fallen on hard times due to political changes in Syrian society – not least the arrival of the Seljuk Turks.  A removal of Christians from the bureaucracy of the Islamic caliphate reduces his father to poverty and Pathros goes to find his fortune in the nearby enemy kingdom of Jerusalem. He meets my main Templar hero, Sir William de Mandeville, and becomes his trusty servant. What I show is that Pathros is an educated, literate easterner who, nevertheless, cannot rise up in the Templar order – a fact that frustrates and embitters him. He is lost between two cultures – the Frankish Christian world of the crusaders and the Muslim caliphate. Pathros belongs to neither.

Interestingly – and bringing things to the modern day – I chanced upon THIS blog post from an Islamic blogger arguing for the existence of what he called “Neo-Turcopoles” – Muslims who, as he put it, co-operate with American Neo-Cons and even the Tea Party. I must hasten to point out that this blogger is ultimately arguing for inter-faith unity between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He claims these Neo-Turcopoles are Muslims allying themselves with the most right wing commentators in the US – part of what he calls the Islamophobia “industry”.

I’ve no doubt that in the twelfth century, plenty of easterners living under crusader rule probably took an equally dim view of those who fought alongside the Templars. Plus ca change!

The Crusaders in Egypt

Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fat...
Simeon I of Bulgaria sending envoys to the Fatimids. Madrid Skylitzes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the middle of the twelfth century AD, the crusaders began looking at Egypt as the territory they had to annex if their venture was to have any chance of success. I say “Egypt” but of course the nation that we know today didn’t exist at this time and from 909 to 1171 was part of the huge and sprawling Fatimid empire. This Islamic realm stretched from Morocco to modern Jordan and Syria. It took its name from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, from whom the Fatimids claimed descent and therefore legitimacy.

The real significance of the Fatimids was that they weren’t Sunni. They didn’t recognise the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Worse, from the perspective of the caliph, they adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam and sought to overthrow their Sunni overlords. And they came quite close to achieving that aim. Throughout the tenth century – the Fatimids were by far the most powerful Muslim force but internal and external problems were stacking up.

i10438903255The Fatimids had originated in modern Algeria and through conquest, took over the existing Islamic dominions including southern Italy. In that area, they constantly bumped up against the military power of a very resurgent and aggressive Byzantine empire. But keen to push east and overthrow the caliph in Baghdad, the Fatimids took Egypt and established the city of Cairo. This effectively became their capital and it was from here that they pushed up into the Levant – all the time promoting their version of Islam and insisting that the Sunni caliph was an imposter.

Trouble began for the Fatimids with a rather mad ruler called al-Hakim whose random brutality became the stuff of legend. This included flattening the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and killing all dogs in Cairo because he couldn’t stand their barking. However, al-Hakim was at the same time accused of being too lenient towards non-Muslims by the caliph in Baghdad who began accusing the Fatimids of being less than pure, certainly not descended from Fatima and possibly  – horror of horrors – being of Jewish ancestry! Mercifully for everybody, al-Hakim went out for a stroll one night in Cairo and only his blood stained cloak and a confused donkey were found. He was never heard of or seen again.

There now began a long period of anarchy and secession of territories from the Fatimid empire. Nubians, Turks and Berbers fought between each other and the rulers had difficulty asserting control. By the mid-twelfth century – two new and very large threats had emerged that would eventually combine to destroy the Fatimids. The crusaders had taken Jerusalem and established a string of kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean coast. And from the north had emerged the Seljuk Turks – uniting Sunni Islam under vigorous military rulers.

For the crusaders of Jerusalem – Egypt became a very attractive target. The Seljuks had invaded the crusader kingdom of Edessa and the Byzantines had claimed sovereignty over Antioch. So the kingdom of Jerusalem began looking southwards at the Fatimids who were busy arguing amongst themselves. Almaric I of Jerusalem, together with the Byzantines, invaded Egypt, which seemed ripe for the taking. And sure enough – they defeated the Fatimids in their first battle.

This has given rise to a question still hotly debated today – could Almaric have annexed Egypt? In the end he retreated but there’s plenty of reasons for supposing he could have succeeded. Some senior figures in the Fatimid empire were already working with the Sunni Seljuks while others remained loyal to the original Fatimid aims. So the ruling elite was divided and treacherous.

It’s been argued that Almaric could have relied on the Coptic Christians of Egypt to rally to his side but that may be an assumption too far. Eastern Christians did not necessarily look favorably at the Latin rites, western crusaders and vice versa. The Greek rites church of Byzantium had gone its own way, splitting from Rome, a hundred years earlier. The Coptic church, with its long history of a powerful patriarch in Alexandria, did not look to Rome for spiritual guidance. But a Latin crusader king could conceivably have convinced the Copts to come on side – they were a much larger percentage of the population at that time – and Almaric might have assured them that he would put the forward march of Islam on hold.

Who knows? It didn’t happen but as I’ll show in future posts – that didn’t stop some very well known crusaders having another go at Egypt.

 

 

 

Saint George and his chains – in Cairo

You all know about Saint George and the Dragon and if you’re English, you’ll be aware that he is the patron saint of England. But there’s a lot more to this saint who was venerated in the Middle Ages.

Reputedly a Greek who served in the Roman army during the reign of the emperor Diocletian – he got into trouble when he decided to convert to Christianity. The reason being that the emperor had been convinced to launch an all out purge of Christians leaving George on the wrong side of the political fence. But he refused to change his mind and suffered martyrdom.

In the 12th century, the saint’s remains were brought to Egypt and the Convent of Saint George is still one of the key places of worship for Coptic Christians in Cairo. The faithful are invited to put the collar round their neck and wind the chain round their body. This ritual goes back to the Byzantine era and is said to leave the pilgrim in a state of grace.

According to some sources, the chain was also used in the past to chain those suffering from mental illness, anxiety and hysteria. Well, I suffer from none of those things but did hold the chains during my visit to Cairo in 2009.

 

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)

Saladin the merciful – think again!

SaladinAn excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.   Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s hard not to agree.  It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.  His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.  The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.  There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.  It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.  If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’

Saladin animated in a cartoon series!

Franciscan missionary work among Muslims

IMG_1636I was in Porto, Portugal a few years back in the church of Saint Francis when I saw a gruesome image of a Saracen beheading a Franciscan friar – and another lying on the ground without his head.  Couldn’t resist a sneaky photo, which I’m sharing with you here.

All of which raises the question – how did these friars get in to this situation?  Where were they martyred?

Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination is a good starter on the subject and its author John Victor Tolan gives some interesting detail.  The Orders of Friars Minor – Ordo Fratrum Minorum – was found in the early 13th century, just under a hundred years after the founding of the Templars.  Saint Francis of Assisi took an early view that the Muslims needed to be brought back to Christianity and his friars were well suited to the task.

The trouble was, Tolan relates, they resorted to abuse as a primary approach – insulting the Prophet and seeking the ‘palm’ of martyrdom….which they got.  Tolan makes the point that Christians in the early days of the Islamic caliphate in Spain, four hundred years before, had also insulted Mohammad in order to die an honourable death and the Muslims had obliged.  So the friars followed this largely unproductive example.  In 1212, Francis tried to get to Morocco where he clearly hoped to be martyred but fell ill and only reached Spain.

But this hostile approach proved unsatisfactory for the growing number of more intellectual Franciscans and as the century wore on, they tried to dispute on very serious terms with the Muslims.

Saint Francis however was not up for round table debates – he still wanted to go and tell the forces of Islam exactly what he thought and didn’t care much if he was slain in the process.  So he joined the Fifth Crusade full of zeal and believing he could win over the heretics.  He was apparently captured by Egyptian soldiers, beaten badly and then presented to the Sultan whose main weapon against Francis seems to have been excessive kindness and bribery – he offered lots of lovely gifts which the ungrateful friar turned down as “so much dung”.

Francis egged on the Sultan to martyr him but the Muslim ruler refused to oblige.  Fellow Franciscan, Thomas of Celano, who wrote up this story shared Francis’ discomfort at having to return home very much alive and un-martyred.  So he concluded that God had something far better in store for Francis and was saving him for now.  Eventually, the saint died a pretty painful death – a prolonged illness – and Thomas cheerfully noted that this was a kind of martyrdom.

Before dying, Francis was told of five Franciscans martyred in Marrakesh and this seems to have cheered him up enormously.  I’m assuming the tableau below is those friars coming to their grisly end.