It’s been reported that the thugs of ISIS have blown up an 800 year old mosque built during the Crusades by Nur ad-Din, a Saracen ruler described during his lifetime as a scourge of the crusader armies.
Up until recently, ISIS had exploited the historical significance of the mosque to legitimise their land grab in Syria and Iraq. Three years ago, their so-called caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi launched the ISIS “caliphate” from the pulpit at the Grand al-Nuri mosque, which now lies in complete ruins.
The mosque was based in Mosul, Iraq – a city that ISIS invaded in 2014. The terror group now faces almost certain defeat at the hands of Iraqi government forces. So they have reacted by blowing up this ancient jewel. It’s appalling to see a mass of rubble where this medieval glory so recently stood.
This mosque was a physical link between us in the 21st century and those far off times. Its builder, Nur ad-Din, famously captured the Knight Templar grand master Bertrand de Blanquefort who was held in prison for three years in Aleppo before being handed over to the Byzantine emperor. Even though he bested the crusaders on several occasions, Nur ad-Din was respected by the Christian chronicler William of Tyre who described him as a “just prince, valiant and wise”.
This is one of many historical sites that have been vandalised by ISIS. Many churches, mosques, shrines, temples and of course the Roman ruins at Palmyra have been trashed by ISIS. The objective is to erase history and undermine the sense of national identity of Syrians and Iraqis. However, with every insane of violence, they simply show themselves to be mindless, bigoted vandals.
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.
Sadly, 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 Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).
A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.
So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog. The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.
“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!
Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.
If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment.