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.
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.
Edward I – the king who defeated Braveheart – could never be regarded as a particularly sentimental man but when it came to his wife, he was a clearly a very devoted husband. Eleanor of Castile was the great great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the feisty queen of Henry II. She was also the great grandaughter of Eleanor of England, a daughter of that same king. Medieval England certainly spawned a surfeit of Eleanors!
Castile was an emerging European power as it pushed back the Islamic realm of southern Spain and originally, Eleanor was intended to be married in to the royal family of the neighbouring Christian kingdom of Navarre. However, Edward I’s father – King Henry III – was troubled by the claims Castile was making to the duchy of Aquitaine, then still under English control, and decided the best way to deal with that problem was to marry his son to the Castilian princess.
Eleanor was no shrinking violet and in the wars that her husband, as king, would have to fight against the English barons and external foes – she proved to be a very strong support for him. However, her life would be cut short – though not at a remarkably young age by the standards of the time. Journeying with Edward towards Lincoln, she caught a fever and died at the age of 49.
This clearly devastated the king who erected twelve ‘Eleanor Crosses‘ at the staging points on her slow procession back to London. This included crosses – initially in wood and later in stone – at Lincoln, Northamption, St Albans, Waltham and Westcheap and then finally at Charing. The last cross was in a small hamlet near the city of Westminster, the centre of royal power.
The cross was in place there from the 1290s to the Cromwellian period in the mid-17th century but was then demolished as part of another wave of anti-idolatrous as well as anti-monarchist sentiment. It stood more or less where the statue of king Charles I now stands at the end of Trafalgar Square, by Admiralty Arch. The cross you can now see outside Charing Cross station is a Victorian confection.
Inside Charing Cross underground station, there are murals depicting the construction of the original cross which I’ve taken a few photos of:
Sadly as I write, the city of Homs is under bombardment from government forces as Syria slowly sinks in to what looks increasingly like civil war.
Many history buffs may be unaware of the city of Homs until I refer to it as Emesa. Then those of you with a strong interest in ancient Roman history will experience a twinge of recognition. Emesa came to prominence under the Severan dynasty of emperors (late second/early third century AD) when Septimius Severus married in to the local nobility. After his death, the family continued to rule in Rome producing the wildly erratic teenage emperor Elagabalus who introduced the cult of Sol Invictus to the centre of Roman life – as well as bringing a holy stone, probably a meteor, to Rome to be worshiped. This object would have been similar to the holy stone still venerated in Mecca.
Emesa remained under Roman control being ruled from Constantinople when the empire divided permanently after Theodosius (late 4th century AD). But as with the rest of Syria – it was invaded by the armies of Islam in the seventh century when the emperor Heraclius was forced to abandon Emesa, which then became Homs. A resurgent Byzantine (eastern Roman) empire was able to retake Homs for about thirty years in the tenth century – which partly explains why many Muslims mistook the First Crusade for a Byzantine attack.
By the time Jerusalem and Antioch were taken by the crusaders, Homs was back under Muslim control – though no doubt with nervous glances down the road to the newly arrived westerners. Homs changed hands several times among different Islamic rulers but by the 12th century was firmly under the sway of the Seljuk Turks. The crusaders realised its strategic importance and tried to take Homs but it was given super fortifications that effectively repelled the crusaders and provided the Saracens with a strong base from which to attack the Christian states of outremer.
Being very much on the front line of the crusades, Homs was not that far from the crusader stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers. Unfortunately – if you’re planning a trip there you may have to wait a while. Normally, you would go from Homs to this historic location but until the fighting between government and rebels is over – your plans may have to go on the back burner.
This is a very telling story from an excellent book – Islam’s War Against the Crusaders – in which the story of a medieval Muslim writer, Usama of Shaizar is referenced.
He once visited Jerusalem and went to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Well, it had once been a mosque – and is today of course – but in the crusader period it had become the headquarters of the Templars. It was known as the Temple of Solomon and underwent some major modifications at that time – not least the walling up of the minbar.
Usama described the Templars as ‘friends of mine’ and there doesn’t seem to have been any problem with him popping in to pray. But as he knelt towards Mecca, a Frankish visitor – who was not a Templar – flew in to a rage and made him face in what he saw as a Christian direction. The Templars took exception to this rough handling of their guest and told the Frank off – but as soon as their backs were turned, he did it again!
The Templars laid in to the guy and apologising to Usama, they explained:
He is a foreigner who has just arrived from his homeland in the north and he has never seen anyone pray facing any other direction than east.
We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.
When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.
The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?
Blood was spilt over these questions.
But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.
The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!
By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.
And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.
So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.
Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.
Iron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear! He kills the bear and the tribe converts. They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.
But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted. Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.
The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.
So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination. And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.
Well, that’s if you subscribe to the Dan Brown view of things. But what was the official narrative for the foundation of the Templars? Michael Haag in his book ‘The Templars’ recounts the standard explanation which I’ll paraphrase from. Essentially as the First Crusade died down with the successful establishment of the crusader states like Jerusalem and Edessa, many of the Christian warriors packed their bags and went home. Indeed, there may have been an acute shortage of “Franks” (the Saracen term for all crusaders) from which to recruit armies to defend these new kingdoms.
The best that could be done was to keep the towns well defended but the roads in between were another story. Saewulf of Canterbury in 1102 detailed how pilgrims who arrived at Jaffa were often subject to attack as they struck out on the road to Jerusalem. The stragglers or small groups were particular targets of Bedouin nomads. Pilgrims would more than likely be killed to access the money which was often sewn in to their clothing.
It must have been a rather unpleasant sight for newly arrived pilgrims to traipse along the road to Jerusalem only to find the rotting corpses of other pilgrims lining the way. Not only were the faithful being set upon by local thieves but they also had to contend with Turkic soldiers from the north and Egyptians from the south.
A Russian pilgrim had noted the activities of Fatimids from Egypt: ‘There are many springs here; travellers rest by the water but with great fear, for it is a deserted place and nearby is the town of Ascalon from which Saracens sally forth and kill travellers on these roads’.
It has been suggested that these attacks had been escalating for quite a while. It’s important to realise that Christians had been coming to Jerusalem before the crusades and often experienced no difficulty (was a muslim ruler going to choke off an influx of medieval tourists?) while at other times, they were not so welcome. All depending on the political and religious climate.
In the period after the muslim takeover of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, the Christian pilgrimages to the city continued. Caliph Umar built the Dome of the Rock and cleaned up the Temple Mount. And Christians continued to decorate their church including the Holy Sepulchre. But 100 years before the Templars were founded came the first sign of trouble with Caliph al-Hakim who destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre and embarked on persecutions of the Christians.
By the early 12th century, Christians also had to adapt to the emergence of the powerful and expanding Seljuk Turks. Fresh from beating the humiliating the Byzantine emperor on the battlefield at Manzikert, they were in a bullish and very confident frame of mind. And they put paid to any expansion plans that the crusaders had in Asia Minor in 1104. In the demonology of Christendom, the Turks were rapidly heading for the number one slot where they would remain for many centuries.
So, what was to be done to protect pilgrims from desert thugs, confident Seljuks and Fatimids intent on pushing the crusaders out? Hugh de Payns and his band of knights believed they had the answer when they formed the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in 1118 to notionally defend pilgrims. I say ‘notionally’ because you’ll find enough people who will suggest this was a cover for something else. They were to stop innocent people being raped and killed by brigands. And with this intent, the Templars began a lively two hundred year existence.
When a Templar movie has the strapline – heavy metal goes medieval – you might want to think twice about pressing the play button. But I’m a brave person and persevered.
The movie starts with ‘bad’ King John (boo hiss) signing Magna Carta but then being a treacherous so-and-so, he seeks retribution against the barons who have humiliated him.
John brings over foreign soldiers to England to fight his enemies – who include the Templars. Actor James Purefoy – who you may recall played Mark Antony in the HBO series ‘Rome’ – is a brooding Templar.
Charles Dance plays an excommunicated Archbishop who seems to be wearing Tudor costume in a movie set three hundred years before – must have been a slip up in the costumer department. Brian Cox plays a baron called Albany who delivers some of the unintentionally funniest lines in any historical movie I’ve watched. “You are no more a king than the boil on my arse” is pretty silly and not an isolated case.
One castle stands in the way of King John and his mercenaries – Rochester. So potty-mouthed Albany with the blessing of excommunicated Archbishop and broody Templar Purefoy ride off to Rochester to stop King John getting any further. King John, by the way, is played by Paul Giamatti which kind of works.
When they get to Rochester, some of King John’s mercenaries have already arrived and taken up residence. Needless to say that Albany and Purefoy kill them all, arteries severed with gusto and blood literally spurting all over the furniture in the Great Hall. I felt sorry for the servants who’d have a devil of a time getting all those stains out of the woodwork and tapestries.
The baron is charge of the castle is played by Derek Jacobi who metaphorically chews the furniture in his usual manner. He’s none too happy with his new guests who are defying the king. But the baron’s young and rather good looking wife takes a shine to the Templars, particularly Purefoy. Shame they’re celibate, a bitchy old servant points out. However we will soon discover that the Templars were capable of some laxity in the trouser department.
The king arrives at Rochester with a huge mercenary army and Albany/Purefoy must defend it which they do with unbelievable carnage. If you like watching heavy swords cleave bodies in two then you’re in for a treat. I can’t believe one reviewer on a movie website complained that you couldn’t see the violence! There was more than enough for me thank you very much! Needless to say that this battle makes the point that one Templar is worth about a hundred ordinary soldiers – they’re like medieval superheroes.
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie for you but it’s not the stinker some have suggested. If you’re in to this period of history, get the popcorn in and forgive some of its shortcomings.
Ending a siege as quickly as possible was always a good idea with both those inside and outside the castle needing to maintain supplies and fend off disease. The weapons employed to wear down your enemy were as much psychological as physical. What you wanted to do to your enemy was to destroy their morale, their will to fight.
Lobbing the severed heads of captured soldiers over the castle wall – in either direction – was a favoured tactic. This might include the hapless messenger who might have his head send back with the enemy response written on a piece of parchment and nailed to his head. In 1344, the English were fighting to hold on to Gascony and one of their soldiers tried to break through the French lines with a request for more assistance. He was captured and the poor man was catapulted alive back in to the castle he had sneaked out of.
At the siege of Nicaea in the First Crusade, the heads of Saracens were impaled before the city walls by the crusaders and others catapulted over the battlements. It was quite common to execute prisoners in front of the enemy with a mass hanging calculated to dent morale. Louis VI castrated and disemboweled captives and floated them down the river on barges to be met by their former comrades in besieged Rouen.
One Byzantine emperor blinded a captured Bulgar army save for one in every ten men – who kept a single eye, to lead the others back. When this appalling spectacle returned to the Bulgar king, he apparently dropped dead on the spot (according to the Byzantine telling of it of course). A similar tactic was used by De Montfort in the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. He cut off the upper lips and noses of a captured garrison and blinded them – leaving some with an eye to lead them to the next castle as a warning of what happened if you resisted De Montfort.
If the enemy began to ram the walls, then they might be discouraged if captured prisoners were dangled – alive – in front of the attacking army. One medieval king attempted to protect his siege towers from attack by mangonels on the city walls by tying live prisoners to the front of the machines. We talk about ‘human shields’ now in warfare but in the Middle Ages, they were very, very literal. Apparently, this ruse did not work and the siege towers came under renewed attack. One account says that the youths tied to the siege towers died very slowly and “miserably, struck by the stones”.
Those throwing the stones at their captured comrades did so with tears in their eyes. They were horrified at having to attack these young soldiers being used as a human shield. “They crushed their chests, their stomachs and their heads and bone and mushy brain were mixed together”. One can imagine that the defenders might have even tried to hurry the deaths of their comrades by taking special aim at them.
A properly provisioned walled city or castle complex could hold out for up to a year. Day after day they could rain down rocks, boiling oil and arrows on the besiegers. With proper preparation and weapons to hand, it could be the army outside the walls who suffered disease and hunger first and not those holed up behind the battlements.
Life for the besieged might get uncomfortable but with a stiff upper lip (providing you still had one!), you could see off the enemy.
Here is a medieval battle re-enactment in the Czech Republic: