Its history goes back almost to the dawn of time and it has been known by different names down through the ages. It was called the Land of Israel in the biblical era. The Babylonians knew it as the Kingdom of Judah. The ancient Greeks called it Palestine. As a Roman province, it was Syria Palaestina. It has been called Canaan, the Levant, the Promised Land. Since 1948, it has been the State of Israel. But in the twelfth century, it was known throughout Christendom as the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and Outremer, a Norman-French term that translates as “The land beyond the sea.”
I’d always been fortunate enough to visit the places I write about. While it might not have been absolutely necessary, especially in the age of the Internet, I think I benefited by walking the peaceful pastures that had once been bloody battlefields, by exploring the haunting ruins of once- powerful medieval castles, and by following in the footsteps of Welsh princes, Yorkist kings, and a remarkable Duchess of Aquitaine. It helped, of course, that these trips were tax-deductible for me!
Lionheart was the first book in which this pattern was broken. I managed to visualize the places I was writing about, thanks to videos and YouTube. For example, while looking for information about Arsuf, I was delighted to discover that paragliding is a favorite sport in the area, and there were quite a few videos that offered excellent views of the cliffs of Arsuf. But I still felt cheated at being denied the opportunity to see these cliffs, cities, and castles for myself, and vowed that I would find a way to do on-site research for my novel about the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The trip seemed snake-bit from the first, though, for the timing was not good. This past spring, I did a book tour for A King’s Ransom, and while it was great fun, it was also exhausting. My heart does not even start beating before nine AM on most days, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed having to get up in the middle of the night to catch a dawn flight. Sleep is always in short supply on book tours and by the time I got home, I was ready to hibernate till the summer. Instead, I came down with pneumonia, most likely a souvenir from one of my ten flights during the tour; ever since I caught whooping cough, of all ailments, on a flight from London last year, I’ve begun to view planes as flying petri dishes. The pneumonia flattened me for more than seven weeks and after my doctor told me that it would be foolish to attempt another strenuous, demanding trip in the span of five months, I reluctantly cancelled our second Richard III tour scheduled for September. That was quite disappointing, but I eventually realized that I should still be able to make the trip to Israel, for I would be able to set the pace, to avoid any obscenely early mornings, and to go back to my hotel to rest if need be, none of which I could do on book or travel tours.
I’d planned to make the trip to Israel with a Colorado friend, Enda Junkins, and when we learned that our Australian friend, Paula Mildenhall, would be in the US in October, I invited her to join us. For the first time, it began to look as if the trip would really happen—and then war broke out. We could only wait and watch and hope for a cease fire—not just for us but for all of the Israelis and Palestinians caught up in this maelstrom. When a cease-fire finally held, we decided to make the trip even though the US State Department was still advising against all non-essential travel. Since so many people expressed concern about our trip, I want to stress that we felt perfectly safe the entire time we were there, although after we returned home, there was another tragic outbreak of the violence that so often stalks this part of the world.
We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in late afternoon on October 8th, and reached Jerusalem as twilight was settling over this ancient city, sacred to three of the world’s major religions. On our first evening, we discovered the café that would become a favorite for the rest of our stay. The Etz Café is non-profit, run by a Jerusalem charity, Voice of Many Waters. The food was excellent, their lemonanas were great thirst-quenchers, the staff was young and enthusiastic, and the weather was warm enough to eat at one of their outside tables; Jerusalem has as many outdoor cafes as Paris! Here is the Facebook page for the Etz Café for any of you planning a trip to Jerusalem or simply curious about a non-profit restaurant. https://www.facebook.com/EtzCafeJerusalem/photos_stream
The café also had what we at first took to be a mascot, a friendly, skinny little cat who greeted us as if he were the host; he kept jumping up on empty seats only to be gently shooed off by one of the staff, but he’d hop right back as soon as the waiter went inside again. It turned out that this confident little guy was a stray, one of dozens that we saw during our stay in the city. They were remarkably friendly for strays, not at all skittish or wary, probably because many Israelis put out food for them, and they were everywhere—even in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre!
We hadn’t realized that we’d be arriving at the start of a holiday called Sukkot, a joyful festival that commemorates the forty years wandering in the desert. We soon noticed small structures in the city, obviously temporary, and were quite curious until our Israeli friends explained that Leviticus states that “all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths,” as their ancestors did in the wilderness. They said that today it is enough to eat meals in these sukkots; many families erect them in their own backyards, others are set up for apartment dwellers, and the ones we saw were provided for those who did not have access to sukkots of their own. I found this quite interesting, so I am including a link here for those of my readers who’d like to know more about this festival. http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday5.htm It did create a few problems for us as some places were closed or had limited hours, but if we hadn’t come during Sukkot, we might not have gotten to see our friend, Koby Itzhak, who is serving in the Israeli army; armies the world over tend to be stingy about giving soldiers much free time. So it was well worth a few minor inconveniences to be able to meet Koby in Jaffa, Akko/Acre, and Sepphoris.
None of you will be surprised to hear that we spent our entire time in Jerusalem in the Old City. At the top of my To See List was the Tower of David, also known as the citadel. It is now a museum and their website shows why it is not to be missed for anyone visiting Jerusalem.
http://www.towerofdavid.org.il/English/General/Tower_of_David-Museum_of_the_History_of_Jerusalem It dates back to the second century BC, is over two thousand years old! Naturally it changed as it passed into the hands of the various conquerors of the city; the present structure dates primarily from the 14th century. It became known as the Tower of David during the occupation by the Byzantines, who thought it was the site of the palace of King David. The citadel was briefly a royal residence after the city fell to the Christian crusaders in 1099, but their kings soon built a large palace to the south of the citadel; sadly, no trace of this royal palace remains.
I was especially interested in seeing what is today called Phasael’s Tower; the original had been built by King Herod, who named it after his brother, Phasael. It was very important during the crusader period, and it appeared on the royal seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; it was here that the terrified citizens took refuge when they feared Jerusalem might be attacked by Saladin in 1177. I’d already set a key scene in my novel, Outremer, here, as the High Court members gathered to elect a new king after the unexpected death of King Amalric in 1174, so you can imagine how gratifying it was to visit the tower for myself. The view of the Old City from the roof is absolutely spectacular. We were fortunate enough to attend one of the Light and Sound shows that are performed in the citadel’s courtyard several evenings a week. It rained briefly, but it was so warm we didn’t mind, and the show was great fun; it looked as if the crusader knights were going to ride their steeds right into the audience! You can download a free audio guide of the museum to your computers or other devices; just go to the website link above, click onto Audio Guide and follow the instructions.
The following day was the first of our meetings with one of our Facebook friends. Elke Weiss is a young American who holds dual citizenship; she is currently working for the Israeli government and she generously offered to give us a personal tour of the Old City. We got to stroll the narrow, crowded streets of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters, some of them covered just as they were in the MA. These modern souks (markets) evoke atmospheric echoes of their medieval counterparts. In fact, the Muslim and Christian quarters comprise one large souk, with some of their streets devoted to specific wares: David Street for tourist souvenirs, Christian Quarter Road for more upmarket goods, the Muristan for leather, and the Via Dolorosa for religious items. And yes, we succumbed to the courteous but persistent entreaties of the vendors and did some shopping. Paula, in particular, did much to energize the Israeli economy. I think it is safe to say that our families and friends can expect many Jerusalem-themed gifts for Christmas.
I tend to be laser-focused when I travel and hone in on sites that will surface in my books, which means the modern world gets short shrift. Although I have probably been in London at least 25 times over the years, I have never watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and am not likely ever to do so. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Tower or Westminster Abbey. So we paid several visits to Jerusalem’s citadel. We admired the magnificent Damascus and Jaffa Gates, erected on the sites of the medieval gates. We visited the Western Wall, built by King Herod and Judaism’s holiest site, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
The first basilica dates from the 4th century. It was rebuilt at various times in the centuries that followed, greatly enlarged by the crusaders in the years between 1114 and 1170, becoming the burial place of the kings of Jerusalem, but it suffered considerable damage in a 1808 fire and an earthquake in 1927. It has always been a holy pilgrimage site for Christians and was very crowded the day that we were there, with people waiting patiently for hours to be able to enter Christ’s Tomb and view the rock upon which Jesus’s body is believed to have been lain. The church was fought over by various Christian sects until an Ottoman decree in 1852 divided its custody among the Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians, and Syrians, and today Jerusalem has four patriarchs, those of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek Catholic, and Latin or Roman Catholic churches. Remarkably, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ceremonially unlocked every morning by a Muslim Key Holder, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, whose family has been entrusted with this duty for hundreds of years; one tradition dates it from the 7th century, while another one traces it to 1192, when Salah al-Din (known to the West as Saladin) and Richard Coeur de Lion agreed that Christians would be permitted to worship again in the city. Here is a link to a fascinating story about the current Key Holder. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Muslim-family-holds-key-to-sacred-sepulchre-For-2720014.php
We were not able to see all that was on my list, although we did get to celebrate Paula’s birthday during our stay, having dinner at the Rooftop Restaurant, which gave us a dazzling view of the Old City. But we had to prioritize since we had such limited time in Jerusalem. We were not permitted to visit the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent mosque that dates back to the 7th century, for the huge esplanade known as the Temple Mount and Haram esh-Sharif, Arabic for the “Noble Sanctuary,” was off-limits to non-Muslims because of security concerns. And unfortunately, my back problems flared up after two days and I had to take frequent breathers for the pain eases up when I sit down; all those Jerusalem outdoor cafes definitely came in handy. I would have loved to see the 12th century crusader Church of St Anne, which was turned into a Muslim theological school by Saladin. But I was in so much discomfort by then that I had to give up; Elke kindly offered to visit the church on my behalf and take photos for me.
I was looking forward to walking the ramparts and so it was very disappointing when they were closed on Saturday for what we assume were security threats. Elke volunteered to take Sunday morning off to accompany us and we decided to delay our departure for Jaffa, hoping they would be open then, as they were. The walls date from the 16th century, built mainly upon the site of the medieval walls; two sections are open to the public, from the Jaffa Gate to St Stephen’s Gate and then from Jaffa Gate to the Dung Gate—yes, that is actually its name, for medievals liked to call a spade a spade. There were some very steep steps and it was such rough going in patches that guide books cautioned it was not for the elderly or the infirm, which I thought was a good description of me by the time I hit the half-way point. It was well worth the effort, though, for it was easy to gaze from the ramparts and imagine Balian d’Ibelin doing the same thing, looking down upon the Saracen army and knowing that he and he alone stood between the terrified citizens and death or slavery. How many men throughout history have been able to save thousands of lives? You’d think Balian would get more credit for his heroics, but instead he got obscurity and even worse, The Kingdom of Heaven.
We could not have had a better tour guide than Elke, and I am so glad that we were able to meet—thanks to the magic of Facebook. Over the years, I have heard some marvelous stories from friends and readers about their experiences reading my books. One of my favorites came from a woman who wrote that she was about half-way through The Sunne in Splendour when it all came together for her; she said she shot upright in bed and screamed, “Oh, my God! This is the Richard III!” Her husband, who’d been peacefully sleeping beside her, was less than thrilled. I heard from an Australian reader who wrote to tell me that she’d loved Sunne but could not enjoy Here be Dragons because Llywelyn reminded her too much of a former lover. A friend confided that after reading the scene in which Llywelyn and Joanna consummated their marriage, she went upstairs and—in her words—“gave my husband the best night of our marriage.” But I don’t think it is possible to top Elke’s story.
She read Sunne when she was only eight years old, which surely sets a record in itself. But because she was so young, she’d never heard of Richard III or the Wars of the Roses. So can you imagine what a horrible shock it was to her when she reached the chapter at Bosworth Field? She told me that she came to her mother in tears, wanting to know why I’d let Richard die! She did forgive me in time, and Sunne has remained one of her favorite books despite those psychic scars it inflicted upon her eight-year-old self, and when we were in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she said a prayer for Richard’s soul, which touched me deeply.
We left Jerusalem with regret, for it is truly one of the world’s great cities. Because my back pain was still rather bad, we arranged with our hotel for a taxi since that would be easier for me than public transportation. During our stay, we found the Israelis to be very friendly and willing to go out of their way to help hapless tourists, as was proved when we arrived in Jaffa, which is today a suburb of Tel Aviv. A red flag went up when our taxi driver had trouble finding the hotel and when he finally located the address, it was closed up, with no signs of life. He sought help from passers-by, to no avail. I’d rented a phone for our visit and of course it wasn’t working; my dead zone apparently recognizes no borders. With some assistance from our driver, Paula was able to reach a hotel representative, and we learned that there was no one on the premises and we should have been sent codes to allow us to enter the building and then our apts, none of which was mentioned on the website. We did eventually get in, and were very pleased with the spacious accommodations; I would definitely go back—as long as the entrance codes were provided in advance. But we were grateful to our good-hearted taxi driver, for he could easily have shrugged and left us to fend for ourselves; even the passers-by waited around to be sure we’d not be stranded.
There is not much left of medieval Jaffa; the crusader castle has long been dust on the wind. But I wanted to walk in the Old City, to see the harbor, and envision how it was during the heyday of the kingdom of Outremer. I’d never really seen the Mediterranean before, just a glimpse of a distant blue haze from a train through the south of France, so I enjoyed our “cruise” up the coast toward Tel Aviv and then back to Jaffa, although it took more imagination than I possessed to put us into a medieval galley, sailing with Richard’s small fleet as they desperately sought to reach Jaffa before it fell to Saladin.
For us, the highpoint of our time in Jaffa was getting to meet my friend Koby, who’d been my cyberspace pen-pal for several years. We spent an afternoon exploring the Old City with Koby as our guide; he was in uniform and attracted quite a few smiles from passersby for soldiers are highly respected in Israel. We had fun discussing medieval events and battles, although Koby did also try to convince us that those cute, cuddly koalas in Paula’s Australia are actually dangerous stealth ninjas who like to pounce upon people from tree camouflage.
On the following day, I rented a car and we drove up the coast to Acre, known now to the Israelis as Akko. Enda offered to drive and I gladly took her up on that, for we’d have been returning to Jaffa after dark and my night vision is…..well, let’s just say that I could benefit from a seeing eye dog while driving at night on unfamiliar roads. I was excited about visiting the subterranean crusader city buried beneath 18th century Akko, which was rebuilt by Daher el-Amar after lying in ruins for centuries. Excavations that began in 1954 revealed and restored some of the halls in what had been the Hospitaller compound, and I’d been looking forward to seeing them. But upon our arrival in Akko-Acre, we found that it was closed to the public for the Akko Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre was holding a four day festival and this was where their plays were being performed. Here is a link to a website that shows some of the photos of the excavated knightly halls, so you can see why we were disappointed. http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/KnightsHalls.html
Aside from this unexpected setback, our day was filled with laughter and memories in the making. We were able to connect with Koby again, and this time we also got to meet some of his family–his mother, Susan, who grew up on Long Island, and his younger sisters, Kinneret and Merav. They share his love of history, so the 21st century receded into the distance as we talked enthusiastically about the past. Akko is a historian’s gem, more than four thousand years old, with one of the world’s oldest ports, and during the crusader period, it was notorious for its diverse population, its raucous vitality, and its multitude of opportunities for bad behavior. It is surprising how many famous men found their way to Acre—Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, St Francis of Assisi, St Louis, Napoleon, who suffered a rare military defeat there. We smiled to see a street named after Salah al-Din. There is one named after Richard the Lionheart, too, which I am sure would please him, although I doubt he’d be happy to know that his nemesis, the French king, also has a street of his own.
After a leisurely lunch with Koby’s family, they departed and he and Paula, Enda, and I strolled through the narrow streets of the Old City down to the harbor, where we took another brief cruise, thinking of all the conquerors and would-be conquerors who had crowded to the prows of their ships, eager for their first sight of the city called Akka by the Egyptians, Ptolemais by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, Akka again after the Muslim conquest, and St Jean d’Acre by the crusaders.
Our last day in Israel was, for me, the most memorable. Another of our Israeli Facebook friends, Valerie Bendavid, had offered to drive us out to see the battlefield at the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin had destroyed the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Valerie suggested we make a few stops on the way, so we got to see the impressive ruins of the Hospitaller Castle of Belvoir, which is the best-preserved crusader castle in Israel, and another site that I’d already written about in an early Outremer chapter. After Hattin, it held out against a siege by Saladin for a year and a half, and that is easy to understand after studying its plans, for it was in effect two castles, with rectangular outer walls, reinforced with square towers, that surrounded a square inner enclosure that also had four corner towers. In the 12th century, it was poetically described by Muslim historians as “a nest of eagles and the dwelling place of the moon.”
We got our first view of the famous River Jordan and were surprised to find that it was not at all like the raging torrent I’d always envisioned it to be. The Sea of Galilee was quite impressive; the largest fresh-water lake in Israel, it is about 21 miles long and 8 miles wide, and yes, I looked that up. Many of Jesus’s miracles were said to have happened here. During the years when the Kingdom of Jerusalem flourished, it was the site of an important castle at Tiberias, which would be used as bait by Saladin to lure the crusader army to its doom at Hattin.
Our last stop before the battlefield was another place with multiple names. Today it is called Zippori, but its original Greek name was Sepphoris; during the period when it was under Muslim control, it was known as Saffiyura, and in the time of the crusaders, it was called Le Sephorie. It was already a strongly fortified city in 100 BC; Herod the Great had a palace here. Nero renamed it Eirenopolis Neronias—Nero’s City of Peace; who knew Nero had a sense of irony? A famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi lived there c. 200 AD. We could easily have spent several days in Sepphoris, for there was so much to see. The remains of the ancient city include the street gridlock, ruins of the Roman theatre and bathhouses, a synagogue, several churches, private dwellings, a crusader fortress. Here is a brief video on YouTube that shows you what an amazing site it is, a treasure trove for lovers of history or archaeology.
My main interest was the crusader citadel, a two story dwelling that dates from the 12th century, although there were some modifications under the Ottomans. Le Sephorie was a place of great significance to Outremer, for it is one of history’s most intriguing What Ifs. The army of the kingdom had gathered here in June, 1187 to discuss Saladin’s invasion. He was laying siege to the castle at Tiberias, which was being defended by the Lady Eschiva, wife of the Count of Tripoli. But the count argued against rushing to her rescue, pointing out that that they’d have to march through a parched territory without water. He insisted Saladin would not harm his wife, that he was using the siege to lure them into fighting a battle on his terms, on terrain he chose, a battle they were not likely to win. Their greatest successes had occurred when they adopted a defensive strategy, and he urged them to follow it now, to remain at Le Sephorie and its springs. For once, Guy de Lusignan, the unpopular king of Outremer, listened to reason, and when the other lords supported the count, he agreed that they would not move on Tiberias. But later that night, Gerard de Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Templars, paid a stealth visit to Guy, warning him that his manhood would be impugned and he’d become a figure of mockery if he failed to take action against Saladin.
The Templar leader seems to have had the strategic sense of a Benedictine abbess, for this was not the first time he’d urged a military action that would result in disaster. He was also motivated by malice, by a burning hatred of the Count of Tripoli. According to chroniclers, the count had promised an heiress to Gerard, and then reneged when a Pisan merchant offered him the lady’s weight in gold. Gerard stormed off to join the Templars and devoted the rest of his life to revenge. Guy had a fatal flaw—he would heed the last man to offer him advice, and so he allowed himself to be persuaded by Gerard, announcing the next morning that they would leave Le Sephorie and march on Tiberias, after all.
Quite a few historians have called this one of history’s most boneheaded military blunders, and I totally agree. The army marched out of Le Sephorie the next morning and the result was the battle at Hattin, which was an overwhelming victory for Saladin, who then took the castle at Tiberias, and chivalrously provided the Lady Eschiva with an escort to her husband’s lands in Tripoli, just as the count had predicted he’d do. All of the Hospitallers and Templars who survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s command–all save one, Gerard de Ridefort, who was allowed to ransom himself. Even if Dante did not mention him, I like to think he is roasting in one of the Inferno’s circles of Hell.
While at Sepphoria, we were able to see Koby again and to meet his older sister, Levav. I can only hope she didn’t think I was rude, for Koby and I got into such an animated discussion of the battle at Hattin that we were soon back in the 12th century and lost all sense of time or place or other people; I doubt we’d even have noticed if we’d encountered a unicorn.
Our last stop was the battlefield. The Horns of Hattin is an extinct volcano, with twin peaks overlooking the plain of Hattin. It was here that I experienced a minor miracle of my own. Despite my back brace (my medieval armor) and setting a measured pace, my back had continued to give me grief. But when we reached Hattin, the pain suddenly eased dramatically, allowing me to reach the top. I had not expected the terrain to be so rough, so rock-strewn. It is a wonder that the legs of the horses did not snap like matchsticks, and it was easy to see why the Count of Tripoli could not have forced his way back up the slope to rejoin the army after his charge failed.
I always find battlefields to be sad places; too many ghosts. Hattin is particularly bleak and desolate, and it took very little imagination to envision it wreathed in the smoke of the brushfires set by the Saracens, sweltering in the summer heat, the sky darkening with clouds of arrows, the wind echoing with the battle cries and screams of the dying men and horses. I will never forget the sight of the Sea of Galilee shimmering along the horizon; to men suffering from severe thirst and heat, it must have seemed like a heartbreaking mirage, so close and yet so far. When it comes time for me to fight this battle in Outremer, I will have some very vivid memories to draw upon.
One final thought on this land often called the cradle of civilization. I am very glad Paula, Enda, and I were able to make this trip, and I am grateful to Koby, Valerie, and Elke for their advice, assistance, and the pleasure of their company. When I lived in Hawaii years ago, the word Aloha was multi-purpose, used for greetings and farewell and as an expression of love. I’d like to end this blog with the beautiful Hebrew word Shalom, which—like Aloha– has various meanings, including a blessing for peace, which we wish for all the Israelis and Palestinians who call it home.
December 8, 2014
PS My blog is balking again at letting me insert photos; I thought we’d resolved this problem, but apparently not. I am going to post it as is and then will put up some photos once we exorcise these new demons.