Board Crusaders

“I’m bored,” is a phrase uttered by children and a thorn in the side of many overwhelmed parents.  How can children be bored when there is always so much work to do?  When my children told me they were bored, I answered, “Excellent!  That is your brain signalling you to do something else.”  Of course, if they needed suggestions, I was happy to supply them with any number of household tasks. They usually, when faced with the choices, were able to busy themselves, very often with games.  We are a family who loves their games and in that sense are not much different from Crusader knights.  It’s amazing that in the modern world of computers, ample free-time, and massive technology that people still get bored.  How much more knights stationed at the Crusader fortress of Montfort.  I have written before about Montfort here, but I want to focus on the lives of the knights and the governor who were stationed here as seen through archaeological finds.

Montfort defended nothing, is surrounded by no farmland, and is located on no road.   Despite this relative solitude, it was built to the highest standards of luxury for its time.  The head of the Teutonic order, for which it served as a base, lived here and tried his best to stay out of the way of the Italians and Hospitalliers in Akko.  There was nothing to do here, and surely the knights were bored.  Recent archaeologic finds give us some answers to what the residents of Montfort did with their time.

Many pig bones were found among the castle ruins.  Were some of their eating habits linked to boredom?  Perhaps.  One of the remains left by Crusaders in all of their castles was a large refectory or dining hall, where Crusaders could gather and whittle away the hours.  We know that unlike the Jews and the Moslems, pigs were enjoyed thoroughly by the Christian Crusaders.

Another finding from Montfort is a Nine Men’s Morris game board. This game was invented at least 1000 years before the Crusaders during the Roman period.  Although it is a solvable game, it is complex enough to take some skill to master.  Nine Men’s Morris isn’t a long game and so can be finished rather quickly if duty calls, which would make it attractive to knights keeping watch. It was a board game for bored Crusaders.9mens-morris

I tend to think that people in the past are pretty much like people today.  It is interesting that Crusaders living 800 years ago in today’s Upper Galilee region turned to games to fill time and connect to others similar to how my family uses games today.

And playing games has always been much more fun than dusting.

Nearby sites:

-Akko Knights halls
-Park Goren
-Yechiam fortress

Crusader Mom

History tends to be his-story; but every once in a while, in the annals of history you come upon her-story.  One such maker of her-story history was Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem.melisende

Melisende was born to Baldwin II and Morphia from Edessa.   She was the oldest of four daughters (no sons) and as such was appointed as the heir presumptive when her father was still in his prime.  Alas, Baldwin II was not confident that a queen would be accepted on her own merit by the populace or the clergy.  Also she would not be able to continue the familial chain of heirs.  Baldwin II needed to look for a husband for Melisende.  He turned to his ally Louis VI.  Turns out,  Louis was looking to unload an upstart count and send him far from Paris.  This was the flamboyant Fulk de Anjou.

Fulk, however, did not have the progressive ideals of Baldwin II.  Already in the negotiation before the wedding, he tried to install his son from a prior marriage as the heir apparent, wresting power from Baldwin’s family.  Fulk finally backed down on this issue and agreed to marry Melisende anyway.

After their coronation as King and Queen of Jerusalem, Fulk continued to look for a way to lessen the influence which Melisende had on the kingdom.  He accused Melisende of having an affair with Hugh,  Count of Jaffa who was intensely loyal to Baldwin’s family.  The church and the knights supported Melisende and her son, the future Baldwin III, against her husband.  In 1143, twelve years into their joint rule, Fulk found his end in a hunting accident.

Melisende still doesn’t have peace.  She assumes power and becomes ruler of Jerusalem but only until her son, Baldwin III comes of age.  It’s sometimes hard for a mother to let her son go out into the world, especially when his ascension comes at the price of her power.

When she stays too long at the helm, Baldwin III comes after her, amassing his own army.  He even attacks her forces which are protecting her stronghold, the Tower of David.  Eventually, mother and son will come to a truce and she will give him his independence to rule as King of Jerusalem.

But, kids are fickle and shortly after he takes the title from his mother, he goes out on campaign.  To whom will he leave the day-to-day running of the country?  You guessed it – his mother Melisende.  There ain’t no one who is as loyal or supportive as your mom, even when you’re a Crusader king.

Melisende sights:

Traditional Location

It spoke to me.  It yelled at me, so several weeks ago at the Gofna Archaeology conference across the street from my house, I bought it – the complete book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It may seem odd – an English-speaking Orthodox Jew reading a book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Hebrew – but since my first encounter with the church in the Tour Guide course, I have been fascinated with the building and the pilgrims who come.

I find the experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (COHS) to be raw in every way.  From the building itself, sitting in its Crusader glory (mostly), with sections under deliberate neglect and lack of natural lighting, to the ceremonies and squabbles of the various Christian sects which control specific real estate in the church, to the vast numbers of pilgrims of all kinds who come and wait patiently in line and pour their sorrows out on the unction stone, there is very little smoothed over to make it politically correct.  In every way, the COHS is set up to make you feel uncomfortable; and, for me, an orthodox Jew, it also pushes me beyond my comfort zone.   According to Ginni Rometty of IBM, “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” so being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing, and it keeps drawing me back to be fascinated anew by the COHS.

I am not the only one who finds herself on shpilkes there, however.   Even Constantine the Great, the builder of the first COHS was uncomfortable with the building from the get go.  Why? Location, location, location.

The COHS was built on the supposed site of Jesus’s burial in order to provide a shrine for the seminal Christian act.  One might even conjecture that had Jesus simply sermonized, prophesied, and performed a few miracles, after his crucifixion by the Romans, his followers would have made up a small, insignificant, sect within Judaism.  We know that several small sects, with non-normative Jewish beliefs or practices existed at the time.  These sects, such as the Essenes, were systematically destroyed by the Romans during the time of the Great Revolt (66-74 C.E.)  The belief in Jesus’s resurrection, however, set Christianity apart from Judaism. Christianity’s Jewish roots, and the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew, lead to the difficulty in the location of the COHS.

Constantine realized that Jesus’s death as a Jew would include his being buried OUTSIDE of the city walls, according to Jewish custom.  Constantine accepts this as fact, even though he is persuaded to build his monumental church in memory of Jesus’s burial INSIDE the city of Jerusalem of his day (4th century C.E.)  How these two are related, and how they can both be true and accurate takes us on a journey of the walls of Jerusalem.

Britannica_Plan_of_JerusalemAccording to Josephus, Jerusalem has 3 walls in the northern end of Jerusalem which were built at different times. The First Wall (not really the first, but the Romans considered it the first) was built during the reign of Hezekiah during the 8th century B.C.E.  It runs along David Street of today, straight from the area of Jaffa Gate to the Temple Mount.  The COHS is clearly outside of this wall.

The Third Wall, which runs north of the Old City of today, was built in 41 C.E.  It runs much north of Damascus Gate and encompassed a huge tract of land.  The COHS is clearly inside this wall,but the wall was built years after the crucifixion.

The interesting wall is the Second Wall.  We do not have clear archaeological evidence for the exact path of this wall, but according to Josephus, the wall went from somewhere near the Jaffa Gate to the Antonio Fortress (on the northwest corner of the Temple Mount) and was most likely built in the Hellenistic time period (4th – 2nd century B.C.E.) Excavations in the basement of church adjacent to the COHS of today have uncovered what may be a gate of the city of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.  It is as yet unclear as to whether this gate and the associated stairs and pavement were from the Second Wall or from the time of Hadrian (134 C.E.)  If it is part of the Second Wall, then the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would be proven without a doubt to have been outside of the city during the time of Jesus.
Constantine didn’t learn archaeology so how could he build the church where he did?  To quote the Fiddler on the Roof – TRADITION.  There was a long standing tradition from Christian pilgrims of the site of the crucifixion.  Many times in absence of scientific proof for a location, tradition provides us with a good clue.  Constantine went with the pilgrims’ traditions over his intellectual concerns, and, in the end, turned out to be plausible even on academic grounds.

On the Road Again

One topic which fascinates me is the  development of roads as a mirror of human settlement.  I recently spoke at the 50th anniversary of Moshav Mevo Modiim exactly about this topic – the development of the road system as it paralleled the development of the Modiin area.

Modiin sits near the main highway in antiquity which linked the cities of Jaffa, on the coastal plain, and Jerusalem, in the mountains.  This road is one of the few roads actually named in the Bible.  It is called “Maaleh Beit Horon”, the ascent of Beit Horon. (There are only 3 such ascents mentioned at all:  Maaleh Beit Horon, Maaleh Adumim, and Maaleh Akrabim.)  Finding a passage with a relatively low grade throughout to connect these two cities would have been very important, not only for moving passengers and cargo, but for transporting armies going to war.  Because of its strategic importance, control of this road is very important for regional politics.


What was the route of the road?  The road left Jaffo through Lod, then went from Lod through the Ayalon Valley, up through Beit Sira of today, transversing through the modern day villages of Beit Ur el Tachta and Beit Ur el Fuka, snaking around today’s Givat Zeev to Nebi Samuel before entering Jerusalem from Ramot.  More or less.   Roads in antiquity did not have a definite edge or only one way.  They were more like beams of light, with more traffic in the center and then tapering off on the edges.

During the era when the tribes of Israel entered in and settled the land of Israel, this road served as a staging ground for Joshua when he goes out to fight the Amorites.  They succeed against the Amorites, but cannot capture all the cities on the coast.  The powerful Philistines and Phoenicians rule there, and their sophisticated weaponry and fortified cities are no match for the nascent nation.   The children of Israel exert control over the Shefela, the lowlands, which borders the coastal plain, and that area becomes a actual border of sorts.  Think about the battles in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel.  Many of these battles take place in the Shefela.

After the return to Zion after the destruction of the First Temple, the area of the Land of Israel exists as a satrapy in the Persian government.  From then through the conquest of Alexander the Great, the Maccabean revolt, the Romans and the Byzantines, the entire country is united, either as an independent nation or under foreign rule.  The road continues to be the main route to Jerusalem.  Also, the fact that there is (relative) peace, means that the region of the Shefela can flourish.  This is when the city of Modiin comes into its own.  Founded, populated and then made famous by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, this Jewish town near the road was “well positioned”, leading to its wealth and success.  The Byzantines built heavily in the region, erecting a massive basilica over (maybe) the site of the Maccabbean graves.

But all was to come to a grinding halt.  The Moslems conquered the land of Israel in 632 C.E.  They had no desire to revere a Jewish military/religious hero.  The site of the Maccabbean graves became irrelevant and forgotten.  But what about the city of Modiin?  The city continued to do well and prosper, but with a Moslem population now.

About 450 years later, a new change came to the Land of Israel which would have a huge impact on both Maaleh Beit Horon and the city of Modiin.  European Crusaders attack and capture the entire area of the Land of Israel.  They are not 100% successful, however.  They practice “religious tolerance” especially towards the Moslem population.  Tolerance, but at an arm’s length.  And that includes on which roads they are willing to travel.

Take Maaleh Beit Horon.  The Crusaders don’t like this road.  It is “dangerous” as it goes too close to large Arab cities.  So the Crusaders build their own road.  (Not exactly build, they just make improvements to an existing, smaller, local road.)  This road connects the Crusader sites of Lod, Emmaus, Abu Ghosh, Aquabella (Ein Hemed), Ein Kerem and finally Jerusalem.  It is in the area of Rt. 1 of today.  There are hairpin turns, there are cliffs, there are steep ascents and descents.  The Crusaders don’t care.  They are far away from the Moslem population and close to their own religious sites.

Because the focus changes away from Maaleh Beit Horon, the settlements along that road suffer.  The city of Modiin shrinks and people don’t visit.  It turns into a small village.
For the next 1000 years, the main route to Jerusalem from the coast will be the Crusader road.  Advancing armies, like that of the British during WWI will still use Maaleh Beit Horon – it is the sensible road.  But normal traffic will flow on the Crusader path.  When supplies are being taken to Jerusalem during Israel’s Independence War, it will be along the Crusader road.  Even with the threat of ambush from the encroaching Jerusalem Hills, it is still a more sure bet than traveling close to larger Arab towns, such as Ramallah, and El Jib which are along Maaleh Beit Horon.

After the Independence War, passage on Maaleh Beit Horon is impossible as a large section of the road is in the country of Jordan.  Ancient Modiin is in Jordan and exists as a small village on the border.  Development in the Modiin area is stunted on the Israeli side as well.  It takes 16 years for the Israeli government to approve a Jewish settlement in the area of ancient Modiin with the founding of Mevo Modiim in 1964, near the Maccabbean graves.  The area is once again on the border as it was during the time of Joshua, but this time the border is to the East.

Three short years later, in 1967, as a result of the Six Days War, Modiin will again be in the center of the country.  Israel conquers the territory of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, as well as other territories.

Starting in the late 1970’s and continuing through the 1980’s and 1990’s, a building spree in the Modiin area will take advantage of the central location, especially since the ancient road, now updated to become Rt. 443, is open.  Once again, traffic can flow unimpeded along the ancient route between main cities of the coast (specifically Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem.

And finally, in 1996, the modern city of Modiin (situated in the area of the ancient city) will welcome its first inhabitants.

All because of the road.

Follow the (Yellow Brick) Road

Randomly stormy weather is marking the end of our winter here in Israel.  Thankfully, I left real tornado country behind in South Dakota, but Israel’s history occurs on her many ancient roads.

Today’s roads are very clear.  There are curbs or shoulders on the sides, painted lines and/or a median in the center.  In antiquity, however, roads were more like light from a flashlight.  There would be a more heavily traveled path in the center, with the wearing down of the surroundings tapering off with the distance from the center, much like light from a flashlight gets weaker the farther from the central beam you get.

The first to put effort into defining roads were the Romans.  When their legions moved into an area, one of their tasks was building roads.  Not only were defined roads necessary for moving troops, but well defined, well kept roads were a source of income.  Tolls were expected if you wanted some protection and maintenance of the road. The town of Abu Ghosh outside of Jerusalem had as its main source of income during Ottoman times the collection of taxes on the Jerusalem-Jaffa (now Tel Aviv) highway, Route 1.

Like (almost) all roads in Israel, Route 1 follows an ancient path. It was not the main road between the port city of Jaffa and the main city of Jerusalem – that honor was granted to today’s Route 443 – the Beit Horon ascent.  Almost 1000 years ago, however, a new force appeared on Israel’s roads – Christian pilgrims.  The presence of several important Christian sites on Route 1 resulted in much more traffic there and changed Route 1 into the major road leading to Jerusalem from the southern coast.

Although Route 1 was paved first during the Roman period, the specific path of the road changed throughout time.  I noticed this when I was doing some research on the battles for Latrun during the Independence War of 1948.  During 1948, whoever controlled the British Tiggart fort burma road pavingand the adjacent monastery would control the road and the water pumping station in the area.  They would control all supply and access to Jerusalem, the heart of the country. Fierce battles took place, lives were lost, and ultimately Israel did not win out.  In order to supply Jerusalem, a back road, the Burma Road was built during the war.

What was confusing to me when looking out over the roads and structures as they exist today, and comparing this to maps was that the road seems to have changed paths.  Today, the road is on the east of the fort and monastery, but according to maps and documents and maps from 1948, the situation then seems to have been exactly opposite.

While trying to clear up this discrepancy, I discovered that, indeed, this was the case.  During the British mandate, the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem followed the path of Nahal Nachshon in this area, going to the west of the buildings.  During the period between 1948 and 1967, however, this road was out of commission, sitting in Jordanian territory.  The Jordanians who wanted to reach Jerusalem went via Ramallah.  Israelis desiring to reach Jerusalem went through a road system which is now broken up into Rt. 44 and Rt. 38 to Shaar HaGai, and only then on Rt. 1.

During this same time period, a separate road system was built from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Lydda airport.  This road follows the path of Nahal Ayalon, as it does today, forming the western part of Route 1.  After the Six Day War, the road to the airport was extended to connect to Rt. 1 and Jerusalem at Shaar HaGai.  During this time, instead of going on the west side of the fort and the monastery, it was more direct to build the road to the east, where it sits today.

Once I realized that the “original” Rt. 1 should be to the west of the monastery, I got into my jeep to check it out.  Shortly after passing the turn to the monastery, one continues on a hardly developed dirt road.  Not more than 50 m past the pavement, you see clearly the British curb markers of the original 1948 Rt. 1! Fabulous!  I found the not-quite-yellow, not-quite-brick Roman/Crusader/Ottoman/British road!

A Castle of Wonderous Beauty

Last week’s Places in Your Neighborhood trip took me (again) to the Rosh HaAyin area.  The sites are fabulous and I don’t get tired of exploring them and showing off the interesting corners in the Land of Israel again and again.  Every group is different and brings their own questions and points of view to the tour so I am always challenged to make that unique encounter between the group and the site.

We got to discussing Crusaders.  (Logical, since we were standing in a fortress – Migdal Tzedek –  first built during Crusader times – Mirabel.)  Crusaders came to the Holy Land in 1099 C.E. There seems to be several details missing from many people’s vision of what it meant to be a Crusader.  The Crusaders as an entity were in the Holy Land for almost 200 YEARS.  Think about it.  If the Crusader period were to be ending in the United States now, the first  Crusaders would have arrived during the 1812 war against Great  Britain.  The Crusaders were as  firmly entrenched in the Holy Land as the vast majority of Americans are entrenched in America.  They never even remembered a  different life.

Going along with that, Crusaders had families,  wives, children.  These family members were often from European  stock – so it is not just the male knights who are coming as part of the various crusades, but they are bringing the whole  family. Their sons and daughters marry each other and we have  developing a sub-culture of European Christians in a Middle Eastern, Muslim world. This pattern can be seen in immigrant neighborhoods today. Cultural groups tend to marry from within not only because of familiarity, but also because of shared  norms.

One such “intermarriage” influenced the ownership in the Crusader castle above Rosh HaAyin.  As the Crusaders were a normal community in all respects, they did not always interact in a positive way; Crusaders also had internal fights.  One of these conflicts came up over the castle which sat on the site of Migdal Tzedek.  Two brothers-in-law, Heribrand II and Baldwin II came to Israel  during the first crusade.  Heribrand and his wife, Hodierna (sister to Baldwin II) have a son named Manasses.  Manasses’s cousin (Baldwin II’s daughter) is Melisende – the famous one who married Fulk deAnjou, ruled herself and renovated Jerusalem.   Manasses comes to  Israel in 1140, and because of his relationship with Melisende, is  appointed Constable of Jerusalem in 1143 after Fulk’s death.  This is a political appointeeship, apparently, as he is a terrible general and launches 2 failed military campaigns in Edessa and Damascus.

Migdal Tzedek – taken by Ira Gidon

In  1150 he marries Helvis of Ramle (the daughter of Baldwin I of Ramle and the widow of Barisan of Iblelin, one of the founders of  the wealthy Ibelin family).  With his marriage to her comes the territory of Ramle and the area of present day Rosh HaAyin.  He       builds a castle on the hill overlooking the headwaters of the Yarkon Stream.  A large beautiful castle with two churches governing the surrounding farm land, springs, and most  importantly, the road.  This castle is named Mirabel – of wonderous beauty.

You would think that he would be content with what he had.  He, however, is described by William of Tyre, a contemporary chronicler, as haughty and disrespectful of his elders.  And maybe they would have put up with his bad attitude if he hadn’t started up with his cousin Melisende and her family.  He put a wedge between Melisende and her   son, Baldwin III (why are they all named Baldwin?) by encouraging Melisende not to abdicate power to Baldwin III when he came of age.

Baldwin III had himself crowned and, under duress, Melisende agreed to split the kingdom with him.  This was a temporary situation and when Baldwin III finally decides to take the reigns of power for himself, Manasses found himself on the losing team, his beautiful castle of Mirabel taken by his cousin’s son.

This was not only the end of Manasses’s stay in the castle, but the end of his stay in the Holy Land as Baldwin III had him exiled permanently, his title Constable of Jerusalem stripped from him.
So, Manasses, having arrived in the Holy Land in 1140, only stays until 1162 – 22 years.  The Ibelin family, which he married into, and his family – the Baldwin/Melisende family continued to have long runs in the Holy Land.  He, however, did not find fame and fortune in the Holy Land and was even run out of the country.

Mirabel continues to be a Crusader castle under Baldwin III for another 25 years until it is captured by Salahadin’s younger brother.  In 1240 the Crusaders retake the fortress under Richard, Henry III and Frederick II.  The castle, Mirabel, is captured finally in 1260 by Baybars, who levels it to the foundations.  It remains in ruins for almost 600 years until the modern period and is rebuilt in 1852.

Today the ruins of Mirabel, renamed Migdal Tzedek after the sheik who resided there in the 19th century, stand forboding over the road to Rosh HaAyin.

Despite the long run of Crusaders in the Holy Land, the vision of Crusader knights and ladies gracing Mirabel’s halls, noble families vying over her control, exists only in the imaginations of her visitors.

The Israel Trail – It’s Epic!

Up there with trails in Nepal, the American Southwest, and Antarctica, the Israel Trail was recently named by National Geographic as one of the World’s Best Epic Trails.  How did National Geographic pick these routes?  They took as their criteria not only hikes which in themselves were exceptionally beautiful from a natural perspective and challenging from a hiking perspective, but also connect to the heritage of the area. 

It seems that Israel cannot get out of the headlines – even in the area of adventure.

The Israel Trail was inaugurated in 1994 by President Ezer Weitzman.  It was the initiative of Ori Dvir, who headed the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, in an effort to  make Israel accessible to Israelis and those who wanted to connect in a different way to the Heritage of the Land of  Israel.

I have hiked all over Israel and done sections of the Israel Trail both on foot and by jeep.  Israel offers a plethora of hiking which is available through maintained, marked trails.

Walking the land is a part of Israeli culture.  When I grew up, the few school trips we took were usually to government institutional buildings (the capitol or courthouse) or to museums.  In Israel, school kids are taken on many hikes as part of their  education – getting familiar with the country with your feet is seen as intrinsically important.

The truth is, this piece of land has been walked a lot.  Throughout the ages, not only has it served as a land bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe, but also in and of itself, has been a destination of pilgrims.  Early man moved up the current Dead Sea rift from Africa.  Once the Superpowers of Egypt and Mesopotamia were established, Israel was on the main highway – the “toll road rest stop” of the ancient world.

Abraham is the first one to make Israel his destination and not just a stop on the way to somewhere else. Jewish, Christian, and Arab pilgrims have arrived throughout the years.  Jewish pilgrims ascended on the 3 pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  (Incidentally, the Hebrew word for these holidays is linguistically linked to the pilgrims’ main mode of transportation – their feet.)  Crusaders arrived to make the roads and sites in Israel safe for their pilgrims.  Muslims built inns, bath houses, fountains, and markets to serve the incoming faithful.

So, next time you are looking for a good hiking adventure, think ISRAEL!  National Geographic did….  When you are planning your Israel hiking adventure, look me up and I would be happy to show you some of the gems offered by Israel’s epic hikes.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

Montfort Castle

Last week took me to Nahal Kziv with a group of friends.  We parked near Moshav Hila, home to the returned soldier, Gilad Shalit and descended to the stream bed.  After playing in the clear, cool waters, we walked along the nahal for a long bit enjoying the shade.  We came across a confluence of paths – this was our sign to leave the stream bed and start the ascent to the Montfort castle (and the cars waiting beyond it).

As we crossed the nahal to leave it behind, we were met by a large wall.  Certain elements seemed Crusader, but I did not remember learning anything about the structure beforehand.  Turns out that my intuition was correct – Crusader period.

But let’s take a step back.  The Crusaders arrived in Israel in 1099.  As part of their compensation for taking part in these campaigns, territory in the Levant was granted to and purchased by Christian European Crusader families.  These landholdings were used as residences and farms, and usually made their owners very rich.  Once there was wealth, castles were built to store and protect that wealth.

Salahadin, a Moslem Ayubbid emperor, retook the countryside and captured the castles in 1187 in one massive campaign, lasting only a few months.

But the Crusaders were nothing if not tenacious.  They came back only 4 years later and were successful in recovering most of their territory (with the notable exception of Jerusalem).  The landholders, however, never recovered their former glory and became strapped for cash.  At around the same time, the Military Orders were established and were looking for centers for their operations and for their pilgrims.  The Hospetallers, the Templars, and the Teutons began purchasing lands that had previously been owned by individual families.

Each order had their own specialty; but all strove to combine a monastic lifestyle with defense of Christian sites and pilgrims.   An earlier castle existed in the current-day town of Me’iliya called Castellum Regis.  This castle was seat of the Galilean Crusader kingdom dominated by the Franks.  It was in the territory of the De Milly family until the
knight, Joscelin III of Courtenay, married into the family and inherited the castle and the surrounding countryside.
In 1220 the entire area was sold to the Teutons who began construction on the Montfort castle in 1226 – leading to the decline of Castellum Regis.  The Teutons, who had started in Akko, decided to build in the surrounding countryside a spur castle.  It is not known exactly why the location of Montfort, on a mountain spur, not on a major road, not near lush farmland, was chosen for the main castle of the order.  It could be that the knights wished to distance themselves from the competing (and sometimes hostile)
Templars and Hospitallers.  It could be that they wanted to have a remote location for their archives and treasury.  It could be that it was simply built as a lavish retreat for the Grand Master, who, it seems was a permanent resident, much in the sense that Masada was built as a refuge for Herod.

The castle was built with all the normal elements, donjon, moat, watch tower, 3 surrounding walls, and also with some creature comforts such as a waste chute.

The structure below in the Nahal which I happened upon last week is thought to be a guest house and a mill.  The streambed of Nahal Kziv forms part of the Sea-to-Sea hiking trail of today.  (I hope to hike this trail next summer with some friends/kids.)  Most likely, the path also served Crusader pilgrims trying to get from the coastline to the Christian sites in the interior.  They would not have wanted to make the arduous climb up to the castle (as my companions and I did last week – all 1200 steps up!).  It would have been much more comfortable for them to seek shelter close to the stream.

The fate of Montfort was similar to that of all the other Crusader castles of the Second Crusader kingdom.  On the 8th of June, 1271, Baybars lay siege on the outpost.  Ten days later after Baybars breached the outermost wall, the parties signed a truce which allowed the Teutonic knights free passage to Akko in exchange for the fortress.  The Mamelukes destroyed the castle and pushed remnants into Nahal Kziv.  It is thought that approximately two-thirds of the stones from the complex are now in the Mediterranean.

After hiking for 7 hours, we returned to our cars, tired, sweaty and hungry, with a bit more of Eretz Yisrael under our feet and in our souls.


Today, I had  another Places in Your Neighborhood trip  – this month, to Ramle.  We all met by the Interior Ministry local office in the mall and headed to our first stop – the Great Mosque of Ramle.
When I went to do my research in anticipation of this trip, I barely squeaked inside to see this magnificent building.  I had gotten there at 10:25 a.m. and despite the sign, the mosque is only open until 10:30.  But after repeatedly ringing the doorbell, and calling the number on the sign posted at the entrance, an elderly gentleman let me inside.  My friend and I quickly removed our shoes at the entrance to the mosque and went into the cavernous building promising to be quick and out in 5 minutes.  As we exited, I asked the caretaker what was necessary to come and visit the mosque with a group.  He replied that I needed to get there on time and then I should just ring the bell and someone would let me in.
So, today, at 9:25 I arrived with my group.  As I rang the bell and patiently waited, I started to ask them if they had ever been to a mosque before and explained that we just needed to wait for the caretaker to open.  After ringing the bell twice more, I called the number listed on the entry sign.  When someone finally answered, I was told that the caretaker is ill today and not coming to open up.  The telephone answerer was at a doctor’s appointment and couldn’t make it there for another half-hour or so (if at all).  Thus started my day in Ramle.
Ramle doesn’t run at the same pace as other places.  Yes, there is just one person to open the mosque, one person who sits at the White Tower, and a few more who work at the Pool of Arches.  If they are sick, have a doctor’s appointment, or for whatever reason can’t come to work, the sites are closed.  Calling ahead and making a reservation increases your odds of actually being able to get into the sites, but there is no guarantee.
An interesting phenomenon happened within the group after being denied access to the mosque.  They accepted Ramle for what it has become – an interesting place with a lot of history, but left in a different time.  And every site we arrived at after the mosque, and had someone there to let us in, was seen as a fortuitous event.
Downtown Ramle today is not a streamlined, modern city, but a kind of ramshackle of buildings from across the centuries.  Some of the old buildings are really decrepit, falling apart, and in some instances falling down.  We saw a building which collapsed only 2 weeks ago.  Obviously renovated in the 1950’s on a more ancient foundation, we saw how they used clay jars to fill in the spaces between the first floor arch and the second story.  Antique cars filled the streets alongside more modern buildings like the courthouse.  There are even a few buildings in the International (Bauhaus) style.
But back to the Mosque.   The Great Mosque in Ramle started as a Crusader Church.  It is one of 3 Crusader churches still standing in its entirety today in Israel (the other two being in Abu Ghosh and  in the Moslem Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City).  The style is typical Crusader Basilica architecture with a long central nave flanked by two side aisles.  Small, latticed windows, combed stones with some mason’s marks designate this building as a Crusader structure.  The Crusaders captured Ramle (without a battle) on June 2, 1099 on their way to Jerusalem.  Thinking that Ramle was the site of Ramatayim Tzofim or perhaps Rama (two towns associated with King Saul), they stationed a bishop here.  The church was constructed in the first half of the 12th century to commemorate another personality, Joseph of Aramathea (apparently Ramatayim Tzofim was equated with Aramathea) who requested that Jesus be buried in his personal burial plot.
The Mameluke Baybars conquered the area in 1266 and  in the late 13th century the church was rededicated as a mosque.  The transition from church to mosque necessitated a few changed to the interior and exterior structure.  The entrance to the church was from the short end of the rectangular building in the west, as direction of prayer in early churches was almost without exception to the east.  In contrast, entrance to mosques is from the long side with prayer being directed towards Mecca (in Israel this is to the south).  The Crusader doorway was filled in and new doors were opened in the north wall.  A prayer niche (michrab) was added to the southern wall of the church, as well as adding a minbar (raised platform from which the imam  gives his sermon on Fridays).  A women’s balcony was added, pews were removed and carpets cover the floor.  The bell tower was converted to a minaret.  Recently, green metal beams were added to shore up the building. The actual stones, the capitals, the arches, and the stark Gothic interior remain  and can be seen until today.

That is, if the caretaker comes to work.