Archive | January, 2014

Jaffa in ruins

24 Jan

‘The ascendancy over men’s minds of the ruins of the stupendous past, the past of history, legend and myth, at once factual and fantastic, stretching back and back into ages that can but be surmised, is half-mystical in basis. The intoxication, at once so heady and so devout, is not the romantic melancholy engendered by broken towers and mouldered stones; it is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs.’ Rose Macaulay, The Pleasure in Ruins (1953)

Bernhard von Breydenbach’s late fifteenth-century map of the Holy Land served as a template for maps of the region for some three hundred years, as a wonderful small exhibition, Mapping the Holy Land II, currently at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, shows.

Breydenbach, a wealthy monk from the German city of Mainz, travelled to the Holy Land in April 1483 and returned to Germany in 1484. Unusually (but not uniquely), he was accompanied by an artist, Erhard Reuwich. Reuwich drew a map to accompany Breydenbach’s accounts of his travels, but it’s clear that Reuwich drew the map upon his return home to Mainz. The map is in many ways ‘accurate’ but in other ways it reflects literary and ‘exotic’ ideas that Reuwich and Breydenbach knew from what they had read, rather than seen, of Palestine.

In the foreground of the map is the port of Jaffa (also known as Joppa, now Yafo/יפו, a rapidly gentrifying suburb of Tel Aviv). Here, pilgrims once disembarked from Venice, Ragusa and Crete for Jerusalem. It’s marked on the map as a set of caves, and broken, ruined buildings, with a group of pilgrims disembarking in the foreground

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Detail of pilgrims disembarking at Jaffa amongst caves and ruins, from Erhard Reuwich’s map for Breydenbach’s guide to the Holy Land, made in Mainz, 1486.

The map seems to agree with pilgrims’ accounts. Many pilgrims spent uncomfortable and disorientating nights in these caves, either arriving or waiting to leave.

One pilgrim, an anonymous Englishman travelling in the 1340s, described how, at Jaffa, his companions ‘had slept in the open, on the sea sand for 18 days, because they could not get passage.’ Some of them then died, due to privations they had undergone, sleeping rough in Jaffa (Hoade, Western Pilgrims, p. 76). Lodgings in Jaffa were clearly very rudimentary, and many pilgrims give (self-serving) accounts of harassment there from Mameluke officials (on the Breydenbach map, these seem to be the hatted figures, sitting on top of the caves). The French pilgrim the Seigneur de Caumont, visiting in 1419, noted how the city had once been conquered by the Christians but was now destroyed, with nobody living there.

The medieval journey to the Holy Land was intended to be the zenith of a Christian’s earthly life, and it guaranteed spiritual health in the afterlife too. But the Holy Land presented a world marked by the Crusaders’ defeat. Late medieval pilgrims saw Christendom in ruins all around them, and often commented on the ‘broken down’ churches and fortresses left by the Crusaders. If they moralised this, they tended to follow Sir John Mandeville, writing in the 1350s: ‘when God wishes, just as these regions were lost through the sinfulness of Christians, so shall they be won again by means of God’s aid through Christian folk’ (Mandeville, Books of Marvels and Travels, p. 42). The ruins stimulated a kind of emotional archaeology, which was interpreted as a promise of a glorious future and the pious reclamation of Holy Land.

Ruins of the Crusader kingdom still punctuate the landscape of the Middle East; they are at once ruins of a remarkable military achievement, and a testament to its failure. Sometimes, these ruins are incongruous, sitting in the landscape as if waiting to be reanimated, like the beautiful, untouched fortress at Cafarlet (Moshav HaBonim) near Haifa. Cars speed past, the site is deserted but for the white egrets busily inspecting their domain.

The Crusader fortress of Cafarlet (HaBonim), January 2014.

The Crusader fortress of Cafarlet (HaBonim), January 2014.

Others, like the impressive and isolated ruins at Montfort in the western Galilee, have become tourist sites, principally for hikers and on account of the views. At neither Cafarlet nor Montfort is there any sustained historical interpretation on offer to visitors; we are still silently encouraged to approach such ruins in a fundamentally Romantic way, as appeals to awe rather than investigation. They are to be gazed on, a sublime enhancement to the landscape. At the port-city of Akko (precious to the Crusaders, but rarely visited by later pilgrims though there was a Venetian port here in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), Crusader ruins continue to comprise the urban fabric.

The remains of the twelfth-century Crusader fortress of Montfort/Starkenberg, western Galilee, Israel

The remains of the twelfth-century Crusader fortress of Montfort/Starkenberg, western Galilee, Israel 

Akko: ruins in the Pisan harbour. January 2014.

Akko: ruins in the Pisan harbour. January 2014.

Akko: medieval masonry reused the Khan es-Shawarda, built by the Ottomans on the site of the medieval nunnery of the Poor Clares. January 2014.

Akko: medieval masonry reused at the Khan es-Shawarda, built by the Ottomans on the site of the medieval Franciscan nunnery. January 2014.

Medieval pilgrims travelled through a layered world of ruins. They identified, re-identified, and sometimes ignored these ruins. Throughout, they saw themselves moving through a legible landscape which was inextricably connected to the Christian past and future. Sometimes these ruins asserted themselves, and continue to assert themselves, a reminder of the failure to build a martial state in the Middle East, focussed on Jerusalem, based on religious precepts, aggressive colonisation, and intense emotion.

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Mount Joy: the view from Palestine

21 Jan

“And so they went on to the Holy Land until they could see Jerusalem. And when this creature, riding on an ass, saw Jerusalem, she thanked God with all her heart, asking Him for His mercy that, just as He had brought her to see this earthly city of Jerusalem, He would grant her the grace to see Jerusalem the blissful city above, the city of heaven…Then, for the joy that she had and the sweetness she felt in conversing with our Lord, she was on the verge of falling off her ass, for she could not bear the sweetness and grace that God performed in her soul. Then two German pilgrims went to her and kept her from falling off. One of them was a priest, and he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to have been ill. And so they helped her onwards to Jerusalem.” The Book of Margery Kempe.

The English mystic Margery Kempe, whose Book I have been translating recently, was making her way from Ramla to Jerusalem in 1413. She felt such sweetness and grace when she saw the holy city that she nearly fell off her ass. From Kempe’s account it’s likely that this moment – of both spiritual glory and embarrassing awkwardness – would have taken place on Mount Joy, the highest point around Jerusalem. Mount Joy  (Mons GaudiiMonjoie) is now the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil [or Samuil], just 7 miles north of the Old City of Jerusalem, and less than a mile from the edge of the large Israeli settlement of Ramot, now a suburb of Jerusalem. It was customary, in the later Middle Ages, for pilgrims to travel on foot or by ass from Jaffa via Ramla and Emmaus to Mount Joy, there to gain their first view of the city, hence the name Mount Joy. Pilgrims like Kempe were led from place to place by Franciscans and local guides. Before Kempe’s time – certainly by c. 1100 – Nabi Samuel  had also become established as the burial-site, revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, of the prophet Samuel.

Mount Joy is interesting to me in the current context because of the ability of Jerusalem to be translated out of itself, which here extends to the hyper-mediated landscape around the city itself. In the later Middle Ages the view of Jerusalem from a hill known as ‘Mount Joy’ became as much a part of the pilgrimage route as visiting Jerusalem itself. In fact, medieval pilgrims would not have been able to see the now-iconic view of the Old City – the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – because these sites sit in a hollow, behind a hilly landscape. They would, however, have viewed the approaches to the city, and possibly some of the buildings on the suburban outskirts around the town.

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The site itself is an interesting palimpsest of different religious traditions. Early Christians identified Mount Joy as ‘Ramatha’ (1 Samuel 25: 1) where Samuel died, although several other places (including the post-biblical, Arab town of Ramla, where pilgrims usually slept) were also identified with Ramatha. It is now controlled by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority (with a critique of the Authority’s control of the area, by alt-arch, here).

In the twelfth century, during the Crusaders’ establishment of a state in the Holy Land, a Premonstratensian monastery was founded at Mount Joy; but in 1187 it fell to Saladin and various battles were fought there. One story says that a hermit, named Elias, gave Richard I (the Lionheart) of England a relic of the True Cross there, which he had secreted at Mount Joy when Saladin took Jerusalem. Throughout this time, Jewish pilgrims often visited the site, and, possibly, a mosque was there in the thirteenth century. The Crusader church of St Samuel, photographed here, was significantly rebuilt in 1912 as a mosque, with the Crusader crypt and ruins incorporated into the new buildings (the tomb of Samuel itself, now a Jewish holy site, is in the basement, under the mosque).

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The layers of different cultures came be seen very clearly and impressively now, following recent archaeological work there. Medieval Christian pilgrims always write about the view of Jerusalem from Mount Joy – like Mandeville, who says, ‘two miles from Jerusalem is Mount Joy, a pretty and delightful place. The prophet Samuel is buried there in a fine tomb. It is called Mount Joy because it is from there that pilgrims first see Jerusalem, a cause of great joy after their exertions’ (p. 49). The Christian pilgrims’ hearts and eyes were focussed on Jerusalem, shimmering in the distance and always full of spiritual promise. But, whilst pilgrims tend not to mention it, they must have noticed that they were taking part in something like cosmopolitanism: at Mount Joy, they would have seen Jews, Muslims, and non-Latin Christians praying, and the ruins left by the Crusaders who had been and gone before them.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze'ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze’ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah