‘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
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.
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.
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.