Tag Archives: Jaffa

A spy in Palestine? Bertrandon de la Broquière’s perspective.

19 Mar

In 1432, the Burgundian nobleman Bertrandon de la Broquière (d. 1459) travelled from Ghent to Palestine. He had been sent to the Holy Land by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1467), who was interested in launching a new crusade. Broquiere travelled in two disguises: first as a pilgrim and then, in Palestine, he dressed in ‘Turkish’ garb and learned the rudiments of local languages and customs. What started out as an enterprise of imperial expansion seems to have turned into an adventure of curiosity and a knightly quest. Broquière wrote up his account of his travels as Le Voyage d’outremer, a magnificent Flemish-Burgundian manuscript of which (Bibl. Nat. MS francais 9087, dated to c. 1457) featured in the recent, and superb, exhibition, Voyager au Moyen Age, at the Musée de Cluny: musée national du Moyen Âge Paris.

Jaffa, Palestine and Jerusalem: from Bibl. Nat. MS fran. 9087


Broquière travelled with the stated intention of recapturing Jerusalem for Christendom, but the first part of his journey was a conventional pilgrimage, from Venice to Corfu and thence to Jaffa and finally to Jerusalem, overseen by Franciscan friars and Mamluk dragomen. Later, Broquière strayed from the conventional route, travelling to Gaza, Beirut, and Damascus, and interacting closely with Mamluks, Turks, and with Italian and French merchants. Broquière records several moments of his fear of and friction with the Palestinian natives – including the moment when someone knocked off his beaver-fur hat – but as his travelogue develops, it records a growing estrangement from his French compatriots and a keenness to relate to Mamluk culture and customs. He did not just observe Mamluk and Turkish culture but rather tried to take part in it. He assumed the disguise of a local, ate pitta bread and got drunk with his Turkish companions, was greeted by passing Muslims as a returning pilgrim from the haj, and went to the hammam; he refrains from anti-Islamic invective (though preferred the Turks to the Arabs), and returned to Burgundy with a copy of the Koran, which he presented to Phillip the Good (the duke seems to have given the book away, and it then disappeared as Broquière notes, rather sadly).

The Flemish manuscript of Broquière’s text is lavishly illustrated and was made for the Burgundian court. It has an interesting full-page image of the pilgrimage route, which shows some familiarity with fifteenth-century Palestine. It demonstrates the extent to which pilgrimage could also be an ambiguous encounter with the East. Moreover, this picture – which functions partly as a map of the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem – contains some details which are not found in Broquière’s text, suggesting that the artist was either using a different account or had visited the Holy Land himself. 

I’d welcome suggestions as to different ways of reading the sites in the image, but this is how I see its composition and its representation of the sacred places:

In the foreground are the broken crusader ruins of Jaffa, the port at which pilgrims disembarked. Many Christian pilgrims report spending their first night in filthy caves there, and three such caves can be seen set into the small hill. To the right of the caves stand three towers, probably representing the Mamluk town of Jaffa. Broquière’s description of Jaffa, (“a bad harbour”) does not mention the caves but mentions “a few tents covered with reeds”, where local administrators, interpreters, and guides met the pilgrims off their boat.

The route to Jerusalem leads out of Jaffa, with an “Oriental” cameleer and two well-dressed locals making their way along the route (Broquière later travelled to Gaza and noted the camels). Beyond them stands a small town, probably Ramleh, where the pilgrims often lodged. Broquière described Ramleh as “a town without walls, but a good and commercial place, seated in an agreeable and fertile district.” This accords with the town in the image. Might the square central tower in the image even be read as a representation of the beautiful  White Mosque at Ramleh?

White Mosque, Ramleh

The White Mosque, Ramleh

To the left of this town is a small walled complex: could this be Lydda, where Broquière viewed the famous relics of St George? He described the town’s relics but didn’t give its name or other details.

Beyond, is a sudden rocky outcrop – my feeling is that this might represent the Jerusalem hills, or is possibly an attempt at showing Mount Joy (which Broquière doesn’t mention) or Mount Quarantine (which he does). 

Jerusalem itself is represented in a dazzling number of domes and towers, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the rounded, squat golden dome to the left), the Dome of the Rock (the larger dark dome to the centre), and the al-Aqsa mosque (the structure with the small golden dome to the right of the Dome of the Rock) can all be clearly discerned. Broquière gave a minimal description of Jerusalem (“it is these days a considerable town”), and did not seem to have paid much attention to the holy places there. However, he did convalesce, after falling ill, at the Franciscans’ house at Mount Zion; this can probably be seen to the right of Jerusalem, behind the trees, a small extramural cluster, near the man on the horse.

Beyond Jerusalem, one of the hills is painted in such a way as to suggest the Judean desert; and indeed Broquière did complain a great deal about the hot weather and the difficult desert terrain.

The image from the Flemish manuscript doesn’t show an idealised Christian landscape but rather an ambivalent combination of local observations and the formal landscapes of fifteenth-century art. Throughout the image are scattered local people, not pilgrims; their extravagant hats and rich robes mark them out as Mamluks. What kind of memory of a place does this image form? And what kind of evidence does it furnish about what western European people thought of Palestine? Broquière’s text seems to strive to show how the local customs of the Middle East were highly similar to those of western Europe; the manuscript illustration represents a beautiful, flourishing, busy Palestine, peopled not with pilgrims and crusaders but with finely-dressed locals going about their business. Might the case of Broquière and his manuscript even suggest not espionage but a medieval moment of tolerance and an attempt at respectful interaction  between Jaffa and Jerusalem?

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A reliable and accessible modern French edition of Bertrandon’s text is available, published as Bertrandon de la Broquère, Le Voyage d’Orient: Espion en Turquie, trans. Hélène Basso (Paris: Anacharsis, 2010); a new English edition is forthcoming in 2015 from I. B. Tauris.

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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.