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Reimagining the Crusades

A detailed picture of more than two centuries of European Christian life in the Holy Land is emerging from new excavations at monasteries, towns, cemeteries, and some of the world’s most enduring castles


Monday, November 05, 2018

Crusaders Battle Hattin

"God wills it,” cried the crowd gathered on November 18, 1095, in the northern French city of Clermont in direct response to Pope Urban II’s entreaty that they come to the aid of their Christian brethren in the east. The Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus, threatened by the growing power of the Seljuk Turks—who had already captured the important Christian cities of Antioch and Nicaea—had requested the pope’s help to defend his territory and keep the Turks from his capital at Constantinople. What began with a request for military assistance turned into a campaign to defend Christendom and reinstate Christian control over Jerusalem, which had been ruled by Muslims for more than three centuries.


Tens of thousands of people—from armored knights on horseback wearing tunics emblazoned with red crosses to ragtag bands of poor peasants, some of whom branded their flesh with the sign of the cross—set off the following year on the arduous trek of nearly 2,000 miles to the Holy Land. Only a century later did they become known as Crusaders, from the French term for “way of the cross,” and this first wave of Europeans was dubbed the First Crusade. After winning back Antioch and Nicaea, the Crusaders eventually seized Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, massacring all of its Jewish and Muslim residents—30,000 by one account—and leaving the city, holy to all three faiths, awash in blood.


The famously intolerant invaders established control over an area roughly the size of today’s Israel and West Bank, which they called the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In their wake, an array of Europeans—nobles, mercenaries, criminals, and pilgrims, among others—primarily from France and Germany, flooded into the Near East. For the next nearly 200 years, their power waxed and waned.


In the first century that they were there, they crowded into the region’s cities and established farms and vineyards in the countryside. Then, in 1187, they surrendered Jerusalem to the Muslim military leader Saladin. For the second century of their occupation, they were largely confined to a thin coastal strip along the Mediterranean Sea. By the time the often-fractured Muslim forces united to drive out the last Crusader in 1291, the Europeans had launched six major assaults on the Levant. This violent collision of European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims took a terrible human toll and created a deep-seated antipathy that reverberates to this day. It also exposed a provincial western Europe emerging from the Dark Ages to a wider world filled with ancient cities, erudite scholars, and a vibrant new religion. In turn, the Crusaders left an indelible mark in the form of nearly 100 castles found across the modern states of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.

Frankish Settlements
Unexpected Cemetery

The Marks of Time

A six-week heat wave in the U.K. and Ireland exposes nearly 5,000 years of history

Monday, October 15, 2018

Heat Wave Wales Caerhun Roman Fort IISometimes, as happened in the summer of 2018, the less visible past reveals itself, just for a moment, and then quickly vanishes.


On very rare occasions, during unusually hot, dry summers, normally hidden features can appear on the landscape. This can occur in two ways. Areas where the remains of buildings lie just underground or where a stretch of land has been repeatedly walked upon are always drier. During a heat wave, vegetation there will wither more quickly, creating brown parch marks that contrast with the surrounding grassy areas. Most of the sites here follow this pattern. By contrast, more moisture collects in areas that in antiquity were taken up with ditches or were dug in other ways. In a heat wave, those areas will remain greener than the surrounding landscape. Such is the case with the Neolithic monument in Ireland’s Boyne Valley and the medieval castle in Wales.


As these conditions persisted this past summer, archaeologists, with the help of aerial photography, drones, and the eyes of the public and scholars alike, were able to document evidence of buildings and human behavior that have rarely, if ever, been seen before. The heat wave is over and the rain has come again. At least for now, many of these traces of the past are no longer visible.