Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From the Books: Dungeon, Fire and Sword

(A series in which I post longer excerpts from books I read)

This post is apropos of my post the other day on the movie Kingdom of Heaven. I've long been fascinated, along with many others, of the tale of the Knights Templar, the order of monastic knights founded during the Crusades who were later undone when the Pope and the King of France turned against them, ultimately leading to their final grand master, Jacques de Molay, being burned at the stake. Many legends have sprung up round the demise of the Templars, such as the disappearance of their fabulous treasure; the fleet of Templar ships that supposedly set sail from France when the uprising against them began, never to be seen again; the curse called down by Jacques de Molay on all those who betrayed the Templars. But the true story of the Templars is no less compelling than the legends, and it's the true story that forms the backbone of John J. Robinson's wonderful book Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades.

Robinson takes the approach of storyteller rather than dry historian as he recounts the tale of the Templars and their role in the larger Crusades that led to their founding in the first place. The Crusades are the ultimate period, I suppose, for those who love high adventure and drama in their history; they are replete with heroes and villains, with honor and treachery, with heroism and cowardice, with secular ambition and spiritual devotion. I haven't read many books on the Crusades, so I can't give Robinson's book a comparative recommendation on that score, but it is one of the best history books I've ever read. He makes the history come alive, which is no mean feat.

Excerpted below is Robinson's account of the events that took place at the Horns of Hattin. King Guy of Jerusalem has decided to march out to meet the forces of Saladin, at the behest of the Templar grand master, Gerard de Ridfort. The battle turned out to be a complete disaster, as the Christian forces made one mistake after another that played into the hands of Saladin, the Muslim leader. Thus it was that one of the most resounding defeats in the entire history of the Crusades was suffered by the Christian army:

That afternoon they reached the barren shelf above the village of Hattin. Ahead of them was a rock structure that rose into two summits, known locally as the Horns of Hattin. Beyond it, the road dropped to the Sea of Galilee, but Saladin's army was across the road. Gerard sent word to King Guy [King of Jerusalem, 1186-1190 AD] that his harrassed Templars could go no further that day and that the Christians should make camp where they were. Most of the barons, including Raymond of Tripoli, wanted to press on immediately and fight their way through to the life-giving waters of the great lake. The army just could not go on for more hours without water. Once again the Templar grand master won out, and the king ordered the army to make camp. Some fo the men struggled to the slope of the Horns of Hattin, where they had been told they would find a well. They found it, but it was dry. No form of discipline could keep reins on men crazed with thirst, and several groups broke away to search for water. They were easily killed off by Muslim outposts.

Knowing that the Christians were already overcome with heat and thirst, Saladin decided to add to that discomfort by depriving them of sleep. The nobles had tents, but the whole armychose to sleep in the open to enjoy the cooling breeze. The Muslims set fire to the dry brush that covered the hills. Soon the breeze carried the hot acrid smoke into the Christian camp, making it difficult to breathe. Using the cover of the smoke and the darkness, Saladin positioned his troops throughout the night, so that when dawn broke, the army of Jerusalem found itself completely surrounded.

A whole night after a whole day without water was driving men mad with thirst, made worse by the dawn reflecting off the waters of the fabled lake below them. Some suddenly started to run for the water, and as the momentum built, thousands of foot soldiers rushed down the hill, not to fight, but to drink. Those who were not chopped down by the Muslim cavalry as they ran were herded together and taken prisoner. Raymond of Tripoli led a charge against the Muslims, but they simply opened their ranks and let his party gallop through them, then closed ranks behind him. Once outside, there was no way Raymond's party could rejoin their comrades, so eventually they rode off the battlefield and back to Tripoli. Some of those left behind were convinced that they had witnessed an act of treachery.

The remaining knights fought to their limits, making charge after charge and repelling the cavalry sweeps of the Muslims, but they were steadily driven back up the hill.

Saladin's son al-Afdal remembered: "When I saw them retreating with the Muslims in pursuit, I cried out in joy, 'We have beaten them!' The sultan pointed to the bright red royal tent of King Guy at the top of the hill and said, 'Be silent. We shall not defeat them until that tent falls.' As he spoke, the tent fell."

The Christians were beaten as much by sheer exhaustion as by numbers. When the victorious Muslims broke through to the center of the Crusader defense they found knights and barons, including the king himself, prostrate on the ground with no strength left to lift their arms, much less their weapons. The leading nobles were all made prisoner and taken to a regal pavilion set up for Saladin on the battlefield. There the sultan greeted them with courtesy, inviting King Guy to sit by his side. Knowing that his royal guest was suffering from severe thirst, Saladin handed him a cup of cool water. Guy gratefully took a long drink, then handed the cup to Reynald of Chatillon. Saladin immediately asked Guy to remember that it was he, not the sultan, who had passed the cup to Reynald. That should have told them what the sultan had on his mind. Saladin was telling them that what would happen next did not violate the Muslim laws of hospitality that protected a man who was given food or drink by his host.

Saladin then turned to Reynald of Chatillon, whose crimes he began to recite angrily, cataloging Reynald's lies, his betrayals of trust, his breaking of one truce after another. Made even angrier by Reynald's arrogant reply, Saladin grabbed up a sword and struck off his head. He quickly assured the shocked Christian nobles that they were not condemned to share Reynald's fate. They would be ransomed or exchanged.

Such mercy did not extend to the Knights of the Temple and the Hospitallers who ahd been taken in the battle. They were to be the star performers in a bizarre and brutal drama. Saladin was being visited by a group of Muslim Sufis from Egypt. Although fanatic Muslims, the ascetic Sufis were students of the Koran, not warriors. Saladin announced that they would have the honor or cutting off the heads of hundreds of captured knights of the military orders. Afraid the deny the great sultan, they took the proffered swords in hand as Grand Master de Ridfort was forced to watch. When a lucky stroke cleanly severed a neck, a cheer went up from the watching Muslim soldiers, while taunts and shouted suggestions went to those who hacked away at their victims six, seven, or eight times to get the head separated from the body. It was a grotesque carnival of blood, and one can only speculate on de Ridfort's thoughts as he watched the horror for which he was principally responsible, knowing as well that he was the only captured warrior monk who was to be spared this death by amateur executioners.

Saladin took time for one other piece of business. The bishop of Acre had been killed in the fight, and the Muslims had taken the holy relic of the True Cross. Saladin expressed his intention to have it taken to Damascus to be placed under the doorstep of the principle mosque of the city, so that each time one of the faithful entered the mosque he would trample on the Christian relic. It was the ultimate humiliation. It was not, however, the ultimate victory. The Christians still held the holy city of Jerusalem.

Robinson wrote another book, Born in Blood, on the history of the Freemasons. I wish he'd written more; he had a deft touch for narrative in history.

No comments: