Israel's Good Name

Horns of Hattin Battle Reenactment

In Galilee, Israel on December 4, 2019 at 10:49 AM

A week or so after my day’s participation at the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig I spent a few days up north in Ma’alot with my folks. Planned carefully, this visit coincided with the Horns of Hattin battle reenactment, paying homage to the famous battle that launched the medieval sultan Saladin into international fame/infamy. The battle reenactment is part of a three-day event organised by a group known as “Regnum Hierosolymitanum”, catering to history enthusiasts from around the world.

The Horns of Hattin

First, to retell the tale with photographs from the recreated battle interspersed. The year was 1187 and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in full swing, under the leadership of King Guy of Lusignan. The Crusaders had entered the Levant and had conquered Jerusalem in 1099, creating the kingdom under the early rule of Baldwin I. Generations later, after the reigns of Baldwin IV the “Leper King” and Baldwin V who died as a child, Guy of Lusignan claimed rule by being the husband of Sibylla who was next in line for the throne.

Ayyubid archer watching for the armies

On the other side, the tens of thousands of Muslim horsemen and footsoldiers were united under the banner of Sultan Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Having joined the two most powerful cities of the region, Cairo and Damascus, he reestablished the Sunni caliphate and began impressive conquests throughout the Middle East. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, occupying Islam’s third holiest city, was next on Saladin’s list and he attacked thenceforce.

Crusader forces approaching

Departing from Damascus with a formidable force, Saladin marched towards the Kingdom of Jerusalem and laid siege on Tiberias, a fortified city on the Sea of Galilee. Rushing to defend the besieged city, the Crusader armies pushed eastward from the coastal plains. What’s important to note is that the Crusader forces were composed of numerous Christain entities: The Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army, the Templar and Hospitaller Military Orders which were somewhat subservient to the Vatican, and other important noblemen.

Gerard de Ridefort, Reynald of Châtillon and King Guy of Lusignan

Upon conquering all but the citadel of Tiberias, where Eschiva the wife of Count Raymond III of Tripoli was holed up, Saladin took his army westward to meet the Crusaders near Zippori. The Crusaders had spent a few days in the area, pushing eastward under split leadership. It was the beginning of July and the heat was unbearable, punishing the armoured soldiers and weakening them with thirst.

Parrying horsemen

The armies met on the slope of the Horns of Hattin, an extinct volcano that received its “horned” appearance after an ancient volcanic eruption. The Ayyubid army outnumbered the Crusaders, and harassed them with fire, arrows and noise, surrounding them until the Christian armies broke rank. Attempts at counterattacks on the Muslim forces failed, and the Crusaders were slowly cut down. Some escaped, many were killed and the battle came to an end.

Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templar Knights

The remaining Crusaders were captured by the Muslim army, and dealt with forthwith. King Guy of Lusignan was spared, offered to drink from the cup of Saladin, as well as Gerard de Ridefort, but others weren’t so fortunate. Reynald of Châtillon, an important nobleman who served as a vassal to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was beheaded by Saladin himself, a death sentence that was meted out to Templar and Hospitaller knights as well.

Field photographer in period dress

Saladin’s victory spelled doom for the crushed Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its king imprisoned in Damascus and its army in ruins. Only the fortified coastal city of Tyre escaped the ravishings of Saladin’s army, and ended up being a city of refuge for King Guy when he escaped. It wasn’t until 1191 that the Christians received reinforcement from abroad, with the Third Crusade. English king Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France brought considerable armies which were able to recapture lands and renew the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Saladin and his men, but Jerusalem never returned to the state it was in during the first phase of the kingdom. Thus ends the history lesson.

Attacking the huddled Christians

Getting back to the reenactment, the reenactors had begun their 30-kilometre march on July 3rd starting at the Springs of Zippori. For two days they marched in the day, and camped in the night, reliving the experiences from 1187 the best they could. Dressed in period clothing, armed with period weapons and equipment, the dozens of members made their way to the mountain.

Players and watchers

My brother Nissim and I set out the morning of Friday the 5th, aiming to intercept the march where they reach the Horns of Hattin. Quite near the site we picked up another history buff who had come to see the reenactment as well. We parked in the designated field at the foot of the mountain and joined the hundred and something spectators who were gathered about beneath shade tents.

The clashings of many swords

A single Ayyubid tent was set up in the battlezone, and single archer stood outside watching for the arrival of the armies. It took a short while but eventually they came, riding in from the west. We watched as the two sides set up the battlefield and got ready to fight. The prominent figure on the Christian side was the imposing looking Reynald of Châtillon, vassal lord of the kingdom, dressed in red robes and chain mail armour. On the Muslim side was Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan, dressed in blue robes and chain mail armour.

Nissim looks happy

The sides clashed here and there, first demonstrating cavalry charges with pounding steeds and flashing steel. Here and there a soldier fell, and the battle continued. Archers took up their bows and let arrows fly into the midst of their enemies. Shields were raised, crosses were held on high, and the sweat poured freely. Just like it was in 1187, the beginning of July was hot and sunbaked this year too.

Surrounded by Saladin’s forces

We watched from the sidelines, taking pictures when we could, and enjoying the battle before us. Eventually, after cutting down most of the Christian soldiers, the overwhelming Muslim forces captured Reynald of Châtillon and the knights, among the other prisoners-of-war. We watched as the reenactors recreated the scene of Reynald’s beheading, which was curious to say the least.

Saladin beheading Reynald of Châtillon

With the battle over, the players allowed the crowd to mingle with them and we made our way back to the car. It was getting a wee bit late and we had to drive back to Ma’alot for Shabbat. It was a lovely outing though, and rather fun to take photos of – of which I have many. For more information about the “Regnum Hierosolymitanum” group see HERE and HERE; for the Facebook event page see HERE.

Mount Zion Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Jerusalem on November 6, 2019 at 2:22 PM

Way back in the end of June, at the start of the busy summer months, I had the pleasure of taking part in yet another exciting archaeological dig. Being that I have just begun my MA degree this autumn semester, I’ve been involving myself in the Crusader period more and more. This led me to meeting up with Dr Rafi Lewis, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Dig, at his excavation site just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Beneath the Old City walls

Referencing from the expedition’s website, the ongoing mission of the excavation is to expose and preserve the many layers of civilisation found on Mount Zion, going back thousands of years. As with nearly everywhere in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, the veritable footprint of humanity is profound in both magnitude and multitude. Just glancing about the dig site at Mount Zion, one can see a plethora of different architectural elements seemingly stacked upon one another in a dizzyingly fashion.

Dr Rafi Lewis & Dr Shimon Gibson

Dr Rafi Lewis of Haifa University joined Drs Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who had been excavating at Mount Zion since 2007. Whereas Drs Gibson and Tabor have their primary foci on the Roman era and the parallel rise of Christianity, Dr Lewis focuses on the Medieval period, and even more interestingly, Crusader battlefield archaeology.

Looking around the dig site

I had scheduled a day to join the dig in advance and made my way to the Old City of Jerusalem that early Wednesday morning. Arriving at the site shortly after 7am, I found a fenced off area just below Zion Gate – outside the impressive Ottoman wall of the Old City. Entering, I found Dr Lewis and made introductions before we set out on a little tour of the site. I found the range of excavated sites to be quite fascinating, and very unlike older sites such as Tel es-Safi where I excavated only Bronze and Iron age layers. Here there was so many different levels, belonging to such a varied group of historical peoples, that the very concept garnered interest.

Looking up at the nondescript tower structure

It’s certainly hard to recall which pit belonged to which era, and which wall was built by which reigning group, but the overall picture was that there was plenty to go around for everyone will all their preferred historical periods. Dr Lewis led me over to a rectangle of brushed earth, bordered by earthen ledges and stone architectural features. He then explained that this was the floor of a Ayyubid structure, believed to have been a tower, and that we were now going to explore what lies below – presumably Fatimid ruins.

Ornate pottery piece

While there were dozens of people milling about the general Mount Zion dig area, there were only a handful in and around this Arab structure. We made introductions and settled down to start working, armed with the usual archaeological hand tools. Our first task was to take up the next couple inches of soil, looking out for the usual archaeological artefacts. Every so often someone would come over with a metal detector to check for coins, jewelry and other metal objects.

Some fancy glass

I was amazed at the amount of nice pottery, far nicer than the generally rough sherds I have found in the Bronze and Iron age sites I’ve traditionally excavated at. Likewise, glass was more plentiful and came in all sorts of degenerated colourations. What surprised me most, however, was a weirdly shaped hard organic item that eluded even my wildest guesses. When I asked the experts, I was informed that it was none other than the tooth of a parrotfish – imagine that!

Ancient parrotfish tooth

Every now and again a coin would be found – never by me, unfortunately. However, I did find a nice piece of a mould-made oil lamp with an ornate pattern that looks like bent palm trees forming arches, encircling the pouring hole. Shortly thereafter, once the excitement had died down, another two pieces were found – one being a match, and one from a different lamp.

Posing with the lamp sherd

Another fun aspect was the high number of tesserae (mosaic stones) that were interspersed quite like cookie dough chunks in my favourite ice cream flavour. Handfuls of cubed stones were gathered up and chucked into the tesserae bucket, to be bagged, registered and dealt with at a later date.

Scores of tesserae

At 9:30am we paused for breakfast, and gathered around the serving tables at the higher end of the dig site. I feasted on plums and halva, somewhat limited in what I’d eat due to the expedition’s unkosher status. It was then that I observed a familiar face working beside an excavated pit below me. This face’s owner, Ido Zangen, is comparable to the charming character Waldo in that he appears at every archaeological excavation – you simply have to search for him to find him!

Finding Ido!

After breakfast we got back to work, and we had a new manager in our Ayyubid/Fatimid tower floor: Dr Rona Avissar Lewis, the wife of Rafi Lewis. Rona had previously been a staff member at the Tel es-Safi excavation, years before my stint there. Delving back into our work, we cleared away a nice sized layer of soil, uncovering the usual ceramics, tesserae, small finds and more.

Rona and Gray clearing out the dirt

As the hour got later the sun’s rays began to punish us through the mesh shade net above us, and I sought shelter to rest. The work day was almost over, so when I was done resting and rehydrating I rejoined my digmates to do the finishing touches. I don’t know how much dirt we moved that day, but it was very exciting working on a medieval tower and I look forward to doing more.

A last look at the curious oil lamp

Before I left I bid farewell to my digmates Gray, Mel and an older couple from Chicago; staff member John (a spitting image of Captain Flint in “Black Sails”); and the dig co-directors Rafi and Shimon. Feeling a wee bit peckish, I got a nice schnitzel baguette at the Central Bus Station and continued on with the rest of my day.

Rishon LeZion Dunes

In Central Israel, Coastal Plain, Israel on August 18, 2019 at 8:09 AM

The long hot months of summer are usually relatively uneventful in terms of bloggable content, yet exceedingly busy in other aspects of life. Thankfully, birding is particularly dry in Israel during the summer, and there is then less distractions to get in the way of the necessities. However, when the sun sets there is a whole new kind of distraction, found just a bus or two away, and that is the lure of the dune.

Sunset over the Rishon LeZion Dunes

Last year was the first time I had explored coastal sand dunes at night, and a series of adventures were enjoyed by myself and my trip companion Adam. We had explored the majority of the Holon Dunes, and had seen a great number of fascinating wildlife species, but there is always more. This summer, just as the bird sightings tapered off, we decided to give a new dune area a try. This was none other than the Rishon LeZion dunes, located between the Superland amusement park and a large military base, which we visited for the very first time on June 10, 2019.

Old dune map

We set out from Givat Shmuel in the afternoon, hoping to scope out the area before darkness fell. Our goal was to map out an area that would be prime for finding interesting creatures of the night, with our ultimate goal being serpents. Despite finding plenty of tracks, we hadn’t seen any snakes in the Holon Dunes, and this failure was scratching at us from deep inside. We needed snakes like we needed water, and armed with our new powerful LED flashlights, we were confident that this summer we’d have results.

Scoping out the dunes before dark

Our bus dropped us off at an area that we had believed to be dunes, but is now a vast construction site. Even so, there was some excitement because we nearly immediately found a dead shrew on the pavement near the bus stop. We realised that now we had a bit of a walk to reach any dunes, so we set off and made our way away from the construction. Turning south onto a side road we soon found an area that seemed suitable to our needs. A quick venture into the bush, and we found plenty of signs of wildlife.

Gerbil tracks

Since it was still day there was a good number of birds to be seen, mostly swifts, swallows, stone curlews, bee-eaters and the ever-present mynah. But there were plenty of tracks in the loose sand, including those of tortoises and gerbils which we are always glad to see. As we advanced into the dunes we caught sight of another happy sight – three mountain gazelles prancing about. Just as the gazelles caught sight of us and began to run away, a large flock of chukar partridges also escaped our presence. It was loud and chaotic, the happy sounds of nature protecting itself.

Backlit dune flowers

We realised that this is where we wanted to explore that night, and calculating the time until nightfall, made a decision to go check out the nearby Lake Nakik. It wasn’t too far away, even on foot, and we enjoyed the walk as it afforded photographic opportunities of bee-eaters, juvenile chukars and other birds. Before long we reached the small lake, and found that it was nearly empty. Just one little egret was wading near the shore, darting his spear-like bill into the shallow waters in attempts to catch minnows.

Little egret fishing at golden hour

Sometimes less is more, and having just this one bird to focus on let me take full photographic advantage. With the golden reflection from the setting sun and the dying leaves above, there was a special beauty that just begged to be noticed. We watched the egret catch a few fish and fly away in search for a better spot. With little else to see we turned back and made our way to the dunes once again, passing the attractions of Superland.

Nothing to see here at the lake

I’m very partial to the cascading shades of colour that sunsets paint the skies with, and to couple it with some wind-swept sand dunes just brings me so much joy. We entered the sandy region, walking along some well-worn footpaths and met the gazelles once again. The sun slowly sank over the horizon and we took out our nighttime gear, eager for the real fun to begin.

Mountain gazelle against a backdrop of Rishon LeZion

The first wildlife sighting of the night was a Rivetina sp. praying mantis, which dashed about on the rippled sand as fast as he could. Just as I was finished photographing it, Adam shouted out that there was an owl passing overhead. I looked up as quick as I could and confirmed that an owl – probably either barn or long-eared – was indeed flying over us. It was a shame that I missed the photo opportunity and I looked down at the shameful mantis with a look of sadness.

Rivetina sp. praying mantis

The next exciting find was a dung beetle, but not an ordinary dung beetle. This particular one was stuck somehow, flailing his arms and legs as he tried to keep moving. When I moved him I saw something absolutely fascinating. A large antlion nymph had captured the dung beetle in its iconic conical pits, and was in the process of feeding on the injured beetle. Already exposed, I took this opportunity to take some nice photographs of the antlion nymph, just as a fly came by to investigate.

Antlion nymph getting a massage

Next, Adam exclaimed that a snake had surprised him, and had disappeared into a wide bush. I dashed over to help find the snake, but alas it was gone and we have no way of definitively identifying it. So, we carried on with a fresh energy, hoping to find another snake. Our next find was an African fattail scorpion, venomous and on the prowl for food. We see dozens of these every time we explore the Holon dunes, so we took a few pictures and continued along.

African fattail scorpion

We crested sandy dunes and rummaged in the vegetation filled valleys between then, searching for something interesting. It was the quick sounds in the bush that alerted us, and then the glimpse of something small and brown dashing for cover. We had stumbled upon a huge bunch of Tristram’s jird lairs, underground dens with numerous tunnels. To our satisfaction, several of them felt rather comfortable around us and getting semi-decent photographs wasn’t an insurmountable task.

Perfect focus on a Tristram’s jird

That basically summed up our trip, as we had to get some buses back to Givat Shmuel. But, we had determination to come back and try again, which we did exactly one month later, on July 10th. This time we knew where to go in advance, and headed straight for the prime dune area, skipping over the empty Nakik Lake.

The beauty of the dunes at dusk

We arrived at the dunes at golden hour, about an hour before nightfall. We were greeted by frisky crested larks, a white-breasted kingfisher and a male mountain gazelle – likely the same one as last time.

Elegant gecko

Our explorations once nightfall began led us directly to a bunch of Tristram’s jirds, as well as an elegant gecko. From there is continued to be relatively normal, with just a lot of jirds and a female lobed agriope spider. We had become to give up hope, wondering why we couldn’t find any snakes no matter how hard we looked. I mumbled a prayer, hoping that it’d help in finding just one serpent. At this point any snake would be a blessing.

White-spotted silky field spider

We were on our way out of the dune area, walking the long way through some trees. There was a constant rodent presence, mostly jirds but a rat or mouse here and there as well. We took as many pictures as we could, hoping to get a cool shot of these fun rodents. Then we both saw a blur of movement and a jird vaulting itself into the air, leaping up in a most ridiculous way. It was a quick blur of greyish-brown fur, but then we saw it – the reason why it leapt.

The hunting viper

Just below the low branches of a bush was a medium-sized viper, who had just struck out at the jird. We didn’t know if its deadly fangs made contact with the gymnastic rodent, but we were spellbound. Adam hurriedly told me to take pictures, and I snapped away as fast as I could. The viper was a bit far from us, a good 5-6 metres or so and I had to make sure the flash lit it up properly with the branches in the way.

Tristram’s jird hiding in the foliage

We crept closer, hoping to get a good look at the viper. The air was alive with the rush of danger and excitement, and we knew that we needed to play it smart. Unfortunately it was a little skittish and slithered off under the bush’s foliage when we got close. Still, we were spellbound and couldn’t help but exclaim over and over how exciting that was. It was still in our thoughts when we crested yet another dune, not far from the access road.

Juvenile viper

As I was scanning for snake tracks, Adam shouted out that he found another viper! I dashed over, my hiking boots sinking into the soft sand as I ran, and was elated to see a smaller viper just laying beneath a bit of vegetation. This was perfect, we were able to get close – safely! – and get all the pictures we ever wanted. Both vipers had the same colour pattern, which is the most common morph in Israel, but the size difference was quite noticeable in the field. This second viper was a juvenile and was relatively calm as we crowded it with our lights and cameras.

Face to face with a viper

We wanted to stay with it all night, but we knew that we all needed to part ways. We humans had a bus to catch and the viper was probably hoping for some peace and quiet. So we took one last picture and headed off, leaving the precious viper all alone on the dune.

One last photo of the dunes at dusk

Grabbing a bus to Tel Aviv, we made it back to Givat Shmuel in relatively good time. As I approached my place I caught notice of a microbat making passes under a strong floodlight, nabbing insects that were drawn to the light. It took a few tries but at last I got a semi-decent picture, decent enough to confirm that it was indeed a Kuhl’s pipistrelle – a common bat in Israel. This sealed quite an excellent nighttime adventure, but our next dunes trip was to be back at Holon, this time with Adam’s youngest brother in tow.