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The Holy Land: Through the Eyes of a Medievalist

October 4, 2019

By Dr. Brendan McGuire

This story was originally published in the 2019 Summer issue of Instaurare Magazine 

The annual February downpours—torrential rains that transform Galilee into a verdant agricultural paradise during the winter growing season—streaked across the windshield of my tiny Nissan as I sped north on Israel’s ultramodern Highway 6 at the crack of dawn. To my right, across the separation barrier, the impoverished and densely populated Palestinian cities of Qalqilyah and Tulkarm passed by close enough to touch, their minarets still glowing green in the early morning half-light, a different world. My destination that morning was hardly a conventional one for a Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land: I was headed north to the Golan Heights, to study one of the great monuments of Islamic military architecture, constructed by the Ayyubid dynasty during the twilight of the crusader kingdom.

Photograph taken by Dr. McGuire of Golan Heights

Originally built to protect Damascus from crusader incursions, the castle gradually crumbled to a ruin once that threat had lapsed, and it now bears the fanciful nickname “Nimrod’s Fortress,” which was given to it by the Syrian Druze who long pastured their flocks in its shadow. Yet it still cuts a stunning figure, an immense stone fortress sprawling across a ridge more than 2,000 feet above the fertile Israeli countryside to the west.

The Holy Land is dotted with such monuments, both Islamic and Christian. In their own way, they bear eloquent testimony to the sacredness of the land, and to the religious zeal that animated those engaged in the great medieval struggle for its possession. Thanks to the generosity of Shane Cotter and Dianna Herrmann, who provided a grant to support the research activities of Christendom’s faculty, I was able to spend some field time in the Middle East this past semester, and although the time was necessarily brief, it was nevertheless extremely fruitful.

Rapid field work of this sort can best be conceived as the acquisition of raw material for study—photographs, measurements, etc.—which one brings back and then spends months or years mining with complementary research in libraries and archives. As a medieval historian, I had a goal of gaining access to as many crusader-era ruins and active archaeological sites as I could in the few days I was there. Flying back through Istanbul, I also knew I would have the chance to revisit an old haunt: the Rose Mosque (Gül Camii), which I first began to study back in 2013.

The exploration of the Nimrod fortress on that rainy morning began the second full day of an eight-day odyssey through the Middle East, in which I was privileged to be able to conduct both professional research and spiritual pilgrimage. Two nights earlier, I had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport having slept two or three hours out of the previous 36, gotten behind the wheel of a rental car, and driven to the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, where I parked around midnight in a seaside surface lot guarded by a bearded Russian immigrant. Home base for the week was a windowless hotel room (affordable), where I returned every night to clear my camera’s memory card, record observations, and recharge batteries. Before heading up to the Golan Heights, or doing anything research-related, however, I knew that I had to spend my first full day in the country seeking the holiest of all cities, Jerusalem. It was an odd feeling the following morning, as the underpowered car struggled to climb the Judean foothills, to reflect on the fact that the modern Israeli highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem roughly follows the Roman road from the coast, along which Christian pilgrims of old would have traveled.

Photograph taken by Dr. McGuire of ruins in Caesarea

Although Jerusalem retains its uniquely sacred status in the hearts of modern Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims), it is hard to convey to modern people how utterly central the Holy City was to the religious imagination of medieval Catholics. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem was practiced by western Christians continually from the fourth century onward, even after the city was conquered by the caliph Umar ibn Khattab in 636. A modern pilgrim might have to take a week off work or spend some discretionary income to travel to Jerusalem, but for medieval men and women the trip was truly life-altering. It involved the sacrifice of years, not to mention exposure to serious hardships and dangers, and frequently the loss of one’s entire fortune (or life). It was not religious tourism but penance—the act of penance par excellence for a medieval knight—and it was popular enough among elites that in the ninth century Charlemagne felt compelled to fund the expansion of the pilgrims’ hostel, which had originally been built with financing from Pope Gregory the Great two centuries earlier.

Although the city was now deep in Islamic territory, Christian pilgrims from Europe were numerous enough that it drove the “mad” Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim, to destroy the pilgrims’ hostel and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre completely in the early 11th century. After a brief hiatus, the stream of pilgrims from the West picked up again, drawn to the now-ruined site of Our Lord’s passion; this was even remarked upon positively by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch during the ecclesiastical upheavals of 1054. The great military campaigns of the crusade era, from 1095 onward, were founded in this tradition of penitential pilgrimage. Thus, as I stood under the great dome of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I could not help but feel how little I had endured and how little I had sacrificed. No words could possibly do justice to the experience of squeezing into the small shrine and seeing with one’s own eyes the place from which Christ rose—non est hic; ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum—He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

Medieval men and women certainly took the psalmist at his word that “the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (Ps. 87:2). And yet, it would be a mistake to imagine the medieval crusader states (1099–1291) as some sort of modern colonial project; demographically, western Christians always remained a small minority within their own kingdom. Hence the need to construct the monstrous fortifications, castles, and city walls that provide so much fodder for archaeological research in modern times. The Israeli government has been generous and extremely professional in its approach to funding and supervising the excavation of crusader sites over the years, and yet much remains to be discovered.

Thus, I found myself that rainy second morning, the day after standing in our Lord’s tomb, driving to the Syrian border to find the famed 13th-century “Nimrod’s Fortress.” After documenting everything I could, I headed south to the Sea of Galilee, and visited the crusader castle at Tiberias, where Israeli archaeologists have recently made exciting discoveries. The ensuing days were a frantic attempt to make the most of the opportunity. Fighting my way through Tel Aviv traffic each morning, and rapidly learning how to drive like a local, I explored the crusader ruins at Acre, Caesarea, and Ashkelon. Caesarea proved a fascinating case; the crusader market there is an active archaeological dig site to which I was able to gain access. It was incredible to explore the half-excavated streets and houses, surrounded by stones and artifacts shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets, waiting for removal to the lab.

The Crusader Castle at Acre, photo taken by Dr. McGuire

In Ashkelon, the entire old city is currently a seaside national park, studded with unattended medieval ruins. I paid special attention to the ruins of churches in both Caesarea and Ashkelon; many of them remain unidentified and merit further archival research. Finally, on my last full day, I headed back to Jerusalem, received the sacraments, found a taxi ride across the checkpoint to the Palestinian territories to visit Bethlehem, and made my way back to Tel Aviv.

The next morning, I had some difficulty convincing Israeli authorities that I wasn’t trafficking antiquities to Turkey, but they eventually let me fly out to Istanbul. Coming back to Istanbul after all these years felt oddly like a homecoming, although it gave me pause to see the extent to which the Erdogan regime’s “restoration” projects continue to dismantle Byzantine ruins.

Ultimately, it is with deep gratitude to my benefactors that I reflect on this research trip. As with all professors at Christendom, my primary vocation is to serve my students, and it would be impossible to serve them in the way that they deserve without striving to remain an active scholar in my professional field. It will take some time to unpack all that I documented, and I cannot possibly do justice to the emotional impact of the sacred sites, but I know that I will always see two things in my mind’s eye: first, Jerusalem, in which the Lord delighted, a symbol of God’s enduring fidelity, and second, Ashkelon, with its medieval walls tumbled down and tossed about above the sparkling Mediterranean, a compelling and beautiful Ozymandias.

Dr. Brendan McGuire specializes in the study of medieval Christianity; his scholarly research has focused on a variety of issues related to the Church in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Dr. McGuire received his Ph.D. from St. Louis University, and has been a member of Christendom’s history faculty since 2007.