Reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin
Nations are constantly put through tests and challenges. They can be as small and unaffecting, or they can be enormous causing physical and emotional injuries on a nation’s citizens. Such can be the case with wars that could either end as a footnote in history or leave lasting scars.
In South Africa, the Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars, Xhosa Wars, Anglo-Zulu Wars and the two Anglo Boer Wars – to name only a few – transformed the country’s political topography leaving lasing legacies; for many open festering wounds. Sometimes, it takes a single decisive battle within a war that sets the course for the future.
In Israel, one such monumental martial encounter occurred between the forces of Christianity and those of Islam not too far from the Sea of Galilee. That titanic clash of iron occurred over 800 years ago, and its impact is still felt today.
For the history buff or tourist, more exciting than visiting a museum, Israel offers you the opportunity to relive the Battle of Hattin of 1187 to fully appreciate what it was like to be a soldier on either the Crusader side led by the Guy of Lusignan, who became king of Jerusalem the previous year, or the Muslim forces of the Ayyubid sultan Salah ad-Din, known in the West as Saladin.
Something Completely Different
It was the next best thing to popping into a time capsule and revisiting the past. Imagine stepping out onto the dry grasslands of a high plateau and filling your eyes with a colorful cataclysmic clash of civilizations. It is the Middle Ages, and in the center of this open field in the Upper Galilee, are two armies decked out in full military fatigues about to converge in fierce battle. While these play actors are well versed in the unfolding history, the actual soldiers they are portraying, could not have foreseen their impact on the destiny of the two dominant religions of the Holy Land at the time – Islam and Christianity.
While historians have questioned the long-term significance of many medieval battles, few have denied that the 1187 Battle of Hattin had a decisive impact on the history of the region.
The battle took place at the Horns of Hattin – an extinct volcano with twin peaks overlooking the plains of Hattin not far from Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, where the Crusader army of Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem was marching towards in order to relieve the siege of that city. It never made it, for waiting for the Crusaders were the Saracens led one of the shrewdest military commanders of the day – Saladin.
In 2016, I joined a large cadre of history enthusiasts and tourists to watch the drama unfold on the original battle’s landscape.
What better stage could one ask for?
Swords and Shields
“It’s a direct way of connecting to history; not through books and not through the computer,” said Gennady Niznik, who organized the event and heads the only Israeli chapter of the “living history” trend. It was the sixth consecutive year they had been running this event, which is supported by the Lower Galilee Regional Council. About a third of the participants arrived with their elaborate gear from Russia.
Every year, the historical reenactment by the historical reconstruction club “Jerusalem Kingdom” (Regnum Hierosolymitanum), along with the Jerusalem Traditional Archery Club, reconstructs the historical events surrounding the battle upon the actual landscape and in conditions similar to those prevailing at the time. Most of Israel’s historical clubs participate in this event.
This project is based on significant academic and archaeological research carried out on the battlefield.
The ‘Horns of Hattin March’ is a living historical event. All attendees actively participate in the re-enactment, and are assigned to one of the two armies – that of King of Jerusalem Guy de Lusignan or that of Salah ad-Din. Characters include knights, professional mercenaries, Templers, Mamelukes, pilgrims, countrymen, city dwellers, Bedouin, musicians, and others.
Replete with swords, shields and body armor, our group marched 27 kilometers (17 miles) over the weekend to the final battlefield. The level of detail went down to the use of wooden and ceramic utensils and hand-woven undergarments used at the time.
Niznik, who is completing a Master’s degree in archaeology at Haifa University, and conducts research pertaining to attire and textiles from the Holy Land of the 12th century, hopes the trend will begin to catch on in Israel as it has abroad. Stressing that reenactments such as this are a useful tool for historical study, battlefield expert Dr. Nicolas Slope says that “quite often we discover relics from the period that we are not certain what they were used for. There are plenty of examples of what we term ‘experimental archeology’ – objects that are living in the sense that they can reveal to us what everyday life was like, say, a thousand years ago.” He cites in particular “horse furniture” – items that are strange today but were common to a medieval horseman.
The Stage is Set
Amongst the overseas visitors, were those who had participated in re-enactments of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, various battles of the two World Wars, and Americans who animatedly related their participation in the re-enactment of the Battle of Lexington at the commencement of the American War of Independence and who had “fought” in the ‘2013’ Battle of Gettysburg that decided the fate of the American Civil War. Unlike those battles, at Hattin, there was no firepower. These ‘battle hardened’ enthusiasts were ready for a clash of steel, as the bright rays of the hot July summer sun glistened on Crusader swords and lances, and Saracen scimitars.
The concern at the eve of the battle was checking Saladin’s advance and in 1187, Guy de Lusignan, under pressure, and receiving conflicting advice, opted to relieve Saladin’s siege of Tiberias. His army left the springs of Sepphora at Zippori and marched to give battle. Our participation began on June 30, 2016 at the first Crusader military camp at Zippori. From there, the march proceeded stopping at historically important places along the way until Saturday, July 2, and the fateful Battle of Hattin, where onlookers had to stand safely ‘out of range’ of the arrows raining down on the charging Crusader cavalry. The night before the ‘battle’, we sat around a campfire at a Crusader camp and learnt about the history of what was to befall the next day, 829 years earlier. The following morning, well-fed and quenched, we left the springs of Sepphora, (Zippori), tracing the path that Guy’s army took. It was the path that led to the beginning of the end of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem.
It was the 4th of July and, as one American participant poignantly remarked, “Today my fellow countrymen will be celebrating back home the War of Independence from the English in 1776. How few of them would be aware that on the same day, 600 years earlier, a battle took place here that too completely changed the course of history.”
It was here that Saladin aligned 12,000 of his knights plus an army carrying regular provisions at Tiberius. On the other side of the battlefield were the crusading forces comprised of 20,000-foot soldiers and 1,000 knights on horseback.
The Christian army had set out for Tiberius in the early morning hours of July 3rd, leaving their camp that had provided water, for the dust and dryness of the desert air. They carried with them that holy relic, so many would be prepared to die for – the True Cross – discovered in 326 CE by the mother of Constantine the Great.
As they made their way under the hot desert sun, they found no water, and adding to their thirst, they were nearing exhaustion in their heavy armor. Another history buff from Tel Aviv pointed out:
“So often throughout history, foreign armies fail to understand the terrain and the climate before embarking on their conquests. Compare the Saracens dressed in free-flowing fabrics appropriate to our hot desert climate, to the Crusader Franks, attired in their European cumbersome metal armor, which was heating up from the sun. The poor souls must have been boiling inside their armor, and coupled with dehydration were literally ‘sitting ducks’ for Saladin’s forces who were well provided with water.”
Along the exhausting march, Saracen archers were knocking off crusaders like skittles in an amusement park.
Except there was nothing amusing for Guy’s increasingly demoralized soldiers!
By evening of July 3rd, the crusading army arrived at the plateau below the Horns of Hattin. Even at this resting spot, the Crusaders found no water – the well was dry, and the only stream was blocked. More demoralizing, the Crusaders could see from their high position, the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee in the distance. “How inviting”, they all must have thought.
They would never see it any closer!
Saladin read the terrain well and the desperate state of his enemy, and plotted and planned accordingly.
Fear spread among Crusaders and it is recorded that the Count of Tripoli, whose wife was held captive some miles away, jumped from his horse uttering cries of woe to the heavens:
“Lord God, our war is over! We are nothing but dead men-and the Kingdom has come to an end.”
Their leadership despairing, it must have undermined the foot soldiers even more. How had the situation dramatically changed from a feeling of invincibility to one of inevitability – inevitable destruction! “Reminds me of Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn,” observed a participant from New Jersey.
Guy at least would not suffer General Custer’s fate!
That evening, suffering from thirst, Guy’s soldiers failed to sleep. Some, in a desperate move, crept down from the plateau to reach a tantalizing stream, only to be captured and beheaded.
Then followed Saladin’s masterstroke!
He ordered his soldiers to set the dry grass covering the hill ablaze. As the hot flames spread up the side of the hill, soldiers, already parched of thirst and uncomfortably hot from their heavy armor, panicked. Their frustration had literally reached ‘boiling point’!
By morning, Saladin’s men had completely enclosed the crusader force. So secure they trapped them, a chronicler of the event claimed, “not a cat could have slipped through the net.” The tired crusaders were outnumbered by ten to one and, as dawn approached, the Muslim horns blew heralding the coming attack. Before the crusaders lay certain death. There were no illusions as to their fate and the Christians charged recklessly into battle. Saladin did not engage but instead opened up his forces allowing the crusaders to charge through. Once in, he closed the net, sealing the fate of his enemy.
At battle’s end, there remained but a few hundred Christian knights huddled around King Guy’s tent. In the tent, the trembling Guy held onto the True Cross.
Saladin bade him to rise, saying, “A king does not kill a king.”
The defeat at Hattin saw the effective destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the King in his hands, and the army destroyed, Saladin was able to capture city after city and finally, on October 2nd, Jerusalem itself surrendered. While a new crusader kingdom of Acre survived for another hundred years, the great days of Crusader Christendom in the Holy Land were over.
End of the Road
“You can say it was the last three days in the history of an entire country that existed in the Holy Land in the 12th century,” expressed event organizer Gennady Niznik. “The story is so embedded into this landscape and to the roads or tracks taken by these ancient armies.”
Why are people so fascinated by these medieval times? “I suppose it was a magical era,” says Niznik.
For all the 2016 participants, it was a “magical” weekend as many of them returned in 2017 for another round of the ‘Battle of Hattin’.
Back to the Future
There is a certain irony that Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem and has a street today named after him outside Jerusalem’s Old City, is of Kurdish ethnicity, a people today struggling for an independent state of their own.
With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, sentiment was strong that the Kurdish people deserved a sovereign nation that would be partitioned out of areas in Turkey, northern Iraq, and Syria based on the “promised nation of Kurdistan” under the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.
However, Turkey, Iraq nor Syria – which berate Israel for the failure yet of a Palestinian state – resist RUTHLESSLY a state for their fellow Muslim Kurds.
It may be that the dream of Kurdish independence will remain that – just a dream.
Or who knows, there may arise another Kurdish dreamer who will attack not the ‘walls’ of Jerusalem, but of Ankara, Bagdad and the Syrian capital of Damascus, where Saladin is buried at the Umayyad Mosque.
One thing about the Middle East, there will never be any shortage of battles to reenact!