So Close, So Far

In the savage heat of July 3-4, AD 1187, the Crusader army thumped east from Sepphoris. They stopped to draw water from a spring, presently located behind the McDonalds with the McDrive Thru (Birket Maskana). The goal of the march was ostensibly to relieve the citadel at Tiberias. In a short time, however, that Crusader plan would be reduced to something more primal.

Salah-ed-Din’s eyes narrowed when he received the news. His siege of Tiberias had achieved the desired result. Guy was lured into open country.

The confrontation that followed is confusing and has been discussed by many medievalists. Primary for all are three versions of the account recorded by the 12th century chronicler, William of Tyre. An English translation of these is available here.

The Crusader force was a formidable troop of 20,000. The core of these, 1,300 strong, was composed of heavily armored knights. The balance was divided between light horse and footmen. Raymond of Tripoli directed the vanguard, Balian of Iblean protected the rear, and the King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, rode in center. With Guy was the bishop of Acre. In the bishop’s possession was a fragment of the True Cross. This talisman of salvation, the relic of all relics, would preserve the soldiers of Christ. Or so they hoped. The Crusaders were, after all, far from European homes and dedicated to the defense of the Holy Land.

No one could have guessed that when this group tasted water from the spring, it would, for many, be their last.

Yours truly thumping the trail.

Almost a thousand years later I walk the path of Raymond, Guy, and Balian. Like them, I make my way from Sepphoris toward Tiberias in the savage heat. Using a paper map and Jesus Trail blazes, I negotiate gentle creases that are deepening to canyons as I near the earthen seam between Africa and Arabia. The collapse is dramatic: the Great Rift Valley drops more than a thousand feet in a few short miles. I am glad that I am descending into it, and not climbing out of it.

The twin knobs rise before me. It is an ascent, but not a serious one. The site is unmistakable. It is the Horns of Hattin (Qarne Hittin).

The Horns of Hattin rise out of the misty dawn.

As the Crusader army neared this blistered crown, the horse archers of Salah-ed-Din continued to harass their rear guard. Arrows peppered the edges of the troop. Weary, Guy made for the security of Horns. It was a defendable position known in ages past. Fragments of Iron age pottery cracked beneath the great weight of the Crusader horses.

Nearing the summit of the Horns.

The “Jesus Trail” takes me on a meandering course that edges the Horns on the east and then rises on the south face to the summit. The view from the top is a commanding one. From this vista, my eyes make out the familiar outline of the Sea of Galilee. The fresh water seems close enough to touch. Tiberias is out of view, tucked under the leeward side of the Rift.

The north end of the Sea of Galilee as seen from the Horns. I took this picture early one Spring, before the sun withered the green of Lower Galilee to hues of brown and gold.

On the summit, the Crusaders had a defendable position, but one that lacked water. The horses and men, roasting in their own armor could not sustain it. Salah-ed-Din’s mobile and lightly clad Muslim army of 30,000 took positions surrounding the Horns. “Not even a cat could escape,” writes William. To increase the Crusader misery, the besiegers set fire to the dried grass of the slopes and engulfed the Franks in smoke. After all these ages, the volcano had seemingly growled to life again. It raged as an inferno.

A reconstruction of events. Map from here.

Desperate and weakened from thirst, the Crusaders tried to press the line several times. Raymond and Balien, along with a few others, did engineer a breakout. However, Guy and the bulk of the army were trapped. The Sea of Galilee, the reservoir of fresh water for the region, could be seen from the summit, but not touched, much less tasted. It was tormenting to be so close, yet so far away.

Artistic reconstruction of the battle. One could label it either “Roasted Franks” or “The Crusader’s Alamo.” Source.

One reads William’s account with curiosity. He describes how Salah-edh-Din hauled up fresh water from the sea by camelback. Then, before the reddened eyes of the besieged, poured it out on the ground.

With no other recourse, Guy surrendered. He was treated kindly by Salah-edh-Din, but the same courtesy was not extended to the others. The Knights Templars and Hospitalers were slaughtered. The rest of the army, enslaved. The fragment of the True Cross was captured, and the experience forever remembered as the First Crusade came to a miserable end.

When news of the defeat (and the loss of the True Cross) reached the ears of Pope Urban, he dropped dead on the spot. This touch, again communicated by William of Tyre, poetically links this narrative with the loss of the Ark and the death of Eli, recorded in 1 Samuel 4. Likewise, William describes the results of the battle as punishment on the Crusaders for their sin.

The catastrophe at Hattin was of biblical proportions.

View to the saddle between the Horns. Here the army of Guy made its last stand.