February is often the rainiest month here in Israel, and, indeed, we seem to have had more than our fair share of downpours this month, some of them very heavy indeed. However, once again we were lucky when, on the latest field-trip with Yad Ben Zvi, at the beginning of the month, we set out to uncover relics of the Crusader kingdoms in the Sharon plain.
The Sharon plain, although possibly the most densely populated part of Israel, does not feature heavily on the usual tourist route. Indeed, on my return to Jerusalem in the evening, when I mentioned to the taxi driver where I had been all day (most of the drivers in my regular taxi company know me and my regular activities), his response was: “I didn’t know there was anything to see there!”
Our first stop was the Poleg River Reserve. The Poleg River – well, it’s more of a stream actually – runs through what remains of the Wood of Arsuf, which Richard the Lionheart’s army had to cross on their way to the fateful Battle of Arsuf on September 2nd, 1191, in which Richard’s army defeated the Saracens, ending Saladin’s reputation for invincibility and (temporarily) restoring Christian rule over the central Levantine coast, including Jaffa.
The name Poleg is derived from the Arabic name, Wadi el-Falik, meaning “the wadi that divides/splits”. It was so called because it runs east to west, splitting the Sharon plain in two. In the past, the river channel was blocked by a ridge of kurkar, a type of sandstone, and the resulting build-up of water caused swamps to develop. An opening was therefore dug in the ridge some time during the Bronze Age which again became clogged up and had to be reopened in the Byzantine Era. Of course, over the years, it again became clogged up and swamps developed once more. It was last cleared again in 1935.
Here, we can see the opening in the ridge:
Along the banks of the stream is a nature reserve and, on the day that we visited, there were several school groups there, include a group of kindergarteners, who came to enjoy the first blossoms of spring:
Or maybe they were the first blossoms of spring 🙂
From Nachal Poleg (nachal – נחל – a stream, in Hebrew), we drove to Qaqun, where there are the ruins of a crusader fortress, one of several dotted about the Sharon plain. People think the Crusaders came to the Holy Land simply to liberate the Christian holy places from Muslim control, but the truth is, in many cases, they were driven by lack of land in feudal Europe, where inheritance laws ensured that the eldest son inherited the entire family estate. The Crusader kings granted lands to their followers, who built castles and levied taxes from their tenant farmers, just like in Europe, while these nobles continued to owe their service to their own feudal overlords.
As you can see, Qaqun, (known then as Caco or Cacho), commanded a strategic position over the Sharon plain.
By the 20th century, an Arab village stood here. During Israel’s War of Independence, the armies of seven Arab states invaded the nascent Jewish state, among them, units of the Iraqi army. Qaqun’s commanding hilltop position made it a danger to the surrounding Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim (who had been suffering attacks from the village since the Arab riots of 1936 – 1938). Moreover, the invading Arab armies intended to use Qaqun as a jumping-board to slice the new state in two at its narrowest point and press through all the way to the coast. The Israeli High Command therefore decided on a mission to capture this strategic point.
It was estimated that the enemy forces comprised about 200 local Arabs, a company of professional soldiers from the regular Iraqi army, and an Iraqi armoured division.
The mission was entrusted to the Alexandroni Brigade and took place on June 5th, 1948. The fighting was fierce, in many cases, the ill-equipped Israeli forces, faced with regular Iraqi troops, fought the enemy face-to-face with their bare hands. The fighting went on all day but by the time it died down, the Israeli force had gained the upper hand.
Sixteen Israeli fighters fell in the battle. Incredibly, it was only ten years ago that a fitting memorial was erected to their heroism.
As you can see, the monument consists of stone “cutouts”, beside the very blocks from which they have been cut. The empty spaces represent the fallen soldiers (the Hebrew word hallal – חלל – meaning “an empty space”, is also used for a fallen soldier).
We were supposed to visit the archaeological site of Apollonia next, but these places close early in winter, and our guide preferred to take us to two less well known sites instead. So we went first to Umm Khaled, in Netanya.
After the crusaders were driven from the Holy Land, the Muslim rulers devised a system of defence based on a chain of “shrines” along the coast, designed to ensure a constant flow of (Muslim) pilgrims who would keep an eye out for any further Christian incursions. No matter that, very rarely, were the Muslim saints after whom these alleged “tombs” were named, actually buried there. In fact, the Muslims often simply took over Crusader sites and “converted” them to Islam.
One such was Umm Khaled, (literally: The Mother of Khaled) in Netanya.
The site is in the centre of the oldest part of Netanya and has been grossly neglected. In fact, if we had not been on a field-trip specifically dedicated to the history of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, we would never have stumbled upon it, or, if we had, we might have simply mistaken it for a garbage dump. But a Crusader castle certainly stood on this site, recognisable as such by the remains of its square tower, thick stone walls and the remains of its pointed archways.
It has been suggested that this was the estate of a Crusader noble called Roger of Lombardy.
The remains on the site show that it had been settled for many hundreds of years before the Crusaders and that it was destroyed during the Great Jewish Revolt between 66 – 70 CE, indicating that it was a Jewish settlement. In fact, graves found on the site point to Jews having lived there at least as far back as the Hasmonean period.
During the Byzantine period (4th – 5th centuries CE), there was a Samaritan settlement on the site, which was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt of 524 – 529 CE.
After the final defeat of the Crusaders, the remains of the castle served as a khan, or caravan inn, for travellers on the coastal road. This was during the Mameluke period (1260 – 1517).
At all events, as I mentioned above, the Arab invaders “converted” it to a Muslim shrine, in memory of Umm Khaled, the mother of Khaled, a Muslim saint. In the 18th century, an Arab village grew up around the site, and was named after the mother of Khaled ibn Al-Walid, one of the commanders of the Muslim army at the time of the Arab conquest of the Levant in the first half of the 7th century CE. According to Arab legend, his mother was buried nearby.
In the 1920s, a Jewish settlement group purchased lands from the mukhtar of the Arab village which had grown up around the site, and these lands formed the nucleus of what is now the city of Netanya. For a time, the two communities existed side by side, but in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Arab villagers – like many Arab communities who had been warned by the Arab leadership to flee, either because they would get in the way of the advancing Arab armies, or because (so it was claimed), the Jews would surely slaughter them – disregarded the pleas of their Jewish neighbours and the nascent Israeli leadership, to stay put and live in peace with their Jewish neighbours, choosing, instead, to flee and join the Arab exodus. Later, of course, the Arab leadership accused the State of Israel of “ethnic cleansing”.
While we were there, we also saw the famous old sycamore tree which is the pride of Netanya.
The exact age of this sycamore, the circumference of whose trunk is about 8 metres, is not known – can only be known, indeed, by cutting it down and counting its growth rings. However, it is mentioned in mediaeval sources, so we know it is at least 600 years old. But, according to some, it might be as old as 1,500 years. To know why, we have to return to Khaled ibn Al-Walid and his mother, who, according to the legend, accompanied him on all his journeys. On one of these journeys, she grew very tired and asked her son to stop so that she could rest. A dutiful son, he paused the march, in the region of what is now Netanya, and his mother lay under a big, shady sycamore tree and fell into a deep sleep, from which she never wakened. Grief-stricken, her formidable son, whom Muhammed himself had named Saif Allah Al-Maslul (The Drawn Sword of Allah) buried her under the self-same tree and forbade anyone ever to touch the tree or cut it down.
Our last port of call was the Sidna Ali mosque on the shores of Herzliya Pituach (an up-market neighbourhood of Herzliya), all that is left of the Arab village of Al-Haram, which stood on the site till 1948, when its inhabitants fled, for the reasons described above. Part of the village land had been sold to Jews in the 1920s, to found what was to become the Israeli city of Herzliya. During the Arab Revolt of 1936 – 1939 (against the British Mandatory authorities), some of the villagers were hauled before the Arab rebel leaders and condemned for having sold land to Jews. On the whole, however, relations between the villagers and their Jewish neighbours were good and indeed, former residents of the Arab village have testified that representatives of the Jewish town had guaranteed their safety.
At all events, the Mosque, which was handed back to the Muslim religious authorities in 1990, is said to mark the burial place of Ali ibn Ullim, who, according to one tradition, was killed in battle against the Crusaders near Apollonia, round about 1250. Written sources, however, say Ali ibn Ullim was killed in 1081, fighting against the Byzantines.
Tradition had it that Ali did not want a roof over his grave and indeed, any roof that was built over it, eventually collapsed. His reputed grave stands in the courtyard of the mosque. In the wall beside the grave, there used to be a black stone, now gone, which believers held to have the power of determining if a person was speaking the truth or falsehood. The person being examined would be blindfolded and made to stand a few steps away from the stone. He would then be told to march forward, holding his arm out in front of him. If his hand touched the stone, he spoke the truth. If not, he was a liar who must pray for forgivness and make atonement at Ali’s tomb.
At all events, we were unable to enter the mosque since, by the time we arrived, the sun had almost set and the hour of evening prayer had arrived, so we had to content ourselves with hearing about it from outside and watching the flaming sky turn to dusky purple as night fell.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip and will join me on my next trip – (to Herodion) – whenever I find the time to write about it 😉
Hello there and thank you so much for a very interesting post.
I am fascinated by everything to do with the Crusaders and was looking for any blogs dealing with them for a trip I am planning in their footsteps when this damned CoVid goes away again and I can travel. I shall definitely hope to include this site if I do manage to get that far.