How I LARPed across the Galilee in the footsteps of the Crusaders
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Reporter's notebookMy cellphone was at 28% and the 12th-century reenactment trousers were itchier than fiberglass mittens'

How I LARPed across the Galilee in the footsteps of the Crusaders

A Times of Israel reporter joins a historical reenactment group for (part of) its annual march across the north to act out the Battle of the Horns of Hattin

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Under the cover of darkness, I slunk out of the Crusader encampment by the spring of Saffuriya and set out into the Galilee night. King Guy de Lusignan and his men had concluded their congress in which they resolved to march on toward Tiberias and confront the army of Saladin. Hearing their plan to trudge through the blazing heat in metal armor and heavy wool garments, I reconsidered my participation in what was sure to be an ill-fated mission.

Besides, my cellphone was at 28% and the 12th-century reenactment trousers were itchier than fiberglass mittens. Modern-day Haifa was a hitchhike away and I could make it in time for last call if I hustled.

Let’s backtrack a few hours.

Earlier on Thursday I had arrived at the headquarters of the Kingdom of Jerusalem – the home of Genadiy Nizhnik, a tour guide and archaeology student who organizes an annual historic reenactment of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. The apartment door opened, revealing a topless, barrel-bellied Ukrainian with a grizzled beard, brilliant blue eyes, and a massive scar across his stomach – no doubt a great wound got in battle. Nizhnik, who would act the part of King Guy, struck a regal pose despite wearing just blue hose girded with a leather belt. He ordered I don a jalabiya and Arab headscarf and make my way to the bus outside.

For the past several years, Nizhnik and a small band of followers put on medieval garb, clad themselves in armor, and spend several days in July retracing the steps of the Crusader army and waging a mock battle on the field west of the Sea of Galilee. It’s part LARPing — live action role-playing — part homage, and part history lesson.

Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

The battle, waged 589 years to the day before the United States declared independence, pitted the Crusader army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem against that of Sultan Saladin, the Muslim leader of the Ayyubid dynasty. The thirst-wracked Christian troops were harried by Saladin’s men as they made their way to the safety of Tiberias. Lusignan’s army made camp at Hattin instead of pressing on to the lake. The Muslim army surrounded them, setting the fields ablaze, and “disaster befell Christendom at a place called the Horns of Hattin,” chronicler William of Tyre wrote years after the fateful battle.

Just three months later, Saladin took Jerusalem and the nearly century-long Crusader interlude in the Holy Land was all but extinguished.

Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

A motley crew of Israelis, overwhelmingly from the former Soviet Union, comprised King Guy’s host and the bulk of the troupe taking part in this year’s three-day trek across the Galilee. Six Russians and two Germans also flew in for the event, bringing the total to just over 30 men and women.

“There were 18 last year [from Russia] and only six this year,” Nizhnik said as our conveyance set forth from Jerusalem, citing rampant inflation in Russia as the cause. French may have been the common tongue in the Crusader kingdom, but Russian predominated among the reenactors, with most sentences punctuated by the universally applicable expletive blyat. Only three Israelis weren’t Russophones.

This year the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s mission also included waging a battle against a government plan to build a new Druze town atop the historic battle site. The plan threatened to bury the battlefield, and with it an important part of history, Nizhnik said. In January, he and his knights protested against the project outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. In full armor.

The area near Kfar Hittim in the Galilee where the Israeli government plans to build a new town near historic site, on January 28, 2016. The planned construction of a Druze town, near the site of a historic battle between crusaders and Muslim icon Saladin, may threaten archaeological treasures registered with UNESCO for possible future inclusion on its list of World Heritage sites. (Jack Guez/AFP)
The area near Kfar Hittim in the Galilee where the Israeli government plans to build a new town near the historic site (Jack Guez/AFP)

The baggage compartment of the bus was filled to capacity with wooden casks, spears, swords, bows, arrows, cloth tents, cast iron cooking gear, and armor. Before long, we set out. A papier-mâché head streaked with fake blood occupied a seat in the row opposite me.

“It’s the head of an Arab,” Nizhnik said.

It was just after noon, but beer bottles clinked in the back of the bus as it moved down to the coast.

A papier-mache head and yellow felt cap, some of the props for the historical reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
A papier-mache head and yellow felt cap, some of the props for the historical reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

***

Wearing an ankle-length Arab robe, leather sandals and a white keffiyeh around my neck, I approached the security check at a roadside shopping mall outside Haifa. Onlookers gawped as a group of reenactors entered, dressed nine centuries out of date. The guard, puzzled by my attire, asked if I had any weapons. I didn’t, I replied.

“Ah, well, your friend did,” he said, jabbing a thumb in the direction of a knight striding toward the food court. The other guard lifted up a small homemade knife with a wooden handle and a wad of leather protecting the tip.

“That’s it?” I asked. “You should see the sword he’s got on the bus.”

Some ladies-in-waiting headed to a juice bar while a group of Saracens stood by the bus puffing cigarettes.

Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin wearing medieval garb on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin wearing medieval garb on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

***

Just outside Nazareth, the bus ground to a halt and the troops began setting up for the night while the sun was still out. With a cigarette dangling beneath his bristly mustache and a red hat resembling a sex toy on his head, Pavel Khromov barked commands in Russian and got the camp in order. When he’s not taking part in the reenactment, he works as a programmer at a major bank.

All modern contrivances and packs had to be obscured from view, and everyone had to be in their medieval outfits – including an IDF soldier who writes for the army publication Bamahane. A few participants cloaked their cans of beer in cloth cozies and sipped from of them like winos. Though tobacco is a New World plant and wouldn’t make its way to the Middle East for several centuries after the Battle of Hattin, there was no objection to its being widely smoked. Cellphones popped out of pockets for the occasional photo and text message.

A participant in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin sips from a can of beer, while another reporter wearing a jalabia interviews another reenactor, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
A participant in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin sips from a can of beer, while a reporter wearing a jalabiya interviews another reenactor, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Khromov handed me a yellow felt cap with a pointy top that looked like it could pick up a cellphone signal and said that since I was neither a Saracen nor a Crusader, I could play the part of camp Jew.

Members of a reenactment group, dressed in medieval costumes, with author (in yellow Jew's cap) at the camp near Tzippori on June 30, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Members of a reenactment group, dressed in medieval costumes, with author (in yellow Jew’s cap) at the camp near Tzippori on June 30, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

The field beside the spring of Saffuriya, known in Hebrew as Tzippori and during Roman times as Sepphoris, Nizhnik explained, was favored by armies over the centuries because of the plentiful fresh water and access to routes heading inland across the Galilee and south along the coast.

“The Romans, Napoleon, and of course our friends the Crusaders all stopped here,” he said.

The plan, he explained as a tent was unfurled and a small cooking fire started, was to break camp the next morning and cover roughly 20 kilometers in the midsummer sun, undergoing the same grueling march east as the Crusaders did 800 years earlier. Saturday morning would begin with a short hike to Hattin, then the mock battle would commence.

“Archers must fire from at least 25 meters away,” he said. One of the knights was tasked with gluing fat rubber tips to the ends of the arrows. Before long, there was a briefing on how to wield a spear.

A quick lesson on how to wield a spear in the lead-up to a historical reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
A quick lesson on how to wield a spear in the lead-up to a historical reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

I couldn’t help noticing that I was one of a handful of people dressed in Muslim attire, while most opted to play the part of Christian warriors. The medieval jihadists came prepared with two bizarrely juxtaposed Arabic expressions – Allahu akbar – “God is great” – and kusumuk – “your mother’s vagina.”

“There is something very important to shout at [the Crusaders]: kul kalb biji youmo – every dog has his day,” a dreadlocked Saracen instructed the group, offering a second anachronistic, modern phrase.

Yuri Kardashenko, a 38-year-old from Ashdod, bore a striking resemblance to the actor playing Samwell Tarly from “Game of Thrones.” He said his involvement started with interest in the history of the Crusades and, after some Google searches, he stumbled upon the Facebook group for the Kingdom of Jerusalem reenactment club.

It was his second year taking part in the battle and he was once again playing a member of Saladin’s army.

Reenactors dressed in costumes, gather at a camp on June 30, 2016 before taking part in the reenactment of the Battle of Hattin. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Reenactors dressed in costumes, gather at a camp on June 30, 2016 before taking part in the reenactment of the Battle of Hattin. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

“People don’t want to be Muslims,” he said. Newcomers get drafted to play Saracens, who are always in short supply. Some Franks would have to switch sides mid-battle so the Saracens could win.

Anton Malikov, from St. Petersburg, made his first trip to Israel especially for the reenactment. He wore a straw hat and beige tunic that made him look like a post-Soviet scarecrow. As we filled a wooden cask full of plonk, he said it was a chance for him to live another life, to escape to another time and place — a sentiment shared by many involved.

***

A group of Arab boys and their fathers pulled up to the spring for a respite from the heat in the last few hours before the Ramadan fast ended. A few teens on speckled gray Arabians trotted past, then raced each other to and fro on the outskirts of the Crusader camp. I offered a salaam aleikum as I approached the spring (I was, after all, still dressed in Arab clothes).

An Arab boy rides a horse past the Crusader encampment near Tzippori in the Galilee before the reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
An Arab boy rides a horse past the Crusader encampment near Tzippori in the Galilee before the reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin, on June 30, 2016. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Aleikum as-salaam. What, they’re filming over there?” a puzzled middle-aged man asked, pointing to the costumed group busying themselves in the camp. A film student who would document the trip had arrived, and a camera drone buzzed overhead.

“No, they’re reenacting the battle of the Crusaders against Saladin,” I explained.

“Ah.” He scratched his chin. “With swords? Like that?” he asked, mimicking the LARPing to come.

I nodded. He did, too, still puzzled.

“They’re walking all the way to Hattin? Tomorrow? What are they, crazy?”

Abed, a middle-aged man from the nearby village of Kafr Manda, asked if there were any Arabs taking part. There weren’t. He too scratched his chin pensively.

Saladin remains a legendary figure among the local Arabs, Abed said, “a hero, a strong leader.”

Locals still say “Who do you think you are, Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi?” when someone acts like a hotshot, he said.

***

Before long a stammering Russian fellow in a gray shirt pulled a cork from the bung of a cask and began passing around bowls of wine. Torches with citronella oil were lit and staked out around the camp, offering flickering light and relief from the encroaching mosquitoes. Nonparticipants, except the Russian-Israeli camera crew, were ordered to leave.

While a chicken stew simmered over a low flame, several of the knights changed outfits for the second or third time and poured goblets of wine. Nizhnik, now draped in regal vestments and flanked by his mother, sat beside his chiefs. In Russian, they held council and set out the plan.

They spoke of the waterless trek in the midday heat like a religious pilgrimage. Enduring the travails and hardships of trudging in the sun clad in wool and steel, following the footsteps of the Crusader army, was a way to commune with the ancients.

Genadiy Nizhnik (left) and his knights feast on June 30, 2016, before the reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Genadiy Nizhnik (left) and his knights feast on June 30, 2016, before the reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

“We are part of the same army that sallied forth from here 800 years ago tomorrow morning,” Nizhnik said. “There was a drama, and we’re part of that same drama. It’s an interesting story. We’re going to experience the same story.”

“The Middle Ages have a magic to them,” Nizhnik said after the evening repast, a flagon of wine in his hand. “But not just the Middle Ages. If I had time, I would do other time periods as well. The Roman era, the 1930s and the British Mandate, but I don’t have time.”

“I think it was the last period in which there was an appreciation of irrational thought,” he mused as someone plucked a Jew’s harp. “There was no culture of consumerism. In the Middle Ages there was magic. In the modern age there was magic. Today in the post-modern there isn’t magic. So here we’re building a bridge to the Middle Ages.”

Who knows, he said, maybe this time the Crusaders will make it to Tiberias.

Maybe, I thought, but I wouldn’t be there for it. Reevaluating my decision to spend three days in medieval costume, I took to the highway. The idea of celebrating medieval brutality, romanticizing feudal barbarism and play acting with adults like I did as a six-year-old left a bitter taste in my mouth. Though that may also have been the plonk.

My part in the reenactment would be that of one of the wiser members of the Crusader army who saw the writing on the wall and opted not to march to Hattin and be slaughtered.

Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Participants in the annual reenactment of the 1187 Battle of Hattin duke it out in northern Israel on July 2, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

There were far fewer fighters in this year’s reenactment than previous years, and they were dwarfed by the number of spectators and photographers, an onlooker told me after Saturday’s event. It was a tragicomedy of errors, he said, an absurd sight.

In the end, as always, Saladin won.

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