Frontier Warfare in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: The Campaign of Jacob’s Ford, 1178-79

Frontier Warfare in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: The Campaign of Jacob’s Ford, 1178-79

By Malcolm Barber

The Crusades and their Sources: Essays Presented to Bernard Hamilton, edited by John France and William G. Zajac (Ashgate,1998)

Introduction: The construction by the Latins of the fortress of Chastellet at the place known as ‘Jacob’s Ford’ or Bait el-Ahzan on the Upper Jordan between Lake Huleh and the Sea of Galilee between October, 1178, and March, 1179, and Saladin’s subsequent and ultimately successful attempt to demolish it in August, 1179, offers an interesting case history for the study of Christian-Muslim warfare in the reign of King Baldwin IV. Although the sources are not copious, they tell us enough to be able to draw some tentative conclusions about the military, economic, and religious significance of a site desired by both sides and the nature of the warfare required to make those desires a reality. The picture which emerges is far removed from the traditional images of the the gallant leper king and the chivalrous Saladin; rather it is one of grim and often desperate conflict, no less brutal and ruthless than its counterparts on western Christendom’s other frontiers in Germany and Spain. Indeed, it could not have been otherwise, for control of this crossing was absolutely crucial to both sides in a way which it had not been in the past. More than any other military event between 1174 and 1187, the loss of this fortification began the process which led to the defeat of the Christians at Hattin. The situation was made all the more critical in that it took place in a year when, according to Imad ad-Din, Saladin’s secretary and chancellor, drought and famine were especially severe, the effects of which could only have been exacerbated by the wholesale seizure or destruction of the harvest.

According to one of the versions of the Old French chronicle of Ernoul, who was a contemporary with knowledge of high politics in the Latin kingdom, Baldwin IV had agreed not to fortify the place, but was persuaded by the Templars to renege on his promises. William of Tyre – who was often hostile to the Templars and had a particular hatred for Odo of Saint-Amand, the reigning Master – nevertheless says only that the king began to build the fortress, although he implies that the Templars were behind it, when he states that, on completion, it ‘was surrendered to the brothers of the knights of the Temple, who laid claim to all that region for themselves by concession of the kings’. A truce had indeed been made with Saladin after the Frankish victory at Mont Gisard (south-east of Ramla) in November of the previous year, but neither side seems to have been very committed to it, since the Franks had attacked Hamah in August, 1178, while Saladin’s preparations for a new campaign were fairly obvious. However, the Templars did have a particular interest in the area; in 1168 King Amalric had granted them the important fortress of Safad, which was only about fifteen kilometres (or half a day’s journey, according to Imad ad-Din) to the south-west. Safad – described by Imad ad-Din as ‘a nest of evil’ – dominated northern Galilee, but could not by itself prevent incursions from the east across the Jordan.

William of Tyre says that the castle at Jacob’s Ford took six months to build, although it was apparently not finished in mid-April, 1179, when the dying constable, Humphrey of Toron, was taken there. It was in the form of a square with very thick walls, described as of ‘suitable height’ (ad convenientem altitudinem), and was situated upon a shallow hill (mediocriter eminens). On the Muslim side, the Mesopotamian chronicler, Ibn al-Athir, calls it ‘an impregnable fortress’, although perhaps exaggerating its strength added further gloss to the Muslim capture and destruction of it. In fact, neither writer actually saw it; much more detailed is the account of the Qadi al-Fadil, Saladin’s administrator. His description is contained in a letter to Baghdad incorporated into the patchwork of sources sewn together by the anthologist Abu Shama in the mid-thirteenth century. Al-Fadil either saw it himself or had his information directly from Saladin, since he often wrote letters on the sultan’s behalf.

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