Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

In the Knights' Crac, in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia | Culture


I have returned to the Crac de los Caballeros, the great crusader castle on the once Holy Land and today Syria. I was in 2009 and it was a sensational experience, although it included an attack of vertigo in the battlements of the outer wall unworthy of someone who climbed there very painter, wielding a stick as if it were a sword and thinking that he was the brave Balián de Ibelín ( the real character on which it was based, clearing it a bit, the protagonist of The Kingdom of Heaven from Ridley Scott). Anyway, worse has been after what has been lived in the castle during the Syrian civil war …

This time I visited the Crac, or Krak, which is also written like this and that is more exotic, in a book, which is safer, by the hand of Jean Rolin (Crack, Asteroid Editions, 2019). I am a big fan of his older brother (it takes two years and they were both soixante-huitards of the hard wing), the novelist Olivier Rolin (1947), author of one of my bedside books, Meroe (Anagrama, 2001), the chronicle of a love disappointment purged in Khartoum with melancholy and archeology, one of the most sweeping novels I have read; but I love the way of mixing genres of Jean (1949), which brings together fiction, journalism, history and travel literature – and he is also passionate about birds, boats and adventure masters. In Fence (Sixth Floor, 2002) mixed in an amazing way a walk along the Ney boulevard in Paris, describing marginal characters in the neighborhood, with the life of Napoleon's own marshal.

Now in Crack It takes us on a very personal and exciting current tour of the crusader castles in the Middle East following the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. As is known, years before embedding itself in the Arab rebellion and becoming that legendary character, polished by Lowell Thomas and David Lean, TE Lawrence had lived as a young man, at twenty, a primal and initiatory adventure traveling in 1909 through Palestine alone. and on foot to visit the strengths of the Crusaders, with the purpose of preparing his doctoral thesis for Oxford Influence of the Crusades on European military architecture until the end of the 12th century (qualification cum laude). At that time, Lawrence was already overacting (though not as much as later with the suit of staff Bedouin that Feisal gave him and Nasir's dagger) and carried the germ of nonconformity, imbalance, genius and courage that would lead him to conquer Aqaba and enter Damascus.

The Crac receives the impact of a screen during the Syrian civil war.


The Crac receives the impact of a screen during the Syrian civil war.

Rolin begins his itinerary after the footsteps of Lawrence and his 37 castles, based especially on his letters, explaining us as a good mythomaniac who, as the author of The seven pillars of wisdom, he also spent part of his childhood in Denan (Lawrence's family had settled there to escape the shame that the father had abandoned his wife and legitimate daughters). He tells us later about Lawrence's trip – the great Doughty recommended that he not go, because of the dangers – and how he embarks on the adventure, from Beirut, with a camera, a Baedeker guide from Syria and a gun Mauser (better than my stick). Often and childish (the locals take 15 years), Lawrence, who at that time is not interested at all camels, will have some unpleasant encounters, even one that almost prefigures his mixed violation years later in Deraa.

Rolin's trip, in 2017, during the Syrian war, is, of course, very different and it is exciting to observe how both paths are interwoven, come together and move along the road. Rolin never loses sight of Lawrence or castles, including Safita or Chastel Blanc, the castle of the Sea in Saïda or Margat. On one occasion he throws a stone from the same place where the character did it, the window of the chapel of the castle of Beaufort, and on another he descends to the ground floor of the tower of Saône (or Saladin) – where he mentions the story of the skull of Rober the Leper-, to see if it is true that there resides a huge colony of snakes: it only finds two tanks. But the Frenchman has his own agenda and his splendid descriptions of the region's landscape and the people he meets – as well as his irony and his intelligent sense of humor (he warns Americans that they must learn from the Crusaders that “to forge a lasting friendship with your local allies is not enough to have fought together the emir of Mosul ”) – they have an extraordinary interest in themselves, even more so because they reflect the state of things and people in these troubled times. On the other hand, Lawrence could not visit like he the amazing museum of Hezbollah in Mlita or hear the story of the search for the lost head of the Israeli soldier Yonatan beheaded by a missile in Beaufort Castle. Rolin's zeal in his journey attests that he will visit Shobek Castle, one of the two that Lawrence left on his 1909 trip, along with the famous Kerak of the rebellious Reinaldo de Chatillon, to whom the British avanturer was not , paradoxically, because some Bedouins had torn off the railroad tracks. That fortress of Shobek, Rolin explains, Lawrence visited it in 1918 as Lawrence of Arabia and on the back of Wodeiha, his favorite camel., although, he points out, it is rare that he made it mounted because it is impossible.

When it was Lawrence there was a mess of goats and outcast dogs. I only found tourists. Jean Rolin has encountered a post-war situation.

It is in the Crac, named because originally, before the hospitalists rebuilt it and turned it into its massive castle, there was a Kurdish garrison (Hisn al-Akrad, "the fortress of the Kurds", from which the Christianized Krak), where we finally coincide, metaphorically, Lawrence, Rolin and me. The first practically turned 21 years old there and described it in his thesis as "perhaps the best preserved castle and the most wonderful in the world", with which we can only agree. The three of us were especially impressed by the corridor on the access ramp to the interior. Not to mention the vertiginous views from the walls and the large inner courtyard with the Knights Hall. When it was Lawrence there was a mess of goats and outcast dogs and the castle was occupied by hundreds of people who lived there. I only found tourists. And Rolin ran into a post-war situation: the castle and the town at his feet had been taken two years by the rebels of the Syrian Liberation Army and had been recovered by the army from the Assad regime in 2014 after an intense struggle in which the Fortress was reached by artillery. He saw the destruction caused, including the impact of an aerial bomb on a tower that makes you laugh at the Baybars catapults when he assaulted him in 1271. The castle fell however with a ploy: the Sultan sent a false letter in which the great Master of the hospital ordered his surrender.

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