Battlefields & Armageddon: Israel beckons British military buff
Nebi Samwil – where Cœur de Lion wept over Jerusalem. by Gil Zohar. For those whose passion is military history, Israel beckons with a surprising variety of battlefield sites, monuments and Commonwealth war cemeteries dating back eight centuries attesting to the long connection between Britain and the Holy Land.
Richard I, better known as Cœur de Lion or Richard the Lionheart, set out on the Third Crusade in 1189. Driving the Saracens from the port of Acre, the king secured several more key coastal cities before turning inland for mountainous Jerusalem. Though undefeated by his nemesis Saladin, the king’s knights were too weak to lay siege to the Holy City. Instead Richard halted at the ridge of Nebi Samwil – the burial place of the Prophet Samuel – from where he looked down on Jerusalem and wept. Visitors today can retrace Richard’s steps, marvelling at Acre’s extensive Crusader ruins that form an underground city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1042). Above ground lies Acre’s colourful Ottoman walled city. Wandering through the picturesque suqs and caravanserais, you may stumble on a marble plaque dedicated to Sir William Sidney Smith, the maverick English commodore of whom Napoleon Bonaparte said, “That man made me miss my destiny.” From late March until May 9, 1799, Smith’s rwo ships-of-the-line ships HMS Tigre and Theseus fired withering broadsides to drive back the repeated French assaults on the Turkish town’s massive ramparts. Napoleon finally abandoned his dream of a Middle East empire and returned to Europe. Armed with a camera, bottle of water and sun hat, you can meander along Acre’s walls which Napoleon was unable to breach. Equally evocative is Nebi Samwil (http://www.bibleplaces.com/nebisamwil.htm) 10 km northwest of Jerusalem. The site, slated become a national park, includes extensive archaeological remains. But the highlight is to climb onto the roof of the Crusader church converted into a mosque from where one enjoys a spectacular view. With a little imagination you can hear Cœur de Lion beseeching God in medieval Norman French. The king, bien sur, hardly spoke any English. From Nebi Samwil you can see al-Jib – the biblical Gibeon – where Joshua ordered the sun and moon to stand still so that he could vanquish the Amorites. (Joshua 10:12). In Israel the events of the Torah are often as vivid as the newspaper headlines. A less well-known English knight than Richard the Lionheart but equally chivalrous was Philip d’Aubigny, who was buried in front of the door of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In a gesture of humility, his tomb now hidden beneath boards, was placed so that pilgrims would walk over it. One of the councillors of King John at the time of the Magna Carta, d’Aubigny was the governor of the Channel Islands and tutor of Henry III. At Megiddo – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Bible, modern history and the end of days overlap all in a beautiful natural setting. (http://www.parks.org.il/BuildaGate5/general2/data_card.php?U=no&SiteName=parks&ItemID=472714559&ValuePage=Card15) The ancient tell, fortified by King Solomon, and fought over and destroyed 27 times, is called Armageddon in Christian eschatology – the site of the ultimate apocalyptic showdown between Gog and Magog. It was here in the cataclysmic Battle of Megiddo in September 1918 that Edmund Allenby – using an innovative tactical combination of aircraft, artillery and mobilized armour that later became known as Blitzkrieg – finally smashed the Turkish, German and Austrian armies defending the Ottoman Empire’s southern flank. The victory, sealed with Allenby’s squadron of 80 biplanes which had dominion over the skies of Palestine, led to the signing of the Armistice of Moudros on October 30, 1918 – and ultimately to the end of World War I. Cognizant of the epochal nature of his victory, the general chose the title Viscount Allenby of Megiddo. Tourists can pose on the steps of Jerusalem’s Citadel where Allenby stood in December 1917 to accept the historic Ottoman surrender. (http://www.towerofdavid.org.il/English/General/Tower_of_David-Museum_of_the_History_of_Jerusalem) The truth however is more prosaic: Allenby’s staged ceremony was the 4th such event. In fact Jerusalem’s mayor surrendered to two limey sergeants out to liberate a few eggs for breakfast. A monument in suburban Romema near today’s Central Bus Station marks the spot. (http://www.jpost.com/IsraelGuide/JerusalemAreaTours/Article.aspx?id=166732) Though Allenby’s name decorates a street sign in chic Tel Aviv and a bridge across the Jordan River, the only portrait in Israel of the general hangs in Jerusalem’s St. Andrew’s Scottish Guest House (http://www.scotsguesthouse.com/) – a historic gem that resembles a scraggy Highlands castle. Not all those who fought under Allenby and served in the Mandate shared his glory. Others are remembered, if at all, by a fluke of circumstance. Camera buffs will want to shoot the grave of William Shakespeare – who is buried in Jerusalem, and Harry Potter – who was killed in Hebron and was laid to rest in Ramle. Similarly Peace in the Middle East has been dead for nearly a century. These are just three of 16,838 graves in Israel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The immaculately groomed military cemeteries contain the remains of soldiers from Britain, Canada, South Africa, Jordan, France, Algeria, India, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. The casualties of World War I and II, and the British Mandate lie in peace side by side with their former enemies from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Italy, as well as Palestinian Jews who joined the Allied efforts to stop the scourge of Nazism. The bulk of Commonwealth graves in Israel are in cemeteries in Haifa, Jerusalem, Ramla and Beer Sheva. Smaller cemeteries are found in Ramot HaShavim, Petach Tikva and Rishon LeZion. The British Military Cemetery on Winston Churchill Blvd. on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus (http://wn.com/British_Military_Cemetery,_Mount_Scopus) is especially haunting because of its panoramic view of the Old City and its landmark golden Dome of the Rock. All the British and South African war graves in Israel have now been digitally photographed. Future documentation projects involve the World War II graves of Australian, New Zealand, Czech and Polish soldiers, as well as Turkish and German World War I soldiers. Interested volunteers with a digital camera can contact Asher Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also of interest as the centenary of the outbreak of WWI approaches is Nazareth’s German Military Cemetery. (http://www.nazarethinfo.org/show_item.asp?levelId=63768) After loosing Jerusalem in Dec. 1917, Gen. Otto Liman Von Sanders and his German Asia Korps retreated to Nazareth where he established his new HQ. All across Israel one encounters reminders of the British Mandate of Palestine, which ended on May 14, 1948 when Israel declared independence – and seven Arab armies attacked the nascent state. History buffs will want to visit Jerusalem’s Central Prison (http://ilmuseums.com/museum_eng.asp?id=38) preserving the British commandant’s office. Another must is the Acre Prison (http://www.travelisraelonline.com/historical-sites/akko-prison-%E2%80%93-acre-prison-for-jewish-resistance-fighters-during-the-british-mandate/) where both political and criminal prisoners were executed. The infamous prison break there on May 4, 1947 in which 28 incarcerated Irgun and Lehi underground fighters were freed marked a nadir in British influence and led to Britain deciding to quit Palestine. To stand in the gallows chamber there is to reflect that all empires have their ebb and flow – even one on which the sun never sets – and that for four millennia Israel has witnessed them come and go. Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based writer and tour guide. He may be reached at email@example.com