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The Crusader period

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

We know from William of Tyre that Tancred, as soon as he was nominated prince of the Galilee, rushed to restore the churches of Nazareth, Tiberias and Tabor, with rich endowments. In 1102 Saewulf noted that on top of the mountain there " still remained three ancient monasteries, one in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, another in honor of Moses and a third, a little further away, in honor of Elijah".

The scholars ask whether Tancred founded an abbey and entrusted it to the Benedictines, or did he restore an already existing abbey. In other words, they ask whether the religious who occupied Tabor at the beginning of the First Crusade were all Benedictines or did they even belong to an eastern order. A document of 1101 seems to support the first hypothesis: in this case it says that Tancred asked the Abbot Gerard of the Church of the Holy Savior on Mt. Tabor when the abbey had taken possession in the past, quae antiquitus possederat. With all probability the possessions of the Benedictines had been confiscated after the Crusade of Zimisce. It is a fact that in 1101 the Benedictines were on Tabor. Another question that the scholars have tried to answer is on the time when the Benedictines of Tabor had accepted the Rule of Cluny. Some hold it was before 1101; others think it was in 1130. These authors of the latter opinion base themselves on the information in a letter sent by Peter the Venerable, elected the ninth abbot of Cluny, in 1122, to the abbot of Tabor, also with the name of Peter, in which the writer is happy to have learned from a pilgrim brother that the community of the mountain was living according to Cluny's rules (PL 189, 266). On the other hand a manuscript of the 15th c., preserved at one time in the convent of Ara Coeli in Rome, affirmed that the monks killed in 1113 were German Cluniacs.

Baldwin I approved the donations of Tancred and in 1107 he added others in favor of the abbey "on the holy mountain". The lands of the Benedictines were truly notable: 34 villages[1] (some of which were actual property, others were promised property) in the Lower Galilee, especially in the lands around the mountain, and 22 villages in the Jordan valley or beyond the Jordan. The tithes due to the abbey involved not only harvests and livestock, but also military service.

In the meantime (1103) the pope Paschal II had conferred on the abbot Gerard and his successors the title of archbishop of all of Galilee and of Tiberias with the right to wear the pallium and to use the lead seal. Moreover, Paschal II had placed the monastery and all its goods under the direct protection of the Holy See.

In the beginning then, when the dioceses of Nazareth and Tiberias were not yet founded, the abbot of Tabor had the episcopal jurisdiction over the Galilee. Around 1107-1109 the ancient metropolitan see of Beth Shean was transferred to Nazareth. This fact provoked a difficulty between the abbot Gerard and the bishop Bernard on the clarification of their jurisdictions. In 1112 the dispute was resolved in favor of Nazareth by Gibelinus, a bishop sent by the Holy See, with the consent of the clergy and the King Baldwin I. The abbot maintained the title of archbishop and the right to the pallium and to the seal but the abbey did not receive all the tithes from the villages any longer. A phrase from William of Tyre seems to indicate some unpleasant events. After recalling the donations made by Tancred to the churches of Nazareth, Tiberias and Tabor, the historian adds that these holy places lost no small part of their revenue due to the fraud and calumnies of later princes.

The buildings of this period are described by Daniel: "On the highest point, on the eastern side, there is an elevation, like a small mound of stones that end in a form of a cone: that is the place of the Transfiguration. There one sees a beautiful church dedicated to the Transfiguration and another, beside it, to the north of the first one, dedicated to Moses and Elijah. The place of the Transfiguration is surrounded by heavy stone walls with iron gates. It was at one time the seat of a bishopric and now it is a Latin monastery".

In 1113 during the Turk counter-crusade, Malduc Atabeg from Mossul invaded the Galilee. Baldwin I ordered the barons to come together immediately but he did not wait for them and alone with his forces he challenged Malduc at Tiberias. The Turks pushed towards Tabor and, in turn, beat the Crusaders before returning to their homeland. The Turks massacred all those they found in the abbey: 72 persons, between monks, servants and refugees. The martyrology of the Benedictine Gabriel Bucelinus (17th c.) remembers the victims on May 4; their remains were never found.

The Benedictines soon re-established themselves on the mountain. In 1115 the name of the abbot Raymond appears on a document of donation by the Count Riccardo of Calabria, who gave various possessions in the West to the community of the Holy Savior on Mt Tabor. To protect themselves from new attacks, the Benedictines fortified their monastery and installed a garrison of Turkopols[2].

The life of the religious on the mountain continued in peace for some years. In 1120 the abbot Peter participated in the Council of Nablus; in 1146 Pope Eugene III confirmed to the abbot Pontius and his successors the privileges granted by Paschal II. In 1169 the abbot Bernard I was named bishop of Lydda. A document from 1175 was signed by twelve monks who, according to Gariador, were probably the Benedictine community on Tabor at that time.

When Phocas visited the holy mountain in 1177 there were two Latin monasteries and one Greek monastery. One of the Latin groups occupied the very top, where the Lord was transfigured, and had many monks. The place of the Transfiguration was surrounded by a metal barrier and the very place where the Lord stood was marked by a round stone of extraordinary whiteness, marked with a cross.

In the second half of the 12th c. again one finds references to Tabor. John the Deacon, a canon of the Lateran, listed among the various relics kept at the lateran in the church of St Lawrence, lapis in quo Dominus transfiguratus est in monte, the stone on which the Lord was transfigured on the mountain (PL 78, 1390)[3].

An invasion by Saladin destroyed the peace and was the beginning of the end. In 1183 while the Crusaders laid siege to Ain Jalud, Saladin sent troops to ransack the countryside. A band ascended Tabor and devastated the Greek monastery. William of Tyre, who refers to these events, gives us the name of the monastery: St Elijah. The Greeks fled and one hears of them again, we believe, in 1737. The Saracens also attacked the Benedictine abbey. Their fortifications, the Turkopols, and the courage of the monks, of their servants and of the refugees saved both the monastery and the church.

The Benedictines knew they had to think about the future. After this incident, the abbot Bernard II of Tabor and the abbot Fulk of St Paul of Antioch, with the consent of their confreres, signed an agreement by which the two communities agreed to grant hospitality to each other in case of expulsion.

They proved to be right. Only four years later Saladin attacked the Crusaders again and defeated them at the Horns of Hattin. His troops again climbed Tabor and this time finished the work they started on their previous sally. The Benedictines abandoned the mountain. We do not know whether some of them went to Antioch. It is certain that the abbot and a part of the community retreated to Acre to a property of the abbey, most probably the church of the Holy Savior[4].

In 1204 the Crusaders signed a truce with the Sultan el-Adel, the brother to Saladin. As soon as it was done, el-Adel began to build a powerful fortress on Tabor. The exact date is noted in one of the Arab inscriptions found in the ruins: 5 du l-hiddsha 609, May 20, 1212[5]. The work was continued by Muazzam Isa, the son of el-Adel, who governed with his father. The church of the Transfiguration and the Benedictine abbey disappeared almost completely under the Saracen constructions.

The fortress with its massive walls and numerous towers was a masterpiece of military architecture at that time. It dominated the surrounding territory like an eagle ready to pounce on its prey. It stopped the Crusaders from reconquering Galilee and closed the road to Jerusalem to them[6]. Well-protected by a deep trench, the fortress extended a tentacle towards the east. Next to the ancient hermitage, they built a guardpost. The Franks, well aware of their limits, did not react.

However Pope Innocent III did react and in 1213 sent a solemn message to all of Christendom: the Saracens have constructed on Mt Tabor, in the very place where Christ manifested himself in his glory, a fortress determined to finish all Christian influence in the Holy Land. It threatens the city of Acre and by means of it the Saracens hope to destroy what remains of the kingdom of Jerusalem, because that unhappy endeavor lacks money and men. At the opening of the IV Lateran Council on Nov. 11,1215 Innocent III therefore announced his firm decision to begin a new Crusade. Perhaps he hoped to lead it himself but a few months later he died (July 16,1216).

The decision of Innocent III was confirmed by Honorius III. So the fifth Crusade was organized under the command of Andrew II of Hungary, and included many German, Flemish and Scandinavian princes. Andrew had made a vow to take up the cross on the request of his dying father but he did not show much enthusiasm for the task. Urged on by the Pope he finally left in August 1217 and arrived in Acre a little after Leopold VI duke of Austria who was the first to sail.

In Acre the new Crusaders were joined by John of Brienne king of Jerusalem, Hugo I of Lusignan king of Cyprus, the Templars and the Knights of St John. Their war council in a meeting at the end of October 1217 decided to attack the fortress. After they had stationed their numerous forces in the valley of Esdraelon and had made el-Adel move back, the Crusaders moved on to Tabor at the end of November and camped sur le ruissel du Cresson, one of the springs of the Wadi el-Bireh. In order to try and take the fortress they had to climb the mountain every day. Success seemed very unlikely because the thick woods impeded the movement of their war machines. At the beginning of December, thanks to a thick fog, the Crusaders arrived unseen by the besieged at the very gate of the city, so close that they could touch the walls with their javelins.

In spite of the brave conduct of John of Brienne, they were thrust back by a surprise sally of the beseiged Saracens. Some days later they made a final attempt: the whole army ascended and carried a huge ladder that leaned on the walls. The Saracens launched Greek fire against it, burnt it and inflicted great losses on the attackers. The Franks were demoralized and returned to Acre, not knowing that the enemy had been at the point of giving in. According to some authors, the seige lasted seven days; others say, seventeen days. Andrew II, who did not participate in the attack due to sickness, decided to go home. The Crusade had poor results but, at any rate, the threat had been useful.

Melek el-Adel, understanding that his "blessed" fortress (as the Arab inscriptions called it) was an arrogant provocation, decided to demolish it in 1218. On his side, Muazzam had so little hope in the final victory that he ordered demolished also the fortresses of Tibnin, Paneas, and later Safed, for fear they might fall into the hands of the Franks. The Franks however were in dire straits. The abbot Andrew of Mt Tabor together with the highest Latin prelates signed in Acre on October 1, 1220 a letter addressed to Philip II Augustus king of France, which spoke of the tragic conditions in the Holy Land and asked for help for John the king of Jerusalem, who was in great misery. In spite of everything, the properties which the abbey held would not be confiscated and a community of religious established themselves there a short while after the demolition of the fortress.

The Arab geographer Yakut, who wrote in 1225, says that on the top of Tabor there was a large church of solid construction and that to the south on that level one found the Deir et - Tajalla, the convent of the Transfiguration. Here in fact, Yakut notes, "it is said that Jesus---peace be upon him---was transfigured in the presence of his disciples".

Concerning the religious, according to Boniface of Ragusa, it was the kings of Hungary who sent to Tabor a good number of Hungarian monks of the order of St. Paul the first hermit. Perhaps, Meistermann thought, it had been King Andrew II who sent them to repair in some way the attack suffered, and perhaps those religious presided at the place with the permission and under the jurisdiction of the Benedictines.

During the Sixth Crusade, in 1229 Frederick II and Melek el-Kamel signed a truce that lasted ten years, thanks to which the Crusader kingdom was almost completely restored. Some people maintain that it was Frederick II who reconstructed a Latin church on Tabor and gave it to the Hungarian monks. The truce held for another five years and was finished with the invasion of the Khuwarizm Turks.

Louis IX of France, after the disastrous battles in Egypt, which cost the lives of half of the men on the Seventh Crusade, spent four years at Acre (May 13, 1250-April 24, 1254) and, by diplomacy, managed to keep the peace. Accompanied by his wife, the very brave Queen Margaret, the saintly monarch climbed Tabor on pilgrimage in 1251 for the vigil of the Annunciation. On April 1, 1255 Pope Alexander IV sent a bull to the Grand Master William of Castronove and the brothers of the Order of St. John. In essence he said: Your merits lead me to concede your request. In your petition you report to us that the monastery on Tabor has been destroyed by the enemies of Christ and one cannot expect that the abbot and monks would be able to restore it. Since it is very probable that the Saracens will erect fortifications there, you have asked us to intervene. Therefore, knowing well that you fight incessantly with all your strength against Christ's enemies, we concede to you the above-mentioned monastery with all its possessions, rights and tithes.

After the concession these clauses appear in the document: if peace or a truce continues between the Saracens and the Christians, you will build a fortress within ten years after you have taken possession of the mountain and you will keep forty knights in arms continually to defend Christian honor. To the Benedictine abbot and surviving monks, you will give the necessities of life, according to the judgment of the archbishop of Tyre and of the Abbot of Holy Mary of the Valley of Josaphat, who lives in Acre. To obtain the concession the Hospitalers sent 1,100 byzantine coins. During the following two years, upon the request of the Grand Master of the Order, Alexander IV sent other bulls in substitution for those of Paschal II and Eugene III, long since ineffectual due to the change in circumstances, and the Pope confirmed for the abbot of Tabor the title of archbishop with the right to wear the pallium.

Some of the Benedictines were happy with the decision. About a year after the transfer of the property, the monks Garino, Michael and Peter wrote to the Pope thanking him because the Hospitalers had been able to fortify the place. Other Benedictines raised some difficulties and in 1257 Alexander IV ordered the abbot of Holy Mary of the valley of Josaphat to help the Hospitalers obtain the goods and privileges attached to the convent on Tabor, if need be, by using the threat of excommunication.

The Knights of St John remained in command on Tabor for only eight years and later had to abandon it due to their behavior.

At the beginning of 1263 Baibars Bundukdari attacked the Franks. John of Ibelin, count of Jaffa, and Balian of Ibelin, count of Arsuf, resigned themselves to accept the conditions of the Mameluke sultan, one of which involved the exchange of prisoners. On April 8, the representatives of the government of Acre went to negotiate with Baibars in his camp on Tabor. The Templars and the Hospitalers refused to send back their prisoners so as not to lose their slave labor. Baibars himself got angry at their answer and broke off the negotiations. The Franks lost, besides Tabor, also Jaffa, Arsuf, Cesarea and Safed.

On August 20, 1263 Pope Urban IV sent a letter entitled VOCEM TERRORIS (The Voice of Terror) to St Louis IX, in which he denounced all the destruction wrought by Baibars at Nazareth, Capharnaum, Tabor and in all the Christian settlements up to the gates of Acre "et in tota Christianorum terra usque ad portas Acconis" (and in all the lands of the christians up to the gates of Acre). Louis for the second time took up the Crusade in 1267 but his death impeded his arrival on the holy mountain . The eighth and last crusade had no results whatsoever[7].

The summit of Tabor was only a sea of rocks on which there rose up like a small petrified wave the ruins that had been venerated for hundreds of years. In the middle of the 17th c., even this wave was leveled.



[1] The common term for village in the Crusader documents was a hamlet (or, in Latin, casella). William of Tyre explains that a hamlet is a center of 100 or more houses, each of which pay a tax of one byzantine coin. In Crusader times the population of a village could be on an average of 500 souls.

[2] The Turkopols, from the greek turkopoul, son of a Turk, was a name given in the Middle Ages to the troops of the light cavalry in the French dominions of the Mideast, who were recruited from among the natives and halfbreeds.

[3] Perhaps this eulogy was seen in 1905 by Fr. Grisar, who "by the benign and special concession of Pope Pius X" examined the relics of the Lateran and noted in the wooden box, ordered by Pope Leo III (795-816), the phrase "Stones from the Holy Places of Palestine". H. Grisar, Il "Sancta Sanctorum" in Roma e il suo tesoro nuovamente aperto, in Civilt´a Cattolica, 57 (1906), 517.

[4] The list of Benedictine abbots on Tabor was reported by both D. Gariador (Les anciens {etc.}, cf. 5.7), and M.E.G. Rey, Les familles d'Outre-Mer de du Cange, Paris 1868, 828-830, and by R. Röhricht, Syria Sacra, in ZDPV, 10 (1887), 39-41.

[5] For the Arab inscriptions, see M. Van Berchem, Arabische Inschriften aus Syrien, in Mitteilungen und Nachrichten des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, 1903, 33-45; H. Lammens, Inscriptions arabes du Mont Tabor, in MEL, 3 (1909), 481-492.

[6] For the detailed study of the fortifications, inscriptions and Arab coins, cf. A. Battista, B. Bagatti, La fortezza saracena del M. Tabor, Jerusalem 1975.

[7] After the departure of the crusaders, only two titular bishops for Tabor were listed: Walter in the second half of the 14th c.and Andrea Didaci in 1414 (C. Eubel. Hierarchia catholica Medii Aevi, vol I, 2 ed., Monastery, 1913).

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