Defenders of The Faith

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Prelude: On the Mediterranean
Tartus is a Mediterranean town known for its Crusader connections.  Immediately, one thing became apparent to me as I arrived and walked around to find a hotel: the place was stylish and many women were unveiled, wearing jeans.  The people here are largely Alawis, a secretive religion that is has roots in Islam, but perhaps also Christianity and Zoroastrianism--scholars simply do not know.  Somehow, the Alawis, despite being minorities, are in power with Assad as president.

That night, I ate at a local restaurant, which served grilled chicken, pide, hummous, and a salad.  On the wall was a poster of Hezbollah blowing up an Israeli ship with a hand-held grenade launcher, with its leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah smiling to a crowd.  One of the main gripes people here have with America is that it supports Israel.  Likewise one of the main gripes America has with Syria is that it supports Hezbollah, with posters of Assad next to Nasrallah everywhere. 

Over dinner, I talked with the restaurant owners about Hezbollah, which they saw as a great organization, now a political group, freely elected in Lebanon.  The conversation was cordial, but not the easiest subject for an American in Syria.

Krak des Chevaliers
In the morning, I left for the Homs Gap, a break in the coastal mountains that provided easy access for attackers heading to or coming from the Mediterranean.  The bus dropped me at the crossroads.  From there, I began to walk, with spring in the air.  The snow-capped Lebanon Mountains to the south peeked through developing clouds and the fields were green, with my goal--Krak des Chevaliers--looming above.

Krak des Chevaliers, the largest castle in the Holy Land, is also known as Hisn al-Akrad.  It was originally an Arab fortress but was strengthened into a massive fort during the Crusades, a Knights Hospitaller stronghold.  The basic idea was to control the Holy Land, defend the Christian faith and churches from destruction by the enemies as well as to assist and escort Christian pilgrims, which they did for only a brief time during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.   Jerusalem has been occupied and liberated many times, with the conquorers claiming liberation and the vanquished claiming occupation.

Heading up to the fort, a couple of people stopped to give me rides, as they headed to work in the various villages near the fort.  In the fort, I walked around the outsides and the insides, with its thick walls and few locations to mount attacks: no wonder it was never successfully beseiged.

The fort was a symbol of the importance of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as well as the power given to those who controlled the place where God resides and where the Savior was born and died and was resurrected.  The need to show physical manifestations of the past prophets, even if only a rock, also meant that force was needed and blood needed to be shed, as the faith had a physical basis.

For me, this is the key, because all pilgrimage sites involve physical aspects or destinations, but is that really the important part?  As I write this from Jerusalem, I wonder how people feel about the two places where Jesus died and the two places where Jesus was buried (one Protestant and one Catholic) and that many of the prophet's tombs are found in multiple locations.

But once a location is chosen, it must be defended with life and limb, even if it was not the original location.  Of course one or both of the sites may be incorrect, but both sites still have meaning and many can participate in pilgrimages by imagining them, in their own homeland.  Today, at the Western Wall, a Jewish tour guide spoke to me of the Arab-Israeli war and said, "the biggest mistake we made then was not buldozing the Dome of the Rock and constructing the Third Temple."  Passions run high in the Holy Land.

Now the castle is a museum piece, but its good condition and dramatic location makes imagining the Crusader times fairly easy.
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