Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Looking for Ibelin in Ibelin -- and Ascalon


The coast near Ibelin.

When writing a biographical novel about a man (Balian of Ibelin) who took his name from the place he was born, an author expects to find inspiration in the hero's birthplace. "Ibelin" was, after all, one of three castles built to defend Jerusalem from raids out Egyptian-held Ascalon. It was granted to Balian's father as a fief in the mid-1140s, and Balian was almost certainly born and raised there. He was so strongly associated with Ibelin that even after Ibelin was lost to Saladin, Balian and his heirs were still referred to as "Ibelins" -- generations after they derived their wealth and power from other fiefs and lordships such as Caymont, Beirut, Jaffa and Ascalon. 


So I went to Ibelin in search of Ibelin. Only to find that there is nothing there.

I drove back and forth through the modern Yavne, the historical Ibelin, and could find not a trace of the crusader city or castle. It was obliterated by highways, shopping malls, apartment buildings and parking lots. 

I continued just 18 miles down the coast to the ruins of Ascalon. Eighteen miles in this case did not bring a significant change in topography or climate, no sudden range of mountains, no gorges, lagoons, or desert. Both cities are located on the fertile plain along the Mediterranean coast. The lush vegetation and intensive cultivation of this landscape today echoes medieval descriptions of this coastal region being exceptionally fertile in the crusader era as well. Although Ascalon has a small harbor and Ibelin has none at all, Ascalon was never an important port.



Ascalon was, however, a very important city in the crusader period. It was held by the Egyptians until 1153, when it was finally taken after a long siege. The Egyptian defenders negotiated an honorable withdrawal and were not slaughtered, but they were expelled and replaced by Christian settlers. In 1187, Ascalon surrendered to Saladin after a feisty defense, but this time it was the Christian defenders, who accepted terms and thereby avoided slaughter and slavery. During the Third Crusade, Saladin evacuated and partially destroyed the city as the Frankish armies under Richard the Lionheart approached. Richard took the city and invested a great deal of time, effort and prestige into rebuilding it; reportedly he worked naked to the waist alongside the common soldiers to rebuild the defenses. Saladin's demand that he surrender Ascalon during the negotiations for a truce, almost caused the talks to fail. Eventually it was agreed that neither side would re-build or re-occupy Ascalon.

Many of the ruins that can be visited today date from the crusader period.
 
Remnants of the walls of Ascelon -- built in part by Richard the Lionheart?
Ascelon is an important venue for events in the first and third volumes of the Jerusalem Trilogy.


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2 comments:

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    1. Hope you enjoy them! I look forward to discussing them with you.

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