In the first decade of the twelfth century, less than ten years after the first Crusaders had arrived at the northern border of Syria, the new governor of Damascus set out to destroy a Frankish castle under construction near the Upper Jordan. Zahar al-Din Atabek had been appointed governor two years before by Shams al-Muluk Duqaq, king of Damascus, who was on his death bed, “seized by a prolonged illness, accompanied by digestive disorders.” It was the king’s mother who pleaded with him, as he lost all the water in his body, to name a successor. Zahar al-Din got dangerously sick immediately after assuming power, but recovered and was in good health in the fall of 1105, when he received news that the Franks were building “one of those castles which are described as impregnable.” He quickly set out with his army and surprised the Crusaders at their half-built base, slaying them “to the last man.” His army pillaged the Frankish stores, making away with weapons, animals, supplies, and something else. As Ibn al-Qalanisi wrote from Damascus in his Chronicle, Zahar al-Din “returned to Damascus with their heads,” accompanied by the few Franks taken as prisoners, plus “an immense quantity of booty.” It was Sunday, the 24th of December. The road to Damascus from the Jordan Valley must have been cold, with long desert nights the further north they rode. The heads would have stayed cold, then, but what of the prisoners? They likely didn’t have blankets. How much did they shiver at night?
That same month – although it’s unclear if it preceded or followed the victorious march with booty and heads back to Damascus – a comet shot across the sky. Ibn al-Qalanisi thought enough of it to follow his account of the successful siege and slaughter in the Upper Jordan with a bit of star-gazing:
“There appeared in the sky a comet with a tail resembling a rainbow, extending from the east to the centre of the heavens. It had also been seen near the sun in the daytime before it began to appear at night, and it continued for a number of nights and disappeared.”
The moon is visible in the Old City at night like it was for Ibn al-Qalanisi 900 years ago, but I haven’ seen a shooting star. School kids scream in the street before eight in the morning, they’re on their way to school, and they pick it up again in the early afternoon when they’re back. Miniature garbage trucks that run on some foul diesel or oil creep around the little street corner, barely fitting through, their engines sputtering, sounding worse than a lawnmower. Earlier this week my landlord’s son came over to look at the leaky toilet. He lingered afterwards with a few of us. Someone asked, “Where are you from in Syria, if not Damascus?”
“Well, where do you think?
“Latakia? Hama? Suwayda? Deir az-Zur?”
“No one lives in Mar Musa, only monks. It’s a relic place, also for tourists.”
“Then where are you from?”
His family left the city, the capital of the Golan Heights, after it fell to the Israelis in 1967.
“Our house was between the hospital and the church.”
On a visit to Quneitra, possible with an easily obtained government permit that allows a kind of disaster tourism, the hospital and the church are two of the few standing landmarks in a city otherwise leveled by shells and bombs. The family moved to Damascus and into the Old City where they lived for five years in the mid-70s in the small corner house that I now rent with a roommate. Some of the family returns to Quneitra when they can, although it all looks as it did after the war, in ruins. The site of the Crusader castle that Zahar al-Din sacked in 1106 can’t be far away.
The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and translated from the chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi, by H.A.R. Gibb, pp. 62 and pp. 71-72, A.H. 497 (5th October, 1103, to 22nd September, 1105) and A.H. 499, (13th September, 1105, to 1st September, 1106).