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Jordan Tourism

Visitors find common ground amid Crusade ruins

Shadab Siddiqi, Knoxnews  Aug 02, 2009

It has been a full month since I arrived in Amman, Jordan. Nothing has been more rewarding than studying the history of a people who have had a civilization that dates back almost 3,000 years.

I had the opportunity to travel south to the city of Karak, where a monstrous castle built by Crusaders over the course of 20 years and finished in 1161 AD still stands. The city of Karak is mentioned in the Bible by the name Kir Heres where once the king of Israel besieged a Moabite king named Mesha in his fortress. The story goes that the pagan king was so distraught that he sacrificed his oldest son on the fortress walls, causing the besiegers to stop their attack and return home. King Mesha inscribed his own version of events on a stone called the Stele of Mesha but failed to mention any defeat, instead claiming to have routed his opponents forever. It occurred to me that this must have been one of the earliest examples of conflicting war coverage propaganda.

The U.S. Embassy in Amman is hosting the Boston Children's Chorus in celebration of 60 years of US-Jordanian relations, hosting performances at several locations including the Castle at Karak. Upon entering the castle, my wife Megan overheard the children of the chorus practicing the singing of blessings upon our Prophet, upon him be peace, albeit in Yankee accents.

Throughout the Crusades, Karak found itself in a pivotal position as it was the residence of the lord of Transjordan, vastly rich in produce and tax revenue and the most important fief of the Crusader kingdom. Pragmatically, the Christians and Muslims traded with each other, imposing taxes on their opponents' merchants while their armies encountered one another on the battlefield.

A statue honoring Saladin, ruler of Syria and Egypt in the 12th century, stands in the center of Karak.

In the early 1170s, Reynald of Chatillon found himself the lord of Transjordan and was known for his reckless and barbarous methods of treating his prisoners. Breaking longstanding treaties, he began to loot and slaughter Mecca-bound caravans of pilgrims and even tried an assault upon the two Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. During the winter, Reynald went so far as to disassemble a small fleet which he then transported on camel back to the Red Sea, where he reassembled his ships and began raiding Arabian ports. I was first introduced to these stories from my college days where I often played as Saladin on a "real time strategy" computer game called Age of Empires.

The ruler of Syria and Egypt, Saladin (Salah ad-Din in Arabic or "rectifier of the religion") responded swiftly, taking over the town of Karak and almost managing to storm the castle were it not for the steadfastness of a single knight who defended the gate. A small brochure I picked up from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities relates that on the night of the attack, a wedding was taking place in the castle: Reynald's stepson was marrying a royal princess. During the ceremonies, Lady Stephanie, mother of the groom, sent dishes from the feast to Saladin who immediately asked which tower the young couple were housed in, directing the Muslim bombardment away from it.

Upon the arrival of relief from Jerusalem the siege was lifted but Reynald persisted in robbing a large caravan and also took hostage Saladin's own sister. Both of these actions occurred under a peacetime treaty resulting in the battle of Hattin which subsequently led to the total defeat of the Crusader army. Saladin spared most of the prisoners except for Reynald de Chatillon, whom he executed on the spot for his treachery.

Without the help of the routed army, the defenders of Karak held out in a longlasting siege, eating every animal inside the castle and even selling to their besiegers in exchange for bread their women and children whom they could no longer feed. After eight months, the last survivors ceded their castle to the Muslims who, in recognition of their courage, restored their families and allowed the Crusaders to go free.

Before leaving the castle, I noticed some American women who were just entering and learned they were the mothers of the children from Boston. A Jordanian Imam who I had met in the castle compelled me to invite them to be informed about Islam. Translating for him, I told them that Islam was a peaceful religion calling to the same message sent on the tongues of the previous prophets and messengers that men should worship none other than God, and affirmed the Muslim belief that Jesus was the messiah and would return to usher in the end of time.

I then said that standing in this place speaking these words was itself proof that all religions worship the same God, creator and sustainer of the universe. One lady in particular began to shed a few tears and asked for a picture with my family.

When I related the incident to my Arabic teacher, he pointed out a verse from the Quran which states, "and when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth. They pray, 'Our Lord! We believe, write us down among the witnesses'."

The last thing I said to her before departing made her laugh. It was something I took from my brother who has been speaking at churches in Knoxville. We like to look at Islam as the third and final message in a trilogy that is entirely revealed by God. "Have you seen Starwars, A New Hope?" I asked. "Have you seen Empire Strikes Back? Well, you won't understand the entire story until you watch the Return of the Jedi!

Visitors find common ground amid Crusade ruins

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