Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Book Review: Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem by Tim Severin; read 22 May 2018

Nine hundred years after the First Crusade, Time Severin and Sarah Dorman set out on horseback to follow the 2500 mile route of Duke Godfrey of Boullion and other Crusaders, from Belgium to Jerusalem travelling through the modern lands of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia (itself today consigned to history), Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria.  The horses chosen were a riding school palfrey (Mystery) and a Heavy Ardennes (Carty), the latter a descendent of the war horses of Crusader cavalry – what Severin calls ‘the Main Battle Tank’ of its day. This Journey, after many years of marine expeditions was a return to long distance land expeditioning by Severin (in 1961, whilst at university he had travelled to China on a motorcycle following Marco Polo’s route).

Track of the 1st Crusade and Severin's Journey

The book’s dust jacket claims, not unfairly, that it is a ‘dazzling synthesis of adventure, practical history, and exploration’ which is also a claim made on the jacket of the author’s next book ‘In Search of Genghis Khan’* which makes me wonder whether Crusader had sold as well as expected.  It did not matter to me as I read the book on publication in 1990 and have just revisited it.  Times have changed; when this journey was made, the Iron Curtain was still drawn across Europe; border checks remained even in Western Europe as this was prior to Schengen and the Customs Union; the Lebanon was a no-go zone for Westerners which forced Severin and Dorman to detour through Syria (and Jordan) to reach Jerusalem – today an impossibility.

The book tells the story of sourcing and training suitable horses to recreate the journey as well as of the journey through a now lost Europe - I am sure you can no longer find Bear trainers in Bulgaria - though it was done just over a quarter of a century ago. In communist Hungary they add a 2nd palfrey (Szarcza) to the team as the huge Carty is extremely uncomfortable to ride, this emulates the Crusaders as their heavy horses would have been used as pack animals until they would be mounted battle.  After an unpleasant journey through Yugoslavia, the expedition is lauded and extremely well looked after in Bulgaria- a result of Severin’s network of friends and again in Turkey. 

Battle of Dorylaeum 1097

The story of reception of Duke Godfrey’s army, and those of the other crusaders by Alexius in Constantinople is recorded as is the decimation of the Peasant’s crusade by the Seljuk forces of Kilij Arslan at Civetot in north-western Anatolia .  The main crusader army would gain some recompense by investing Nicea though by subterfuge this city was obtained by Alexius and was not sacked despite a long, and generally incompetent siege of the crusaders.  It is just past Nicea (somewhere in the likely locale of the Battle of Dorylaeum) that the expedition is halted for the winter and the horses handed over to the safe keeping of a retired jockey for the winter, a change from the original plan decided upon by the need to rest horses and people (Severin had lost 20lbs in weight and Sarah had broken her foot in a fall the day before the stop).  The expedition had travelled at the same speed as the crusaders and it had taken just over 4 months to reach this point.

As it turns out, this is as far as Carty gets, unable to settle in the winter quarters despite the attentions of former jockey Remzi, he is retired to a horse farm in Vienna, he is replaced for the second year’s travels by the diminutive and spirited Zippy.  Sadly, Mystery, is destined not to make it to Jerusalem either as she dies, probably as the result of a blocked intestine, by a river on the approach to Syria after the winter break.  The Hungarian horse Szarcza would also fail to make it to Jerusalem, breaking own in the Syrian desert and being given over to a horse owner in Jordan just before the journey is completed.  The fact that neither of the original horses make the whole journey is perhaps a pointer to the crusaders own problems on their journey 900 years earlier as it’s likely that they too lost many horses through wear as much as war.

Duke Godfrey attacking Jerusalem

This book describes an extraordinary journey made in modern and medieval times.  It is well worth a read as both a history and a travelogue if one can still get a copy I would highly recommend.  The book is a reminder that history never stops as we see the story of the First Crusade told whilst we see for ourselves the significant geopolitical changes since Severin and Dorman made the journey just 30 years ago. 

* ‘A dazzling synthesis of exploration, living history and adventure'

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