Trump Stirs up the Holy Land: Jerusalem Recognition Revives Crusading Passion

So, President Donald Trump has done what the whole world knew he was going to do; he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking an international precedent despite warnings from allies and enemies both at home and abroad.

A defiant POTUS declares Jerusalem capital of Israel

The next few years promise a relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although how practical that will be on a security footing is something even this blundering administration will need to consider.

Unsurprisingly, the move has caused uproar in the Arab world, with protesters taking to the streets to burn effigies of Trump and global leaders strongly rebuking the incendiary announcement. That the recognition also further destabilises the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – despite Trump’s claims to the contrary – is somewhat of an aside.

Burning an effigy of President Trump the West Bank city of Nablus

From Pope Urban’s call for crusade in 1095, Jerusalem has served as a battleground – the Holy Grail – of the Abrahamic religions. It changed hands between Christendom and Islam on several occasions, men travelling from far flung places to spill blood in the name of their God.

Crusaders and Seljuk Turks do battle during the First Crusade at Dorylaeum, Anatolia

Of course the Jews have remained present in Jerusalem for most of that time – indeed since the days predating Christianity and Islam as they like to remind us – even if actual power was only bestowed upon them by the victorious parties (mainly the Truman administration) post-WWII.

The monumental decision to create a new religious state – whilst understandable given the centuries of horrific Jewish persecution which had culminated in the Holocaust – has resulted in intermittent warfare ever since, and has added another simmering rivalry to that already existing in the region between the perennially fighting Sunnis and Shiites.

Why has Trump done it? To appease the pro-Israel lobby that voted for him in large numbers during the last election is the obvious answer. In fact, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility for the President to have suggested a new Christian crusade to the Holy Land, such is his dedication to his Evangelical base.

Trump went overboard to impress the pro-Israel lobby during the election campaign

Trump is also playing to type, sowing divisions where they already existed. What makes your rivals weaker makes you stronger right?

Some have advocated more pragmatic and sentimental reasons; that Jerusalem is the economic and political capital of Israel, ‘home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court and the prime minister’ , or that it ‘reflects the reality that [the] city is [the] historic center of [the] Jewish faith’.

Jews at the wailing wall, 1891. Parts of the wall predate Christianity and Islam

Either way, it takes little to incense the Arabs and whilst Trump’s move isn’t particularly beneficial to the US – who Israel will continue to rely upon for years to come no matter how strained relations are – it is unlikely to create major change or crisis.

There are arguments that it will encourage further ‘illegal’ Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, though this is likely to continue regardless. Indeed, Trump has left the door open for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The claim that the move has irrevocably destroyed the potential for a two-state solution, however, is ridiculous. This is, and has been since Israel’s inception, a distant dream. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to make the concessions to make it happen, no matter what international diplomacy can achieve.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric and actions, the Holy Land will continue to inspire and divide, to inflame passion and hatred, to breed reconciliation and war. The world will watch on as the cycle continues, whilst the militant proxies of the region’s powers seek to gain the smallest of footholds wherever they can. They are left to take up the crusading mantle of the past.

3,000 years on the Jews are entrenched in Israel and Jerusalem is beyond sacred to them. That it is to many Muslims and Christians, too, will not change the geopolitical status quo.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – sacred to Christians
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – sacred to Muslims

The bloodshed of the infidel will continue to stain the holiest of monuments, memories of crusade and defiance infusing energy into every brick that help to make Jerusalem one of the most captivating cities to visit.

What President Trump says will never change this.

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A Disc on the Seabed of History: Vasco da Gama’s Astrolabe and the Beginning of Empire

The discovery of a late 15th century astrolabe on a Portuguese shipwreck off Oman provides a fascinating insight into an exciting period of the Age of Discovery.

Found within the wreckage of the Esmeralda, a carrack that sailed in Vasco da Gama‘s 1503 fleet to India, it is one of the most unique of more than 3,000 bronze artefacts so far found on the vessel since its discovery in 2015. Indeed it is reckoned to be the oldest such instrument found to date.

Laser scanners have revealed the etches on the astrolabe

Better known as an astronomer’s tool, the astrolabe was miniaturised and adapted for navigational purposes in the 15th century, at a time when mariners and explorers began plying their trades further and further from home. No longer safe to rely on their navigational experience and dead-reckoning, these pioneers began to turn to ‘scientific’ instrumentation to supplement their knowledge of the treacherous seas.

Early attempts at measuring the position of a ship away from the coast relied on the Pole Star, ‘the most easily observable heavenly body…The altitude of the Pole Star – its angle above the horizon – grew less as a ship sailed further south, and so gave an indication of how far south she had sailed’. (Parry, 1963, p.107)

Initially calculated by rough-eye estimates, these ‘measurements’ were enhanced during the 15th century by the popularisation of the mariner’s quadrant.

A mariner’s quadrant

The quadrant was soon superseded, amongst the Portuguese at least, by the astrolabe, which:

Consisted of a brass disk engraved with a stereographic projection of the heavens and a rotatable grill, by means of which the movements of the more conspicuous heavenly bodies could be followed. It was principally intended as a calculating device for the use of astronomers; but on its reverse side it was graduated in degrees round the perimeter and fitted with a rotating sight bar or alidade for observing altitudes…Only the reverse side of the instrument was useful – or indeed comprehensible – to seamen. (Parry, 1963, p.108)

That said, da Gama is recorded to have used a larger astrolable on his breakthrough voyage to India than the one found on board the Esmeralda. This was primarily for use on shore to determine his latitude. How much benefit he derived from the device is not wholly clear, its limitations in uncharted lands and inclement weather unlikely to have filled him with confidence.

It is not even clear how skilled a navigator da Gama was, for little is known of his life prior to setting off on that historic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. There are snippets of information suggesting that he studied mathematics and navigation at an inland school in the 1480s, which may have enabled some familiarisation with instruments such as the quadrant and astrolable.

Yet one of the most enduring stories of da Gama’s voyage ironically centres on him dispensing with all of his navigational tools, when a mutiny broke out amongst his fearful crew. It is worth repeating the account in some detail, if only in the words of da Gama’s chronicler:

Crew: We have had enough. This is indeed a terrible and evil place as we were told.

Da Gama: No! We go on! We go to India.

As the crew threatened open rebellion, da Gama slipped away to his cabin, returning with a bundle of his charts and his navigational instruments.

Da Gama: What are these?

Crew: Your charts and instruments, Captain.

The Captain stepped forward and threw his possessions into the sea.

Da Gama: Now there is no returning! We go on with da Gama and with God!

That was the last of the dissension in the ranks.

Ordering his men to trust in God – not to mention in his own divine leadership – da Gama freed himself of the burden of science, his successful landfall near Calicut in 1498 testament to the holy honour bestowed upon him by his patron Dom Manuel I.

At least that’s how the chronicle portrays it, for such a foolhardy act would surely have been beyond even a man of da Gama’s fiery temperament.

Dom Manuel I of the House of Aviz

In addition to being able to read and compile maps and charts as a way of plotting their course, the late medieval mariners needed to adapt to the new tools of their trade and this required some schooling.

For many it was a case of learning on the job, the seaman’s apprenticeship an invaluable if brutal introduction into life on the open ocean. The Portuguese developed navigational schools in the 15th century, with Prince Henry the Navigator’s semi-mythical institution at Sagres both a practical training centre and a somewhat primitive think tank at the same time.

Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India encompassed all of this 15th century learning, not to mention the personal characteristics that mattered; an explorer possessed of a character befitting of his mission, a master whose ambition for the House of Aviz was unbounded, and the navigational tools that guided the way.

The discovery of the astrolabe points to a time when maritime culture was undergoing profound changes, enforcing a level of exactitude and professionalism previously unattainable. This in turn opened up the globe to the processes of mercantilism and imperialism, with the benefits and detriments these brought to so many far-flung peoples.

A fleet of the Carreira da India departs Lisbon in a 1593 engraving by Theodor de Bry

Beautiful and beguiling, the astrolabe has stood the test of time, a marker in the ocean upon which Portugal, that impoverished cousin of Spain, created the first global maritime empire.

Within a few years of its inception the Carreira da India was in full flow, exotic spices and magnificent beasts flowing back to Lisbon along with troves of gold and treasure. A template had been created for Western Europe to grow rich, to upend its backward and unenlightened reputation and propel its states towards a glory hitherto unseen.

The world was truly never the same again.

Source

Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (1963)