The Tree of Measure: Defining Boundaries in Crusader Syria

It’s easy to imagine the Crusades as an era of implacable dichotomies–Christian vs. Muslim, peace vs. war. This is, in fact, the scenario that , Ibn Jubayr, a government functionary from Muslim Spain, expected to find when he set out on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1183. It was the era of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, after all, and the rhetoric of holy war had developed fully on both sides of the religious divide.

Interestingly, however, despite Ibn Jubayr’s desire for Christians and Muslims to live separate lives, ruled by leaders of their own faith, within their own borders, the reality he encountered was far more complicated. While in Syria, for example, he notes:

“One of the astonishing things that is talked of is that though the fires of discord burn between the two parties, Muslim and Christian, two armies of them may meet and dispose themselves in battle array, and yet Muslim and Christian travellers will come and go between them without interference.” 

These accommodations were not only applied to travellers. Ibn Jubayr’s text abounds with examples of everyday life during which boundaries between not only territories, but also faiths, were governed according to pragmatism and common good, rather than ideology. One such excerpt describes a valley near the Syrian city of Belinas:

“The cultivation of the vale is divided between the Franks and the Muslims, and in it there is a boundary known as the ‘Boundary of Dividing.’ They apportion the crops equally, and their animals are mingled together, yet no wrong takes place between them because of it.” 

His surprise in this passage is palpable, and he clearly expects that such close relationships between Christians and Muslims would lead to conflict. Managing trade and agricultural in common interest, however, is not the end of the matter–in a shrine outside of Acre, celebrating the gift of cattle from God to Adam, both Christians and Muslims worship, each in their own building on the site.

Perhaps the most interesting observation to arise from Ibn Jubayr’s fascination with borders, however, are his remarks on an

“…oak tree of great proportions and with wide-spreading branches. We learnt that it is called ‘The Tree of Measure,’ and when we enquired concerning it, we were told that it was the boundary on this road between security and danger, by reason of some Frankish brigands who prowl and rob thereon. He whom they seize on the Muslim seize, be it by then length of the arms or a span, they capture; but he whom they seize on the Frankish side at a like distance, they release. This is a pact they faithfully observe, and is one of the most pleasing and singular conventions of the Franks.”

In this passage, even brigands observe the unwritten laws of the local environment, creating an landscape governed by social conventions instead of armies. These boundaries, whether marked by trees, valleys, or shrines, illustrate the high degree of integration to be found in even the most polarised of spaces. Here, it was the dichotomy between security and danger, rather than between Christianity and Islam, which drew the boundaries of daily life.

Learn More:

It’s possible to read online or download a copy-right free translation of Ibn Jubayr’s Travels here.

6 thoughts on “The Tree of Measure: Defining Boundaries in Crusader Syria

  1. Pingback: Mediaeval Music: Mediterranean Journeys « mediaevalmusings

  2. Before the then Pope declared this “holy” war, there was not really that many problems between Christians and Muslims. In fact, since both books were pretty similar, they might have lived in peace if the Church had not screwed up for the sake of military power.

    Thanks for the link.🙂

    • You’re welcome! I enjoy your blog, and found your post on sumptuary laws quite relevant to the issue of Christian/Muslim relations, since Christians and Jews under Muslim rule were (at least nominally) required to dress distinctively. I think it would be a little over-simplified to blame the Crusades and the Papacy alone for deteriorations in the relationships between the religious communities, though. Elsewhere in Ibn Jubayr, for example, he states that he dislikes Christians who are nice to Muslims, because he thought it wooed Muslims into a false sense of security. This attitude is interesting, because I think it really highlights how coexistence does not always equal tolerance. If this topic interests you, you might also like this post on mediaeval Christianity and it’s ambiguous relationship with violence.

  3. This is extremely interesting: there’s an article by Ronnie Ellenblum about this ambiguity of boundaries in the Crusader kingdoms and beyond them, in a volume about frontiers edited by David Abulafia and Nora Berend, which is my go-to for confusing ideas of stark and uniform separation, but I suppose a good deal of his information must have been coming from Ibn Jubayr, and it’s nice to know where to go to look it up oneself. Thankyou!

    • You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Extracts from Ibn Jubayr were part of the set texts for the course I took on the mediaeval Mediterranean, and he has some very interesting vignettes. Unfortunately, he has a liking for very ornate prose, but often his observations are worth it.

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