Dining Under Siege

'The 'Last Supper at Apollonia' exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum offers a first-time look at a rare and thrilling collection of Crusader kitchen utensils.

The Mamluk siege of the Arsur Crusader fortress (known today as Apollonia-Arsuf) began in late March 1265. As the battle loomed ever closer, inhabitants of nearby cities fled, making for the broad moat and the walled fortress. The houses closest to the fortress were filled with dirt and stones to help fortify the wall. The evacuees found shelter in the fortress, as did hundreds more residents of the lower city, including women and children, who ran for their lives after the city's walls were breached. During the few and far-between peaceful times in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the fortress, built a generation earlier and leased to the Order of the Hospitallers just four years before its fall, was home to about 50 knights and their servants. At the start of the siege, which would go on for many bloody weeks, nearly 2,000 people were crammed into the fortress.

The density of the population within the walls required the reorganization of everything related to food storage and preparation. The water collection pools were full at the end of the rainy season, but water was still subject to strict rationing; the fire was kept burning nonstop beneath the five kitchen ovens, while other spaces among the great halls and rooms, such as the small flour mill, were hastily converted into enormous bread-baking ovens; and the modest lavatory was set aside for garbage disposal, where food scraps and utensils were buried. During the chaos of the siege, when the water normally used to wash dishes in the giant sinks had to be used carefully; when kitchen utensils took up precious space; and when precautions were needed to prevent diseases and epidemics that might spread among the overcrowded population, the decision-makers sometimes chose to bury dirty but intact dishes in the ground.

Leonid Pedrol

During the five-week siege, more than 2,700 heavy boulders brought in from the Samaria hills were catapulted at the fortress walls. Some 1,200 iron-tipped arrows were fired at the defenders, and arrows wrapped in cloth and dipped in a flammable material were launched at the drawbridge and the heavy door, which was made of wood and bronze plates. The archers of the Order of the Hospitallers returned fire and even launched clay grenades filled with fiery materials at their enemies, but they had no defense against the tunnels dug by the Mamluks to undermine the wall's foundations. On Thursday, April 29, the Mamluk fighters seized control of parts of the Arsur wall and raised their flag over it.

The Crusaders, who lost close to 1,000 men in the fighting, retreated to the tall tower of the fortress to conduct negotiations for surrender. The representative of Baibars, Sultan of Egypt, promised the fighters their lives and the freedom of their women and children in return for full surrender. The defenders of the fortress, realizing that their fate was sealed, were disarmed, but the sultan broke his promise. All the occupants of the city and the fortress were sold into slavery. Adding to their humiliation, they were commanded to destroy the fortifications they had so desperately sought to defend. The fortress itself was burnt almost to the ground, and the huge stones that turned red and sooty can still be seen today. The pope, along with leading European troubadours, recited emotional laments over the wretched fate of the Arsuf defenders, and the city at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, perhaps because of its tragic fate, was never resettled.

The last supper

Sad to say, the tragedies of history often become sources of satisfaction for archaeologists and historians. In 1999, 734 years after the fall of the fortress, a group of archaeologists headed by the late Prof. Israel Roll discovered the cache of Crusader kitchen utensils that had been buried in the trash pit. Out of the depths of the pit - a rare time capsule in which everyday objects that reflect the spirit of the day were preserved - the researchers brought up close to a thousand different pieces: pots and skillets, locally made and imported serving dishes, elegant glass goblets, storage vessels and lamps. These objects, the largest and most beautiful collection of its kind ever discovered in Israel, are currently on public display for the first time at "The Last Supper in Apollonia" exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum, curated by Dr. Irit Ziffer.

Archaeological sites, no matter how beautiful (and Apollonia National Park is one of the most impressive ), demand that visitors have a fertile imagination and a certain amount of knowledge to picture how things were in the past. In this new exhibition, the past comes vividly to life through the rare artifacts on display and a replica of the fortress kitchen, including the table where the defenders took their last meal. The ghosts of servants who tended the fires, roasted slabs of meat and stirred large pots come to life as one looks at the three ovens, built in the European rather than local Muslim tradition. These were reconstructed by Lisa Yehuda, a doctoral student specializing in Crusader dwellings in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and exhibition designer Daniel Rosenthal.

Viewing the large knights' table set with original dishes, including gorgeous bowls decorated with hunting and fishing scenes, it is easy to imagine the members of the order, dressed in black robes, feasting away to their hearts' content and wiping their hands on the tablecloth, or the fortress commander sipping spiced wine from an exquisite glass goblet that has been preserved almost completely intact.

Members of the Order of the Hospitallers, like those of other Christian orders, were obliged to adhere to a strict code of nutrition and table manners. The Christian ideal always aspired to modest sustenance based on bread and wine. The multiplicity of rules and regulations attests to the difficulty of meeting heavenly standards faced by residents of this earthly world, in particular the fighting monks, who needed a rich diet to keep up their strength. To make sure they did not simply take pleasure in the eating experience, members of the order were commanded to precede their meals with prayer and then eat in silence while listening to a sermon.

As befit their monastic character, military orders emphasized the equality of all brethren in the dining hall. No one, not even the commanders, deserved a more elevated seat, better food or more attractive dishes than anyone else. One of the most interesting findings related to the Arsur vessels, which can be clearly seen at the exhibition, are the identifying marks, like a pentagram or the shape of a pickaxe, that were carved into the utensils. This finding, says Prof. Oren Tal, successor to Prof. Roll at the Arsuf excavations, almost certainly attests to an effort to associate certain vessels with private individuals and to various social strata among the monks. Just another bit of proof that throughout history, human beings have had trouble living with full equality.