Ronnie Ellenblum, a Pioneering Historian on the Crusades and Climate Change

Colleagues and family agree: The Hebrew University professor who died this month was a mensch who loved Jerusalem as much as he loved his nonstop intellectual inquiry

David Green
David B. Green
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Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum pictured in 2012.
Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum pictured in 2012.Credit: Emil Salman
David Green
David B. Green

There’s some poignancy in the fact that Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum’s final book is titled “Fragility.”

The book, which deals with the Hebrew University historian’s research on the impact that small changes in climate – say, a lack of rain over the course of a year or two – can have on the trajectory of a society or civilization, was his reminder that science is not yet able to prevent or even always anticipate near-future events like drought or excessive rainfall.

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For his countless students, friends and admirers, Ellenblum’s sudden death from heart failure on January 7, at age 68, was a reminder of the fragility and unpredictability of individual existence.

Ellenblum straddled three academic disciplines – history, geology and archaeology – and the wide range of skills these equipped him with was fitting for someone who asked such wide questions in his work.

I first met him in 1995 while writing an article tied to the 900th anniversary of the launch of the First Crusade. Not long before, he had completed a doctoral dissertation in which he successfully challenged the prevalent belief that the European invaders of the Holy Land in the 12th century never really put down roots in the land, confining their settlement to fortified towns on the Mediterranean coast and not integrating with the local population. (This assumption has long played into the Arab-Israeli conflict, with Arabs comparing the Zionists to the Crusaders, destined ultimately to disappear, while Jewish historians like the late Joshua Prawer claim that the Zionist movement was different from the Franks precisely because it settled the land.)

In fact, Ellenblum’s own survey of the entire Land of Israel (based in part on earlier work by Meron Benvenisti) documented the existence of 235 Frankish (Crusader) rural sites, with only a minority of them situated along the coast. That research formed the basis of his first book, “Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” (1998).

It gave expression to several of the qualities that would come to exemplify Ellenblum in his work: A readiness to question the accepted wisdom even as he acknowledged the contributions of the scholars who preceded him; careful attention to the details he encountered both in the archive and in the field, combined with a capacious mind that was always widening its scope in order to ask big questions.

As Prof. Iris Shagrir, a historian at the Open University and a close friend, told me: “If I told him I was working on something, he would always say, ‘What is the bigger context, what is the big thing that you can say about it? Slice it up and let me know what it means globally.’”

Ellenblum had already made a name for himself as a master’s student with a 1989 paper, in which he revised the accepted dating for construction of the majestic Nimrod’s Fortress in the Golan Heights.

“This is the thing with Ronnie – he threw away accepted wisdom,” noted his longtime friend and Hebrew University colleague, Prof. Reuven Amitai. “In this case, he said Nimrod’s Fortress isn’t a Crusader structure at all; it was built by Muslim Ayyubids in the late 1220s,” a century later than long thought.

Nimrod's Fortress in the Golan Heights.Credit: Gil Eliahu

He made his case though a combination of careful critical readings of historical records in Arabic, Latin and French; by analysis of Arabic inscriptions found within the fortress (a task for which Ellenblum drafted Amitai, who authored an accompanying article); and by consideration of the wider historical and geographical contexts in which the fortress was constructed.

The second time I wrote about Ellenblum was in 1998, when I visited him and his team at the excavation they were conducting at Vadum Jacob (Jacob’s Ford, or Bnot Ya’akov Bridge), about a dozen kilometers north of Lake Kinneret. The scenic site, at the foot of the Golan Heights, was the location of a Crusader fort that was still under construction in August 1179 when it was conquered by the army of Muslim general Saladin. After entering the fort, which Crusade chroniclers referred to by the sparkling name of “Chastelet,” the Muslims proceeded to slaughter 700 of its residents, both knights and craftsmen, throwing their bodies and those of their horses into a giant pit.

When a plague soon broke out in the summer heat, the conquerors abandoned their prize, though not before a letter was sent to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, enumerating “how many stones it was made of, how many people were there, every detail you would want to know,” as Ellenblum told me at the time. In 1202, one of the periodic earthquakes that visit the Syro-African rift finished off the fort.

Infectious enthusiasm

In a tribute posted shortly after Ellenblum’s death, archaeologist Prof. Adrian Boas, who spent two years as co-director of the Vadum Jacob dig, described the “sales pitch” he had received, enlisting him to join the project: “Ronnie told me that, never having been completed, it was a building site with the potential to provide … material finds, tools and materials used in its construction, and evidence of the construction methods employed by the Templar builders. And as if that were not enough, it was a major battle site. There would be bodies, weapons, armor perhaps, a siege mine.”

Having earned his bachelor’s degree in 1977 in geology, “Ronnie’s enthusiasm was most infective,” wrote Boas, describing how “it was a site that had been torn apart by a major earthquake, perhaps the only example of a huge ancient building split directly down the center.” One can still see how the eastern part of wall was pushed more than two meters northward.

Ellenblum’s second book, “Crusader Castles and Modern Histories” (2007), reflected his deepening interest in not only the cultural and technological exchanges that he posited took place among Crusaders, Muslims and local populations, but also in looking at the way history is practiced in different periods and places. Part of the book traces the development of European Crusades scholarship during the 19th century.

In his third and fourth books, Ellenblum turned to climate change – a subject that occupied him for much of the past decade. Again, he was interested in the intellectual history of the topic, in which the question of human agency has been a source of vigorous debate.

His goal was not in proving that human activity was responsible for the ecological crisis that the earth presently faces – though he certainly did not deny it – but rather in understanding how such major events as the rise and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire, or the sweep of Turkic tribes west into Anatolia in the 11th century, could have been spurred by tiny changes in rainfall or temperature.

As Prof. Benjamin Kedar explained in a glowing tribute to his former student, published in Haaretz Hebrew edition earlier this week, Ellenblum “gave preference to direct descriptions of climatic phenomena by people living at the time” – for example, daily measurements of the level of the Nile – “over measurement, as done in natural sciences, of indirect indicators of those phenomena” (such as measuring the rings in a tree trunk). “His claim was that written descriptions, with all of their problems, make available climatic data immeasurably more precise, both in terms of dating and in terms of spread and power. They also allow for examination of extreme climatic events, short in duration but powerful in their effect, that paleoclimatic research [which does not rely on written records] is unable to identify.”

‘How did I end up with this nut?’

Aharon Ellenblum was born in 1952 in Be’er Sheva, the youngest of the three sons of Meir and Batsheva Ellenblum, a construction worker and seamstress, respectively. Both had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from Poland in 1929.

Ronnie was named for an uncle who had survived the Holocaust fighting with the partisans, only to be killed in a pogrom upon returning to his Polish hometown after World War II.

The family was left-wing and Ronnie grew up in the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Strikingly, he married a daughter of one of the leading couples of the “fighting family” of Revisionist Zionism, Eliyahu and Doris Lankin, both members of the pre-state Irgun militia led by Menachem Begin. (Eliyahu is best remembered as the military commander of the Altalena, the Irgun arms ship fired on by the Israel Defense Forces off the coast of Tel Aviv in June 1948.)

Linor Lankin, an architect and urban planner, recalled that she and Ronnie met in a shared taxi traveling from Jerusalem to Be’er Sheva in 1980. “Ronnie was on way to visit his parents, and I was on my way to army reserve duty at the Southern Command,” she told me. Two weeks later, he invited her to join him for three days of hiking and camping in the Negev.

“We agreed that he would come get me at 6 AM. When he arrived, I asked him where the car was. He said, ‘What car? We’re taking the bus.’” (Ellenblum never did get a driver’s license.)

“We sat in the last row of the bus and Ronnie took out a shiron [Hebrew songbook]. And he began to sing, loudly. I just wanted to die. I thought, how did I end up with this nut? I’m getting off at the next stop. The next stop was Be’er Sheva. But by the time we arrived in Be’er Sheva, I didn’t want to get off.”

I asked Linor how her parents, members of Jerusalem’s Revisionist elite, got along with Ronnie’s left-wing, working-class parents from the Gimel neighborhood of Be’er Sheva.

There was no problem, she said: “We came from families with different political orientations, but both of our fathers shared a hatred of Mapai” (the Labor forerunner that held power in Israel until 1977).

Ronnie’s older brother, Yaakov Elinav, a former executive at Bank Hapoalim, laughed when I relayed his sister-in-law’s response to him, but felt a need to correct it. “When Ronnie said he was marrying Linor, I was the one who prepared the family for the meeting. But it was a wonderful meeting, just wonderful. … And it wasn’t because of [hatred of] Mapai, but because of love of Israel.” They married in 1983.

Seven years after completing his B.A., during which time he taught high school and worked at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Ellenblum returned to the Hebrew University in 1984 to pursue first a master’s degree and then a doctorate, under the supervision of both the historical geographer Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, and the Crusader historian Kedar. It’s also where he spent his entire teaching career, and he and Linor raised their three children in the capital.

Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum on a dig in Israel back in 2009.Credit: Miki Kratsman

Jerusalem forever

“He loved Jerusalem,” said Iris Shagrir, who is also a historian of the Crusades and resident of the city. “He felt that this was the place to be. When you get up in the morning, and what you see before your eyes is politics, and the different populations, and the history. Everything is visualized for you … and the present reality actually helps you understand what was happening on the ground a thousand or more years ago.”

After Haaretz columnist Neri Livneh wrote about her decision to leave Jerusalem, after 30 years in 2004, Ellenblum responded with a column of his own. He didn’t deny the capital’s squalor, discord and poverty, but argued nonetheless that “Jerusalem remains the only place in Israel that offers a true multicultural alternative. It has Arabs and it has Mizrahim, secular and religious Jews, and each has its own elites who write, think and create. It has more varieties of Christians, of Jews and of Muslims than any other place under the sun. It has communities that are different, opinionated, anxious, that hate and loathe. But their existence together creates something new: different, fascinating, exhilarating.”

As one who remained, Ellenblum was involved in various struggles to save the city from the excesses of development. As Amitai put it, “He spent a lot of time speaking with self-important people, trying to talk them out of doing stupid things.”

He didn’t always succeed, as in the effort to prevent the construction of a cable car from west Jerusalem to the Western Wall.

In 2017, he was elected to the prestigious Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen, who in 2007-08 was, like Ellenblum, a leader of the strike by lecturers there for better working conditions, said his late friend had a “total commitment, not just to the Hebrew University, but to the academy, to higher education. So it would be natural that he would be active in organizations that worked for the academic faculty.”

But not only faculty. Tal Ulus is completing her doctorate in geography, writing about the connection between climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and migration, as well as the responses to said migration in Europe and Israel.

Ellenblum was her adviser, but she also served as his assistant on a number of unrelated projects. She remarked admiringly how he “used his strength and his connections in the academy to help people who didn’t have power – students and cleaning people.”

Leigh Chipman completed her doctorate at the Hebrew University on the subject of pharmacology in medieval Mamluk Cairo (her advisor was Prof. Amitai). Now she makes her living as an academic translator and editor, and over the past decade, she served Ellenblum in that capacity with all his English-language writing.

Chipman recalls how, whenever they met, he would remind her to bill him for the time. “Wherever it was, the meeting always went on for longer than it should have, and he would say, ‘You must bill me for that time.’ He was a mensch. You don’t often find great scholars who are also concerned about the little people.”

According to Amitai, Ellenblum was always eager to employ new technologies in his work. In the 1980s, “he was the first to get a personal computer, to use Excel sheets, the first to synchronize his home and office computers. He left most of us in the dust.”

Examples of the ambitious projects he helped initiate and then bring to fruition are two databases, one that brings together Crusader-era charters and contracts, and another a digital archive of maps, illustrations and texts related to the history of Jerusalem.

Encountering Ronnie as a journalist, I was charmed and fascinated by him, but also flattered when occasionally over the years he would meet me for coffee. He loved to talk about what was occupying him intellectually, but he also wanted to hear about my own work. Now I realize that he was like that with everybody, and I imagine that most anyone who spent any time with him came to regard him as a friend. How he found the time and emotional capacity for it all – work, friends, family – remains a mystery.

In a text message, Linor Lankin wrote: “Living with him was like living with a tempest. In every year for a normal person, he squeezed in two years” of life.

Asher Cohen noted that Ellenblum liked to shop at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda outdoor market. He would ride there on his bicycle and then return home to the Baka neighborhood the same way – a ride of maybe 20 minutes if you’re weighed down with purchases. “But it would take him two to three hours,” Cohen relayed. “Because all along the way he would run into people he knew, and he would stop and chat with each one of them.”

That’s the way Ronnie Ellenblum was, and that’s the way I like to remember him.

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