Sword-wielding Medieval Knights Invade Israeli Suburb

In international medieval fighting tournament, Israelis fail to impress on the field of battle, but crowds more interested in customs and swords than in scores.

Tomer Appelbaum

The banal location of the World Medieval Fighting Championship, held last Tuesday at a sport center in Rishon Letzion, didn’t seem to bother the hundreds of people who bought tickets to the event. They comfortably settled into their seats with their popcorn and hot dogs to watch brutes in medieval armor striking one another with ancient swords and axes.

Outside, next to a stand selling daggers at 250 shekels (about $63) and up, was a booth were you could fill out a form to become an organ donor. “We were joking about how we deliberately placed the booths next to one other,” said the woman in charge at the organ donation stand. And then there were the people milling around in period costume, even though they weren’t competitors.

In addition to their Middle Ages attire, Daria Morgolis of Kiryat Ono and Gennady Nizhnik of Jerusalem casually sported fox carcasses on their shoulders, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ”I didn’t buy it at the supermarket,” quipped Nizhnik, who heads the Kingdom of Jerusalem club, which is devoted to researching the Crusader period and which every year reenacts the Battle of the Horns of Hittin near the Sea of Galilee. He plays the role of Raynauld of Chatillon, the Crusader leader who was defeated by Saladin in the year 1187.

An archaeologist by profession, Nizhnik views the tournament through the lens of history. “All of the costumes here are historical reconstructions based on archaeological findings,” he says, adding that his costume is that of a resident of the region in the 12th century, made on a handloom. Although I couldn’t verify it, he also claimed that his underwear was from the period.

Nizhnik said that on his most recent tour of army reserve duty in the the south Hebron hills, he took his sword with him and practiced with it, to the delight of his colleagues at the base. “Instead of a bulletproof vest, I wore armor,” he said.

Daria Morgolis is the wife of the head of the Israeli World Medieval Fighting team, Michael Morgolis. Her costume is from 15th century Germany. I ask her what she finds attractive in such an unfortunate period. Shooting me a furious look, she replies: “We live in a plastic world. Everything is made in China. This is how I feel the spirit of the period. It’s a chance to get away from your cellphone and look people in the eyes.”

Despite the Israeli flags and national pride, it’s worth noting that all of the warriors on the Israeli side are originally from the former Soviet Union and their practice sessions are held in Russian. “Israelis are also invited to participate, but they don’t manage to train three times a week. I don’t know why,” says Nizhnik. Morgolis adds that Israelis think about money, but there’s no money in medieval combat.

The dressing rooms are full of knights leaning against walls in full, heavy armor, joking among themselves. And with them are several women dressed in something that I would peg as a fancy handkerchief. If there weren’t cellphones charging on a nearby wall outlet, I would have sworn I had gone back in time.

In one corner is 34-year-old Ilya Gubernikov of Netanya, outfitted in 14th century Eastern European armor. His steel armor cost him about $1,500, he says, and he has invested thousands of dollars in his unusual hobby over the long haul. The sport is not dangerous, he insists. “Soccer is more dangerous. We don’t want to cause disabilities and we don’t sharpen the swords. Otherwise the sportsmen in this field would quickly be gone.”

Outside are standard-bearers from the seven participating countries — Ukraine, France, Belarus, Russia, Denmark, Estonia and, of course, Israel. They are joined by a court jester and several blond girls with silly hats. The event is kicked off by a young man playing bagpipes. And the competition is under way.

From my perspective, it’s the most boring part of the spectacle, but the crowd seems to enjoy it a lot. The Israelis aren’t terribly lucky, however, and despite verbal support for the local team, the Israeli fighter is beaten by a Ukrainian from the city of Donesk, which has been split by real battles.

After the referee declares the Ukrainian the winner, the defeated Israeli sits in stunned silence for the remaining matches. Then comes a battle between an Israeli and a truck driver from France, who brandishes an ax. Another knockout sustained by the Chosen People. After a few blows, emergency medical personal come to the Israeli’s rescue.

The person who comes to the rescue of our national honor is Ira Rogozovsky. In real life, she works security at Ben-Gurion International Airport and under her armor is a police sergeant’s shirt. She competes against a huge Belarussian woman named Daria who loves Irish dance and who prevailes in the match. “It’s violent but tasteful,” comments a nearby lass who is being hugged by a knight.

(Photos by Tomer Appelbaum)