Back to the Past: Knights in Armor Turn Israel Into Their Latest Battlefield

Jousters from eight countries will descend on the Haifa Convention Center for the World Medieval Fighting Championship.

PETAH TIKVA – No, this is not a mirage. Nor is it an early Purim masquerade party.

It’s a classic scene from medieval times, playing out right here in the courtyard of a run-down shack in central Israel: A bunch of grown men − and one lone woman − all paired off and decked out in full knight attire are dueling it out in a makeshift ring. As padded swords make contact with shields and other protective gear, the sounds of loud thumping reverberate in the brisk night air.

Tensions are running high as the big day approaches, so there’s little time for chitchat during this three-hour training session. In two weeks from now, on January 23, the Israeli national team will compete against seven other countries − France, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and Luxembourg − at the World Medieval Fighting Championship to be held at the Haifa Convention Center. It will the first international medieval combat tournament ever held in these parts.

And it’s quite a big deal, notes the Israeli team captain Michael Margoulis, especially considering that knight fighting is a relatively new addition to the international sporting scene. “We’ve very proud to be holding an event like this here,” says the 28-year-old IT specialist, as he steps into his battle gear, leaving behind for the next few hours the 21st century world of high-tech.

Like the other members of the 12-man national team, Margoulis immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, where this martial art was revived about 20 years ago. The living quarters (or “commune,” as they prefer to call it) that he and five of his teammates share here in the Petah Tikva industrial zone doubles as their clubhouse. Knight fighting clubhouses have also sprung up in recent years in Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva.

The first international tournament of medieval knight fighting was held just four years ago in Ukraine, notes Ilya Komarovsky, the Israeli event organizer. And at the last “Battle of the Nations” world championship held in France six months ago, the Israeli team won 14 matches and came in eighth place out of 22 countries.

Ira Rogozovsky, the one woman among the dozen or so men training at the clubhouse tonight, says she fell into the sport by sheer coincidence. “I was traveling around Poland when I happened to make the acquaintance of members of the Polish national team and began hanging out with them,” recalls the 23-year-old airport security guard. “I wanted to take a photo of myself dressed up in knight gear when I got back home, so they put me in touch with members of the Israeli team. When I came here and met these guys, I decided to start training with them, and here I am.”

Does she feel weird being the only female knight on the team? “I was a fighter in the only mixed-gender combat unit in the army,” she brushes off the question, “so nothing’s weird to me anymore.” Rogozovsky will not be competing in the upcoming tournament but says she hopes to be included in the delegation that will represent Israel at another big international event in Austria this year.

“She just loves to bash the guys,” remarks Komarovsky under his breath, once she’s out of listening range.

Michael Epelman, a burly 26-year-old immigrant from Ukraine, says that knight fighting was a natural extension of his passion for role-playing games. “I love the group experience, and this is embarrassing to say, but I also love the violence − it gets my adrenaline going,” confesses the Bar-Ilan University student who also serves as the team’s vice captain.

Participants in the upcoming Israeli tournament will engage in the battle category known as “professional” fighting, which, as Komarovsky explains, is a full contact martial art with few restrictions and, therefore, meant for more experienced fighters. In the actual competition, as opposed to tonight’s training session, he notes, the fighters will be decked out in real armor rather than padded gear.

“It’ll look exactly the same as it did in medieval times, the only difference being that the swords won’t be sharpened,” he says.

Knight fighting, he says, is gaining a following among native-born Israelis as well, though none are yet advanced enough to join the national team. “I’d say there are about 60 people in this country today who are doing this seriously,” he estimates.

Pavel Kreydin, whose upper body is covered in tattoos, says he won’t be able to participate in the tournament because he was recently injured. Still, he’s determined to stay in shape and that’s why he continues to attend the evening training sessions three times a week. Asked what drew him to the sport, the 25-year-old short-order cook said he was looking for something “different” to do. “And I guess as a kid, I didn’t play these sort of games enough,” he adds.

Daniel Bar-On