ANNA Stern watched on as a Muslim man lifted a huge sword and chopped off her husband’s head.
“The performance was good,” said 45-year-old Genadiy Nizhnik, the said husband, after he had stood up. “But there’s always room for improvement.”
Today, though, he is not Genadiy — he’s Raynald de Châtillon, a French aristocrat from the 12th century who was beheaded with a sword on this very field.
Nizhnik dusted off the heavy clothes he wore on this sweltering day in Tiberias, and then gathered all his equipment that was scattered around him on the ground.
Stern, for her part, and her baby, who was wrapped in a sling and peeking over her shoulder, were wearing green hats that were popular in Italy in the 12th century.
Her other three children, who were milling about, were also dressed in clothing from the same period, which included Amish-style handkerchiefs, white shirts with laces and hand-made leather sandals.
“We’re not just following the general dress code from the Middle Ages,” says Nizhnik. “We get down into the nitty-gritty details of every article of clothing and item that was used in the 12th century.
“Everything needs to be exact. Think about how they would have recruited reserve soldiers in the 12th century. You have to deal with issues such as discipline, order, cooperation and motivation.”
The beheading of de Châtillon was the climax of the three-day reenactment trek Nizhnik made with this group of 20 men that ended at the Horns of Hattin, overlooking the Kinneret.
This small group — made up of a bunch of guys who are just as obsessed as Nizhnik is with this hobby they call “experiential history” — came here to experience for themselves how the men who passed through here 800 years ago felt.
They yearn to take part in some of the most momentous events that would affect the region for hundreds of years to come.
“I’ve been participating in historical reenactments for many years,” says Pavel Khromov, a programmer at a bank in Ashdod by day and a Crusader knight by night.
“The moment my wife gave me her approval five or six years ago, I’ve been coming out here with these guys.”
“For me, this is a lot of fun for a couple of days, and then go back home,” says the wife of one of the participants. “But if you ask my husband, he’d probably say that if he could, he’d love to live like this all year long.
“He’s so happy when he’s wearing these clothes and when he’s carrying out a reenactment, he really feels like it’s the real thing.”
For this group, which calls itself the ‘Kingdom of Jerusalem’, after the Crusader kingdom that ruled the region until that fateful battle, this event is the highlight of the year.
Planning lasts months and they go all out in preparation of costumes: they sew all buttons by hand, wear shoes that are 100 per cent leather and use swords and shields they made themselves.
They even invited an amateur historian to join in on the festivities so the audience could hear the background of the event while they waited for the participants to appear.
“In exactly this location that we’re standing on now,” boomed a voice from a portable speaker, “a great loss occurred that was accompanied by intense pain.
“The entire Crusader army was destroyed in this very battle and all remaining hope was destroyed. The people here could barely stand on their own two feet, they were so hot and dehydrated.
“They were desperate to reach the water source, but knew that there was little chance they would succeed. They came upon an army that is well rested and has plenty of water.
“What transpired next is truly a human tragedy. The people who set out for battle realise the situation is hopeless, that most likely they will not live through this battle.
“They will die valiantly in the field in front of them.”
This famous event is known as the Battle of the Horns of Hattin and it took place on July 4, 1187.
Fighting on one side were the Crusaders, who were thirsty and exhausted, fighting under the hot sun on the slopes leading down to the Kinneret. They are imbued with the knowledge that they are fighting for the church and Jesus.
On the other side are the Muslims under the direction of the legendary Saladin, whose desire to conquer more and more territories was insatiable.
“You’re now going to witness the Muslims slaughtering the Christians in a face-to-face duel, including the moment when Saladin beheads Raynad de Châtillon.”
A boy in a straw hat and linen garb told the crowd: “I’m a simple peasant living in the 12th century. Before the siege on Tiberias, I heard about the battle, and now I believe I will soon be killed.”
Then his walkie-talkie crackled and he smiled shyly.
This is the eighth year the Kingdom of Jerusalem group are reenacting the historical Horns of Hattin Battle, the event which marked the beginning of the end of Crusader rule in the Land of Israel, and the onset of Muslim control.
The long line of cars on the dirt road leading to the site is proof that news of the Horns of Hattin reenactment has gotten out.
The makeup of the cast is also interesting, as some of the participants have travelled to Israel from overseas to join the group.
“It’s become an international project,” boasts Nizhnik. “We have participants who hail from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Cyprus, Germany, Poland, and even America.
“A conglomeration of countries where it’s not a given that everyone would get along.”
Putting together this project requires lots of work: assembling and disassembling tents; loading jerry cans full of water into cars; and making sure that the horses they rode for three days and nights are returned safely to their owners.
“Plus, this all costs a lot of money.”
For the participants, the highlight is not the final scene, where the spectators are waiting to gawp at the final moments of the battle — the most exciting parts are during the previous three days while they’re travelling with the group.
“I also love touching the ancient stones in Jerusalem and trying to imagine what it was like for the people who lived in ancient times,” said Khromov. “I wonder what they spoke about, what they ate.”
This is the reason why the participants enjoy reenacting the same battle year after year, despite the fact that everyone obviously knows how the story ends.
“Experiencing the battle firsthand like we do broadens your horizons,” said Nizhnik. “You begin to view the world more deeply. It’s meditative. Each time we experience internal changes and our relationship with other team members develops, too, during the journey.”
“Unfortunately,” added Stern, “our situation today is not much different than back in the times of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The region is ruled by elites and the people are not satisfied with their leader.”
In order to cope with this unfortunate resemblance, she says, the participants sometimes deliberately altered details from the original story.
For example: one morning, the Crusaders came upon a witch who cursed them. According to the anecdote, they then burn her at the stake and, from that moment on, they are victorious.
In the reenactment, however, “when we come upon the witch, we carry out a conciliation ceremony with her and then she switches affiliation and joins forces with us. In that way, we’ve altered history.
“And during our three-day trip, we speak in the modern vernacular. We don’t try to talk as if we were living 800 years ago. But we do stop and carry out theatrical scenes here and there to mark specific points.”
The audience might be expecting the knights to call out orders for the onslaught in Latin or for the Muslim commander to call out to his soldiers in Arabic, but all of the dialogue is in Russian.
And the heavy Russian presence among participants is quite evident.
“Europeans are very into this part of history,” says Arkady Matusewicz, who lives in Ariel.
“The Israelis know nothing about this part of history. If you ask them what transpired here in the region, they’ll tell you about what happened in the Talmudic period and then skip to the 20th century.
“It’s like there was a black hole here for hundreds of years. But that’s just not true.
“I think Russians are really into this hobby because our souls are looking for ways to survive under hardships and we’re used to looking for a way to escape propaganda,” says Stern. “We no longer live under such conditions here in Israel, but the habit remains.”
Are there many Israelis who partake in this hobby?
“Well, it’s very popular in France, the UK and Poland.
“People there have lots of free time, as well as cash to spare to invest in this hobby. Israelis don’t really have much of either. Maybe they will at some point in the future.”
Now that the Kingdom of Jerusalem has been active for eight years, they’ve been hoping to receive official recognition.
A few months ago, they sent letters to the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Tourism Ministry asking for funding so that future festivals can be expanded. They have not yet received a reply.
“There’s tremendous economic and social potential here,” said Nizhnik enthusiastically.
“Many people around the world would invest in this type of amazing, high-quality historic event.
“We’ve added a craft fair where artists can sell their handiwork and offer workshops to the public. It’s like a living historical anthropology.”
But you know that the main question will remain: what role did the Jews play in this story?
“Well, our time is limited. For now, we’re focusing on the Horns of Hattin Battle. It might take a while until we start reenacting scenes from the Second Temple Period or Bar Kokhba era.
“For now, we’re focusing on just one battle, but our goal is for people to learn a little culture.”