Fresh from victories over the Muslim Moors at Santarem and Lisbon, Gualdim Pais - the brilliant young military strategist of King Afonso Henriques - decided in year 1152 to embark with a small contingent of Portuguese knights for a campaign of five adventurous years in Outremer – the name given to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and three other counties which had been partly conquered during the first and second crusades. There, he joined forces with Templar Grand Master Bernard de Tremeley and allies of the Kingdom to struggle with the powerful Fatimid armies of Egypt.

As a base, the Templars had been given Gaza City which had been rebuilt by King Raymond III in 1150 and provided a bulwark against the mighty Saracen fortress of Ascalon which lay only 16 km to the north east and commanded the sea and land routes of the east Mediterranean coast.

The Christian plan for a siege was aided by the assassination of the vizier Ibn al-Sallar. This brought about the recall of reinforcements sent from Egypt and enabled the much smaller fleet of the crusaders to make land with provisions including siege engines. But, because the fortress was so vast, well victualled and housed almost twice the military number of defenders as the besiegers, almost five months passed before an opportunity to storm was provided by the igniting of a siege tower which caused a portion of the fortifications to collapse. Through the gap sallied the vanguard of valiant Templar knights of whom forty, including the grand master, were immediately slaughtered. However, after three more days of bitter fighting the fortified city fell to the crusaders who showed clemency to the citizens by allowing them to return to Egypt.

Gualdim Pais and his knights continued the struggle with Islam and were present at numerous other battles and sieges. They were also instrumental in building redoubts and fortifications in Outremer before returning to Portugal in 1157 where Gualdim Pais was appointed grand master of the Order of Knights Templar and constructed the grand castles at Thomar and Almourol.

The Templars spent nearly two hundred years at the head of the military forces of Christianity in Outremer with wild fluctuations in their fortunes but, sadly, as their power and wealth increased, suffered a deterioration in their austere moral standing. Finally, in 1291, Saracen armies from Syria and the fearsome Mamelukes from Egypt converged on the last stronghold of Acre and reduced it to rubble after which all of the remaining defenders were beheaded.

In September 2017, at the age of 94, the eminent Jewish philosopher and author, Uri Avnery, published a valedictory paper : Crusaders and Zionists which discussed an authoritative book by British historian Steven Runciman in which comparisons were made between the Crusaders and modern Zionists. “Both movements moved many people from Europe to the Holy Land, Since both of them came from the west, they were perceived by the indigenous (Muslim) population as evil invaders. But then, as now, the Crusaders´ lot was made easier by the constant quarreling among the Arab tribes until the great Saladin (a Kurd) unified them and vanquished the Christians completely at the battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187. In his book Der Judenstaat, Theodor Herzl wrote that modern Zionism would serve as the spearhead of western culture against the barbarism of Muslims.”

Avnery was a great advocate of the two state solution based on a mutual national respect and genuine desire for peaceful co-existence. One cannot help speculating what would be the outcome of a compilation of his past rhetoric through 21st century Artificial Intelligence to condemn the tragedy of present-day Gaza and its humiliated people-

by Roberto Cavaleiro Tomar 10th June 2024