Cistercians in the medieval Holy Land - a slow and limited start

In the West the development of the Cistercian organisation preceeded that of, and often coincided with, the Knights Templar. What was the case in the Holy Land?

The onset of the organisation that became the Knights Templar is a matter of debate. There is sound information that suggests a start as early as 1115. However, normally the year 1118 or 1119 is mentioned. The year that king Baldwin II, who had just succeeded Baldwin I als King, is said to have given the group of proto-Templars a temporary home in his residence on the Temple platform in the al-Aqsa mosque, believed by the Latins to have been the Temple of Solomon. For which reason the group was called, in short, Knights Templar. An alternative date is 1120, being the council at Nablus, where all kinds of religious and secular affairs were taken care of. The whole chain of events culminating in their recognition as a religious order of the Church at the council of Troyes in January 1129.

"Not long after the grant to the Templars, Baldwin II also invited the Cistercians to establish themselves at Nabi Samwil, a hill situated 5 miles to the north-west of Jerusalem, which was known to the Latins as Mountjoy. Jews, Christians and Muslims all honoured the Prophet Samuel and, since the sixth century, it had been believed that his tomb was here. Pilgrims coming from Jaffa expected to have their first sight of Jerusalem from this spot, and it is probable that this was one of the routes patrolled by the first Templars, a circumstance that may have encouraged Baldwin to make the offer to the Cistercians in the first place.

There was a Greek monastery situated there before the era of the crusaders, and it still existed in the time of Abbot Daniel’s visit between 1106 and 1108. However, Baldwin II, evidently aware of the impact of the Cistercian reform in the West, clearly wanted to encourage them to establish a monastery in the kingdom, for there still existed many holy sites without Latin communities.

In fact, Bernard of Clairvaux was not enthusiastic, apparently believing that military insecurity and the climate made it undesirable. He later wrote that he had given the site, together with Baldwin’s grant of 1,000 gold pieces, to the Premonstratensians. St Bernard remained consistent, for there were no Cistercian houses in the crusader states until after his death in 1153. Even then, in contrast to their phenomenal expansion in the West, they had a very small presence, most notably in 1157 at Belmont to the south-east of Tripoli."

The three last paragraphs quote from The Crusader States by Malcom Barber, (2012, p 161-162), Yale University Press. The illustration shows Nabi Samwil (Palestine), known in the Middle Ages as ‘Mount Joy’, a hill from which pilgrims took their first view of Jerusalem (Pic courtesy of Prof Bale), source Birbeck University of London

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