Fighting Knights

Israelis have taken to a curious sport – men in armor bashing at each other with swords.

Israeli sword fighters salute their flag in the latest sport craze (photo credit: COURTESY MICHAEL MORGULIS)
Israeli sword fighters salute their flag in the latest sport craze
LAURENT BEMTGEN of Luxembourg landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport in January with curious items in his luggage.
He arrived carrying a five-kilogram steel helmet, like the kind worn by knights in the late 14th century, a wooden shield emblazoned with his coat of arms, a steel breast plate and pads to protect his forearms and legs, gauntlets for his hands, and, of course, his sword.
No, he did not come to reconquer the Holy Land. He came with 30 kilograms of armor and weapons to meet Israeli knights in battle. Bemtgen, along with top fighters from France, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine, arrived to compete in one-on-one combat, in Israel’s first international medieval fighting tournament.
While the term, Jewish knights, may seem like a historical oxymoron, there is an Israeli team of heavy metal enthusiasts, mostly young immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who take this extreme sport to the extreme. With no official backing, they purchase the expensive, custom-made equipment, train intensively and travel to do battle in tournaments in Europe. If during medieval times, a prudent Jew would run away at the sight of a knight brandishing a sword, these Israelis, whose sartorial tastes lean to steel, are itching for a good fight.
“History knew Jews who were warriors and knew how to defend themselves and protect their honor with weapons, and that is a big part of our movement, to remind people of that,” Sergey Furman, who in real life is a 30-year-old, mild-mannered, soft-spoken surgical nurse in Upper Nazareth, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Six months ago, the Israeli band of knights won 14 consecutive bouts in the Battle of the Nations tournament held in the medieval, walled city of Aigues-Mortes, in the south of France. The Israeli team placed eighth among 22 countries.
This modern-day, full-contact, armored combat, with historically accurate equipment and heraldry, is both martial and art in equal measure. Using blunted period weapons, participants hack, slash and wrestle opponents to the ground in events ranging from duels to combat in groups of 21 fighters. For some, there is a fascination with the romantic aspects of a knight in shining armor, a Miniver Cheevy-like longing for “the days of old, when swords were bright and steeds were prancing.”
There is talk of it becoming an Olympic sport.
Michael Morgulis, 28, is the captain of the Israeli team and the battering ram of the fledgling movement; and he organized the international tournament that took place in Haifa on January 23, financing much of it out of his own pocket. In his day job, he works in the IT computer department of a construction company; evenings he devotes to “knight school.”
“I love it because it’s a martial art that you do as a team,” he tells The Report. “It’s both a sport and culture. You have to know the armor and do historical research of the period.”
The Israeli team could not find a suitable heraldic icon in the medieval period, so they went modern, with a patriotic coat of arms symbolizing the flag of Israel, a white tunic over the armor with two vertical blue strips on each side. It looks like something between a prayer shawl and tzitzit [ritual fringes], not exactly a symbol to strike fear in the hearts of opponents, who often emblazon fearsome lions on their tunics. In international tournaments, as captain, Morgulis wears large blue Jewish stars on his shoulders. In the opening ceremonies, when all the teams march in, the Israelis wear their IDF berets.
“We are proud of the fact that we served in the IDF,” Morgulis says.
Full-contact, armored fighting events grew out of theatrical and mostly tame historical reenactments. The Battle of the Nations, in its fourth year, is the first international full contact competition of this scale that uses steel armor. It has grown from year to year since it started in 2009, and thus far has been won by Russia every time. The Israelis first joined the tournament in 2012 in Poland, where the Israeli team took eighth place among 12 nations. They hope to raise funds to travel to the next event this June in Trogir, Croatia, where teams from 30 countries are expected to do battle.
“We were worried about anti-Semitism in Poland but everyone came to our tent the last evening there. They were enthusiastic about us,” says Morgulis.
Bemtgen, whose Luxembourg team camped next to the Israelis in France, has great respect for the Israeli team. “I see it as a great honor to fight with an Israeli knight,” the 28-year-old marketing manager relates to The Report. “The Israelis are a strong team, very good fighters and worthy opponents,” he adds gallantly.
THEY ALL met in a roped-off arena in Haifa before a crowd of some 300 spectators.
“This is not a game. This is a sport that requires a lot of courage,” proclaimed the MC and explained the rules. Swords must be blunted, but are still dangerous. Stabbing or repeatedly delivering excess force to the same point of contact is not allowed. Fighters can hit any region in the “kill zone,” which excludes the feet, back of knees, groin, back of neck and base of skull.
Vertical strikes to the spine and horizontal strikes to the back of the neck are forbidden.
There is no choking, and no cursing. Each of the seven fights consisted of three two-minute rounds, with a minute’s rest in between, during which a page fanned the fighters so that a sluggish breeze might filter through the holes in the helmet. There is a point system for each accurate strike of the sword. A knight achieves extra points if he throws his opponent to the ground.
It was the first international-level match for Furman, the nurse from Upper Nazareth.
He fought against Hugues Lafon, a 22- year-old experienced knight from France who was taller, heavier and trains in kickboxing.
It was a thrilling display of opponents dressed in full armor, circling each other, looking for weakness, the clanging sound of a sword crashing on top of a helmet, shield ramming into shield then thrust against the chest, a kick to the gut sending the opponent reeling to the ropes, the sharp sound of sword striking sword. The Frenchman was whacking Furman with zeal, knocking him to the ground and hitting him to get more points. One can imagine the sound that reverberates through the skull when a sword clangs on the helmet.
“The first time you get a whack on the head, you hear the voices of your ancient ancestors telling you to leap up the tallest tree and throw coconuts at the opponent,” says Furman.
And then in the second round, Lafon switched to a lethal-looking battle axe.
Had Furman’s mother been present, she would have fainted on the spot. Furman’s 30 kilograms of armor got heavier and heavier, until towards the end, he had trouble moving and parrying Lafon’s bludgeoning attacks.
During a corps-a-corps engagement, Furman’s helmet came off, bloodying his nose.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he says.
True, when compared to the others. A sword pierced through the helmet and just missed the eye of the first Israeli, Denis Karachunsky, 22. His Russian opponent, 10 kilograms heavier, kept up a quick and steady attack, engaging him with his sword.
The Israeli team favors a helmet with chain mail for better vision and ventilation rather than the more impressive, hermetically closed ones. All the equipment is custom made in Eastern Europe. A medieval knight’s tailormade suit of armor was extremely expensive then and is still expensive today, ranging from $1,500 to $11,000.The Israelis send their measurements and hope for the best.
In the seven matches, two Israelis had their helmets pulled off which didn’t happen to any of the visitors. In Karachunsky’s case, the Russian’s sword accidentally ripped through an opening in the helmet to wound his upper eyelid. This is against the rules and it could have been a technical win for Karachunsky, but he chose to continue the fight with one eye closed. He lost, but not before being thrown against the rail and almost tossed out of the ring.
YEVGENY YLNITZKY from Beersheba twisted his knee in the first round and limped out, giving his opponent from Belarus a technical victory.
Oleg Morozov, a 28-year-old Israeli fencing coach, was stabbed twice on the one part of the body that is not protected, the top of his feet, which are covered by soft, thin leather.
This is against the rules. The first time it happened, his Latvian opponent received a warning from the judges. The second time cost the Latvian the match. Realizing his mistake, he gallantly walked over and raised Morozov’s arm, declaring him the winner.
And then things got worse.
It was to be the highlight of the evening, the last fight, with the experienced and highly trained Morgulis up against the head of the Ukrainian team, ranked second in the world. It ended with the Ukrainian wheeled off on a stretcher.
Morgulis danced around his opponent with deft foot movements. Their swords engaged; their shields rammed in a rhythm of attacks and parries. Morgulis knocked his opponent to the ground. Oleg Podluzhnyi, the Ukraine’s historical fencing champion, quickly recovered, springing back onto his feet, not an easy feat when wearing 30 kilos of armor.
Then Morgulis struck his opponent’s sword, broke it and sent it flying outside the arena.
In the third round, Podluzhnyi knocked Morgulis to the ground, but tangled his leg and fell atop of him, twisting his knee in the process. It was a technical win for Morgulis, but he gallantly gave his cup to his opponent.
He asked that the Ukrainian national anthem be played in honor of Podluzhnyi, who stood on one leg supported by two people, before being wheeled out to the hospital. Only one Israeli won a match, Amir Buganov, 23, who serves in the IDF, against the Estonian Jaan Murumets.
And what of Bemtgen, the knight from Luxembourg? The 1.9-meter tall knight looked dashing in his suit of armor, with his tunic boasting a colorful, heraldic symbol of a red lion ready to pounce, tail upright, four menacing claws extended and a yellow crown atop his head, against a background of horizontal blue and white stripes. It is the heraldic symbol of the House of Luxembourg and also of the last king of Jerusalem in the 13th century, Henri II, who is somehow connected to Luxembourg’s ruling family. After the fall of Acre to Muslim forces in 1291, Henry II and his knights retreated to Cyprus.
Bemtgen didn’t yield an inch, controlling his 5 x 5-meter piece of the Holy Land and brandishing his sword with blithe elegance.
Up against him was Ilia Gubernikov, 33, from Netanya, new to the sport, who managed to stay on his feet for the entire three rounds, parrying Bemtgen’s judicious but accurate thrusts while scoring some points of his own.
Bemtgen won 15:12.
After the playing of the national anthem and receiving his winner’s cup in front of a crowd of 300 spectators, Bemtgen tossed the colorful Luxembourg flag high in the air. As it swirled down, it gently draped across Gubernikov’s shoulders, much to the cheering of the crowd.
Bemtgen left the flag behind in Israel, but the gallant gesture didn't lighten the heavy load he had to carry back home to Luxembourg.