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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

The Crusades - a history

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

The bloody capture of Jerusalem.

The Crusades are often viewed in isolation - as a sudden rise of European armies to attack Muslim lands in the name of religion. They are therefore a symbol of medieval backwardness, showing how terrible religious fanaticism can become. But this portrayal is incomplete. Sure, fanaticism was a major theme at play for both sides - but the story of the Crusades go far beyond that. It is not a unique, singular event: it’s merely a chapter in a long clash of civilizations.

The Cradle of Christendom - and Islam?

When Islam appeared in the 7th century A.D, all of the lands we call Islamic today - Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia - were the heart of Christendom. Back then, Western Europe was a cold and distant place, filled with strange Germanic kingdoms - but Palestine, Syria and Egypt were true home of all things Christian. Here lay Christianity's greatest monasteries, churches, and sites.

However, from 634 to 732, the forces of the Islamic Caliphate swept across the region with brute force. With an overwhelming momentum, they conquered Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and kept advancing into Christendom until they were stopped at Constantinople in 710 and at Tours in 732.

After 732, the momentum was lost. Increasingly, they went on the defensive. The Franks (of modern France) recaptured northern Spain in the 9th century and the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire) had major offensives in the 10th century, recapturing Anatolia, Cyprus and Syria.

Dhimmis and Fitnah's

For Christians and Jews - the "People of the Book" - living under Islamic rule was a complicated matter. In some regards, it meant relief from the convoluted court politics of Byzantium. Some could - despite being infidels - work in the courts of Muslim rulers. A good example is St. John of Damascus: though a staunch critic of Islamic theology, St. John also worked as a clerk for the Emir of Damascus. As non-Muslims, they would also be excluded from various duties and obligations in society and the military.

St. John of Damascus icon.

But in general, living under Islamic rule meant being a second-class citizen. Christians and Jews became dhimmis. They had to pay special Kharaj and Jizya taxes to maintain their right of worship and live in a form of religious segregation. For example, they were not allowed to worship in a noticeable manner; build new churches or synagogues; were not allowed to wield arms, ride any other animal than donkeys, or use any form of religious imagery - like the cross - in public. Obviously, preaching Christianity was not allowed.

Soon, pilgrimage to Christianity's holy sites also became complicated. In 966 A.D, an Islamic mob torched the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity's holiest site) and burned Patriarch John VII to death. Then, in 1006, Caliph al-Hakim carried out the complete destruction and desecration of the Church in his campaign to destroy Christian places of worship. The same treatment occurred in various churches and monasteries.

Meanwhile, the Caliphate was engulfed in bitter power struggles between its nobles. The Fitnah's or civil wars broke the Caliphate into splintered factions, often fighting against each other. The divide between Shiites and Sunnis also escalated, tearing the Islamic realm apart. The Islamic power was clearly declining.

The Rise of the Turks

But this gradual decline suddenly reversed in the 11th century. A new force awakened - the Seljuk Turks. They were a nomadic, Eursaian people that migrated to the Caucasus and adopted Sunni Islam. Turks were a martial people - very talented fighters - and infused a new aggressive energy into the Islamic world.

In the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks won a crushing victory over the Byzantines, even capturing their Emperor. They then wrecked Armenia and Georgia, destroying the once-proud Christian kingdoms of the Caucasus. Inspired by what seemed to be a God-backed offensive, the Turks rallied the Islamic forces and drove the Christian Romans back into the Aegean Sea. They conquered all of modern-Turkey within a short span of time.

The Battle of Manzikert, where the Turks stood victorious.

At this point, the Byzantines had only Greece and Constantinople left. The Turks were at their gates, and the situation was bleak. Emperor Alexios II Komnenos therefore sent a plea to his Western allies calling for immediate military aid.

The Western allies clearly saw what was unfolding. They had fought the same Islamic invasions for centuries. Since the victory at Tours in 732, fighting had continued on the frontiers of Spain, Sicily and Italy. In 872, Arabic warlords attacked and plundered Rome. They even ransacked St. Peter's Basilica and St. Paul's Church - the heart of the Western Church (later Roman Catholic). In 997, Moors sacked and destroyed Santiago de Compostella in Spain - another sacred site in Christendom.

The Pope of Rome, Urban II, therefore took Emperor Alexios' plea seriously. If Constantinople fell, then he would be left alone to fight the Turks in the East and the Arabs in the South.

The First Crusade

Pope Urban II called for all of Europe's Christian feudal lords to form a Christian military armada to reinforce the Eastern Christians and re-conquer the heart of Christendom: Antioch and - most of all - Jerusalem. The Pope even went as far as promising remission of sins for those who went to fight in this martial endeavor.

The First Crusade at Antioch, by Frederic Schopin.

Thus began the First Crusade. An army of 60,000 predominantly Frankish knights and soldiers marched across the continent and invaded Turkey. Contrary to what the Turks expected, they fought with grim determination and won every battle. By 1099, they had re-conquered all of Turkey, Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and - at last - Jerusalem. Once in Jerusalem, the Crusaders went on a notorious killing spree, slaughtering most of the defenders and civilian inhabitants.

These Frankish Crusaders then established new Crusader-kingdoms there, and would go on to rule the land for a century. At this time, the region was still an even mixture of Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. Now, with the additional appearance of Western Europeans, the Holy Land became a very cosmopolitan region. European merchants seized the opportunity and opened several marketplaces, turning the region into a commercial hotspot - a trading bridge between the West and East. To sustain this commercial traffic, the Franks maintained a loose grip on the locals, allowing foreigners to come and go, worship and trade, as they wished.

The Crusader Kingdoms and the Islamic factions by 1100.

This trading boom may help explain the stunning silence of the Muslim world to the crusade. For 44 years, they mounted no counterattacks, and instead engaged in trade, diplomacy and collaboration with their new Frankish neighbors.

Besides, at this time, the Muslim realm was deeply divided. The intensifying Sunni-Shia enmity and the endless power struggles among court princes gridlocked the region in decades of infighting. The Fatmids, who ruled Egypt and were Shi'a, even tried to forge an alliance with the Crusaders to attack the Sunni Seljuk Turks (also known as the Abbasid realm). The Crusaders refused to participate, spending their time consolidating the reclaimed territories instead.

Saladin and the King's Crusade

Then arose Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub, or Saladin (b. 1137). Saladin was a Kurdish noble who had used both family relations and shrewd politics to unite all Muslim lands from Egypt to Syria. He successfully ended the Fatmid rule over Egypt, ending its Shi'a adherence, and reconciled it with the Seljuk Turks. This grand Caliphate - dubbed the Ayyubian Caliphate - now stood united against the Frankish Crusaders.

Embroiled by Jihad - Holy War - Sultan Saladin mobilised his resources to drive the Crusaders out of the Holy Land. A new wave of wars erupted between Saladin's unified Muslim realm and the Crusader states. This culminated in the fateful Battle of Hattin in 1187, where Saladin decisively defeated the Crusaders, capturing Jerusalem shortly after. Sharia rule resumed. Saladin now dreamed of invading Europe - to pick up where the first Muslims of the 8th century had left off. But first, Europe came back to him.

King Guy of Jerusalem surrenders to Saladin after the Battle of Hattin.

A Third Crusade was assembled - this time led by Europe's own Kings. King Richard Lionheart of England and King Philip II of France arrived in the Holy Land to recapture Jerusalem (Philip returned to France due to poor health, leaving Richard in command of the army). Hard combat ensued along the coastline as the Crusaders recaptured Acre, Jaffa and numerous other towns. They routed Saladin's army at Arsuf in 1191, and defeated him again at Jaffa in 1192, but were always short of recapturing Jerusalem itself. A major issue was the constant disagreements between the Crusader nobles, preventing them from standing united.

King Richard Lionheart of England

As time ran out, King Richard and Saladin ultimately agreed on a truce. The agreement guaranteed free entry to Jerusalem by Christian pilgrims in exchange for a withdraw of Crusader armies.

It should be noted that Richard and Saladin, though mortal enemies, had great respect for each other. Both offered some sense of mutual chivalry in an age of war.

The Sack of Constantinople

As Richard Lionheart had failed to recapture Jerusalem, a Fourth Crusade was called (1202 - 1204). It was led by the French, but financed on credit by the Venetians - a rising Italian power. However, this crusade never reached the Holy Land. Instead, it led to one of the most disgraceful episodes in European history.

In the aftermath of the Great Schism in 1054, when the Western Church (of the Pope) and the Eastern (Orthodox) Church split, relations between Latin and Eastern Christians soured. This had already caused some tensions during the First Crusade - but was now much worse. This was made no better by the geopolitical rivalry between the Republic of Venice and the Byzantine Empire.

The Latin Venetians saw an opportunity: they financed the Fourth Crusade on loans under the condition that the Crusaders also acted in the interests of Venice. Seeking hegemony over Greece, the Venetians plotted a dramatic betrayal. As the Crusader army rendezvoused in Constantinople, a disagreement erupted between the Latins and the Byzantines. In 1204, the Venetian-French alliance turned on their Eastern allies by besieging their undefended capital. Once behind the walls, they went on a rampage: maiming, killing, destroying and plundering all of Constantinople. With the illustrious city destroyed, they carved up the Byzantine Empire among themselves. It was a shocking stab in the back.

Constantinople - now depraved of all treasures and manpower - was forever crippled. Though the Byzantine Empire regained control over Constantinople and Greece, it would never truly recover from this plunder in 1204. It slowly began to die, giving the Turks room to expand.

End of the Crusades - Rise of the Ottomans

The Crusader kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean held on stubbornly, but eventually folded under pressure. Five more Crusades were waged against the Islamic realm, but none were successful. Crusades began to look more like a Papal tool for power than anything else, with some being directed to European destinations arguably to expand Papal authority. Besides, sympathy for the Eastern Romans was dwindling. They were no longer brothers in faith, but "schismatic" rivals to the Papacy. Maimed and weakened by the Fourth "Crusade", the Byzantines were left alone in the fight against the Turks.

Before this final showdown occurred however, the Islamic world was stalled by a totally new plague: the Mongols. These notorious nomads fought with shocking brutality. They burned into Persia, destroying anyone who dared oppose them. In 1258, they captured Baghdad - the cultural heart of the Islamic world - and destroyed it. The library and madrasas were burned to the ground, and its civilian populace was massacred. Baghdad and Mesopotamia were wrecked a second time in the 13th century by Tamerlane (who was, ironically, a Sunni Muslim). This was a huge setback for the Islamic world.

The Mongols destroying Baghdad in 1258.

The Turks rose from the ashes as the only strong power left in the Islamic world. Taking advantage of the vacuum left by the notorious Mongols and Timur, Sultan Osman I formed the Ottoman dynasty (he also styled it the Roman Sultanate, as a challenge to Byzantium).

Finally gaining respite, the Ottomans turned their attention back to their original goal: Constantinople. In 1453, while Renaissance Europe was engrossed in their own affairs, Sultan Mehmed II bombarded Constantinople and, at last, conquered it. The fate the Crusades fought to prevent, had ultimately happened. Constantinople was severely plundered for three days - all the Christians were either massacred or sold into slavery.

With the Byzantine Empire destroyed, the Ottomans went on to finally lead the Second Islamic invasion into Europe (the first being the 8th century invasion that ended in the battle of Constantinople in 710 and Tours in 732). This invasion was massive in scale, but was ultimately crushed in the battles of Malta (1565), Lepanto in 1571 and, finally, at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. After Vienna, the Turks would never again try to invade Europe.

Aftermath of the Battle of Vienna, where the Ottomans were stopped.

Final reflections

When the Crusades are put in context, we see a completely different picture: a story of a near-continuous struggle between the armies of Christendom and Islam. We also understand that, though the wars were religious in nature, they were not exclusively religious. There was a lot of geopolitics and political intrigue involved.

The Crusades is therefore not a separate era in history - but a mere chapter in a bigger story of religiously motivated wars between Western Christendom and Islam. The Eastern (Orthodox) Christians, meanwhile, found themselves torn in the middle - desperate to resist the Turks, but also suspicious of the mighty Papal West. In addition, their ability to defend themselves dwindled with their dying Empire. When Constantinople fell in 1453, the last physical bastion of the Eastern Orthodox was gone, leaving it state-less under Islamic rule. The Russian state would later adopt the responsibility of being a political entity defending Orthodox Christians, but being situated far North, this had arguably a symbolic, rather than a practical, effect.

We now find ourselves in a new, modern era where secularism is the new project. When the Ottoman Empire fell in 1923, the secular rule was implemented under Kemal Ataturk. He ended the dhimmi system for non-Muslims, ended slavery, and turned Hagia Sophia into a museum to acknowledge its rich Christian and Islamic history. Similar movements occurred across Europe and the Middle East. It is now our hope that we can maintain mutual respect, civil equality and tolerance for each other, keeping politics separated from faith.

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