The Crusades

When the armies of Islam established an empire that stretched from Spain to India, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople managed to hold on to Anatolia (that piece of land in western Asia that is today the country called Turkey) and the Balkans (southeastern Europe). Roman civilization and Christian teachings remained vibrant among the Byzantines while they also continued under different forms in western Europe. Three hundred years later, the Muslim empire was strengthened by an incursion of Turks from central Asia. (The Turks have not always lived in Turkey.) The Turks left the Abassid emperor on the throne but came to control the bureaucracy of the government and the army. They converted to Islam, adopted aspects of Persian culture, and sought to reclaim north African lands that had been lost to Abassid control, and also to conquer new lands for Islam.

The Byzantine Christians, now called Orthodox, had recently been declared outside the Church by the Pope and western Christians, now called Catholic. In spite of that division, Byzantine Emperor Alexius begged for reinforcements from western Europe to protect his land from the Muslim Turks. Pope Gregory, although willing to help, was distracted by the politics of the Investiture Controversy and his showdown with Holy Roman Emperor Henry. Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban, was even more willing to help. He declared a Crusade—an army of Christian soldiers who would wear the cross on their armor and would fight to defend the Christian faith against “infidels,” people unfaithful to Jesus Christ. (Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but deny that he is the Son of God or is anyone’s Savior.)

Preachers declared the glory of fighting for Jesus Christ in the Holy Land and overthrowing nonChristian governments. Many Christians answered the call. The first to arrive in Constantinople were peasants seeking glory, untrained and unequipped for war. The Byzantine Emperor was not impressed, but he sent them to the front lines, where they were quickly overwhelmed by the Turks. Then, in 1095, the First Crusade arrived. The Emperor was still unimpressed, but he prepared to send these European knights to the front as well. To his surprise, they refused his command. They said that they had not come to defend Anatolia, but to capture Jerusalem and make it a Christian city. The Emperor had them sign an agreement that any land they captured from the Muslims would be part of the Byzantine Empire. They signed the agreement, but they did not keep it. Instead, they defeated the Muslims along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and established western-style kingdoms in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.

The Abassids and Turks were also not impressed by the Crusaders. They were willing to cede these lands to Europeans if the Europeans would help them fight the Muslims in Egypt. Not to be outdone, the Egyptian Muslims offered to recognize the Crusader kingdoms if they helped to fight the Abassids and Turks. The Crusaders signed agreements with neither Muslim government. They clung to their conquests and ruled them for fifty to two hundred years (Edessa being the first to fall and Jerusalem the last).

When it became clear that the Crusaders were not strong enough to hold their kingdoms, European leaders called for additional crusades. The Second Crusade was sent in 1146, but did little to help the Crusader kingdoms survive. The Third Crusade, which began in 1201, was the Crusade of legendary proportions. The Muslim leader was Kurdish general al-Malik al-Nasir Salah el-Din Yusuf, known in Europe as Saladin. European leaders included Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. Each of these primas donnas expected full command of the Crusade and resented the presence of the others. Frederick died on his way to the Holy Land. According to legend, while wearing full armor he fell off his horse into a river and drowned, pulled to the bottom by all that metal. Phillip and Richard both made it to Jerusalem, but quarreled incessantly over leadership of the Crusading soldiers. Eventually Phillip took his French knights and went home. Richard finally also had to withdraw. Traveling through the Holy Roman Empire to avoid entering France (where he expected trouble from Phillip), Richard was captured and held for ransom. His mother was able to raise the money to set him free, even when his brother John and King Phillip of France offered a bribe to the Germans to keep Richard in prison.

The Fourth Crusade set out for Jerusalem but never arrived. Stopping in Venice, they were promised transportation to the Holy Land if they would first attack Constantinople. (Venice and the Byzantines were competing for trade along the Silk Roads, especially in the Mediterranean Sea.) The Crusaders agreed, attacked Constantinople, and set up a western-style kingdom that lasted more than fifty years until their capital was retaken by the Byzantine army. The Fifth Crusade was no more successful in preserving the Crusader kingdoms in western Asia.

King Louis IX of France, the famous Saint Louis, attempted two crusades that would surprise the Muslims by landing in Egypt and working their way along the coast. Both attempts failed. In 1212, a rumor spread through Europe that the failure of the Crusaders was due to their sinful nature, being adult men, but that younger innocent boys could defeat the Muslims. Many boys left their homes and families to march to the Holy Land. Most became tired and turned back. A few were captured in port cities and sold elsewhere as slaves. None of them made it to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, some Christians in Europe asked why they had to travel a thousand miles to fight the infidel when enemies of the Church could be found closer to home. The reconquest of Spain and Portugal was described as a Crusade. Battles against groups of Christian heretics (including the Albigensians) were called Crusades. Persecution of the Jewish communities in Europe grew more intense at this time; these attacks were also called Crusades. Even in 1518, the Holy Roman Emperor was hoping to form a Crusade to drive the Turks away from Vienna and to reclaim parts of southeastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire. This potential Crusade collapsed under distractions from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

For centuries, Muslim historians treated the Crusades as little more than a minor inconvenience. Only in the twentieth century, after the Ottoman Empire fell and Britain and France gained control in western Asia, did Muslims begin to list the Crusades among events when European Christians had been enemies to Islam. As the Muslim lands gained independence after the Second World War (but had to accept the existence of Israel among them), memories of the Crusades grew in significance for Muslim leaders. Christians today might be scolded about the evils of the Crusades, but while they were happening they were scarcely even noticed in the Muslim world. J.

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