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.

Alexander the Grape

Why is Alexander III of Macedon so often referred to as “Alexander the Great”? Some say he earned the title by his military victories, and others say that Alexander was great because he built a large empire. The most enduring legacy of Alexander, though, was not political or military. Alexander’s greatness comes from the establishment of a culture, called “Hellenistic,” that has shaped civilization and history for the last two dozen centuries.

Alexander’ father, Phillip II of Macedon, managed (through a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers) to bring all the Greek city-states under his control, a feat no leader before him had accomplished. When Phillip was assassinated, a teen-aged Alexander inherited his father’s kingdom. Needing a task significant enough to maintain the unity of Greek and Macedonian entities, Alexander completed his father’s plans to conquer the Persian Empire. Phillip and Alexander could have chosen to expand to the west. They could have controlled the Mediterranean world, overthrowing Rome and Carthage and other Mediterranean cities. Their choice to expand instead to the east was already significant for future world history. But Persia had more wealth and power to grant its conquerors, and it was ripe for the picking. Moreover, Phillip and Alexander could point to the past Persian invasions of Greece—although they predated the birth of anyone alive at that time, and although the Persians lost—as reason enough to return the favor and invade Persia.

Alexander’s conquests took him into Anatolia (now the country of Turkey) and south along the Mediterranean coast. He accomplished the extremely difficult task of laying siege to Trye and capturing that powerful Phoenician city. He also fought the Philistine city of Gaza and razed it. Ancient sources say that Alexander visited Jerusalem and was welcomed into the city, although the accuracy of their accounts has been doubted by some researchers. Then Alexander was welcomed into Egypt, where he was treated not only as a conqueror but also as one of the gods.

Alexander and his army, having stripped the Persian Empire of its western lands, now set out against the Emperor, Darius III. Eventually, Darius was captured and killed. (Alexander married one of his daughters to solidify Alexander’s claim to the Persian throne.) Moving further east, Alexander first laid claim to the eastern parts of the Persian Empire, then tried to expand his power even beyond what the Persians controlled. Eventually, his army resisted the continuing adventure of conquest. One of his contemporary biographers depicts Alexander standing at a river in India, gazing across the river and weeping because land and people existed that he would never rule. Accepting the will of his soldiers, Alexander turned back to the west.

Stopping in Babylon, Alexander fell ill and died. Strong evidence suggests that he drank himself to death. Some historians, both ancient and modern, think he may have been poisoned. Others think he died of illness—malaria, botulism, and meningitis have all been proposed. Alexander had an infant son who should have inherited the empire. The generals of Alexander’s army agreed to divide the empire among themselves and rule it on behalf of Alexander IV until the lad was old enough to wield power himself. Mysteriously, the boy died before he could receive his inheritance, and the kingdoms of the generals remained in place for hundreds of years, until Roman power eventually picked them off, one by one.

With Alexander and his armies came Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science. Alexander ordered cities to be built in his conquered lands, bearing his name. Alexandria in Egypt, and other cities elsewhere, became centers of Greek culture surrounded by older African and Asian cultures. The family of Ptolemy in Egypt and of Seleucus in Syria maintained Greek culture while ruling over non-Greeks. Blending Greek thought with older patterns produced a civilization called Hellenistic. This civilization preserved the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and other Greeks without erasing the religions, traditions, and cultures of western Asia and northern Africa. Even the Jewish people were transformed by Hellenistic culture, as groups like the Pharisees examined the writings of Moses and the prophets in the fashion of the Axial Age, seeking how to please God through personal obedience and piety, overlooking the more relationship-oriented words of God who had based his covenant on the proposition, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Other nations have produced leaders whom they called “Great.” Few have done more than Alexander, in his brief lifespan, to alter the course of history and to shape the thinking of many peoples and cultures. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Sacrifice

Genesis 22 has inspired awe and horror in God’s people for many generations. Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, about this chapter. He makes the interesting point that any man today who dared to imitate Abraham and prepare to offer his son as a burnt offering would be stopped, arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. Any statement that God had told him to do such a thing would be disregarded as an attempt to obtain a verdict of innocent on the grounds of insanity.

Kierkegaard overlooked the fact that Genesis 22 contains a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. However, Kierkegaard correctly indicated that this account teaches more than the truth that we should give our best to God. Many teachers see only that lesson—Isaac was the best thing Abraham could offer to God, and God demanded that from him. A vast distance separates our requirement to give our best to God and God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

How was Abraham capable of daring to obey such a command? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham’s faith in the promise of the resurrection made him able to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. If Abraham knew about the resurrection, he must also have known about the promised Savior. Perhaps Abraham even believed that his miracle son, Isaac, was the promised Savior, the blessing from his family for the entire world. Instead of recognizing Isaac as a picture of Jesus, Abraham may have thought that he was in the presence of his Redeemer in the person of his son.

So a father is prepared to accept—and even to cause—the death of his son for the good of the world. The son trusts his father and does not resist his father’s will. He even carries the wood to the place of sacrifice, as Jesus carried his own cross. Abraham is stopped just in time, because Isaac is not the Christ. He is only a picture of the Christ. A second picture of Jesus appears, a ram taking the place of Isaac as Jesus himself would take the place of Isaac in the future.

As they climbed the hill for the sacrifice, Isaac asked Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham must have gulped and sighed before he said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When he said those words, Abraham expected Isaac to be the lamb, for God had provided Isaac by a miracle to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s words were made true when he provided a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. They were made more true when God provided his only-begotten Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Not only is Jesus depicted first by Isaac and then by the ram; he is also present at this near-sacrifice. He is the angel of the Lord who speaks to Abraham, repeating the promise that Abraham’s family would be a mighty nation and would provide a blessing for the entire world. Jesus himself fulfilled that promise when he suffered and died on the cross and when he rose to life again on the third day. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our eternal life. This promise of a resurrection strengthened Abraham to obey the command of God, and (as the letter to the Hebrews says) “figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”—on the third day from the command to sacrifice his son!

Where did this take place? “The land of Moriah… on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” God said (Genesis 22:2). This mountain of Moriah is mentioned again in II Chronicles 3:1, where we are told that Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Moriah is one of the seven hills of Jerusalem, and the animal sacrifices (which, like Isaac, were pictures of Jesus) were offered to God in the Temple on Mount Moriah from the time of Solomon until the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the second Temple until the time of Jesus. Calvary may possibly be the very outcropping of Mount Moriah on which Isaac was nearly sacrificed. If not, we can be sure that the place where Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and the place where God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son were very near each other. J.