The story that dominated the news in the last year of the Eleventh Century was how the heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon the first of a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land and the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan.
In 1099, things changed utterly for east-west relations, whilst the crusaders and the fiefdoms they established in the Levant have haunted historical memory to this day.
The Crusades have enthralled me from an early age. From the television serials and films of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe to Ridley Scott’s dubious, flashy, but entertaining Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, westerners, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. In succeeding years, I widened my early, naive perspective, learned more about the crusades and actually visited many of the fortresses the invaders built to defend their stolen patrimony. A selection of my photographs accompanies this article.
What follows is a contemplation on the origins, character and events of the crusades. It does not claim to be a comprehensive and scholarly treatise – erudite and dedicated historians have been there and done that. Rather it is a synthesis my own knowledge of the history of the Middle East and opinions and observations derived therefrom. The inspiration and impetus derived from a three part documentary series that screened on Al Jazeera a few years back. I have my criticisms of the series – it is hammy and very badly dressed, with op shop clothes and fake beards and wigs – i would never have let my crusaders and saracens out looking like that! – and lots of running and galloping around in sand deserts (the Levant is anything but … ) This was most probably due to a meagre budget, but with academic talking heads from Europe and the Middle East giving a commentary in English, French and Arabic, it contains many stimulating talking points, and it makes for a fascinating if harrowing tale.
What’s in a word?
Let’s begin with etymology.
Saracen derives form from the Greek, Sarakēnós or desert dwellers. a term with negative connotations widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages to refer to Arab Muslims. The implication was that they were a shady bunch. Arabs themselves did not use the word, but, irony of ironies, in modern Arabic, sariqun means thieves and bandits – very much like the derivation of the word Tory from the Irish word tóir ‘, bandit or highwayman, but in reality, a member of the Irish resistance to the depredations of Oliver Cromwell’s army in the mid seventeenth century. Beware of the pit of false associations and assumptions.
The Muslims called the invaders – for that is what they were – Franks believing that the invaders came from the western European land. Muslim historians did not use the term crusader; to them, it was not a religious war or a Christian one – it certainly was an unchristian war even if the cross was its symbol. They regarded eastern Christians just as much as victims as Muslims – which was indeed the case. To fired-up Franks, all cats were black in the dark. But in time, Arabs too came to refer to the Crusades as al Hurub as Salabiya, the Crusader Wars, salib being Arabic for ‘cross’.
The words Crusade and Crusader have different connotations in the western and eastern worlds.
Arabs and Muslims generally regard the Crusaders as invaders motivated not by faith but by ignorance and prejudice, and by material and territorial gain. Back then, the Arabs, and also, the Byzantines, regarded the Franks as brave, bold warriors, but also as opportunists and hypocrites, and uncouth and under-civilized compared to themselves.
When contemporary westerners talk of crusades in a Middle Eastern context, it is an unfortunate appropriation that is intended to imply righteous and spiritually and morally-justified and resolute endeavour – and yet to other cultures, it transmits a contrary and sinister signal. Arabs (and Afghans, Iranians, Kurds, and others) run for their rocket-launchers or for meagre shelter. The word is catnip to the propagandists and recruiters of al Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban, and to Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Crusades were not originally called such. For a century, western Christians called it The Lord’s War”, The Lord’s Militia, and, without a hint of irony, The Pilgrimage. It was only later that it came to be called was called The Crusades by European historians – who were in the main, monks – in 12th Century Germany, when a word emerged that meant “marked by the cross”, and the “Crusader” entered common usage.
There are other lexicographical connections. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – for it is also said that ‘faranjiya’ was a transliteration of Varangarians, the Byzantine emperor’s Viking bodyguard, deriving from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a place name or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank).
To head down an historical byway, one particular commander of the Varangarian Guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire, England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans(in southern Italy) and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Constantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even traveled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See; Harald Went a ‘Viking).
Like most historical events, the crusades were not black and white. The Christian and Muslim claims on the Levant were and remain historically, geographically and archaeologically tenuous. Neither were traditional, indeed, indigenous settlers. It was and is still about conquest – to have and to hold. Hence the Frankish lords, and the Muslim warlords who confronted and in time felled and expelled them, laid claim to power by force of arms, and by their mission, Jihad – and then and now, Jerusalem!
Jerusalem has always been about faith and passion – and to this day, there has been no city on Earth that people have got more passionate about. It’s a place of exquisite beauty. For many, its long history is more a matter of faith than of fact, the prime place on earth for God to meet Man, and for for some, the best argument against religion. I feel it myself whenever i am there! The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium like some do.
The city was deemed sacred from pre-history. Jews have long called it Jerusalem the Golden – it constitutes the bedrock of their ancient faith. Christians venerate it as the site of the death and resurrection of the Christ. The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’.
Iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. The Haram ash Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. The Dome of the Rock stands atop the boulder on which Abraham was said to have sought to sacrifice his son Isaac when the Lord stayed his hand, and from which Mohammad was said to have leapt to heaven to meet with his prophetic predecessors after his Night Journey to Jerusalem on the back of of Buraq, a steed with a human face.
A city of the mind as much as of this earth,Jerusalem haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy Summers the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium.
It was and remains venerated, coveted and fought over. During its long history, it has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and destroyed twice. There is a harrowing account of the Roman siege and fall in 70 CE in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem – a Biography, a must-have travel companion when visiting. Whilst the Romans laid siege and starved the city, it’s population already boosted during Passover, the Jewish rebels within fought a civil war among themselves. Tens of thousands died, and more were enslaved, and the Jews of Roman Palestine scattered across the known world. The city was raised to the ground – you can still see the huge bricks of the temple scattered around the foot of the eastern wall, just along from the Kotel plaza – and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in the Roman style, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.
The Lord’s War
The crusaders were drawn to the biblical “land of milk and honey” promised by god to the Jews, and now, by Pope Urban, his representative on earth. The ordinary folk who joined the quixotic Peter the Hermit’s disastrous “people’s crusade” in 1096 set out for the Holy Land out of an ignorant and innocent belief in a release from the vale of tears that was their ordinary feudal lot. There is no reason not to believe that for many Christians, attaining the Kingdom of Heaven was more Important than our brig span on this mortal coil. For a poor man in feudal days, death and salvation on crusade was preferable to a lifetime of hard labour in the fields of an earthly lord.
The people’s crusade has been regarded as a prelude to the First Crusade or, as a distinct part it, to be distinguished from the “Princes’ Crusade” which followed it three years later. This was much more well-organized, well-armed, and well-funded, and its participants were of an altogether different and secular mindset, and cut from a brutal and acquisitive martial cloth: the younger sons of western European aristocratic families and their armed gangs, fighting men, and more aptly, bandits, of poor means and avaricious dreams, and warlords who craved lands and lordships, provinces and principalities. They sought not salvation but sovereignty. And they only agreed to participate in the crusades if there was something in it for them.
In our more secular, rational times, we condemn those who maim and murder in the name of their god. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator (and among some faithful, it still is).
Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, propelled young and old, rich and poor, the mighty and the meek down the long, hard, and for most, murderous road to Jerusalem. Many perished en route, including tens of thousands of Jews who happens to be living in what is now Germany, Austria and the Balkans, and as many Christians in Anatolia and the Levant who happened to look like, well, Muslims! Collateral damage was not a Twentieth Century phenomenon.
Though outnumbered and beset by fatigue, hunger and thirst, the soldiers of Christ stormed Jerusalem and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword – men, women, children and livestock, Muslims, Jews and Christians – it really didn’t matter because after all those long months and miles of trial and tribulation, their blood was up, and they were doing God’s work. Six months afterwards, a Frankish visitor recorded that the Holy City reeked still of death and decay.
There was nothing new here! Jerusalem has witnessed much bloodshed during its long history.
It has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and destroyed twice. There is a harrowing account of the Roman siege and fall in 70 CE in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excelent Jerusalem – a Biography, a must-have travel-companion when visiting the Old City. Whilst the Romans laid siege and starved Jerusalem, it’s population already boosted during Passover, the Jewish rebels within fought a civil war among themselves. When the legions finally broke into the city, tens of thousands died, and more were enslaved, and the Jews of Roman Palestine were scattered across the known world. The city was razed to the ground – you can still see the huge bricks of the temple scattered around the foot of the eastern wall, just along from the Kotel plaza – and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in the Roman style, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.
When the Christian Crusaders sacked Jerusalem a millennium later, they left it standing with all the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim architecture that we see today, but slaughtered the unfortunate inhabitants. The next conqueror, Salah ad Din was more merciful a century later – he released the Christians who paid a ransom, though enslaving those who couldn’t raise the cash – it is said that he actually put his hand in his pocket to release a a few sad souls. Instances like this fostered the occidental myth of the noble and merciful Saladin that has endured in fiction and in film.
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing. They were, in modern parlance, a colonial project, the First Crusade was followed by a new campaign in Western Europe, not for pilgrims and solders, but for the common people to settle, live and work in the Holy Land – Germans, French, Italians. Former serfs became landholders. Minor nobles styled themselves as lords and monarchs in the lands they had seized, and displayed all the material accoutrements of rank and status. Wherever there was land and water, the newcomers moved in, seizing and settling the fertile coastal littoral and the fertile valleys – and iconic though arid Jerusalem, of course, and leaving the desert wastes and wadis to the Saracens.
“Settler colonialism” the crusader kingdoms might have been, but unlike other colonial projects from Romans to the British and French empires, many of the newcomers came to admire and mimic local ways. The Franks and Germans settled down, became landholders and aristocrats, settled down and absorbed the local vibe – clothes, food, hygiene habits (including regular bathing) and sexual relationships. In old British Empire parlance, they “went native”.
The Seven Crusades in Brief
That First Crusade owed its success more to Muslim disunity than to military might. The Franks were few in number, their ranks depleted during their oriental odyssey by battle, disease and defections – as ambitious lords and their entourages established their own domains in the cities they seized – Antioch, Tyre, and Acre, and in the east, the outlier Anatolian County of Edessa – out and out land grab and coup d’état by Baldwin of Boulogne, younger brother of Godfrey, who became the first king of Jerusalem.
The Franks soon fractured; the ‘Leper King’ of Jerusalem was surrounded by power-hungry warlords who pushed against his policy coexistence with the Muslims – principally Raymond de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan, garishly portrayed as storybook villains in Ridley Scott’s slash-and-bash Kingdom of God.
The Muslim fight-back began, however, when they found capable warlords who enforced unity, cohesion and purpose amongst jealous and competing emirs. First, there were the Zengids, Imad ed Din and his son, Nour ed Din, both murdered by recalcitrant emirs, who seized Edessa – and then the Ayyubids – most notably, a Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ed Din Ibn Ayyubi,
Salah ad Din, the legendary Saladin, was clever, cunning, and for all his fictional and cinematic credentials as a very “noble savage”, a cold-hearted and cruel emir. Back in his day, Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatamids – he engineered a military putsch and massacred them all. But he is revered to this day as an Arab and Muslim hero – notwithstanding his murderous methods and his Kurdish pedigree.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to Salah ad Din in 1187, after the devastating defeat of the crusader army on the Horns of Hattin in Galilee, and the surrender of the city by Balian of Ibelin (portrayed inaccurately with stiff upper lip by Orlando Bloom in Ridley Scott’s film). This is what Hattin looks like today, still as hot and dry as it was on that fateful day so long ago. The photographs were taken by our friend and guide Shmuel Browns of Isreal Tours.
Though they lost Jerusalem and Acre, the crusaders held on to their other domains, and successive popes and potentates fired hopes of its deliverance into the hands of true believers. Once again, the Muslims were their own worst enemies. Salah ed Din, the renowned soldier and schemer, could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?), and his death left the Ayyubid lands in the hands of lesser men. Pilgrims weep beside his tomb adjacent to the glorious Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. There are actually two catafalques – one modest and one extravagant, the latter donated by Kaiser Wilhelm of First World War fame during his celebrated tour of the Levant. It is said that his entourage attempted to poach Salah ad Din’s tomb and spirit it back to Germany, but were intercepted by the Sultan’s police.
Further crusades followed; there were to be seven in all, several headed up by the Holy Roman Emperor (an empire that was, in eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbons’ words, neither Roman nor holy), and the kings of France and England – the latter being Richard I, the celebrated “Lion Heart”, remembered by Muslims to this day more for his brutality than for his deeds of derring-do. The Second, launched to recapture Edessa, and failing in that, to take Damascus, was beaten back by Imad ad Din. The Third was King Richard’. He’d hoped to take back Jerusalem, after several military successes, languished on the Mediterranean coast.
There has been much folklore build around the contest between the Lion Heart and Saladin, but in fact the two never met. Salah ad Din’s brother handled the inconclusive negotiations. Richard eventually headed home, a journey which saw him held for literally a “kings ransom” for over a year in what is today’s Austria. After an absence of four years, he returned to England to confront his brother John who has acted as regent whilst he’d been gallivanting through the Levant. Hence the finale of so many many bad Robin Hood and Ivanhoe fictions and films – one always anticipates the friendly, avuncular brogue of Sean Connery. Richard died on campaign in France five years later, in 1199 whilst besieging a nondescript French fortress. He was killed by a crossbow wound that turned gangrenous – a scene reenacted in another of Ridley Scott’s dubious historical epics, about Robin Hood, of course – he really should have stuck to xenomorphs. Richard’s heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, his guts in Châlus (where he died), and the rest of his body at the feet of his father Henry II (of The Lion in Winter fame) at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.
Between the third and fourth, there occurred in about 1212 a quixotic venture that has gone down in historical memory and indeed, myth, as the Children’s Crusade, a dream-driven and ultimately fatal frolic intended to convert the Muslims of the Holy Land to Christianity, but instead, led to tens of thousands of children from France and Germany to be sold into slavery.
The Fourth Crusade demonstrated how for many soldiers of the cross, greed trumped creed when they sacked Constantinople in 1198, the greatest Christian city in the world, and slaughtered thousands of its inhabitants in what has been interpreted as the Papacy’s assault on the Orthodox faith – in reality, it was a brutal and bloody smash-and-grab. The Fifth made for Egypt in 1217 in what Winston Churchill might have described, in another time about another place, as a”soft under-belly”, and failed, just like Winston’s disastrous Dardanelles campaign, when the River Nile’s floods quagmired the Franks’ heavy cavalry.
The Sixth, led by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, recovered Jerusalem without bloodshed, Frederick having made a deal with Salah ed Din’s son Kamil, who had fallen out with his siblings. But fifteen years later, in 1244, it was reconquered. The Seventh returned to Egypt – what do they say about those who ignore history, etcetera? – and came up against the Mamluks, a Caucasian slave army raised bu Egypt’s Ayyubid rulers. In 1250, the Mamluks checkmated (ironically, a transliteration of the original Arabic), the invaders and their commander, French King Louis IX (later to be called Louis the Pious, but, whatever …) was taken captive. The king and his nobles were ransomed, and the rest given the choice between conversion and decapitation. And yet, the end of the Ayyubid dynasty followed soon afterwards when the the slave solders seized power for themselves and set their emir on the throne.
As often happens, the tides of history turn as events further afield intrude – and these afforded the crusader kingdoms a reprieve. In defending their stolen patrimony against the Arab push-back, the Crusader Kings conveniently colluded with another new power that had emerged out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out off the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire; and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. When they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and then collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’. They even employed the same hit-men, the infamous Hashashiyun, the Assassins, shadowy knives for hire, who although Shia in religious persuasion, and opposed to Sunni rulers, hired themselves out to Muslims and Crusaders alike.
The Mongol warlord Hulagu stormed Baghdad in 1258 and put it to the sword. It is said of old, that before the advent of Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia” (the British and Indian Armies learnt this the hard way during the disastrous Mesopotamian Campaign of 1916). The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam Hussein.
The antique, strategic and economically powerful cities of Aleppo and Damascus fell soon after, and with the fall of Baghdad, this ended the Abbasid caliphate. Only the Mamluks in Egypt held out, and under Sultan Saif ad Din al Qutuz, – born in Transoxiana in Central Asia – fought back, stemming the Mongol tide at Ain Jalut, Goliath’s Spring, in Galilee, in 1260. The Mongol forces, commanded by a Christian mercenary, included a sizeable contingent of Muslim and Christian Allies. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The victory established the legitimacy of Mamluk power in the Levant. And yet, Qutuz was assassinated soon afterwards, and the blond, blue-eyed former slave soldier Malik az Zahir Rukn ad Din Baibars, born just east of the Volga River, took power – it was said that he had a hand in Qutuz’ murder – and for seventeen years, he engaged in perpetual jihad against the Salabiyin. Village by village, town by town, fortress by fortress, all the way from from Cairo to Antioch – which fell in 1268. He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Baibars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. it was Baybars who brought the crusader kingdoms to an end – in 1291, when Acre, the last remaining crusader cities, fell to his forces.
Faith’s flickering flame
The causes of the decline in crusading and the failure of the crusader states are multi-faceted. The nature of crusades was unsuited to the defense of the Holy Land. Crusaders were on a personal pilgrimage and usually returned when it was completed. Although the ideology of crusading changed over time, crusades continued to be conducted without centralized leadership by short-lived armies led by independently minded potentates, but the crusader states needed large standing armies. Religious fervour was difficult to direct and control even though it enabled significant feats of military endeavour. Political and religious conflict in Europe combined with failed harvests reduced Europe’s interest in Jerusalem. The distances involved made the mounting of crusades and the maintenance of communications difficult. It enabled the Islamic world, under the charismatic leadership of Zengi, Nur al-Din, Saladin, the ruthless Baibars and others, to use the logistical advantages of proximity.
The curtain was descending on the Crusader kingdoms. The remaining enclaves endeavoured to deal with Baybars, but he died when he inadvertently ate the poison he had intended for his dinner guest – or so it is said. His successor, Al-Ashraf Salāh ad-Dīn Khalil ibn Qalawūn, opted for jihad, setting his sights on Tripoli. The Crusade, meanwhile, had run out of steam. The Roman church was losing respect and influence in Europe as kings and princes contested its dominance and dissident preachers condemned its decadence and hypocrisy.
The Crusader fire flamed, flickered, and died.
There would be no help forthcoming for the beleaguered folk of Outremer – promoting the the beginning of “Frankish flight”. The Muslim forces of the Levant and Egypt united to take Acre, the last crusader foothold, in 1291. Those farangi who could could not flee or be ransomed, were enslaved, the ultimate and unfortunate fallout of failure. Qalawun was assassinated by dissident emirs two years later. Levantine Sultans would have had problems getting life insurance.
Farewell to the Faranjiye
When all was done and dusted, when the last ships departed, the unfortunate thousands who were unable to escape, were consigned to military barracks, slave markets, and harems. Their descendants’ genes added to the Middle East’s ethnic kalabash, along with the DNA of Persians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans who went before, the white Circassian boys and girls enslaved in succeeding centuries, and the French, African, Indian and Anglo soldiers who followed on in recent history.
And those who could, went “home” – strangers in a strange land. The crusades built a bridge between east and west, between civilizations. When they decamped the Levant during the Muslim “reconquista”, the fleeting Franks carried in their cultural luggage many incendiary materials that arguably helped to spark the Renaissance and the Reformation. They imported vocabulary, fruits and vegetables and exotic spices that we savour still. With al oud, they gave us the lute (although this may have infiltrated via Moorish Iberia – eternally blessing us with the Spanish guitar). Other stowaways included Arabic translations of long-lost Greek texts on philosophy, politics, medicine, science, astronomy and more, and Arabic scholars to translate them into Latin.
The Crusades were long, brutal and bloody, and ultimately a pointless failure. And yet, the world would be poorer but for the cultural legacy of these two centuries of contact and conflict.
The Christian passion for Crusades did not end with the fall of Outremer. Contrary to popular belief, the passion for aggression in the name of the One True God do not end with the lonely old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Once kindled, it took centuries to subside – if it indeed has today!
In Eastern Europe, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, blooded in the Holy Land, sought to deliver the pagans of the Baltic lands to the Lord – by the sword. The blood lust did not abate, nor the desire for land and its resources as they turned on the already christianized Poles, Lithuanians and Rus. Soviet cinema icon Sergei Eisenstein tells the story in epic style in Alexander Nevsky. Wartime propaganda it might have been, but nonetheless, it did happen.
In France during the Thirteenth Century, Catholic nobles turned their wrath on the unorthodox Cathars – they called themselves the “good Christians” – as the Albigensian Crusade raped, pillaged and burned its way through the Languedoc, consigning thousands of ‘heretics’ to the cleansing fire. As in the Levant, loot and lands reinforced the prophet motive behind what became known as “the burning times”.
In Spain, Catholic kings clawed back the Muslim Moorish kingdoms of Andalusia in the Reconquista. The last Muslim kingdom fell to Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castille in 1492, the year they dispatched Christopher Columbus westwards to seek a passage to the Indies and expelled the Jews from Spain. Columbus himself saw his mission as the beginning of a great crusade against the Ottoman Turks and for the liberation of Jerusalem. This did not eventuate, but those who followed him to the New World became “conquistadors” in the service of God. King and mammon.
Demonstrating Mark Twain’s aphorism that whilst history does not repeat itself, it sometime it rhymes, a populist rightwing (and Jewish) candidate in the upcoming French presidential election has named his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party “Reconquête” or “Reconquest”.
The rise and rise of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453 rekindled the crusader fire in the breasts of Christian kings – faith forever furnished by the prospects of lucre. When Sultan Sulayman The Magnificent, laid siege to Vienna in 1529, the Catholic kings of Europe dispatched troops to frustrate him and force him to retreat. Vienna was the high tide the Ottoman ascendancy, and it was down hill all the way to what became known in the Nineteenth Century as the Eastern Question: “what shall we do about the Old Man of Europe?” This was diplomatic code for how France, Britain and Russia could benefit from the disintegration of a moribund Ottoman Empire. One of the triggers for the quixotic, heroic, pointless and bloody Crimean War was the tussle between France and Russia over the right to protect the Holy Places of Jerusalem.
The Eastern Question did not go away after this bloody stalemate. Conflict between the empire and breakaway Christian states continued for over half a century, with the European powers as ever seeking an edge – until an assassination in the once Ottoman City of Sarajevo changed the game entirely. The Holy Land assumed a strategic importance during the World War that followed, and remained a magnet for politicians’ millenarian fantasies. Welsh Pentecostal prime minster Lloyd George succumbed to the spell of the Promised Land and the return of the wandering Jews to their ancient homeland “from Moab to the sea”. That gave us, among other contemporary troubles, the Balfour Declaration, the State of Israel, an Nakba, the Occupation, and in contra-flow, the Palestinian National Movement, “the right of return”, and the Hamas Charter. Roots and fruits .
So when in the wake of 9/11 George W Bush referred to his War on Terror and invasion of Iraq as a crusade, small wonder Muslims the world over became agitated, and many declared Holy War against al Salabiyin.
© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved
On the trail of the Crusaders – a journey in pictures
... canyons and castles pass pass ageless and ageing and captive in time. Valences, Paul Hemphill
Monarchs and lords have built castles for millennia for security, to guard strategic places, and to coew the local, often conquered populace or routes, and to impress and cow the local populace. People feel strong behind castle walls, they feel powerful, and they feel safe. But their impregnability is often illusory. Enemies can scale them and climb over them, and they can dig under them, or by subterfuge, suborn, beguile or bribe a turncoat or waverer to open the gates or reveal a secret entrance. Those great crusader castles of Syria and Palestine, Krak de Chevaliers, Sahyun Castle and Belvoir, fell not by storm but by subterfuge.
We have had the privilege and pleasure of visiting many crusade castles in Syria and Israel, and present below a small gallery of pictures taken thereof.
Krak des Chevaliers
The Crusader fortress of Qalaat al Husn in the Homs Governate of Syria is considered to be one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world, and one of the most spectacular. T. E. Lawrence described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. In places the walls are 100 feet thick. In its day, it garrisoned some 2,000 men – and their horses: see the picture below. It was known by its crusader name Castle of the Horsemen or Knights. But the name Krak originated in the earlier castle Qalaat Akrad – the Castle of the Kurds. It is one of many fortresses that were part of a defensive network along the border of the old Crusader states. The fortress controlled the road to the Mediterranean, and from this base, the Knights Hospitallers could exert some influence over Lake Homs to the east to control the fishing industry and watch for Muslim armies gathering in Syria.
Qala’t Salah ad Din
Sahyun Castle also known as the Castle of Saladin is a medieval castle in northwestern Syria. It is is ocated 7 km east of al Haffah town and 30 km east of the city of Latakia, in high mountainous terrain on a forested ridge between two deep ravines The site has been fortified since at least the mid 10th century. Early in the 12th century the Franks took control and it became part of the newly formed crusader stare of the Principality of Antioch. The Crusaders undertook an extensive building programme, giving the castle much of its current appearance. In 1188 it fell to the forces of Salah ad Din after a three-day siege. In 2006, the castles of Qal’at Salah El-Din and Krak des Chevaliers were recognised as a World Hertiage Site by UNESCO.
Belvoir Castle (Kokhav Hayarden), situated just south of Beit She’an in northern Israel, was built by the Hospitaller Knights in the late 12th Century to guard the sugar trade between the Jordan Valley and Acre. It surrendered to Salah ad Din in 1189 three years after the battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem and Acre. It was destroyed in 1220 to prevent its reoccupation during subsequent crusades. Young French archeologists were busy here during our visit. It was good to watch then at work.
Old Akko, once Ptolomais, and Acre, was major seaport for Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Cleopatra came here. Richard the Lion Heart committed a bloody atrocity here. Napoleon besieged it. And the famous jailbreak that inspired Leon Uris’ Exodus took place here – those scenes in the movie were actually filmed at Akko Prison. Excavations in the Ottoman citadel and in exercise yard of Acre Prison revealed a magnificent crusader city buried below. Dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, it includes the fortress of the Order of the Knights of St John, the Hospitallers. The world heritage site is a series of beautifully conserved and where necessary, carefully reconstructed halls, chambers, passage wants and streets.
Qal’at Namrud is situated on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan some 800m above sea level, It was built bt Salh ad Din’s nephew to guard a major access route to Damascus against armies coming from the west. It was captured by the Mongols, recaptured by Mamluk Sultan Baybars, and it lost its strategic value as the Crusader threat receded. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century. Sic transit gloria.
In 1101, the Frankish army under King Baldwin I conquered the ancient Herodean city of Caesarea. It was captured by Saladin in 1187 after only a short siege and was retaken in 1191 by Richard the Lion Heart, , who exiled the Muslim inhabitants. The cathedral of the Crusader city was built on the podium raised by King Herod to serve as his city’s acropolis. The end of Crusader Caesarea came in 1265, when the Mamluk Sultan Baybars attacked the city. After a short siege, the Crusader defenders gave up hope and evacuated the city. The conquering Mamluks, fearing a return of the Crusaders, razed the city’s fortifications to the ground.