Thursday, 18 January 2007

The Crusades - Our History

Misconceptions about the Crusades are all too common. The Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. According to Muslims they are a stain on the history of the Church in particular and Western civilization in general. The Crusaders introduced aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins?
So what is the truth about the Crusades? Much can said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.
Christians in the eleventh century were not fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them.
Islam was born out of war and grows the same way. From the time of Mohammed the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the World of Islam and the World of War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion—has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under strict Muslim rule. But in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion. It spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years and beyond, even up to today.
The warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt—once the most heavily Christian areas in the world—quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their fellow Christians in the East.
That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the born of an ambitious pope or fanatical knights but as a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be overun by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.
Pope Urban II called upon the Knights of Christendom to push back the Muslims at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The response was tremendous. Many thousands of Christian warriors took the vow of the cross and prepared for war.
Urban II gave the Crusaders two aims which would remain central to the Crusades for centuries. The first was to rescue the Christians of the East. The Crusade was seen as an errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong. As Pope Innocent III wrote to the Knights Templar, "You carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.’"
The second goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the other places made holy by the life of Christ. Medieval Crusaders saw themselves as pilgrims, performing acts of righteousness on their way to the Holy Sepulcher. The reconquest of Jerusalem was not colonialism but an act of restoration.
It is often assumed that the central goal of the Crusades was forced conversion of the Muslim world. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the perspective of medieval Christians, Muslims were the enemies of Christ and His Church. It was the Crusaders’ task to defeat and defend against them. That was all. Muslims who lived in Crusader-won territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion. Indeed, throughout the history of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Muslims far outnumbered the Christians. It was not until the 13th century that the Franciscans began conversion efforts among Muslims. But these were mostly unsuccessful and finally abandoned. In any case, such efforts were by peaceful persuasion, not the threat of violence, as characterised by the Muslim occupations.
The Crusades were wars. Like all warfare, the violence was brutal (although not as brutal as modern wars).
By any reckoning, the First Crusade was a long shot. There was no leader, no chain of command, no supply lines, no detailed strategy. It was simply thousands of warriors marching deep into enemy territory, committed to a common cause. Many of them died, either in battle or through disease or starvation. It was a rough campaign, one that seemed always on the brink of disaster. Yet it was miraculously successful. By 1098, the Crusaders had restored Nicaea and Antioch to Christian rule. In July 1099, they conquered Jerusalem and began to build a Christian state in Palestine. The joy in Europe was unbridled. It seemed that the tide of history, which had lifted the Muslims to such heights, was now turning.
But it was not. When we think about the Middle Ages, it is easy to view Europe in light of what it became rather than what it was. The colossus of the medieval world was Islam, not Christendom. The Crusades are interesting largely because they were an attempt to counter that trend. But in five centuries of crusading, it was only the First Crusade that significantly rolled back the military progress of Islam. It was downhill from there.
When Edessa fell to the Muslim Turks and Kurds in 1144AD there was an enormous groundswell of support for a new Crusade in Europe. It was led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. It failed miserably. Most of the Crusaders were killed along the way. Those who made it to Jerusalem only made things worse by attacking Muslim Damascus, which formerly had been a strong ally of the Christians. In the wake of such a disaster, Christians across Europe were forced to accept not only the continuing growth of Muslim power but the belief that God was punishing the West for its sins.
Crusading in the late twelfth century, therefore, became a total war effort. Every person, no matter how weak or poor, was called to help. Warriors were called to risk their lives for the defense of the Christian East. On the home front Christians were called to support the Crusades through prayer, fasting, and alms. Yet still the Muslims grew in strength. Saladin had forged the Muslim East into a single entity, all the while preaching Jihad against the Christians. In 1187AD at the Battle of Hattin, his forces wiped out the combined armies of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and captured the precious relic of the True Cross. Defenseless, the Christian cities began surrendering one by one, culminating in the surrender of Jerusalem on October 2. Only a tiny handful of Christian ports held out.
The response was the Third Crusade. It was led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of the German Empire, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard I Lionheart of England. The aged Frederick drowned while crossing a river on horseback, so his army returned home before reaching the Holy Land. After recapturing Acre, the king of France went home. The Crusade, by default, fell into Richard’s lap. A skilled warrior, gifted leader, and superb tactician, Richard I led the Christian forces to victory after victory, eventually reconquering the entire coast. But Jerusalem was not on the coast, and after two abortive attempts to secure supply lines to the Holy City, Richard at last gave up. Promising to return one day, he struck a truce with Saladin that ensured peace in the region and free access to Jerusalem for unarmed pilgrims. The desire to restore Jerusalem to Christian rule and regain the True Cross remained intense throughout Europe.
The Crusades of the 13th century were larger and better organized. But they too failed, mainly due to political in-fighting. In the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204AD) the Crusaders captured, and sacked Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world. Pope Innocent III, who had previously excommunicated the Crusade, denounced the Crusaders. But there was little else he could do.
The remainder of the 13th century’s Crusades did little better. The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) managed briefly to capture Damietta in Egypt, but the Muslims eventually defeated the army and reoccupied the city. Louis IX of France led two Crusades in his life. The first also captured Damietta, but Louis was forced to abandon the city. Although Louis was in the Holy Land for several years, spending freely on defensive works, he never achieved his fondest wish: to free Jerusalem. He was a much older man in 1270 when he led another Crusade to Tunis, where he died of disease. After Louis’s death, the ruthless Muslim leaders, Baybars and Kalavun, waged a brutal Jihad against the Christians in Palestine. By 1291, the Muslims succeeded in killing or ejecting the last of the Crusaders, thus erasing the Crusader kingdom from the map. Despite numerous attempts and many more plans, Christian forces were never again able to gain a foothold in the region until the 19th century.
One might think that three centuries of Christian defeats would have soured Europeans on the idea of Crusade. No. In one sense, they had little alternative. Muslim kingdoms were becoming more, not less, powerful in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The Ottoman Turks conquered not only their fellow Muslims, thus further unifying Islam, but also continued to press westward, capturing Constantinople and plunging deep into Europe itself. By the 15th century, the Crusades were no longer errands of mercy for a distant people but desperate attempts of the last remnants of Christendom to survive. Europeans began to ponder the real possibility that Islam would finally achieve its aim of conquering the entire Christian world. That did not happen. But it very nearly did. In 1480, Sultan Mehmed II captured Otranto as a staging point for his invasion of Italy. But the sultan died shortly thereafter, and his plans died with him. In 1529, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna. If not for a run of freak rainstorms that delayed his progress and forced him to leave behind much of his artillery, it is virtually certain that the Turks would have taken the city. Germany would have been at their mercy.
Yet even as these close shaves were taking place, something else was brewing in Europe—something unprecedented in history. The Renaissance. Even while fighting for its life, Europe was preparing to expand on a global scale. The Reformation made Crusades unthinkable for many Europeans. In 1571, a Holy League, which was itself a Crusade, defeated the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. Yet military victories like that remained rare. The Muslim threat was finally neutralized economically, as Europe grew in wealth and power. The once awesome and sophisticated Turks began to seem backward and pathetic—no longer worthy of a Crusade. The "Sick Man of Europe" limped along until the 20th century, when it finally collapsed, leaving behind the present mess of the modern Middle East.
Both the medieval and the modern soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something greater than themselves. Admire the Crusaders or not, it is fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women, not only survives but flourishes. Without the Crusades, it might well have been pounded into extinction.

Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965)
"Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar."Churchill in his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British people on the BBC - May 19, 1940, London.

1 comment:

shieldwall said...

One of my favourite subjects,The Crusades and medieval warfare and life.To judge these crusaders by todays standards would be an incredible mistake,you cannot take it away from these people they were incredibly brave and committed,just to get to the holylands or outremer as they called it ,was a herculean task in itself,and once there to fight and then build such massive and complex fortifications.I for one admire them and find the whole saga mesmerising,anybody who has not read about this fascinating episode should do so,you will love it,it has everything that makes a great story.