Today, a new generation in the West faces a resurgent and militant Islam, watching in horror as the “Arab Spring” devolves into a Fundamentalist winter. It is therefore an appropriate time to take a critical look at the events that are presumed, by many, to have initiated the cycle of hatred and distrust between Islam and the West.
In 1095, at Clermont in France, Pope Urban II called upon the warriors of “Christendom” to take up arms and reclaim the “Holy Lands” of Palestine and the Levant from their Muslim occupiers. This speech set in motion the mass movement known as “The Crusades“.
I use the term “occupiers”, a term often used by Palestinians and their supporters around the world to describe Israel and the Israelis, deliberately. If taking land through conquest labels the victor as somehow an illegitimate “occupier”, than surely this definition must be fairly applied to the Arab-Muslim conquerors of the Middle East; whose conquests triggered the belated reaction that became known as the Crusades.
As is so often the case when historical facts conflict with “political correctness”, facts are twisted to fit the dogma. So is the case with the Crusades. But I have never cared for what the PC police deem “correct”. I will attempt to examine herein the Crusades with a clear eye, unraveling the PC dogmas that have come to surround this singular event in human history.
A RELIGION FOR WARRIORS
As is the case in most every inch of land in the world throughout history, the Muslim Arabs and Turks who ruled the Middle East at the close of the 11th century were foreign conquerors; not “indigenous peoples”. The Arabs came from the Arabian peninsula; bursting out and overrunning the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and parts of the Indian Subcontinent in the 7th century. The Turks originated on the Eurasian steppes, north of the Caspian and Aral Seas; where they had lived a harsh life of nomadic herdsmen. In the 10th century, the clan of Seljuk (or Seljuq) migrated into Persia, where they adopted Islam and a veneer of Persian culture. By the 11th century, they had become a dominant force in both the Middle East and in Islamic politics.
In both cases, neither of these two peoples were indigenous to the Holy Land. They were foreign conquerors; and had supplanted the Christian and Jewish authorities previously established there.
Islam itself was a late-comer among the world’s great religions; an invention of (or, for its adherents, a revelation from “Allah” to) a merchant from Mecca named Muhammad in the first decades of the 7th century. That puts it thousands of years younger than Judaism, more than 1,100 years after the life of Buddha, and roughly 600 years after the establishment of Christianity.
Unlike Christianity, which commands its adherents to love their enemies and to forgive transgressions against them, and to minister to the non-believer through missionary activity (evangelism); Islam calls upon the “Faithful” to spread the rule of Islam by the sword. By taking up arms against the infidel in holy “jihad”, a Muslim guarantees his entry into Muslim Paradise.
In its initial burst of violent military conquest, from 631 – 750 AD, Islam supplanted and suppressed the Zoroastrian faith of Persia; and dominated and treated as second-class citizens the Christians and Jews in the lands it captured. The militant history of Islam is often ignored or downplayed, but the roots of the Crusades are to be found here; in this initial clash of religions and civilizations.
These are just some of the many “politically incorrect” (not to mention inconvenient) facts pertaining to that extraordinary series of military campaigns and political events collectively termed, “the Crusades“.
THE POLITICALLY CORRECT VIEW
The postmodernist view is that the Crusaders were rapacious religious fanatics who looted and destroyed the peaceful Muslim civilization of the Middle East; creating a lasting legacy of hatred and distrust of the West among Muslims that continues to warp their perspective to this day. In the words of Professor Thomas F. Madden of the U. of St. Louis:
“The Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins.”
This struggle for control of the Middle East between Muslims and Christians spanned nearly two centuries, technically; from the First Crusade (1096-1099) to the Ninth (1271–1272). However, I would argue that the greater struggle between Islam and the West began with the advent of the former, in the early 7th century; continued on beyond the Crusading period in the wars of the Ottoman Turks and the Barbary pirates against the Christian states of Europe and the Mediterranean; and ultimately continues today in the violence around the globe perpetrated by resurgent Islamic extremism. Yes, all this is very politically incorrect.
ISLAMIC AGGRESSION BEFORE THE CRUSADES
The view of Islam as a peaceful religion which has ever been victim of Western prejudice, aggression, and exploitation; whose violent past and present are at worst merely an understandable defensive reaction, is at odds both with the facts and with the chronology.
- Islam has never been a “religion of peace”. From the time of Muhammad (570 – 632 AD), the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muhammad spent much of his life as a war-leader; subduing his fellow Arabs and converting them to his newly created religion.
- Muhammad sanctioned the beheading of the entire male population of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe, after their surrender on terms. Their goods were given to Muslims, and their women and children made slaves. Muhammad himself profited from this, taking a portion of the spoils, including the wife of one of the slayed (a woman named Rayhana).
- Muslim scholars afterward have used this incident as precedent; that when an enemy (infidel) surrenders on guarantees of life or property, the Muslim leader has both the right and the duty to break this agreement and kill the infidel and distribute the booty to Muslims; if it is deemed in the best interest of Muslims or in furtherance of Jihad. In Islamic jurisprudence, this principle is referred to as the “example of Sa’ad b. Mu’adh.” 
- The warriors of Islam exploded from out of the Arabian desert shortly after Muhammad’s death to attack the Christian lands of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire; both exhausted after decades of war against each other. Most of the lands of the Middle East (previously either Christian, Jew, or Zoroastrian) were quickly overrun and their peoples induced or coerced into conversion.
- By the 8th century, Muslim armies had reached a “high water mark”, conquering from Spain and the Pyrenees in the west; to the Indus River in the east.
- The “Moors” pushed past the barrier of the Pyrenees mountains, into France; where they pillaged and burned far and wide. They were only stopped from adding France to their conquests by their defeat at the Battle of Tours in 732, at the hands of the Frankish hero, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”).
- The Arabs twice laid siege to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the main bastion defending Europe from Muslim aggression. The second siege (717-718) was only turned back by the use of the Byzantine’s secret weapon, “Greek Fire“.
- Over the next four centuries, the borders of Islam were a scene of regular, internecine warfare between Muslims and their enemies. Muslims were most often the aggressors in this low-intensity border warfare. Itinerant Muslim warriors, called “Ghazis“, referring to an individual who participates in Ghazw ( عزو, ġazw), a raid or military expedition, considered it a holy duty to cross the border and raid and kill into “infidel” lands. The title of “Ghazi” became one of honor in Muslim society.
- In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia (modern Turkey), heartland of the Byzantine Empire and Christian since the time of St. Paul; after the Battle of Manzikert (1071). The nomadic Turks soon turned this previously cultivated land into a virtual desert.
Thus for centuries before the advent of the Crusades, warfare between Muslims and the West had been a regular, brutal fact of life.
AN APPEAL FOR HELP
Following their disastrous defeat at Manzikert (in Armenia), the Eastern Romans/Byzantines appealed to the Frankish West for help in turning back the Turkish invaders. This appeal, made to Pope Urban, led to the sermon at Clermont and the First Crusade.
It was also partially in response to the maltreatment of Christian pilgrims by these Seljuk Emirs and their warriors that Pope Urban called for the knights of Christendom to travel to the Holy Land and defend both pilgrims and these places:
“The Turks, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God…. has invaded the lands of Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”
Thus far from being an unprovoked act of aggression against the peaceful Muslim peoples and lands of the Middle East, the First Crusade was both an answer to an appeal from the Byzantines for military aid, as well as a much belated response to centuries of Islamic attacks and conquest of Christian lands; which included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.
It was also in response to Turkish banditry, to protect and keep open the pilgrim routes from Europe to the holy places. In response to the sermon at Clermont, many of the leading princes of the day “took the cross”.
They came, for the most part, inspired by religious duty. These were not penniless adventurers looking to enrich themselves. Many were the among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Western Europe; men who had much to loose on such a far-flung venture.
Robert Duke of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conqueror, commanded the paramount warriors of Europe, the Normans. He mortgaged his duchy to his brother William Rufus, the King of England, for the sum of 10,000 marks to finance his participation in the Crusade. By contrast, Raymond of St Gilles, Count of Toulouse, Margrave of Provence and Duke of Narbonne was one of the wealthiest men in Europe. Godfrey of Bouillon was Duke of Lower Lorraine (later the Low Countries), a great magnate of the Holy Roman Empire.
All these and others had much to loose in leaving on Crusade. Europe in the 11th century was a place of conflicting loyalties and allegiances, questionable borders, and old feuds and grudges. Leaving one’s lands unattended invited rival claimants to seize them from the absentee.
Far from being more backward and barbaric than their Muslim enemies, as is often claimed, the Crusading princes of Europe were in most ways on a par with their foes; and, in the case of the Turks, somewhat more civilized.
The Seljuk Turks were a hardy but savage people only newly arrived off of the steppes of Central Asia. They had converted to Islam in the 9th century; and quickly became the shock troops of the Abbasid Caliphate. Soon, like Roman Praetorians, they came to dominate their masters. By the end of the 11th century, Seljuk Emirs ruled various Muslim states from the Aral Sea to the Bosporus.
But the Turks had not wholly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle; still herding their sheep from pasturage to pasturage. They lived in yurts, spent most of their life in the saddle, and (according to Western chroniclers) were, like most nomadic peoples, extremely unhygienic in their personal habits.
Militarily, the Turks fought primarily as light horsemen. Their main weapon was the short, composite bow. Like all horse archers throughout the ages, their principle tactic was that of a swarm of bees, raining arrows down upon their enemies from a safe distance. When their enemy attempted to close the distance and fight at close quarters (where their lack of heavy armor and small ponies put them at a disadvantage) the Turks would merely turn their ponies and flee to a safe distance, all the time continuing to shoot at their enemies over their horse’s rump. Only once the enemy had fallen into disorder or were in flight, would the Turks put aside their bows and charge home with saber, mace, or belt-axe.
By contrast, the Medieval Western knight was the armored battle tank of his age. Riding the largest horses available (and these stallions!) and armed with a 10′-12′ lance, their primary tactic was the thundering charge; delivered in tight formation, the stirrup of each knight touching that of his comrade to either side. It was said that the charge of a Frankish knight could ” “make a hole through the walls of Babylon!”
The Frankish knights were supported by large numbers of foot soldiers; the most useful of these being either dismounted knights (the large European Chargers were vulnerable to the hot arid conditions of the Middle East, and the knights often had trouble finding remounts) or crossbowmen. The former supplied the mounted troops a solid base to maneuver around; while the latter’s bow outranged the short composite bow of the Turks.
Throughout the Crusades, victory in battle came to the side able to force the other to “fight his fight”. If the Franks were able to close with the Turks or Arabs, they usually won the day. Alternately, if the Turks or “Saracens” (the collective name given to non-Turkish Muslim warriors of the Middle East) could keep a safe distance while wearing down the Franks with missile weapons (or allowing the searing Middle Eastern sun to do their “dirty work”), then they usually won the day. While Western mail was usually “proof” against he short, light Turkish arrows, their unarmored horses were vulnerable to wounding and maiming by Turkish barrages.
The Crusades can be divided into 3 phases. The First, which led to the creation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; the Middle Period, from the loss of Jerusalem and the subsequent Third Crusade; and the latter Crusades, ending in the Crusader expulsion from Palestine and the Levant.
THE FIRST CRUSADE
In 1096, the crusading princes marched east, leading individual armies (according to Crusader military historian David Nicolle) of approximately 35,000 men (5,000 of which were cavalry). They followed in the wake of the so-called “People’s Crusade”, a movement of common folk who mistakenly believed that “the Lord” would provide both sustenance and victory over the Turk. In both they were disappointed, and this “Crusade” met disaster and destruction at the hands of the Turks upon their first encounter.
The princes’ much better organized and equipped armies arrived at Constantinople, where an embarrassed and unprepared Byzantine court quickly transported them across the straits into Asia; with a bit of help in way of engineers and supplies. But not before the Emperor Alexius extracted guarantees that the Crusaders would turn over captured Byzantine fortresses and towns along their path, back to the Empire.
Marching (literally) over the bones of the People’s Crusaders, the princes soon captured the Turkish citadel closest to and threatening Constantinople, Nicaea; but not without a 5 week siege and having to defeat the relieving army of the Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan. Nicaea was turned over to the Byzantines, and the Crusaders marched on toward the Holy Land.
Passing through the dry grasslands of northern Anatolia, the Crusaders were ambushed by the main Seljuk army at Dorylaeum. After a near-fought battle, the Crusaders routed the Turks with great loss. For the next few decades, the Turks treated Frankish armies with respect and caution.
After a terrible march through the deserts of southern Anatolia, the Crusaders arrived at Antioch, once the second city of the Byzantine Empire. After a lengthy and difficult siege (from 21 October 1097 to 2 June 1098), during which the Crusaders nearly starved for lack of provisions, the city was betrayed to the Franks.
No sooner had they began to celebrate and recuperate from the privations of the previous months, than a belated Turkish relief army approached from the east, led by the Emir of Mosul, Kerbogha. The city was unable to sustain another siege, so as the Turks set up camp outside the walls, the Crusaders marched out and formed up for battle. Before them, held aloft, was the “Holy Lance”; the spearhead which had (allegedly) pierced the side of Christ on the cross. It had been miraculously found buried within Antioch; and now inspired the hungry Crusaders to battle. Kerbogha was defeated and his army routed; partially because of defections amongst his allies at the start of the battle.
Bohemond of Taranto, great warrior and leader of the Normans of Italy, remained to rule in Antioch when the main body of Crusaders continued south through the Levant. In June of 1099, the Crusaders arrived before Jerusalem, the Holy City. After five weeks spent constructing a pair of siege towers (“belfry”), the walls were stormed and the Egyptian-Fatimid garrison and much of the civilian populace was put to the sword.
(The massacre of the populace of Jerusalem was indeed a terrible blight upon the history of the Crusades; but not unusual in-and-of-itself. Under the commonly understood conventions governing war, a city or fortress that refused surrender and held out until stormed by the attackers, was acknowledged to have forfeited all rights to mercy. Its people and goods were forfeit to the rage of the conquering army.)
After the fall of Jerusalem, a Crusader Kingdom was created in Palestine and the Levant. Godfrey became the first King of Jerusalem; Raymond became the Count of Tripoli; and Bohemond of Taranto was named the Prince of Antioch. Lesser princes received lesser fiefs.
The fledgling Kingdom was quickly assailed by a Muslim Fatimid counter-attack; only months after the capture of Jerusalem. This army was defeated by Godfrey at the Battle of Ascalon (August 12, 1099).
After this, the Kingdom beat back Muslim assaults with varying degrees of success and failure for 87 years. During that time the defenses of the Kingdom were under constant construction. A European aristocracy took its place, ruling over the local populace (many of which were members of the centuries old Maronite Christian Church; only too happy to exchange Christian for Muslim rulers). Castles dominated the countryside, every town was well defended. The Military Orders of the Knights Templars (headquartered in the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Knights of St. John of the Hospital (known as the “Hospitallers“) warded the kingdom and the pilgrim’s route from brigands and Muslim incursions. These Orders also provided the Kingdom with a semi-professional corps-de-elite available to the King in battle. There fanaticism matched that of the their worst Ghazi enemies; and they came to be hated by the Muslim foes of the Kingdom.
During this time, the Turks in the northern part of Mesopotamia and Syria were slowly united under the leadership of the Zengids. First by Zengi (Imad ad-Din Zengi, or Zangi), the Seljuk Atabeg (ruler) of Mosul; then under his successors, Nureddin (Nur ad-Din Zangi) and his Kurdish nephew, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), the Zengids succeeded in pushing back the frontiers of the Crusader state; and in defeating the Second Crusade, launched after the capture of Edessa by Zengi.
Nureddin dreamed of a united Sultanate from the Nile to the Tigris; and he achieved this before his death. Saladin inherited and expanded this authority, becoming the most famous Muslim ruler-general perhaps of all time. But as great a general as Saladin was, he was soon to come face-to-face with the greatest warrior-king of the age: Richard the Lionheart!
For Part Two, go here!