This was a paper I wrote for a history of Western civilization class December 1, 2008. The discussion of the strained relationship between Muslims and Christians is just as valid today as it was 1,000 years ago.
The Build Up and Aftermath of the Crusades in the Christian and Muslim Worlds
The crusades were not only a series of wars, but a clash of cultures. The Christian west and Muslim east were just as different a thousand years ago as they are today. The first crusade occurred at a time when Islam was rapidly expanding and Christian Europe was experiencing economic growth. For both worlds the time was ripe for battle. Unlike most wars, the crusades lasted for several hundred years. This prolonged conflict left many lasting effects such as the large population of Muslims in the Balkans and the tensions between the two ideologies that is still present today. To truly understand the effects of the crusades it is important to compare the cultures of the Christian and Muslim worlds before and after.
This story starts with the Prophet Mohammad’s message; it was so inspiring that almost all of Arabia was converted to Islam within his lifetime. The Arabs of the east had a much different culture than the Christians of the west. Christianity had been established for over six hundred years by the time of Mohammad’s death in 632. Islam took off the ground running. Within a generation the close knit kinships of the Arabs became a powerful force rising to the call of conquest.
The earliest converts to Islam were viewed as the most faithful to the religion and were promised governing positions in new lands. The economy of Arabia was very fragile. Desert farming was unpredictable and frequent droughts made a very unstable food supply. Trade of luxury goods such as spices, incense, and perfumes were vital to ensure enough food was available for the livelihood of the region. Trade was dominated by the largest tribes, and it was often poorly distributed. Raiding was often necessary for survival. Amid the dry desert a violent and often brutal society arose. The seventh century successors of Mohammad urged Arabs to invade the Roman Empire, and they were more than happy to comply. The call for Islamic conquest created the opportunity for a new political elite to arise. It didn’t take much persuasion to attract and gain the support of the majority. Conquered peoples were taxed while Arab settlers paid no taxes and actually received salaries to live and work these new lands. Arabs who didn’t move to new lands were taxed; this paints a very clear picture that the Islamic conquests were supported by the Arab people. Massive armies of volunteers were not hard to construct.
The Muslims agreed that there would be no compromise for the complete conversion of pagans, by the sword if need be. Convert to Islam or die. Luckily for many Arab pagans, Islam was very attractive so many converted by choice and not force. It was more so during the conquests that people were forced to conform. It is interesting that the Muslims did make compromise for the “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews were seen as heretics of the Word, but nonetheless were not ostracized like the pagans. Submission held a core position in the faith. A good Muslim must submit to Islam-which literally translates to submission in Arabic. Islam is right, opinions that strayed from it were wrong. It is important to note that most people who heard about Islam converted willingly. Whether it was the message or the lower taxes for Muslim converts it is uncertain, but that really wasn’t the point when the goal was to create large Islamic states. A fully converted state meant true submission was achieved.
The religion of Islam set strict standards for Muslim treatment of each other. With no fighting allowed towards another Muslim, in addition to the religious fervor that was running rampant, it seemed almost natural for the violent society to lash outward. Conquests became the outlet for a fierce aggression that ran through the veins of every Arab man passed down from one generation to another. Within a hundred years Islamic forces marched all the way around North Africa conquering the Roman provinces of Carthage and Tangiers, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Spain, and almost pushed through Gaul all the way to Paris. Islam spread faster in one century than Christianity had in seven, and this was frightening.
In 733 A.D. Charles Martel led the Franks to a victory that completely halted all Muslim advances into Gaul. Martel was able to use the victory against the Muslims to launch his family onto the throne. Medieval Kings were thought to be chosen by God and therefore their wars were just. Charlemagne, Martel’s grandson, continued this battle mantra. The feudal system in Europe romanticized violence. Knights fought for their King, their kingdom, and their faith. However, the idea of Christian soldiers popped up long before the Carolingians.
While marching to battle in 312 A.D. Constantine saw a cross in the sky accompanied by the words “in this you shall conquer.” Constantine placed a monogram of the Chi-Rho Christian symbol on his soldiers’ uniforms. He won that battle and was certain Christ had assured his victory. For any Christian this is a truly inspiring story, and so it was for Charlemagne also. He set out to teach all Europeans that they were God’s chosen people and to make sure they all paid allegiance to the “New Israel.” Unfortunately, he was often brutal and converted many Saxons by the sword. Although it was effective, it contradicted the purpose of missionaries, of which the Pope encouraged. The teachings of Jesus and his Apostles, most importantly Peter who is credited with founding the Catholic Church due to his mission to Italy, preached willful conversion. In 1095 the Pope was very concerned about the fast and forceful Islamic expansion. If Islam arrived in Europe, how long would Christianity last? The Byzantine Empire on the southeastern frontier was at war protecting its territory against the Muslims, and Spain had fallen; Islam was turning into a big problem for Europe.
Once the Muslims controlled Syria they banged on the Byzantine Empire’s door. This was their gateway into Western Europe. The Byzantines felt close to Constantine’s story. It is after all Constantine who established Constantinople which eventually became the Byzantine Empire- and the powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1071 at Manzikert, the Byzantine army was defeated by the Turks, a tribe of Islamic converts from central Asia that had been trying to penetrate the Byzantine Empire since the tenth century. The Orthodox country did not want to give up its Christian land which they had inherited from one of the greatest Christian leaders of all time, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In a very significant move they sent a letter to Pope Urban II requesting help against the Muslim invaders. The letter from the Orthodox Emperor Comnenus wasn’t sent to another king, but the Catholic Pope. This was a Christian movement, which would unite Christians to a common cause.
Not only would Islam be a threat to Christianity in Europe if allowed to enter, but Muslims were attacking Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. When Islamic military might swept through Syria and Palestine, there was no question that Jerusalem would be theirs. After all, it was viewed as a Muslim holy city as well. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem were popular among the wealthy in ultra-religious Europe. They could no longer travel safely. The Pilgrimages usually took the route through the Byzantine Empire and down through Syria to get to Jerusalem. This was no longer safe territory and Christians were often attacked by Turkish raiders on their journey. Pope Urban II was obviously worried for Christian safety, and he thought it was Christian duty to control the land of Jesus Christ.
At the Council of Clermont in 1095, the Pope gave a powerful speech which summoned Christians to take up the cross-meaning literally rip a piece of their tunics and sew a cross onto their breasts- and reclaim the Holy Land. Urban II chose this location in central France for this sermon for a very good reason. Even though France at the time was divided into small kingdoms, the spirit of chivalry was widespread. The idea of a crusade resonated with the culture of knights in Western Europe. They were born and trained to fight, and often did so against each other. The literature of the time glorified war and warriors. Amazingly, the staunchly anti-Orthodox Normans heeded the Pope’s call, perhaps not for the Byzantine Empire’s sake but definitely for Christendom- of which Palestine was its land of milk and honey. The Pope called peace among all Christian nations; knightly energy was now funneled toward Muslim hatred. The Pope promised full remission of sins to those who participated. People of all rank and wealth were supportive of the first crusade, especially sons who weren’t the firstborn, since they wouldn’t be inheriting their fathers’ estates knew the easiest way to acquire wealth and land is to be a war hero. It is understandable why historians say the driving force behind the popularity of the crusades was “piety, pugnacity, and greed.”
It did not take long to form a ragtag army of ill-equipped volunteers who had no military training. Emperor Comnenus was horrified at the army the west had sent because they had torn though his empire like locusts. Many of these ordinary people weren’t in any shape to be at war and many died on the trip to Anatolia. Those that survived the journey were devastated by the Islamic armies. A year later the true group of crusaders from Western Europe set out to fight. They were warrior Christians and were very well trained and prepared. Comnenus again was horrified by the troops sent, this time because of the sheer power of thirty thousand knights and aristocrats. He had expected a foot army the first time and not the ragtag group that arrived. The second wave shocked him for the opposite reason, and was terrified they might use their military strength to usurp his power. Remember, this large military power that had arrived was mostly anti-Orthodox French. The threatened Emperor Alexios Comnenus immediately tried to elevate his power and influence as the leader of the crusade by demanding loyalty and homage from any crusader who gained land as a result of the war.
As the troops left Anatolia and pushed into Syria, the Byzantine Emperor promised to send his troops to help, but he never did. Even without Alexios’ help, the crusaders were extremely successful. By the summer of 1099 they had regained Jerusalem. When they should have just accepted victory, they went overboard. Due to religious fervor and pride in their great military power they no doubt got caught up in the moment. No mercy was shown to the non-Christians living in Jerusalem, all were slaughtered. Almost immediately large scores of crusaders wanted to return home to reap their war benefits; after all they had accomplished what they had set out to do. The few soldiers that remained divided the land conquered into four states: The County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem- which was supposed to have reign over the others due to the holy city it controlled. It did not take long for the leaders to revert back to medieval European mentality of bickering with those in other kingdoms, and soon the conquered land became unstable again.
The Muslims were not going to give up and accept defeat, not after the way the crusaders came storming in with violence. The unstable crusader states became easy prey. In 1144 The County of Edessa fell. A second crusade was inspired by the powerful preaching of Monk Bernard Clairvaux to reclaim the lost territory. It was a disaster and the crusaders returned home empty handed and shamed. Even so, the crusader states borrowed quite a few beneficial things from the Muslims. Islamic scholars had a large library of translated Greek manuscripts that Europeans thought were lost in time. Other practices brought back include mathematics, medicine, and hygiene-which were all further advanced in Islamic lands than in Europe.
Meanwhile in Egypt, the great warrior Saladin was able to create a powerful and large united Islamic force. When his soldiers marched on Jerusalem they did not capture, kill, or imprison Christians. He gave several days warning for their evacuation before his soldiers settled in the city. Nevertheless, Christendom was horrified by the recapture of the Holy Land and felt they needed to liberate it again. The third crusade was a joint venture by several hot headed European kings. Frederick Barbarossa drowned on the journey. Phillip II of France and Richard the Lionheart of England argued so badly that Phillip returned home early. Richard’s army was sucessful at times, but could not reclaim Jerusalem.
The fourth crusade was a complete disaster for Europe. The Venetians built the crusaders several warships and convinced them that their debt would be considered paid if they would reclaim the city of Zara from Byzantine control. Again getting carried away with the moment, the crusaders continued onward to Constantinople. They stripped everything worth any wealth and left the city broke and vulnerable. Several more crusades were led, but not were as successful or as large as the first. In 1291 Europe lost the important port city of Acre, and with it went the last crusader stronghold in the region.
While the Islamic forces were able to unite for war, Christian kings in many cases were not able to put their disagreements aside. European mentality was extremely nationalistic and outward attention was usually negative. Arabs spoke Arabic; Europeans were easily divided by language barriers amongst each other. It was almost predictable that once the conquered land was divided into crusader states, that hot headed leaders would clash- just the same as they did at home. Even with all the bickering and ultimate defeat, for two centuries Europe put up a good fight. Unfortunately, being surrounded by Muslim territory proved to be a hard challenge. Muslims weren’t going to give up their land which they felt they had fairly conquered. However, it would be false to say once the Christian invaders were defeated that the world of Islam was peaceful. This was a violent culture. Having been at war for centuries advancing their kingdom and fighting the Christians, they were in the mind set for battle. It was inevitable that their tribal mentalities would cause division once Islam got so big. The discussion of succession after Mohammad created a large split between the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims that lasts even to this day. In Islam, there is little room for different religious interpretations, this split was serious. However, even this split didn’t weaken Muslim power. The Christian invaders were seen as barbarians from northern lands, the call for Jihad was irresistible.
The crusades left several lasting affects on the Christian world. France and England were left with sore egos and bankruptcy. On the way to the second crusade, several English ships were forced to stop in Portugal do to bad weather. It was there that crusaders joined forces with King Alfonso I in order to regain Lisbon from the Moors. This was the first large victory on the Iberian Peninsula against the Muslims. It wasn’t until 1492 that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand liberated all of Spain as a Catholic country once again. The crusaders weren’t able to keep control over the Holy Land and they eventually gave up on it. However, they never gave up fighting for a Christian Europe; the Spanish Reconquista lasted almost 800 years. If Islam had been allowed to march further into Europe it would have only ended in disaster for them, they knew Europe was too strong to fight on home turf. The attention turned again to the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantines were weakened so badly that their one thousand year reign came to an end in 1453 when the Ottomans captured Constantinople. This forever changed southeast Europe; to this day Turkey is a majority Muslim country.
As a result to the Muslim victory, the number of Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land slowed to a trickle. The legendary warrior monks weren’t protecting pilgrims any longer. Nevertheless, they still played an important role in Europe. The brave men who could fight with the skill of a knight, but lived the life for God as monks were held in utmost esteem. The Knights Templar, the wealthiest of such orders, excelled in banking after the crusades. The Teutonic Knights continued the fight for Christendom, this time on a new frontier-eastern Europe. Polish King Jadwiga (a woman) called on them for help with converting the pagan Lithuanians.
Times got much worse for the Slavs who lived near the new Islamic Anatolia. The Muslims took many Slavs as slaves. In the Balkans deep seeded resentment has lasted hundreds of years between Christians and Muslims. In fact, there has been an almost constant gulf between the very different worlds of the Christian west and Muslim east. Unfortunately, violence has lasted in the Middle East for centuries. Very few Christians make pilgrimage to Jerusalem these days for safety reasons. Rome, just as it has been able to do for thousands of years, attracts many Christian travelers who do not mind stopping a little short of the real Holy Land.
Christians, for the most part, are rather ignorant towards Islamic beliefs. Although it is not acceptable, it is understandable when taking into account the large number of divisions within Christianity itself. The Muslim and Christian cultures have grown far apart and there is a lot of misunderstanding between the two that has caused a great deal of tension. A few Islamic extremists have launched a new Jihad. The reasons and provocations are debatable, but one thing is for sure, the Christian and Muslim worlds have gained an even greater rift over the past decade. Christians and Muslims have been battling each other for over a millennium, perhaps this is a struggle between two incompatible ideologies that will never end. At best, we can hope to reach some sort of common understanding, and perhaps complete the Christian crusade once and for all for a safe Jerusalem. However, when the culture in the midst of an Islamic powerhouse breeds a society that glorifies violent death as honorable, is prolonged peace even possible?