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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

Of Crusades and Crusaders

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2009


[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L History presentation.]


When a stone is thrown into a pool ripples radiate far beyond its point of impact. Similarly ripples of the seven Crusades between 11th and 13th centuries still spread out to create problems in our time. There is little sign of respite.

The Conquest of Jerusalem (1099)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

How did it all start? Under Con­stan­tine the Great Christi­ani­ty became the dominant religion in the vast Roman Empire. In the mid 4th century he shifted his seat of power from Rome to the new city of Con­stan­ti­nople, thus becoming Emperor of the Eastern Empire, much more powerful and wealthy than its ever more chaotic Western partner. The West became an Empire in name only by the 6th century and from its remains emerged the Holy Roman Empire, neither holy, Roman, nor an empire.

Constantine died seven years after estab­lish­ing Con­stan­ti­nople. This eastern empire flourished despite religious schisms and some incompetent rulers. The By­zan­tine Church, while subject nominally to the Pope, developed its own liturgy and controlled the Christian sites in the Holy Land.

I must give just one important date when the seeds of the troubles were sown: the year 610. In that year, at Con­stan­ti­nople, Heraclius displaced its corrupt ruler to become Emperor of the East. Also, in a cave near Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula, Mohammed, a well-travelled merchant, slept in a cave and had a divine vision that would change the world.

Finally in Zo­ro­astri­an Persia King Chosroes II began his campaign to destroy the Eastern Empire. Anatolia and Syria quickly fell and in just four years Jerusalem followed amidst great slaughter of its Christian inhabitants. The emergent kingdoms of Europe did nothing to help prevent this aggression. Heraclius actually became the first crusader, finally defeating the Persians and returning the Holy Cross and other sacred relics to Jerusalem.

Unbeknown to the combatants, in remote Arabia, Mohammed began to promote a new faith to the idolatrous Arabs of Mecca who drove him and a handful of followers from the city. They fled to Medina where his simple one-god-based faith developed and became accepted by the populace. Twenty years later he returned to Mecca in triumph and Islam began its lightning spread from the Arabian Peninsula. Mohammed decreed that heathens should be given the choice of conversion or death but the “People of the Book,” i.e. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, should be allowed to retain their places of worship. They were not allowed however to evangelise, carry arms, or ride on horseback, but overall they received excellent treatment from their Moslem rulers. Mohammed died and was succeeded by the first caliph Abu Bakr who started Islam’s lightning spread over the Middle East. One strong faction believed that Ali, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, should have received the succession. This group is still active today. They are the Shiite Moslems; mainstream Moslems are known as the Sunni. Sound familiar?

The second caliph, Omar, continued spreading Islam and entered Jerusalem just 28 years after Mohammed’s vision in the cave. Christians were neither massacred nor persecuted and their holy places were respected, Still no reaction from Europe.

On the whole Christians and Jews did well under Islamic rule with taxation lower than it had been under Byzantium and their talents well utilised by the conquerors. Egypt was next to fall and 90 years after Mohammed’s vision all of Roman Africa was in the hands of Islam. This still remains the situation.

Ali in fact became fourth caliph but was murdered four years later, although the Shiite branch continued. Much of today’s troubles in Iraq involves Sunni and Shiite factions. In time another important faction evolved from the Shiites, the Hashashim whom we know as “The Assassins.” But I can tell more of their tale in a later lecture. Ali’s son became Shiite leader, but 14 years after his father’s death he and many of his followers were slaughtered in Iraq at Karbala. A very sacred Shiite shrine remains there around which bloody conflicts still arise.

Meanwhile Byzantium regained much of its former power, although Jerusalem remained beyond its reach. For ten years in the early part of the 11th century Caliph Hakim began persecuting Christians, destroying many churches including that of the Holy Sepulchre. At the same time Jews and even Moslems were persecuted by the caliph. Europe did not respond.

Hakim ended up by proclaiming himself divine. He banned the feast of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca and started favouring Jews and Christians above Moslems. Finally he just vanished, was probably murdered. His friend Daraza fled to Lebanon where he founded the Druze Sect which still believes Hakim will return one day. Heaven forbid!

Better relations were now re-established between Egypt-based Islam, Shiite Islam and Byzantium. Then, about thirty years after its destruction, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt along with other places of Christian worship.

By the middle of the 11th century Christians in Palestine had never had it so good. Trade with the West grew as did income raised from numerous pilgrims. Christian, Jew, and Moslem lived in co-operative harmony. All was well … Then all hell broke loose!

With its huge empire stretching from the Lebanon to the Danube, from Naples to the Caspian Sea, Byzantium seemed to be established on a rock of economic and political stability. However, there was already a nibbling at its fringes. A new Islamic force from Turkestan started making incursions while Norman knights, desperate for land, invaded Lombardy with the support of the Holy Roman Empire’s King Charles III and the Pope. Finally they took Sicily.

The Turks also began moving into Arab Islamic territory. From small raids their attacks expanded and they would finally replace the Shiite Caliphates in Egypt. Another new influence emerged in Kurdistan which, in time, would have major consequences. This produced new Islamic leaders including the greatest of all, Saladin.

To detail the Byzantine decay is beyond the scope of this lecture. Suffice it to say that in the closing years of the 11th century the Eastern Empire was crumbling within and without as were relations between the Byzantine and Roman churches. The new Turkish incursions caused ever growing problems to Byzantium, Arabic Islam, and even Europe. Palestine, including Jerusalem, fell into their hands and as the result of coup and counter-coup chaos reigned supreme in the corruption-ridden Turkish territories.

Christian pilgrims from Europe had previously travelled to Jerusalem with relative ease. But now deteriorated roads and corrupt officials made access nigh on impossible. In 1095, Pope Urban called upon Christendom to join in a great crusade to liberate The Holy Land and thousands responded. They came mainly from Frankish areas but also from, among others, the Germanic States, England, Scotland, Denmark, Poland, and the Italianate States. All over Europe streams of volunteers prepared to fight the infidel. Whilst many were devout Christians who believed they were serving God, others were landless knights and petty criminals seeking land and pillage.

Peter the Hermit
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The First Crusade begun with two premature in­cur­sions. A priest, Peter the Hermit (Pierre L’Hermite, Pierre d’Amiens), launched his Peoples’ Crusade consisting largely of ordinary men and some women along with minor knights and even clergy. So ignorant was this rabble that one group even decided a stray goose would lead them to Jerusalem.

This malnourished, superstitious, poorly armed mob pillaged its way over Eastern Europe and Asia. They slaughtered and robbed food and wealth as they stormed towards Jerusalem the Golden. This peoples’ crusade was easily wiped out by the Turks near Nicea. Thousands were slain and many others enslaved. Peter the Hermit survived to join the main expedition.

A similar fate awaited a German contingent that started off by murdering Jews all over Germany thus starting the wave of anti-Semitism that peaked with the Nazi Holocaust over 800 years later. The king of Hungary, menaced by this lawless mob, destroyed most of them in a series of battles. People who opposed the crusades, claimed this was God’s vengeance on the Germans for slaughtering the Jews. Others saw it as God’s open disavowal of the whole campaign.

Meanwhile the real crusade was being organised. It was an expensive business for leaders to equip themselves and their forces and many “loans” were extorted from the unfortunate Jews. Godfrey de Bouillon being one such “borrower”.

No disorganised rabble this time round, those veteran warriors travelled overland to Constantinople, then across the Bosporus into Moslem territory. They fought and defeated the Turks as they travelled, often receiving help and support from the Turk-suppressed Arab populations. This however did not stop them pillaging settle­ments as the armies passed through their lands.

Let’s now look at the combatants. The Moslems were largely literate, devoted to personal hygiene, and well skilled in the arts and sciences. Militarily they were great horsemen and expert at using curved swords and short bows while mounted. A vibrant creative culture devoted to their faith.

The vast majority of the Crusaders were illiterate, unwashed, and louse-ridden. Excellent horsemen, skilled in long sword play and warfare, but largely uneducated. No shining armour, just hooded long chain-mail tunics with Norman-style helmets if any. Many, like Godfrey, were devout Christians, but others were junior sons of noble families desperate to win lands of their own. This force overthrew a great civilisation which has never fully recovered.

In mid 1098 the army captured Bethlehem. Then, after a very bloody siege, Jerusalem fell with Godfrey de Bouillon fighting bravely in the vanguard. The victorious Christians then vented their shocking blood lust on the populace, slaughtering the vast majority of Islamic and Jewish residents Moslems will never forget nor forgive this disgraceful conduct. We see the current results.

Godefroy (Godfrey) de Bouillion (ca. 1060–1100)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Once power was consolidated there was great debate as to who should be King of Jerusalem. The lot fell to Godfrey of Bouillon Duke of Lower Lorraine (Godefroy de Bouillion duc de Basse-Lotharingie). Most agreed he was a godly man as well as a brave fighter. To that I would add a humble human being who refused to assume the title of king and, as we all know, would not wear a golden crown where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. Two weeks after the fall of the city Pope Urban died before the news of the victory reached Rome. Godfrey ruled well and wisely and established trade relations with most neighbouring Arab provinces. He brought new prosperity to them as well as to his Frankish kingdom, although conflict and expansion of territory persisted.

The Roman Catholic clergy assumed supreme authority, displaced the By­zan­tines, appointed a Roman Catholic Pa­tri­arch, and took control of the holy places. Just two years later Godfrey became seriously ill, probably with typhoid, and about a month later he died. His brother Baldwin succeeded him, assumed the title of king, and accepted the crown. Thus was born The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Baldwin’s lavish coronation marked a fitting end to the First Crusade and is also a fitting end to this section of my lecture. But let’s face the sad fact that the mediaeval pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the wars to make them possible were largely illusory. As early Christians ignored the city and proclaimed the universality of Christ, such pilgrimages were very rare. Forty years after Jesus was crucified Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian, brutally put down a mass Jewish revolt and razed the city to the ground.

Sixty years later the emperor Hadrian visited the site and decreed that remaining ruins be destroyed. Any usable building materials were to be employed with others to construct a new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, in its place. He did all in his power to destroy sites associated with Christ; even building a temple of Venus where the crucifixion allegedly occurred. A Jewish revolt against idolatory had them banned from Aelia apart from an annual fast.

The Jerusalem that grew from this city of Hadrian therefore initially showed little or nothing of the City of David. Thankfully, since 19th-century archaeologists have unearthed many of the ancient biblical treasures, this work continues and modern pilgrims can visit excavated ancient sites.

Hopefully on a later occasion I can tell of Saladin’s rise, the fall of Jerusalem, and the creation of the Assassins. Consummatum est!

[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

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