We’re still paying the price of the crusades …says Dan Jones in a new history of the holy wars
It was Easter Sunday, and I was in a tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka when I first heard about the attacks by Islamist suicide bombers in which more than 250 people died.
Shortly after, Islamist groups aligned with Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility. They framed the attacks as a blow struck in a long-running war between Muslims and Christians, stretching back to medieval times. Eight days later, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, praised the attackers. ‘The battle of Islam and its people against the crusaders and their followers is a long battle,’ he said. The war, he suggested, was far from over.
The idea of crusading was dreamed up in the late 11th century by Pope Urban II. In 1095 he launched a campaign calling on knights from the kingdoms of Europe to take up arms and travel to defend Christian Constantinople (modern Istanbul) from attack by Turkish warlords
I was in Sri Lanka relaxing having just completed Crusaders, a history of the wars between medieval Christians and their perceived enemies, including Sunni and Shia Muslims in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor and elsewhere.
My conclusion was that when the last Islamic ruler was expelled from southern Spain in 1492, the crusades were effectively over. And yet, here we were, five centuries later, being told they weren’t.
The idea of crusading was dreamed up in the late 11th century by Pope Urban II. In 1095 he launched a campaign calling on knights from the kingdoms of Europe to take up arms and travel to defend Christian Constantinople (modern Istanbul) from attack by Turkish warlords, before travelling on to seize Jerusalem from Islamic rule.
Urban promised those who joined forgiveness for their sins, potentially easing their passage into heaven. Tens of thousands joined up.
The first crusaders were astonishingly successful. They left Europe in 1096, marched to Constantinople and headed across Asia Minor to Syria. They won major victories at Nicaea and Dorylaeum, besieged the Syrian cities of Antioch and Edessa and, on July 15, 1099 breached the walls of Jerusalem. They expelled the garrison before massacring the inhabitants, slaughtering Muslims, Jews and eastern Christians alike. In the Muslim world the loss of Jerusalem was regarded as a tragedy that ‘brought tears to the eye and pained the heart’. Jerusalem was the site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, both revered holy sites. Now it was in infidel hands.
In the decade after 1099 the crusaders established four states in Syria and Palestine: Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa and Tripoli. And in one sense, the history of the crusades is that of the rise, decline, defence and eventual collapse of these fragile realms, with the city of Jerusalem at their heart. In 1187 Jerusalem was lost to the sultan Saladin, a Kurdish military officer who united Shi’ite Egypt and Sunni Syria and encouraged pious Muslims to attack the crusaders under the banner of jihad; a little over 100 years later, in 1291, the remainder of the crusader states were wiped off the map by a slave-soldier regime known as the Mamluks.
For nearly 200 years bands of crusaders arrived from Europe to try to shore up the Western presence in the Holy Land, including Richard the Lionheart and Edward I of England.
Author Dan Jones
Crusaders came from all over the West: men and women, rich and poor, clerics and laymen, the genuinely pious and the utterly cynical. All bought into an idea that fighting Christ’s enemies was a righteous deed that would make the world a better place and spring-clean their souls at the same time.
Gradually, throughout the Middle Ages, crusading expanded, and by the 13th century popes were sending crusaders off to fight against political enemies of the papacy wherever they could be found.
Crusading thus became an ingrained part of the Western mindset. And the concept has survived today. Even if few Westerners now would consider themselves active crusaders, the language of crusading is still tossed about in the West to justify causes both fine and fatuous.
Sensible historians will always remind us that the crusades ended centuries ago. But as long as there are crusaders, the war goes on and on.
‘Crusaders: An Epic History Of The Wars For The Holy Lands’ by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus, £25) is published on Thursday