Time to forget the Crusades

Their legacy has been used to argue the inevitability of a clash of civilisations.

A participant dressed as Crusader holds a sword during an anti-Islam protest in Prague, Czech Republic [Getty Images]
A participant dressed as Crusader holds a sword during an anti-Islam protest in Prague, Czech Republic [Getty Images]

A Crusader navy attacks the Muslim port of Damietta in this 15th-century painting
of the Fifth Crusade by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen

French historian Joseph Francois Michaud (1767-1839), in his Histoire des Croisades, affirmed that the Crusades had proven the superiority of Europeans over Muslims and showed the way to the conquest and civilisation of Asia.


Shortly thereafter, Louis Philippe, the King of France from 1830 to 1848, commissioned a Salle des Croisades at Versailles, replete with monumental romanticised paintings of scenes from the Crusades. It is perhaps no accident that at the same time the French were embarked upon the conquest of Algeria.


For numerous French and British of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the Crusades were a precursor to their brave new colonial adventures in the Orient. 


In reaction, Turkish and Arab writers denounced the European colonial enterprise as a re-enactment of the fanaticism and violence of the Crusades.


The Crusades have long stirred emotions of admiration or revulsion, from Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata (1580) to Youssef Chahine’s film Saladin the Victorious (1963) and beyond. 


Arguing the clash


A 1490 gravure by Sebastien Mamerot showing
the Crusader siege of the Muslim city of Antioch

The legacy of crusading, simplified and distorted, is evoked to argue the inevitability of a present and future “clash of civilisations”. 


When Osama bin Laden speaks of countering the attacks of American and European “crusaders”, he taps into a 19th-century European tradition of seeing the medieval crusades as precursors to the colonial (and subsequently post-colonial) relations between Europeans and Arabs. 


But, the Crusades played little part in Arab conceptions of history from the 14th to the 19th centuries.


Until that time, the Crusades were a relatively minor phenomenon in the broad sweep of Muslim history. Of course, chroniclers such as Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Al Qalanisi or al-Maqrizi, close to rulers who fought against the Faranj (rulers like Saladin, al-Kamil, Baibars), made much of the threat posed by the Europeans and the heroic exploits of the sultans who defeated them. 


Ibn al-Athir explained that the attack on the Muslim Mashreq (Middle East) was part of a movement of Faranj that included the Castilian capture of Toledo (in 1085) and the Norman conquest of Sicily (1072-91). 


Yet for other Arab writers of the Middle Ages, the invasions of the Faranj were a minor inconvenience: they were simply another group of Christians who, like the Byzantines or Armenians, could seize small territories and pose threats to local Muslim rulers. 


The Mongol threat


Far more troubling were the invasions of the Mongols, who captured and plundered large swaths of the Muslim heartland, sacking Baghdad in 1258 and Damascus several times. 


Timeline: The Crusades

1095 A.D: Pope Urban II’s speech, given in central France in 1095, was responsible for releasing a torrent of events which played out on a grand scale over the few hundred years.

1096 A.D.: Jews Massacred by Crusaders
Jewish communities in towns and cities along the Rhine River were slaughtered by crusaders.

1147–1149 A.D.: Second Crusade – French and South German armies, marched to Jerusalem in 1147 but failed to win any major victories.

1187–1192 A.D.: The Third Crusade  – Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, recaptured Jerusalem, following the Battle of Hattin.

1202–1204 A.D : The Fourth Crusade was initiated by Pope Innocent III, with the intention of invading the Holy Land through Egypt.

1217–1221 A.D.: The Fifth Crusade – the Church attempted to set another crusade afoot, and the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) formulated a plan for the recovery of the Holy Land.

1228–1229 A.D.: The Sixth Crusade – Emperor Frederick II set sail from Brindisi, landed in Palestine, and through diplomacy he achieved unexpected success: Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem were delivered to the crusaders for a period of ten years.

1248–1254 A.D.: The Seventh Crusade – Crusaders under Conrad of Germany and Louis VII of France besiege Damascus, giving up after Nur al-Din arrives at the request of Damascus. In 1254, Nur al-Din gets Damascus, unifying the parts of Syria that are Muslim..

1270 A.D.: The Eighth Crusade – Louis IX initially came to the aid of the remnants of the crusader states in Syria. However, the crusade was diverted to Tunis, where Louis spent only two months before dying.

1271- 1272 A.D.: The Ninth Crusade –  The future Edward I of England undertook another expedition in 1271, after having accompanied Louis on the Eighth Crusade. He accomplished very little in Syria and retired the following year after a truce.

The Mamluks’ victory over the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260 was far more vital than their victories over the string of small and powerless crusader enclaves such as that of Acre, which the Mamluks captured in 1291, ending the Crusader presence in the region. 


Ibn Khaldun, in his great works of historiography, the Muqaddima and the Kitab al-‘Ibar, has little to say of Crusades and Crusaders, much more about Mongols (including Timur, whom he met) and about the Berber dynasties of the Maghreb. 


Few Arab authors of the following centuries take much interest in the Crusades, which are largely seen as a footnote to the sweep of Muslim history.


In Europe, meanwhile, the Crusades, and their failure to galvanise and unify European Christendom, were an obsession to many authors. In the aftermath of the loss of Acre in 1291, various Europeans called on kings, princes and popes to organise fresh crusades against the Mamluks and increasingly against the Ottomans. 


Most of the anti-Turkish “crusades”, like those of Nicopolis (1396) and Varna (1443) ended in crushing defeat for the European troops. But various European Christian authors continued to use the language of the Crusades to try to fire their co-religionists into attacking the Ottomans or other enemies, including Protestants and “heathen” American Indians. 


The historians and philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment, in contrast, vilified the notion of war in the name of God: for them, holy war represented the epitome of medieval fanaticism. Voltaire depicts the Crusaders as blood-thirsty fanatics, while portraying their opponents, particularly Saladin and al-Kamil, as wise and just monarchs.


European nationalism


Yet this negative vision of crusading is swept aside in 19th-century Europe by three powerful forces in European culture: Romanticism, nationalism, and colonialism. 


The Romantics rehabilitated the Crusades which they portrayed as, at times, bloody and senseless, yet redeemed by a remarkable and admirable idealism. This idea is embodied in the novels of Walter Scott, such as Ivanhoe (1819) and the Talisman (1825). 


Francois de Chateaubriand, in his Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem (1811), takes umbrage at those who speak ill of the Crusades.


On the contrary, for him, despite their shortcomings the Crusaders were imbued with a faith and a selfless sense of mission that pushed them to abandon wives, children, lands and material riches to wrest Christ’s tomb from the grasp of the Muslims. 


In Jerusalem, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Chateaubriand was dubbed into the Order of the Holy Sepulcher by a Franciscan friar wielding what was supposed to be the sword of Godfrey of Bouillon, knight and first ruler of Crusader Jerusalem. 


Chateaubriand and other Europeans dreamed of a return to the heroic age of the Crusades.


European colonialism


Algiers has developed as the capital of Algeria
since French colonists left in 1962 [EPA]

Their dream was not long in the waiting. Beginning in 1830, French troops undertook the conquest of Algeria. French Crusader historians Francois-Joseph Michaud and Jean-Joseph Poujoulat praised kings Charles X and Louis-Philippe as new incarnations of Saint Louis. 


In a preface to a school textbook on the Crusades, the authors present the feats of medieval French Crusaders as models for the youth sent off to conquer Algeria: “The narration of the great events of olden times shall serve as lessons of patriotism for our youth.”


When Napoleon III addressed the troops ready to set off for Lebanon in 1860, he exhorted them to be “the worthy children of those heroes who gloriously carried Christ’s banner into those countries”. 


The British similarly painted their victories over the Ottomans in the first world war: Richard the Lionhearted, who failed to take Jerusalem from Saladin, appears in the pages of Punch in December 1917, in the aftermath of Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem, saying “At last, my dream come true!” 


One could multiply the examples of British and French authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries who affirmed that their colonial empires were reviving the best traditions of medieval crusading: its idealism, its mission to bear European civilisation into the heart of the Middle East. 


Independence dashed


At the Versailles peace conference at the close of the first world war, when the French and British argued over the partition of the Arab lands wrested from the Ottoman empire and the Arab envoys increasingly realised their hopes for independence would be dashed, one of the French representatives tried to ground his claims on French prominence in the Crusades. 


Amir Faisal, in frustration, shot back: “Would you kindly tell me just which one of us won the Crusades?”


It is through the French and British, principally, that Arabs of the 19th and 20th centuries rediscovered the Crusades. Modern Arabic terms for the Crusades, such as harb al-salib, were coined in the 19th century as translations of European terms; there had previously been no Arabic word for “crusade”. 


Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) warns that “Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us”. 


The first book in Arabic devoted specifically to the Crusades is Sayyid Ali al-Hariri’s al-Hurub al-Ṣalibiya, published in Cairo in 1899. His work is grounded in both European scholarship and in knowledge of the medieval Arabic chroniclers. 


Unify the Arabs!


Voltaire described Saladin as a wise ruler

Al-Hariri, like subsequent Arab scholars, accepted Michaud’s assertion that the Crusades were a precursor for European colonialism. Arab nationalists responded by drawing their own historical lessons from this comparison: the new crusaders can be defeated just as their predecessors had been by the unification of the Arabs under leaders who, like Saladin and Baibars in the Middle Ages, will expel the intruders from Arab soil.


Since the middle of the 20th century, if Europeans or Americans compare the Crusades to colonialism, it is in order to denounce one, the other, or both. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Westerners tend to see the Crusades as manifestations of violent fanaticism, not as expressions of admirable idealism. 


It is now principally in the circles of radical Islam that the 19th-century European paradigm equating Crusades with European colonialism lives on. 


Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s affirmed that “the Crusader spirit runs in the blood of all Westerners”.


Similar statements have been proffered by more recent Islamists, including bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: Crusaders and Zionists are implacable enemies with whom one neither speaks nor compromises.  


The mirror term among more extreme western writers is Jihadists: Islamists (or for some, more broadly Muslims) are seen to be inordinately hostile to non-Muslims, against whom holy war is a sacred duty.


What clash?


These Manichean world views fuel pessimistic scenarios such as Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations”. Yet when one looks closely at the age of Crusades, one finds that the lesson to be drawn is far less simplistic than Huntington or bin Laden would have us believe. 


It is a time of trade, when Egyptian merchants bought spices in India and sold them in Spain, when Venetians and Genoese traders sold English or Flemish wool cloth in Alexandria and brought back to Europe Egyptian glass, Damascene metalwork, Indian spices. 


Pilgrims – Christians, Muslims and Jews – bound for Mecca and Jerusalem, travelled together on Genoese or Pisan ships, along with merchants, mercenaries and adventurers.


It is a time when storms tossed their ships and all raised their voices to God in a multilingual supplication. Conflict, as always, was endemic, but it often crossed confessional lines. 


The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (and the other Crusader principalities) did not, as some have claimed, comprise an “apartheid” regime of boorish European louts lording over cultured but abject Muslims. 


Its inhabitants were in fact a cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Normans, Provencaux, etc.


In religion they were Shia and Sunni Muslim, Druze, Catholic, Monophysite, and Jewish. 


The Latin rulers gradually “orientalised”, marrying the daughters of prominent indigenous Christians, learning Arabic, eating and dressing like natives, making truces and alliances with neighbouring Muslim rulers and promoting commerce. 


Yet one should not imagine an idyllic land of tolerance: social distinctions were real, and often followed lines of religion and ethnicity. 


Seeking historical understanding


In this, as in the violence with which they imposed and enforced their rule, the Latins differed little from other contemporary interlopers in Syria/Palestine: Turks, Byzantines, Kurds, Egyptian Fatimids and Mameluks.


The historical fallacy of identifying modern struggles with those of the Middle Ages continues to be an impediment to a real historical understanding of Arab-European (and more broadly Western-Muslim) relations. 


The motivations for al-Qaeda’s violence have more to do with internal Saudi politics and resentment of US policy in the Middle East than with a supposedly eternal clash between “crusaders” and “jihadists”. 


The roots of Iranian anti-Americanism can be found in decades of American alliance with the Shah, rather than in centuries of a supposed clash of civilisations. 


The solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is to be found in the righting of the wrongs of the past 60 years, not in invoking the age of the Maccabees or Saladin. 


It is time to put to rest simplistic notions of the clash of civilisations based on a falsified image of a long-vanished past. Our current problems are real enough to merit being understood on their own terms.         


John Tolan is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Nantes (France). He is the author of Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), and St Francis and the Sultan: An Encounter Seen Through Eight Centuries of Texts and Images (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; French edition published in Paris: Seuil, 2007).

Source: Al Jazeera

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