True Crusades Part 2
In the meantime, Turkish invasions
continued to affect the Holy Land. Jerusalem, which was held
by the Shi'ite Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, was captured by the
Seljuk Turks in 1071. The Turks, suspecting (rightly or
wrongly) that the local Christian population might prefer
their former Fatimid rulers to the new overlords, persecuted
them. In 1091, Turks drove out the Christian priests.
The Fatimids, meanwhile, bided their time.
When the moment was right, they seized the city again—in 1098,
just one year before the First Crusade would arrive to
In 1095, the West finally responded to the
plight of Eastern Christians by mounting the First Crusade. In
1099, crusaders stormed Jerusalem. Like the capture of
Jerusalem by the Persians in 614, but unlike the negotiated
surrender to the Muslims in 638, this attack ended in a bloody
massacre of the city's inhabitants. "Heaps of heads and hands
and feet were to be seen throughout the streets and squares of
the city," a medieval historian wrote.
A Christian kingdom controlled much of the
Holy Land until 1291, when the Muslims once again conquered
the area. But the crusades themselves were military failures.
Whatever battles Christians could claim, Muslims would win the
Islam strikes back
The recapture of Jerusalem by Christian forces in 1099 did
not, at first, draw much notice from the Muslim world. A few
poets wrote laments on its capture. Abu l-Muzaffar al-Abiwardi,
an Iraqi poet, called for a response:
Sons of Islam, behind you are battles in which heads
rolled at your feet.
Dare you slumber in the blessed shade of safety, where life
is as soft as an orchard flower?…
This is war, and the man who shuns the whirlpool to save his
life shall grind his teeth in penitence.
The titular supreme ruler of the Islamic
world, the caliph of Baghdad, also issued a statement of
regret. But in general, local Muslim rulers adapted to the
presence of the Christian rulers of the crusader states just
as they had adapted to the intrusion of the Turks: here were
new players on the stage of the Middle East.
Before long, that began to change. A series
of Muslim rulers, including Zengi, Nur al-Din, and the famous
Saladin, fought to reunite the fractured parts of the Islamic
Middle East. These leaders initiated a jihad, a
counter-crusade against the Christians of Jerusalem and the
surrounding regions. A desire to reconquer the city figured
more and more notably in Muslim writings.
By the end of the twelfth century, Saladin
had reconquered Jerusalem more or less permanently. The entire
Holy Land was back under Islamic control by 1291.
Christians repeatedly tried to launch
crusades to drive back the renewed Muslim assault, but these
attempts all failed. Crusading was too difficult, dangerous,
and costly. Besides, the growing kingdoms of Europe were more
interested in their own affairs than they were in the fate of
Jerusalem or of Eastern Christians.
Europe under siege
By the fourteenth century, a new Muslim force had appeared in
Asia Minor: the Ottoman Turks. Brought into southern Europe by
one side in a Byzantine civil war, the Ottomans quickly
established a base from which to expand.
Christian Balkan powers began to fall
before the Ottoman advance. Christian leaders like Prince
Lazar of Serbia, John Hunyadi of Hungary, and the Albanian
guerilla commander Skanderbeg put up a heroic resistance, but
in vain. The drumbeat of Muslim advance had resumed.
Lazar was defeated and killed in the first
battle of Kosovo in 1389. Bulgaria was overrun in 1393. John
Hunyadi was defeated in 1448 at the second battle of Kosovo
while trying to mount a campaign to save the beleaguered
Byzantines, who by now were virtual prisoners inside their
capital city of Constantinople.
Constantinople was sacked in May 1453. The
last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, died in desperate
fighting around the gates of the city.
more Christian services were conducted in the cathedral—Hagia
Sophia, like most of the other churches of Constantinople, was
converted into a mosque.
Over the next 200 years, European strength
grew to match, then exceed, Islamic power. European states
also began to claim colonies around the globe. Muslims lost
their grip on land-based Asian trade and never developed the
naval technology to keep pace with Europeans at sea.
In 1683, the Ottomans launched a final
attack on Europe, staging their second siege of Vienna (the
first took place in 1529). Once again, the city seemed on the
verge of falling. It was saved by what may have been the last
A Polish force, led by Jan Sobieski, caught
the Turks by surprise and relieved the siege. Sobieski also,
it is said, brought coffee and croissants onto Western tables
when he discovered the Turks' uneaten breakfasts in their
Muslims made no more serious attempts to
take the city, or any other territory in Europe. The Muslim
world was slipping into a long period of decline from which it
is only now emerging.
Though some Christians decried the crusades while they were
happening (see page 28) and soon afterward (see page 31),
anguish over this episode in history dates primarily from more
recent years. In the early 1950s, at the end of his sweeping
three-volume history of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman put
it this way: "The Crusades were a tragic and destructive
episode. The Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act
of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against
the Holy Ghost."
Muslims, too, have lately taken a darker
view of the crusade era. Until relatively recently, they saw
the battles as episodes in the long contest between Islam and
Christianity—a contest initiated by Islam. Now, statements
like this, from Lebanese journalist Abin Maalouf in the 1980s,
are more common: "[T]here can be no doubt that the schism
between these two worlds [of Islam and Christianity] dates
from the crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an
act of rape."
In the late 1990s, an American child led a
"Reconciliation Walk" across Europe and the Middle East,
distributing hugs, apologies, and a written statement, saying,
"We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of
Christ by our predecessors" to the bemused Muslims he and his
companions met along the way.
The child's activities fit into a larger
pattern of Western amnesia about the conflict between Islam
and Christianity, and of fashionable Western self-loathing.
Muslims have offered no apologies. Some Muslim leaders still
call the faithful to counter-crusade today, viewing themselves
as continuing the tradition of Muslim conquest of Christian
lands (though many of those lands have ceased to be Christian
in any meaningful way). Muslims in general seem to have
accepted the Christians' self-description as unjust
But if Christians are allowed to wage war
when attacked, and if Christians believe that their religion
has a right to exist outside the sphere of Islamic law,
perhaps modern Christians should take a second look at the
crusades and their historical context, in which Christianity
was under near-constant pressure from the Islamic world from
the seventh century to the seventeenth.
Paul Crawford is assistant professor of
history at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. He specializes in
ecclesiastical history with emphasis on the crusades and
Pope Urban II speech and suggested school project for the
Islam unit, 7th grade
See also "Quotes
from the Quran"
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