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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 recapture it.

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 war.

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.

No 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 true crusade.

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 tents.

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.

Crusades reconsidered
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 aggressors.

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 military orders.

See Pope Urban II speech and suggested school project for the Islam unit, 7th grade

See also "Quotes from the Quran"

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