Byzantine wall painting of a warrior saint made in the late 12th or early 13th century, in the monastery church of Panagia Kosmosotira, Feres, on the frontier between Greece and Turkey. (Author's photograph)
If the crusades have become controversial, the Fourth Crusade always was so. Until modern times the idea of Christians and Muslims slaughtering each other in the name of religion seemed almost acceptable, but the idea of Latin Catholic Crusaders turning against fellow Christians of the Orthodox Church shocked many people, even at the time, and came to be described as ‘The Great Betrayal’. It was even blamed for so undermining the Greek-speaking Byzantine state that this relic of the ancient Roman Empire succumbed to the Ottoman Turks. In reality the Fourth Crusade was not that straightforward; nor was its aftermath inevitable.
The Fourth Crusade was a consequence of the deeply disappointing though gratifyingly heroic Third Crusade, which had failed to regain the Holy City of Jerusalem from Saladin. On 8 January 1198 a new pope, the hugely ambitious Innocent III, took the reins of power in Rome. In August he proclaimed a new crusade, the declared purpose of which was to liberate Jerusalem from the ‘infidel’ by invading Egypt, the chief centre of Muslim power in the eastern Mediterranean. It was also the most important sultanate in the Ayyubid Empire founded by Saladin. Those who dreamed of destroying the Islamic Middle East had now recognized that Egypt was the key, but if their strategy was correct then their planning was not. The realities of power, money, climate and the availability of food to sustain a crusading army would cause the greater part of the Fourth Crusade to be diverted against fellow Christians. Its first victim would be the largely Latin city of Zadar (then called Zara); the second would be Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the biggest, wealthiest and most cultured city in Christendom.
Carved ivory panel showing allegorical figures of Peace and War, Byzantine, 11th–12th century. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Author’s photograph)
Europe and the Middle East, c.1195