Post-classical history

Chapter Five


Crusade Resurrected

Between 1128 and 1149, the Muslims unify for successful jihad, and in response the Christians declare a disastrous crusade

FAR WEST OF ANGKOR WAT, the Turkish governor of Aleppo was working his way towards jihad.

Zengi inherited the rule of Aleppo in 1128. He was forty-three years old, ambitious and energetic; tyrannical and aggressive, writes the Muslim historian ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani; so short-tempered, says another Islamic source, that he would crucify his men for offenses as small as stepping into the crops at the side of the road; an “ever-restless worm,” says the Christian chronicler William of Tyre, “mightily puffed up by his successes.”1

In theory, Zengi was the ally of the other Turkish kingdoms. The Turkish empire had been established by the great conqueror Malik Shah half a century earlier. At his death, it had fragmented almost at once. By the middle of the twelfth century, Turkish sultans ruled from Baghdad, Kirman, Syria, Khorasan, and Rum. A sixth Turkish kingdom, the Danishmends, had broken away from Rum. Independent governors, or atabegs, controlled Damascus and Aleppo.

The senior member of the most prominent Turkish clan, direct descendants of Malik Shah himself, kept the title “Great Seljuk” and claimed authority over all the rest. But this power was an illusion, the loyalty of the other Turkish rulers no more than lip service. Once the dust of the First Crusade had settled, the Muslim soldiers of Damascus and Aleppo were as likely to fight on the side of the Crusader kingdoms, against the other sultans, as to join together against the Christians.2

Zengi intended to expand his own power. At first, loyalty to his Muslim brethren did not figure in his plans. In 1130, he began to attack the outlying lands belonging to the Turkish-governed city of Damascus; in 1137, he launched a full-scale siege against the city itself.

Damascus, battered and weakened, nevertheless held out, and Zengi withdrew to reconsider his strategy. Then, in October of 1138, an earthquake centered near Aleppo struck. The walls of the Crusader castle of Harim cracked; the Muslim fortress of Athareb collapsed, killing everyone inside; the ramparts and walls of Aleppo buckled. Houses fell, stones rained down on panicked crowds in the streets, the ground opened. Ibn al-Athir records that aftershocks—perhaps as many as eighty—went on for two weeks. Contemporary chroniclers estimate the death toll at a staggering 230,000 souls.3

Earthquakes near Aleppo, which sat on a fault, were not uncommon; in fact, the entire Muslim world was seismically active. Muhammad’s birth itself was said to have been accompanied by an earthquake that shook the entire world, and Sura 99 of the Qur’an is dedicated to their place in the divine order:

When the earth convulses in its shock

and the earth unloads its burdens

. . . that day, humanity will go out

separately, to be shown their works . . .4

For the Muslims who suffered through them, earthquakes were not random geological events; a tremor was a signal, or a judgment, or a promise.

And after the Aleppo earthquake, the rhetoric of holy war began to cloud around Zengi, transforming his personal ambitions into an advance for the faith. “God did not see . . . anyone more capable of command . . . stronger of purpose or more penetrating . . . ,” wrote Ibn al-Athir. “The morale of the Infidels was weakened, and they realized that something they had not reckoned on had come to their lands.”5

When Zengi’s campaigns resumed, he turned his energies against the Christians. By 1144, he was powerful enough to lay siege to the Crusader city of Edessa. No Christian army came to Edessa’s aid. The king of Jerusalem (Fulk, the former count of Anjou) had been killed in a fall from his horse the year before, leaving Jerusalem in the hands of a powerless child. The Byzantine emperor John Comnenus had just died of a lingering hunting wound, and his son and heir, Manuel, was occupied with putting down the usual plots and revolts that accompanied the passing of the Byzantine crown. And Raymond, the Prince of Antioch (a Frankish nobleman who had claimed the title by marrying, at the age of twenty-two, the ten-year-old daughter of Bohemund II), refused to send help to his brother Crusader simply because he and Edessa’s king were on terms of “insatiable hatred.”6

In just four short weeks, Edessa fell. The attackers “put to the sword all whom they encountered,” man, woman, and child; many who escaped the sword were crushed as they attempted to flee into the last safe citadel.7

With the fall of Edessa, the language of jihad—of right and just struggle against an unrighteous enemy—ramped sharply upwards. Zengi, who now took for the first time a royal title, became known by a whole series of honorifics: the ornament of Islam, the help of the believer, God-helped king. “He will turn tomorrow towards Jerusalem!” wrote the poet Ibn Munir, summing up the hopes of the faithful.8


5.1 Aleppo and the Crusader Kingdoms

In the west, the news of Edessa’s fall inspired a new crusade.

The call itself came from Pope Eugenius III, in the papal decree (or “bull”) Quantum praedecessores, and it was designed to recall past glories. “How much our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs, did labour for the liberation of the Eastern Church!” it began, and continued on to repeat the same promises as the first call to crusade. Those who went east to get Edessa back would receive remission of sins, forgiveness of earthly debts, and eternal glory.9

By now, the First Crusade had become legendary. As the historian Thomas Madden puts it, “an entire generation of Europeans had been born and raised on the epic stories of the First Crusade. . . . There was scarcely a Christian knight who did not . . . long for the opportunity to imitate them.” At long last, imitation was possible; the knights who had grown up on tales of Christian heroism could rise above the squabbles and political maneuverings of the last forty years and join their heroes.10

Eugenius III, unable to leave Rome (which was in one of its semiregular states of ferment and chaos), handed over the preaching of the Crusade to one Bernard, abbot of the monastery at Clairvaux: a senior churchman, “venerable in life and character,” the contemporary historian Otto of Freising tells us, “conspicuous in his religious order, endowed with wisdom and a knowledge of letters, renowned for signs and wonders.” Bernard, himself a Frank, traveled through Western Francia, recruiting knights to the cause.11

He also recruited the French king. Louis VII, of the Capetian dynasty, had inherited the throne in Paris at the age of seventeen. Now only twenty-five, he already suffered from a heavy conscience. Four years earlier, fighting against the rebellious Count of Champagne, Louis had attacked the town of Vitry. The townspeople had fled into Vitry’s wooden church, and without waiting for the king’s orders, Louis’s officers had set it on fire. Everyone inside—hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children—died. Louis, barely out of his teens, stood helplessly by and listened to the screams from inside. Now, he welcomed the chance to do penance.12


5.2 Kingdom of Louis VII

In March of 1146, he announced that he intended to go on crusade and that his wife Eleanor, daughter of the powerful Duke of Aquitaine, would accompany him to the Holy Land. Eleanor, only thirteen when she had been married to Louis, was now in her early twenties. Despite seven years of marriage, she had conceived just twice, and her sole living child was a daughter; probably she hoped that the pilgrimage would put her in better standing with God, who might then grant her a male heir to the French throne.13

Blame for her infrequent pregnancies likely lay elsewhere. Louis VII had been educated for the priesthood, not the crown. The death of his older brother had unexpectedly catapulted him out of the cloisters and onto the throne, and that early schooling had left its mark. A life in the Church was a life without women; Louis had been taught that sex had the potential to deprive man of judgment and distort his view of God. Even with a lawful spouse, too-enthusiastic lovemaking could be considered sin. Overindulgence in the pleasures of the marriage bed, theologians warned, could “cripple superior masculine reasoning faculties.”14

In the twelfth-century French church, virgins stood at the top of the moral hierarchy; and, thrown back into a world where he was expected to father children, Louis seems to have attended to his marital duties with some reluctance. It was an attitude that would, very shortly, have international repercussions.


5.3 Conquests of Zengi and Nur ad-Din

By the time Louis and Eleanor arrived at Constantinople, in 1147, Zengi was dead: stabbed to death in September of 1146 by one of his own slaves, as he slept. Zengi’s son Nur ad-Din had taken up his father’s sword, and Edessa still remained in Muslim hands.

The armies of the Second Crusade were savagely battered before they ever got near their goal. Louis’s ally, the German king Conrad III (successor of Lothair III, but still uncrowned by the pope), had beaten him to the east. But instead of waiting for the French forces, Conrad’s men had set out for Antioch and been nearly wiped out by a Turkish force at Dorylaeum. “Of seventy thousand mailed knights and many companies of foot soldiers, countless in number,” says William of Tyre, “barely a tenth part escaped.” The survivors retreated to Nicaea and waited for the French. But Conrad III himself had been badly wounded, and when Louis arrived at the rendezvous point, Conrad was still unable to fight.15

The injured German king returned to Constantinople for nursing; and Louis VII took command of the combined French and German army and marched along the coast, making his way slowly towards Edessa. He had even worse fortune. In January of 1148, after two months of hard slogging, the French Crusaders were strung out and separated, marching past Mount Cadmus near Laodicea, when a Turkish army descended on them. Louis VII himself escaped, climbing up out of the gorge he was in by clutching on to the roots of trees. But his men were lost: “Our army,” writes William of Tyre, “was reduced to a very few. . . . That day the glorious reputation of the Franks was lost . . . their valor . . . crushed to earth.”16

The survivors limped and straggled their way to Antioch, which was ruled by Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Poitiers, and took refuge there. They were too few to even attempt the siege of Edessa. Yet to return home in humiliation was unthinkable, particularly for Louis VII, who would ultimately have borne the blame for the defeat. Raymond suggested an assault on nearby Aleppo instead; it was smaller, less fortified, and also happened to be the headquarters of Nur ad-Din himself. Louis VII shrugged off the suggestion. He wanted to march on towards Jerusalem and gain at least remission of his sins for his trouble in coming east.

Raymond then chose a fatal strategy: he decided to work on his young niece and convince her to bring her husband around to his way of thinking. Eleanor was quickly persuaded, and immediately began to lobby Louis on Raymond’s behalf.

Whether this was political shrewdness on her part, or something more convoluted, will never be known. Certainly most of the Crusaders in Antioch thought that Raymond had seduced his niece; he was only in his early thirties at the time and (according to William of Tyre) “very tall . . . handsome far beyond all the kings and princes of the world . . . a charming and elegant prince.” William adds, mournfully, “He was seldom lucky”; and so it would prove.17

Subjected to unceasing pressure from both his wife and his host, Louis VII obstinately refused to even consider an attack on Aleppo. Finally, Eleanor announced that if Louis refused to follow Raymond’s plan, she would ask Pope Eugenius III for an annulment; after all, she and Louis were third cousins (as were most European monarchs, if you climbed far enough back into the family tree). This threat undoubtedly had less to do with Aleppo than with Louis’s inadequacies as a husband. Eleanor was famously rumored to have complained that she thought she’d married a king, but ended up with a monk instead.

Infuriated, Louis VII removed his wife from Antioch by force and hauled her down the coast to Jerusalem. There, he completed his pilgrimage; and she, not having any choice, accompanied him to the holy sites. Afterwards, he took her with him back up to Acre. Conrad III, recovered from his wounds, had arrived with reinforcements, and a great council of Crusader princes and warriors had been called to determine the next move in the Crusade. (Raymond of Antioch was noticeably absent.)18

After a lengthy debate, the Crusaders decided to attack Damascus, which was under the control of Nur ad-Din’s father-in-law. The siege began on July 24, 1148, and was over in five days. Nur ad-Din sent troops to relieve the city, and the Crusaders were so clearly outarmed that they hastily withdrew. Conrad III made a pass through Constantinople, on his way home, to firm up his friendship with the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus; the other Crusaders dispersed.

But despite pleas from his officials back in Paris, Louis VII lingered in Jerusalem until Easter of 1149. He was reluctant to take his wife home, where she could carry out her threat of annulment. Finally, broke and unable to delay the inevitable, he and Eleanor started home, by sea—on different ships.

Once the last Crusaders were gone, Nur ad-Din invaded Antioch. Raymond and his army marched out to drive them back. In the battle that followed, the unlucky Raymond was killed. Nur ad-Din, says William of Tyre, ordered Raymond’s head cut off, and had it sent to Baghdad as a trophy; according to rumor, sealed in a silver case.19

The Second Crusade had come to an embarrassing end. Bernard of Clairvaux, who had preached with such fervor that God was with the Crusaders, blamed the Crusaders for their lack of both holiness and resolve: “The Lord,” he wrote afterwards, “provoked by our sins . . . neither spared his people nor his own name. . . . How could they advance, [since] they were continually turning back whenever they set out?” But whatever the reason for the failure, the result was disastrous; afterwards, William of Tyre notes with regret, “fewer people, and those less fervent in spirit, undertook this pilgrimage thereafter.” The crusading impulse, already aging and infirm, had been dealt a deadly blow.20


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