Post-classical history

Chapter 4
The impact of the Crusades

Traditionally, the crusades outside Christendom have been credited with profound influence over the distribution of political and religious power in the regions they affected. Yet their impact as well as success was determined by forces usually beyond the crusaders’ control. Without the disintegration of the unity of the Muslim Near East in the late 11th century and of Muslim Spain two generations earlier, wars of the cross against Islam would probably not have begun or would have rapidly stalled. Conversely, without the westerners’ political and economic capacity to sustain conquest and colonization, in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, these wars would have proved evanescent. The 13th-century failure of the Muslim powers of North Africa and southern Iberia and of the disparate tribes of the southern and eastern Baltic to maintain any concerted resistance to Christian expansion allowed crusades to prevail. In marked contrast stood the rise of Lithuania in the 14th century that successfully resisted further crusading advances in the Baltic, a unification comparable strategically to that of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt under the Ayyubids (c.1174–1250) and the Mamluks (1250–1517) which sealed the fate of Outremer.

The consequences of crusading activity varied hugely. In Spain, the Christian reconquest decisively reoriented the political and cultural direction of the region. In the Baltic, the conquest and Christianization of Prussia, Livonia, and Finland redefined the area and its peoples within Latin Christendom. In Greece and its islands, large areas of which were occupied by western nobles and Venetians after the Fourth Crusade, in some cases for centuries, the effect of western conquest tended to be superficial, but while it lasted, as in the case of Venetian Crete (held until 1669), often unpleasant or downright brutal for the indigenous population. By contrast, in the Near East, with the exception of Cyprus which fell to Richard I of England in 1191 and remained in the hands of Latin Christians until 1571, the western presence that had begun when the first crusaders burst into Anatolia and northern Syria in the summer and autumn of 1097 left few traces except physical and, possibly, cultural scars. Although western-sponsored coastal raids continued into the 15th century, after the expulsion of the last Latin Christian outposts on the Levantine shore in 1291, the systematic destruction of the ports by the sultans of Egypt prevented any prospect of return, apart from a trickle of determined, well-heeled pilgrims and a few friars as resident tourist guides. Nothing remains of the Latin presence in Syria and Palestine except stones, some still standing as built but mostly ruins, and a revived memory of bitterness.


12. A medieval world map, from a 14th-century copy of the Englishman Ranulph Higden’s encyclopaedic Polychronicon. Typically, Jerusalem is shown at the centre, the navel of the world. (East is at the bottom.)


G. The Aegean in the 13th and 14th centuries

It is possible to argue that suppression of heresy within Christendom in the 13th century and papal campaigns against their political opponents from the 13th to the 15th centuries did not require a special ideology of holy war. Similarly, the frontier expansion in the Baltic and the integration into the polity of western Europe of powers such as Denmark and Sweden preceded their association with crusading ideology and practices. In Spain, the Christian reconquest, or Reconquista, predated its reinvention as a holy war. The wars would have occurred in any case. By contrast, the wars in the eastern Mediterranean can be seen only as the consequence of this new form of holy war. Geographically, Syria and Palestine did not lie on western Christendom’s frontiers. Only through imaginative empathy did the politics of the Near East directly impinge on Latin Christendom, a consequence of the ubiquity in the west’s religious culture of endless repetition of the Bible stories, in preaching, liturgy, and the plastic arts. Perhaps the strangest aspect of crusading to the Holy Land lay precisely in its lack of connection with the domestic circumstances of the territories whither the armies were directed. While the First Crusade answered the interests of the eastern Greek Christian empire of Byzantium, it was hardly portrayed as such and developed a momentum quite removed from Greek frontier policy. There existed no strategic or material interest for the knights of the west to campaign in Judaea. This is where comparisons with modern imperialism collapse. For the land-hungry or politically ambitious adventurer, other regions nearer home offered easier, richer pickings. With the partial exception of the Third Crusade (1188–92), currents of western enthusiasm and policy, as in the Fourth and Fifth Crusades, determined the timing and recruitment of eastern crusades rather than the immediate needs of the western settlements in the Levant. More generally, while the presence of western warriors and settlers on the immediate frontiers of Muslim Iberia or the pagan Baltic made some economic or political sense, this was not true for the Holy Land, where the motive for occupation depended on its status as a relic of Christ on earth, a fundamentally religious mission however material the methods employed to achieve it. Consequently, the Christian wars of the 12th and 13th centuries in the Near East provide startling testimony to the power of ideas.

The Crusades and Muslim power

How significant, therefore, were these eastern crusades in the development of international patterns of power? They certainly thrust westerners into geopolitical events otherwise far removed from their orbit of interest. A particular religious perception of world history led to western European involvement in fashioning the political destiny of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq in a period of decisive re-alignment of Near Eastern power.

Urban II possessed an acute interest in Christian political history, which often made gloomy reading. The successes of the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the subsequent conversion of the Germanic successor powers in the ruins of the western empire from the 5th to 7th centuries had been offset by the irruption of Islam in the 7th and early 8th centuries. The rapid Arab conquests of the Christian provinces of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, North Africa, and most of the Iberian peninsula between 634 and 711 had reduced Christendom, as one late medieval pope had it, to an ‘angle of the world’. Jerusalem had fallen to Arab rule in 638; almost all the Biblical scenes familiar to the faithful lay under Muslim control. Further advances in the 9th century, including the capture of Sicily and bases in southern Italy, seemed to threaten Rome and convert the western Mediterranean into a Muslim lake. The two most powerful regimes in the west, the Carolingian Empire of the 8th century or the German emperors of the 10th and 11th, despite laying claims to an Italian kingdom, rarely engaged directly with the loss of southern Christian provinces. For the empire of Byzantium, with its long frontiers with Islamic states, the confrontation occupied a habitual rather than urgent element of foreign policy, especially after the stabilization of borders in eastern Anatolia from the 8th century.

The hundred years before 1095 saw a transformation. In the western Mediterranean, Muslim pirates were ejected from bases in southern France at the end of the 10th century. Between 1061 and 1091, Italian-Norman forces conquered Sicily. Further west, the collapse of the caliphate of Cordova in Spain in 1031 and its replacement by a patchwork of competing principalities, ruled by the so-called taifa (or ‘party’) kings, presented Christian rulers and mercenaries from outside the peninsula with opportunities to extract tribute and extend territory. Driven by politics and profit, not religion, Christian rule advanced piecemeal, Muslim–Christian alliances being as common as conflict. The famed conqueror of Valencia in 1094, the Castilian Roderigo Diaz (d.1099), ‘El Cid’, spent as much of his career fighting for Muslim lords against Christians as vice versa. However, when the usually squabbling Christian princes united, significant gains were achieved, notably the capture of Toledo by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Dynastic and ecclesiastical links drew recruits from Catalonia and north of the Pyrenees, although only with hindsight could they be equated with crusaders.

In the eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the 10th century, Byzantine armies had re-established a foothold in northern Syria, capturing Antioch in 969, which remained in Greek hands until 1084, only a decade and a half before the arrival of the First Crusade. Otherwise, the Anatolian/Syrian frontiers had remained largely static. The tripartite balance of power in the region was based on the Byzantine Empire to the north and west; the orthodox Sunni Muslim Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad in nominal control ofIran, Iraq, and Syria; with the Shia Muslim Caliphate of the Fatimids in Egypt since 969. In the 11th century the political configuration of the Near East was severely jolted by the eruption of the Seljuk Turks from northeast Iran. Establishing themselves in control of the Baghdad Caliphate in 1055 as sultans (sultan is Arabic for power), the Seljuks pushed further west, by 1079 establishing their overlordship in most of Syria and Palestine, having in 1071 defeated a Byzantine army at Manzikert in northeastern Anatolia. Within twenty years, a Seljuk Sultanate had been consolidated in Anatolia with a capital at Nicaea close to Constantinople. However, despite the Seljuk conquests, Muslim unity was a charade, especially after the outbreak of civil war between the heirs of Sultan Malik Shah. The Seljuk empire in Iraq and Syria comprised a loose confederation of city states, often controlled by Turkish military commanders (atabegs) and slave mercenaries (Mamluks) who owed allegiance to one or other rival Seljuk prince. Throughout the region ethnic diversity and alienation of ruler from ruled prevailed. In parts of Syria, immigrant Turkish Sunnis ruled an indigenous Shia population or forced their protection on local Arab dynasts. The Shia Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, with power in the hands of often non-Arab, Turkish or Armenian viziers, ruled a largely Sunni population. Such complexity ensured a continuing political volatility that offered rich opportunities to the ambitious, the ruthless, the skilful, and the fortunate. The appearance of the western armies of the First Crusade in 1097–8 merely added one more foreign military presence to an area already crowded with competing rulers from outside the region.

In contrast with the impact of wars of the cross in and around western Europe, the conquests in Syria and Palestine played only a modest role in defining the political direction of the Near East in the 12th and 13th centuries and none thereafter. Developments beyond the Muslim frontiers and Christian control largely determined the settlers’ fate. The 12th century witnessed the establishment first of Syrian unity under Zengi of Aleppo (d.1146) and his son Nur al-Din (d.1174) and then of the unification of Syria with Egypt under Nur al-Din’s Kurdish mercenary commander turned independent Egyptian sultan, Saladin (d.1193). Apart from a serious attempt to contest control of Egypt between 1163 and 1169, the Christian rulers in Palestine, the Franks, observed the process as largely impotent bystanders. Only after he had secured the three inland Muslim capitals of Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul did Saladin turn his armies on the Franks in the crushing campaign of 1187–8 that gave rise to the Third Crusade.


13. Mamluk warriors training. The Mamluks were professional Turkish mercenaries enlisted as warrior slaves in the armies of Egypt who took control of the country after 1250 and drove the Franks from the mainland of Syria and Palestine in 1291.

Although Saladin, Zengi, and Nur al-Din all located their policies in the vanguard of a Muslim religious revival that swept westwards from Iran and Iraq, decking their wars with the language of jihad, most of their energies and violence was directed both materially and ideologically against other Muslims. Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 was matched by his suppression of the heretical Fatimid Caliphate in 1171. For Saladin and his successors, their main concerns focused on the internal maintenance of their empire, reflected in Saladin’s pragmatic approach to negotiating the partition of Palestine with the Franks during the Third Crusade. The repeated civil wars among Saladin’s successors, the Ayyubids, encouraged them to enter into truces with the Franks, who still controlled much of the Syro-Palestinian coast between the 1190s and 1260s. Beyond temporary panics following their capture of Damietta (1219 and 1249), the Ayyubid military system successfully resisted the two Christian attacks on Egypt (1218–21 and 1249–50), although in 1250 the role in defending Egypt played by corps of Mamluk mercenaries precipitated their assumption of the Egyptian sultanate. The advent of the Mamluks, by origin Turks from the Eurasian steppes, conformed to the pattern of alien rule in the Near East, as did the chief challenge to their new empire, the Mongols, who by the late 1250s had penetrated Iraq and Syria. Baghdad had been sacked and the last caliph executed in 1258; Frankish Antioch had become a client and Syria briefly occupied. The defeat of a Mongol army by the Mamluks of Egypt in September 1260 at Ain Jalut in the valley of Jezreel helped determine which of the two dominant Near Eastern forces would rule in Syria and roughly where the frontier between them would fall in a political settlement that lasted until the Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk Empire in 1517. The Franks and their western allies could only watch.

The final expulsion of the Franks, begun by the fearsome Baibars and completed by al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291, carried a negative charge generated by the conquerors not the Franks themselves. In annexing the Christian strongholds of the coast, the Mamluks deliberately razed them to the ground, thereby, in H. E. Mayer’s words, achieving the ‘destruction of the ancient Syro-Palestinian city civilisation’. The decisive verdicts of 1260 and 1291 crowned the Mamluks as victors in the long struggle over which foreign group would rule in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine – Greeks, Kurds, Turks, Franks. The last were merely one of many who lost out; their role in the reconfiguration of the political map intrusive, not decisive.

Steven Runciman, the most read anglophone historian of the Crusades, thought the Crusades proved to be a disaster for Christendom because the Byzantine Empire was weakened as a result of the Fourth Crusade. Permanently undermined, Byzantium ‘could no longer guard Christendom against the Turk’, this incapacity ultimately handing ‘the innocent Christians of the Balkans’ to ‘persecution and slavery’. Yet it may be worth considering that the victory of the Mamluks in the second half of the 13th century saved not only western Asia from the Mongols but southern and eastern Europe too. The failure of Byzantium to defend itself in 1203–4 did not augur well for any putative role as a bastion against future Turkish attacks; the occupation of parts of the Greek Empire by Franks and Venetians at least ensured lasting western investment in the later resistance to the Ottomans. Its disastrous failure to accommodate the crusaders before 1204 makes it hard to believe Byzantium left to itself would have coped any better with the Turks. While scarcely interested in the minutiae of local politics and religion, the Mongols might have proved even more disagreeable conquerors than the Ottomans.

Although fatal to the Franks of Outremer, the Mamluk triumph restricted the Mongols to Persia and preserved an Islamic status quo that can only be condemned on grounds of race or religion. Precisely the same can be said of those who assume the malignity of Ottoman rule or that fractious Christian rule in the Balkans would have proved more beneficial to their inhabitants. While easy to re-fight the Crusades in modern historical or cultural prejudices, it remains unprofitable if not actually harmful. One legacy of the Crusades was the estrangement of Greek and Latin Christendom, but not the triumph of the Turk.

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