IN THE SCORCHING summer heat of 1099, thousands of sunbaked Christian soldiers marched across Europe, crossed into Asia, and converged on Jerusalem. Weeping with joy, singing prayers, and seeing visions in the sky, they crouched beneath a firestorm of Muslim missiles and wheeled their wooden siege engines up to the holy city’s towering white walls. When they overtopped the battlements, they sliced their way through the time-scarred streets until the stones themselves seemed to bleed. Fresh from the slaughter, staggering under the weight of their spoils, they flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prayed at the tomb of Christ. Four hundred sixty-one years after it had become Muslim, Jerusalem was Christian again.
The outpouring of European zeal that launched the First Crusade had begun four years earlier, far away in the mountainous forests of central France. There, on a cold November day, 13 archbishops, 90 abbots, 225 bishops, and a clanking train of nobles and knights had gathered to listen to an important announcement by the pope. The church was too cramped for everyone to fit in, and the assembly moved to a nearby field to hear the ringing call to arms that was to unloose centuries of holy war on the East.
Pope Urban II, by birth Odo of Châtillon, was the scion of a knightly family from Champagne. His grand scheme was inspired by the Iberian Reconquest, but he had been spurred to action by an urgent request from Constantinople.
Six centuries after the fall of Rome, Constantinople still regarded western Europe as imperial land under temporary occupation by barbarians, and it bluntly refused to acknowledge the pope as the supreme leader of Christendom. Just four decades earlier, the pope’s legates had stalked under the dizzying heaped domes of the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople’s great cathedral, and had excommunicated the patriarch on the spot, a fit of pique that sundered the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches for good. To ask Rome for help was a galling prospect, but Constantinople had little choice.
With its squares and streets lined with the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, its Hippodrome ringed with gilded equestrian statues and seats for a hundred thousand, its churches a golden blaze of mosaics and its workshops heaped with exquisite icons and silks, Constantinople had only one rival for the title of the most glamorous metropolis in the known world. That rival city had been built by the Abbasids, an Arab clan that had ousted the Umayyad caliphs from their throne in Damascus and had delivered the coup de grâce by inviting eighty of their deposed cousins to a banquet in which they featured as the main course. In the eighth century the Abbasids had deserted enemy Damascus for a site on the River Tigris, at its closest point to the River Euphrates and twenty miles from the towering ruins of the old Persian capital at Ctesiphon. The new capital was optimistically called Madinat al-Salam, or the “City of Peace,” and was later renamed Baghdad.
As the heir to centuries of Persian cultural splendor and the crossing point of the currents of knowledge that swept across the vast Islamic empire, Baghdad had quickly become the intellectual powerhouse of the world. International scholars gathered at its House of Wisdom to translate the vast corpus of Greek, Persian, Syriac, and Indian writings on science, philosophy, and medicine into Arabic, and Islamic scholars tested the Quran against Aristotle. Mathematicians imported and improved the decimal positional number system from India and unlocked the secrets of algebra and algorithms. The secret of papermaking was extracted from Chinese prisoners, and lending libraries circulated the burgeoning body of knowledge. Engineers and agronomists perfected the waterwheel, improved irrigation, and bred new crops; geographers mapped the earth, and astronomers charted the sky. Baghdad’s renaissance of learning sent shock waves around the world—and yet, even then, it was going rotten at its core.
The Abbasid caliphs had built Baghdad as a perfectly round city, and at its heart was their monumental palatine complex, the Golden Gate. As their lifestyle grew steadily more kingly, the Golden Gate became a pleasure dome of wine, women, song, and spectacular feasts; in the world captured in the Arabian Nights, courtiers kissed the ground as they approached the caliph, who was followed everywhere by an executioner and escaped from his public duties to a vast harem that echoed with the soft steps of an international selection of concubines and wily, witty singing girls. In 917 an embassy from Constantinople was welcomed by mounted troops seated on gold and silver saddles, elephants wearing brocade and satin, a hundred lions, two thousand black and white eunuchs, and waiters offering iced water and fruit juice. The palace was hung with thirty-eight thousand curtains made of gold brocade and carpeted with twenty-two thousand rugs, while four gold and silver boats floated in a tin-lined lake. Another pool sprouted an artificial tree topped with fruit-shaped jewels, with silver and gold birds perched on its silver and gold branches; on order, the tree would start swaying, the metal leaves would rustle, and the metal birds would tweet. It was a far cry from the egalitarian ummah of Medina, and as outrage mounted, the caliphs built themselves an insurance policy in the form of a personal army of mamluks, Turkish slaves seized from the savage tribes that roamed the Central Asian steppes. The solution proved short-lived. The Turks converted to Islam, adopted the local culture, and mounted a series of military coups: in nine years, at least four out of five caliphs were murdered. As the outraged Baghdadis erupted in rebellion, the Turks burned down whole quarters of the city.
The center of Baghdad would not hold, and neither would the center of the far-flung Islamic empire. To the west, a Shia sect wrested control of Tunisia and Egypt; its ruling dynasty, who called themselves the Fatimids, after their claimed descent from Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s wife Fatima, expanded their dominions to Syria, Palestine, and much of Arabia itself, and for two centuries they ruled as a rival caliphate from their new capital at Cairo. To the east Persian power revived for a time until China’s westward expansion pushed entire Turkish tribes into Iran, where they carved out independent kingdoms and barely paid lip service to the caliphs. In 1055 the Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty named after their first leader, finally seized Baghdad, installed their leader as sultan, or “holder of power,” and relegated the caliphs to the honorary status of religious figureheads.
Throughout these upheavals Constantinople had looked on contentedly. It had retaken some of its long-lost lands, and its armies had almost reached the gates of Jerusalem. Yet the decline of Baghdad turned out to be anything but a triumph for its rival city. The Seljuks soon surged across Constantinople’s eastern borders; within two decades they had smashed its armies and decimated its territories. Now they were massing in front of the capital itself, and the treasure house of the classical world finally seemed on the verge of annihilation.
SCANDALOUS RUMORS THAT the Turks made Christian boys urinate in fonts and sodomized clergymen, monks, and even bishops had gripped Europe for years, but for anyone who had missed them, Pope Urban left nothing to the imagination. The Turks, he luridly pontificated from his makeshift pulpit,
have completely destroyed some of God’s churches and they have converted others to the uses of their own cult. They ruin the altars with filth and defilement. They circumcise Christians and smear the blood from the circumcision over the altars or throw it into the baptismal fonts. They are pleased to kill others by cutting open their bellies, extracting the end of their intestines, and tying it to a stake. Then, with flogging, they drive their victims around the stake until, when their viscera have spilled out, they fall dead on the ground. They tie others, again, to stakes and shoot arrows at them; they seize others, stretch out their necks, and try to see whether they can cut off their heads with a single blow of a naked sword. And what shall I say about the shocking rape of women?
That litany of horrors was enough to make Christian blood boil, but Urban had more. It was a tough sell to ask Catholic knights to march to the aid of Orthodox Constantinople and its notoriously scheming emperors, and the pope spun the Crusade in a new direction: toward Jerusalem.
In an age when men and women made arduous pilgrimages to bathe in the divine grace emanating from the relics of obscure saints, the city where Jesus preached, died, and was resurrected was the holy grail of penitents. For centuries Jerusalem’s Muslim overlords had been happy to charge Christians to worship at the holy places, but the new powers of the Islamic world had torn up the old policy. In 1009, one Egyptian ruler had taken umbrage at the number of Christian pilgrims wandering around and had ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher pulled down to its foundations. It had been reconstructed, on payment of a heavy tribute, but soon afterward the Turks had arrived at the gates of the holy city and set about persecuting pilgrims with renewed relish. Like a captive virgin, Urban tugged at knightly heartstrings, Jerusalem was begging to be liberated “and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid.”
The situation in the holy city was an unholy embarrassment, but in reality Urban was as desperate to get Europe’s knights out of the West as into the East. As the Dark Ages had finally lifted, a large class of expensively armed and trained warriors was left withnothing better to do than attack one other, terrorize defenseless populations, or, to Rome’s indignation, raid Church property. “Hence it is,” Urban remonstrated with the assembled knights, “that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves . . . for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Christ himself, he proclaimed, commanded them to exterminate the vile Turks from his lands.
“Deus lo volt! It is the will of God!” the knights cried out.
For all Urban’s firebrand rhetoric, the notion of fighting in the name of Christ was hardly new. What was unprecedented was his coupling of armed combat with the pilgrimage of a lifetime. The prospect was so beguiling that thousands of poor men, women, and children flocked to hellfire preachers like Peter the Hermit, who was widely believed to possess a letter from heaven in which God called on his people to attack the Turks. Armed with little but the simple faith that Christ would scatter the unbelievers in its path, the People’s Crusade set out east before the warriors of Europe had even begun to gather. Along the way, many of the pilgrims practiced their slaughter on wealthy Jewish communities before they arrived at Constantinople, where the horrified emperor hastily diverted them to meet a grisly end at the hands of the Turks.
When the real Crusade set out the following year, the gruesome hardships of the journey turned proud warriors into starving beasts who carved off the rotting buttocks of slain Muslims and roasted them on fires, tearing into the flesh while it was still half cooked. Yet it was the assault on Jerusalem itself that guaranteed retribution. Memories would not die of that day of slaughter in the summer of 1099: not in the Muslim world, where writers howled that a hundred thousand had perished, nor among Christians, who with grim relish wrote home about the “marvelous works” performed in God’s name. Piles of heads, hands, and feet, reported eyewitnesses, were scattered around the streets. Women were stabbed as they fled. Knights were seen “seizing infants by the soles of their feet from their mothers’ laps or their cradles and dashing them against the walls and breaking their necks,” or splitting open the bellies of the dead to retrieve the gold coins they had “gulped down their loathsome throats while alive.” In the al-Aqsa Mosque, venerated by Muslims as the house of worship to which Muhammad had ridden at night on a winged steed before he climbed to heaven from a nearby rock, the slaughter was so great that witnesses vied over whether the Crusaders were up to their ankles, their knees, or their bridle reins in blood. The stench hung in the air for months, even after thousands of rotting bodies were stacked up against the walls “in mounds as big as houses”—by the forced labor of Muslim survivors—and burned in blackening, smoldering pyres from which more swallowed gold was recovered. The scale of the massacre only swelled the Crusaders’ belief that a glorious benediction was shining on them from heaven; one rapturous monk declared that the conquest of Jerusalem was the greatest event in history since the Crucifixion, the precursor to the arrival of the Antichrist and the battles of the Last Days.
Jerusalem became the capital of a Christian kingdom, and a long series of French kings, mostly named Baldwin, were crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To Jerusalem’s north, three more Crusader states—Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli—stretched along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. A cordon of castles rose above the parched landscape of Syria and Palestine, each more monumental than the last and each no more than a day’s ride from the next. The biggest of all were manned by the famously disciplined and fabulously rich military orders that had grown out of fraternities set up to care for sick pilgrims and guard them on their travels. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar had become elite corps of holy warriors that answered only to the pope. The Templars rode on warhorses armed with iron spikes in the advance guard of the Crusades; on the battlefield, with their white mantles emblazoned with red crosses flying behind them, they couched their lances and galloped in silent, tight formation into the enemy’s front lines.
The Templars and Hospitallers lived like monks and fought like devils, but they were often bitter rivals. The land Westerners called Outremer—“Beyond the Sea”—was a curious anomaly from the start. A miniature Europe transplanted to the East and dressed in exotic colors, it was bedeviled by the same lordly egos that set nobles at each other’s throats back home, and it soon fell prey to the same endemic feuds. Crusaders constantly intrigued against each other, while others left the fold and went native. Bloodthirsty newcomers were outraged to find their predecessors wearing kaffiyehs, dousing themselves with deodorant, and sitting cross-legged on a tiled floor next to a plashing fountain while being entertained by dancing girls. They came up with a derogatory name for them—poulins, or “kids”—and the mounting estrangement was bound to end badly.
THE CRUSADER STATES had always relied for their survival on the even greater disunity of the Muslims who surrounded them on three sides. To the north, the Seljuk Turks had fallen into ferocious internecine fighting. To the east were the feuding city-states of Syria, and to the southwest was Egypt, whose long-ruling Shia dynasty, the Fatimids, had pitched into terminal pandemonium. Stalking silently among them all was a renegade sect of Shia fanatics who knifed their fellow Muslims in the back with even more ardor than they murdered the Christian interlopers. Their headquarters were hidden deep in the tortuous hinterland of the Syrian coast, in a fortress built on a rocky prominence from which their leader, a spectral figure known to the Westerners as the Old Man of the Mountains, reputedly ordered his disciples to jump to their death to impress a passing Crusader. To the rest of the Muslim world the sect was known as the hashshashin, or “hash eaters,” a popular term of abuse from which the Crusaders adapted the name “Assassins.” From there it was a short step to the fantasies of Western fabulists, in which cultists were given a glimpse of Paradise in the form of a hashish-hazed orgy before being sent off on a suicide mission that they were told would admit them to the promised land for good. Stoned or not, the Assassins did away with large numbers of prominent Muslims as well as plenty of Crusaders.
The Second Crusade did a much better job of uniting Muslims than the Muslims themselves had done. Led by the kings of France and Germany in person, it set out in 1147 to recover Edessa, the first Crusader state to be won and the first to be lost, and farcically ended by attacking wealthy Damascus, the only Muslim city that was actually friendly to the Christians. Having patched up their differences and thrashed the pilgrim knights, the Syrians invaded opulent, disintegrating Egypt, which in desperation called in the Crusaders, who first defended Egypt and then attacked it.
The Egyptians were forced to call in their enemy to chase out their allies, and this time the Syrians came to stay. Their commander’s nephew and right-hand man, a young Kurd named Yusuf ibn Ayyub, took over as governor of Egypt, and in 1171 he evicted the last Fatimid ruler. Yusuf, who would become known to the West as Saladin, then engineered a reverse takeover of Syria. When, in 1176, the Seljuks buried the hatchet long enough to inflict another devastating defeat on Constantinople, Saladin forged alliances with both sides. In a decade he had united the Crusaders’ neighbors, removed potential threats to his power, and snapped a trap shut on the Christian states.
Saladin was the opponent the Crusaders had most feared: a master tactician who was also a man of deep faith. He was as committed to reviving the faltering Islamic jihad as the most zealous Christian was to the Crusades. Like Urban II, he put Jerusalem at the heart of his campaign to build a new Islamic superpower, but his ambitions were even more outsize than the pope’s. When the holy city was won, he declared, he would divide his territories, make his will, and pursue the Europeans to their far-off lands, “so as to free the earth of anyone who does not believe in God, or die in the attempt.”
In 1187 Saladin made good on the first part of his promise. That summer, he marched west across the Jordan River at the head of thirty thousand warriors, nearly half of them fast, light cavalry. Twenty thousand Crusaders advanced to meet him, including twelve hundred knights in heavy armor.
The two sides drew up near Nazareth.
The name alone was enough to quicken Christian pulses with the certainty of victory. But God, or tactical sense, was not on their side. As the nobles quarreled about whether to trek across the desert in the blazing sun or let the Muslims come to them, Saladin drew them out into the parched plains to the west of the Sea of Galilee. As the Christians’ water ran out and night fell, the Muslim advance guard howled taunts at them, unleashed torrents of arrows over their heads, emptied water skins on the ground within their sight, and torched the brush around their camp, choking them with smoke. The next morning, the weakening Christian foot soldiers ran pell-mell up the slopes of an extinct volcano known as the Horns of Hattin and refused to come down. The knights charged again and again, but the fresh Muslim troops crushed them in hours.
Three months later, Jerusalem capitulated to the Kurdish conqueror. The pope immediately called a Third Crusade, and the mighty triumvirate of Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip II of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I answered the call. The elderly Frederick fell off his horse while crossing a river and died of a heart attack in Turkey; as was the custom in such cases, his flesh was boiled off and interred, while his bones, tied up in a bag, accompanied the remnants of his army that stayed on. Richard besieged the coastal city of Acre, promised to spare its citizens, then massacred nearly three thousand prisoners when it surrendered. Philip quarreled with the English king over the spoils and went home, and the Crusade petered out before it reached its goal.
New waves of armed pilgrims set out from Europe to recover the holy city, with equally unhappy results. Most egregious of all was the Fourth Crusade, which diverted to Constantinople at the behest of its Venetian paymasters without coming anywhere near Jerusalem. In 1204 the Crusaders breached Constantinople’s mighty walls for the first time in nine impregnable centuries and wrecked the greatest Christian city in the world. In the majestic Hagia Sophia, drunken knights hacked at the dazzling altar and stamped on priceless icons, while a whore plied her trade in the patriarch’s chair. Nuns were raped in their convents, and women and children were murdered in their homes. The Venetians shipped off the gilded horses from the ancient hippodrome to paw the air above the entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica, and they commandeered the commercial life of the city. The occupiers anointed one of their number emperor, and for half a century there were three Roman Empires: the ousted rulers of Constantinople in exile, the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, and the so-called Latin Empire of the Crusaders. None, of course, had any power over the city of Rome itself.
The great movement of the West into the East that Urban II had unleashed had fatally wounded the very city that had called on his aid.
Once again it could all have been different. In 1229, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II arrived in Jerusalem and sat down with its Muslim rulers to negotiate a lease on the holy city. Frederick was a religious skeptic who had grown up in cosmopolitan Sicily, the only Christian state to match al-Andalus in favoring a fruitful interchange between the three Abrahamic religions, and he had already been excommunicated by the pope for failing to go Crusading. He feasted with the sultan, speaking the Arabic he knew well, and the next morning the muezzins, the men who called the faithful to prayer from the minarets of the city’s mosques, kept mute out of respect. Returning the compliment, Frederick insisted that he had only stayed over to hear their mellifluous chants. The lease was signed and Jerusalem returned to Christian control for fifteen years, to the outrage of hard-liners on both sides.
Frederick, who was known to his peers, not always admiringly, as Stupor mundi—“the wonder of the world”—was a free-thinking anomaly. Once again a moment had arrived that seemed to shoot up the shadowy outline of a very different future, and once again it faded fast. In the end Frederick’s intervention only roiled Europe the more, and the Crusades ground on to their inevitable end. For many, the final, shocking epiphany was the annihilation of the Seventh Crusade by famine, disease, and military defeat in Egypt, which Louis IX of France had confidently set out to conquer. “Rage and sorrow are seated in my heart,” a Templar knight confided in an agony of faith, “so firmly that I scarce dare stay alive”:
It seems that God wishes to support the Turks to our loss . . . ah, lord God . . . alas, the realm of the East has lost so much that it will never be able to rise up again. They will make a mosque of holy Mary’s convent, and since the theft pleases her Son, Who should weep at this, we are forced to comply as well. . . . Anyone who wishes to fight the Turks is mad, for Jesus Christ does not fight them any more. They have conquered, they will conquer. For every day they drive us down, knowing that God, who was awake, sleeps now, and Muhammad waxes powerful.
Though Louis was ransomed for an astronomical sum and was later canonized, some holy warriors lost all hope and defected to the Muslim side.
With the last Crusader strongholds set to topple and thousands of Christian refugees besieged on the shores of Palestine, it seemed as if only a miracle could prevent Islam from engulfing Europe itself.
It was at that point that a horde of ferocious warrior horsemen thundered across the East.
OF ALL THE nomadic invaders who surged west across Asia, the tribes united by Genghis Khan were the least heralded and the most devastating. In the early thirteenth century, the Mongol fighting machine swept across China, turned west, and burned a path through Iran and the Caucasus. The horsemen rode across Russia and into Poland and Hungary, where they wiped out a massed European army that numbered among its ranks large contingents of Templars and Hospitallers. In 1241 they marched on Vienna—and suddenly they vanished as quickly as they had come, called home by the death of their Great Khan.
Europe, which had been convinced the apocalypse was nigh, had been reprieved at the last possible moment. The Islamic world was not so lucky. There the Mongols stayed, and as they rolled inexorably on, countless great cities lay smoldering in their wake.
The caliphs were still ensconced in their Baghdad palaces when the new scourge from the steppes arrived at the gates. In 1258 the Mongols sacked the City of Peace and put a final end to five centuries of Abbasid rule. The victors had a taboo on spilling royal blood, so the last caliph was rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. Baghdad was burned, its people were massacred, and its palaces were pillaged and reduced to ruins. The irrigation system that had made Mesopotamia one of the most fertile regions in the world was broken for good, and the land that had cradled civilizations for more than five thousand years lay ravaged and desolate.
Islam’s civilization would never fully recover from the loss. Many Muslims responded to the shock by withdrawing within themselves; this was the time of the whirling dervishes, mystics who redirected their sense of exile and estrangement into an interior battle, a means of stripping away the egotistical self to reveal the boundless divine. While some looked inward, others looked backward. With the loss of centuries of learning that followed the destruction of uncounted libraries, the ulama, Islam’s body of religious scholars, retreated into a conservatism that sought stability in fundamental beliefs. Islam’s early accommodation with Judaism and Christianity was finally forgotten as the ulama taught that all foreigners were suspect, and non-Muslims were banned from visiting Mecca and Medina.
By the mid-thirteenth century the Mongols had built with their battle-axes, scimitars, and bows the largest contiguous empire the world has seen. The beleaguered Crusaders who were clinging to the remnants of their former states began to see their enemies’ enemies as potential allies, and for decades they entertained hopes of forging a world-spanning Mongol-Christian alliance against Islam. The Mongols themselves proposed a joint attack on Egypt, which was now ruled by the Mamluks, a dynasty of slave soldiers that had ousted Saladin’s descendants. Yet the Crusaders insisted the Mongols had to be baptized before they would join them in battle, and another historic opportunity was lost to Western intransigence. Instead many of the Mongols converted to Islam, and they rebuilt the cities they had flattened on an even grander scale. Destroyers of civilizations, the Mongols also proved unexpectedly capable governors, and for a century a Pax Mongolica, or “Mongol peace,” reigned across Asia.
Eventually the Mongols themselves grew sated and complacent, and their empire fell prey to internal quarrels. As it disintegrated into a patchwork of fiefdoms—one, the khanate of the Golden Horde, ruled Russia well into the fifteenth century—another cataclysm struck the Islamic world. In the middle years of the fourteenth century the bubonic plague arrived in Asia, carried in part by the fleet Mongol armies, and killed around a third of the population. Civilizations tumbled again, and the already weakened dynasties lost all authority. “Their situation approached the point of annihilation and dissolution,” rued the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, who was born to a family of refugees from al-Andalus and lost his parents to the Black Death. “Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.”
The fourteenth century hurled Europe just as far backward. The Black Death wiped out as many lives as it did in the East, and once-burgeoning cities and commerce suddenly stilled. The dynastic bloodbath of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England dragged interminably on. Superstition reigned again; this was a time when seventeen churches boasted that they housed Jesus’s circumcised foreskin, and not one saw anything odd about the claim. The Church’s moral suasion shattered; the papacy had already hobbled its own authority when, in 1309, it had moved to France under pressure from the French king. Catholicism toppled into its own Great Schism, the popes’ legitimacy increasingly contested by the enemies of the French crown who backed rival contenders in Rome. A century after the move to France, the Council of Pisa declared both the French and Roman popes heretics and elected a third pope; the unholy mess was only solved eight years later at the Council of Constance, a three-year jamboree that was attended by 72,000 interested parties including 2 popes, 1 king, 32 princes, 47 archbishops, 361 lawyers, 1,400 merchants, 1,500 knights, 5,000 priests, and 700 prostitutes. When the first uncontested pope in generations returned to Rome, he found it so dilapidated that it was hardly recognizable as a city at all. The scaffolding went up, and the Eternal City turned into an eternal building site.
For more than a century, holy war had given way to a struggle for basic survival. Yet beneath the blasted surface, the deep-rooted rivalry between Islam and Christianity had not withered away. If anything, it had been fed all the more for being forced underground.
By the time the horrors passed, new Muslim rulers gazed out from the East. Their horizons enlarged by the Mongols’ untrammeled ambition, they once again began to dream of a new world order born out of the end of the old. One family—the Ottomans—consolidated their power across Turkey, marched into Europe across the Balkans, and trained their sights on Constantinople.
The Ottoman sultan Bayezid I—nicknamed “the Thunderbolt”—had called a new jihad. Three centuries after the first Crusaders had set out to rout them, the Turks were amassing again on the banks of the Bosporus.
As the front line between Christianity and Islam moved steadily west to the borders of Hungary, Europe finally began to respond. In 1394, the pope in Rome—there was still another in France—proclaimed a new Crusade against the fast encroaching Muslims. Its familiar vaulting goal was to expel the Turks from the Balkans, relieve Constantinople, and race across Turkey and Syria to liberate Jerusalem.
The outcome was predictable, too.
The Hundred Years’ War had paused for one of its sporadic peaces, and Philip the Bold, the powerful duke of Burgundy and de facto ruler of France, saw in the papal call to arms a new way to parade his magnificent wealth. The question of how to defeat the Turks took up much less of his time, and Philip decided to send his eldest son, the twenty-four-year-old John the Fearless, in his place.
In April 1396, several thousand French Crusaders marched east to Budapest, breaking the journey with a string of lavish banquets, and joined forces with the embattled King Sigismund of Hungary. Also on the Western side was a large contingent of Knights Hospitaller, together with Germans, Poles, Spaniards, and a smattering of enthusiasts from across Europe. A Venetian fleet sailed up the River Danube to meet the land forces, and the combined army held a council of war to decide on the tactics for confronting the Turks.
Straightaway a bitter argument broke out. The first problem was that the Turks were nowhere to be seen. Scouts were sent out, but they came back none the wiser. The Hungarians argued that the Crusaders should sit tight and let the enemy do the marching, alesson that should have been well learned from the Horns of Hattin. The glory-hungry French had already decided the Ottomans were cowards, and they overruled their allies. The army set out into Bulgaria and Muslim territory, where the French began pillaging and massacring with intent. Eventually, on September 12, the Crusaders marched up to the walls of Nicopolis, a fortress town built on a steep limestone cliff that commanded the lower Danube. Since they had no siege machines, they set up camp, partied on a grand scale, and waited for the defenders to give up. Most were still drunk when the news arrived that a massive Ottoman army was a mere six hours’ march away.
The battle was so scarring that the medieval chroniclers later claimed as many as four hundred thousand combatants took part.
By now the French were bickering among themselves over who should have the honor of leading the charge. As usual, the rasher voices prevailed. While the Hungarians, the Knights Hospitaller, and the rest of their allies held back, the French knights galloped toward the hillside down which the Turks were advancing. They charged through the weak Turkish vanguard, only to impale their horses on rows of sharpened wooden stakes and expose themselves to a withering hail of arrows. Half of them were unhorsed, but they fought on bravely and managed to rout the main body of trained Turkish infantry. Again ignoring their elders’ counsel, the younger knights clambered up the hill in their cumbersome armor, convinced it was all over. As they reached the top, kettledrums rattled, trumpets pealed, and to shouts of “Allahu akbar!” the Turkish cavalry thundered into sight.
Many of the French fled back down the slopes. The rest battled desperately on until John the Fearless’s bodyguards, on the point of being trampled down, prostrated themselves to plead for their lord’s life. As riderless horses stampeded across the plains, the rest of the Crusader ranks were surrounded and cut up. Many fled to the Danube, but in their frenzy to climb aboard the waiting boats, some were capsized, and the few men who managed to stay afloat fended off their fellow Crusaders. Only a small number made it to the far shore, where most were robbed, starved, and died.
Among the lucky few were King Sigismund of Hungary and the grand master of the Hospitallers, who got away in a fishing boat. “We lost the day,” Sigismund later complained to his companion, “by the pride and vanity of these French.” The French, though, paid a heavy price. Bayezid kept the youngest soldiers as slaves for his own army; many hundreds of the rest were stripped, bound, and decapitated or dismembered while the sultan and the French nobles, who were held for ransom, looked on. The bells tolled all day long in Paris when the horrifying news arrived.
Nicopolis was the very reverse of Poitiers: it had disastrously failed to halt Islam’s advance deep into Europe. The shocking scale of the defeat marked the final death rattle of the medieval Crusades. Only a whirlwind Mongol revival under Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, gave Constantinople and Eastern Europe one last reprieve; Timur, who claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan, exchanged a long series of insulting letters with Sultan Bayezid, the victor at Nicopolis, before seizing him in battle and leaving him to rot in prison, where he died in 1403.
No one in Europe now seriously proposed to send another army to the East. It would be a century before the crimson crosses were seen in Asia again—and then they would be blazoned on the sails of men who had come by sea.
Quite unexpectedly, those men would set out from the far western fringe of the known world.
The Crusades had begun among the knights of Iberia, but for a century and a half they had been too busy battling Islam at home to catapult themselves into the fight for the Holy Land. By the mid-thirteenth century the Christian conquest of al-Andalus was well advanced, but for another century and a half the knights were too busy fighting each other for territory to pay much attention to what was happening in the rest of the world. Yet the Crusading spirit they had kindled had never deserted them, and they carried none of the deadwood of failure in the East that had bowed down the rest of Europe.
When, in the fifteenth century, Iberia’s new rulers began to dream larger dreams, they gazed across the Strait of Gibraltar at Africa and the lands of their former masters. They were not suddenly seized with a previously unsuspected craze for exploration; at first they were driven by the same malice against Islam and the same thirst for its wealth as were the holy warriors before them. Yet step by faltering step, led by a series of outsize personalities, they would launch a new Crusade that would lead them to the opposite side of the earth.