Military history

Part Three

CHAPTER SEVEN

To the Holy Land

THE IBERIAN PENINSULA HAS LOOMED LARGE IN THIS BOOK, BUT there is no simple and neutral way to refer to it. Each of its names—Iberia, Hispania, Al-Andalus, Spain—proclaims a different heritage, a particular view of its history and origin, although it notionally describes the same territory. For a long time those who wrote about “Spain” did so mainly from Christian sources, and those who chronicled “Al-Andalus” worked principally from Muslim materials. Thus the history of the same past, in the same landscape, had a double aspect. It included both what was written about and what was ignored, what was visible on the surface and what Meron Benvenisti calls “buried history.”1 Buried history is not some archaeological material that can be excavated, but rather a terrain full of ghosts and memories. All three areas that I consider in this book have buried histories.

Spain was the first. Another was that broad wedge-shaped peninsula with the Adriatic to its west and the Black Sea to the east, stretching up to the great Hungarian plain. The Turks called it balkan, “the mountain,” and that name—the Balkans—has stuck. Here, like the holy sites of Spain, buried saints suffused the land with a kind of holiness.2 A third lay to the east, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean. It extended from the desert edge of Sinai to the foothills of the Anatolian plateau. It had various names, but in many European languages it was (and is) the Levant, from the Italian and Spanish term for the point where the sun rises in the east (levante). In Arabic it was called Al-Mashreq, also meaning the land where the sun rises. But the archetype for this idea of holy ground was that part of the Levant where Jesus Christ had been born, lived, and died.3

Muslims were enjoined to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lives. But pilgrimage to Palestine, the Holy Land, was not mandatory for Christians. Nonetheless a pilgrimage still conferred a great spiritual benefit. The pilgrim’s journey involved physical sacrifice and hardship, which was meritorious in its own right. Furthermore, to pray with a pure heart where Christ himself had once stood was an act of great symbolic significance. One knight, leaving his goods to the Abbey of Cluny as he left for the Holy Land, wrote: “I have decided to go to Jerusalem, where God became man, where He spoke with men, and to adore Him where He walked.”4 Pilgrimage could also be imposed as penance for a serious crime such as murder, and these pilgrims sometimes carried a heavy iron chain about their waists to signify the reason for their journey. It was widely believed that when the sinner prayed in Jerusalem, God himself would shatter the iron links to make clear his absolution.

Jerusalem was a magnet for Muslims as well as Christians and Jews. It was the third holiest site of Islam, after Mecca and Medina; for Muslims it was Al-Quds, the holy place.5 Devout Jews often came to the city in the month of Tishri, and stayed to celebrate the feast of the Tabernacles.6Christian pilgrimage had begun under the emperor Constantine and continued under his successors. Great efforts had been made to recover the Christian past of the Holy Land. Lost or half-forgotten biblical sites were located and restored, and lavish churches were erected to enshrine the key places in the life of Jesus Christ. The vast Holy Sepulchre complex was first built between 326 and 336, over the tomb in which Christ had briefly lain. Constantine’s redoubtable mother, Helena, commissioned the building of churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. She was also responsible for rediscovering the three long-lost crosses upon which Jesus of Nazareth and the two thieves had been crucified, relics that had disappeared centuries before. The cross on which Christ had died was identified by the simple expedient of lowering a mortally ill woman onto each of the three wooden shafts in turn, and witnessing her miraculous recovery the instant she was placed upon the true cross.

Not only Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, Nazareth, and many other places named in the Old and New Testaments received a steady stream of pilgrims from the fourth century onward. St. Jerome (342–420), living in the Holy Land, observed that the places where a diligent Christian should pray in Jerusalem had become so numerous that it was impossible to visit them all in a single day.7 Ardent pilgrims soon discovered a multitude of additional holy sites, some of dubious authenticity. One of Jerome’s community told him how she had visited the houses where Cornelius and Philip had once lived in Caesarea, as well as the grave of four unspecified holy virgins. In Bethlehem, she had visited not just the Church of the Nativity, but also what was by tradition the tomb of Rachel. At Hebron she was taken to see some remarkable relics: she entered the authentic hut of Sarah, wife of Abraham, where the swaddling clothes of Isaac had been preserved, and outside the hovel, she saw the remains of the patriarch’s oak, gnarled with age but still in vigorous leaf.8

The Persians’ invasion and occupation of Palestine in the early seventh century, the wars of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against them, and the Muslim occupation that followed sometimes severely impeded the flow of pilgrims, especially those from the West. But the flow never ceased entirely, and the emperor Charlemagne (who legend held had himself made the pilgrimage) later purchased a hostel in Jerusalem, which welcomed any Western Christians, as well as building a church and a library for their use. In 810 he also sent money to be used for the repair of the main holy sites in the city.9 However, the bulk of pilgrims were not Western Christians, but devout men and women from Egypt and other lands by then under Muslim rule, as well as those from the Byzantine domains. The long journey from western Europe restricted pilgrimage to those who could afford the time and considerable expense.10 Nonetheless pilgrimages from the West had increased steadily. There were six substantial groups from the German-speaking lands in the ninth century, eleven in the tenth, and thirty-nine in the eleventh.11 But by the mid–ninth century the journey had become much more dangerous.

ISLAM MAY HAVE TRIUMPHED IN THE SEVENTH CENTURY BUT POLITICAL and military control over the Muslim lands eventually fragmented. A strategist looking at a map of the Mediterranean would see Africa joined to the Levant and Anatolia by only a narrow bridge of land fringed by desert, across the Sinai peninsula and north along the coastal strip of Palestine.12 The same coup d’oeil would register that the various terrains of North Africa—part coastal littoral, part high mountain ranges, part desert—were distinct from the Muslim lands to the north of the land bridge. Above all, Egypt, at the junction of Africa and the Levant, was a historic entity in its own right. The land of Egypt, like Jerusalem, featured in the Qur’an, and so existed within the Islamic ethos from the outset. The economy of Egypt, based on the Nile, had no equal, and Islam in Egypt had inherited a long tradition of culture, government, and power. With the building of Cairo in the last quarter of the tenth century and the opening of the Al-Azhar mosque and university in 988, Egypt also became an intellectual center of the Muslim world.13

But there were not many other factors in common between the peoples of North Africa and those across the land bridge. Islam in North Africa was formed from both Arab and Berber strands. West from the city of Cairouan, on the great open Gulf of Sirte, it was Berber- and not Arabic-speakers who formed the bulk of the population. From the fringe of these lands came the Fatimid conquerors of Egypt in the mid–tenth century. These adventurers followed the Shia line of the faith, taking their name from the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, from whom they claimed descent.14 The caliphate they established in Cairo was based on the Shia traditions of Islam, even though the majority of the Muslims they ruled in their new state followed the Sunni line. Much of the subsequent history of the Islamic lands in the Levant was a struggle between those who ruled to the north of the land bridge and those who ruled to the south, regardless of the pattern of Islam to which they adhered.15 From the late tenth century, armies raided more or less continuously back and forth across the narrow coastal strip of the Levant, as they engaged successively with Byzantine armies and the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad. But even more dangerous from a pilgrim’s perspective were the Bedouin tribesmen, who lived by raiding traders and travelers. Palestine had become a zone of war.

Muslim rulers rarely made any attempt to curtail pilgrimage, which provided them with a valuable source of income. There were occasional riots and other popular outbursts, as in 966 when part of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed. But in 1003 these attacks became official policy. The bizarrely eccentric Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in Cairo suddenly began a campaign against local Eastern Christians and Jews and their holy places. On his orders, numerous churches and synagogues were razed. Most dramatically of all, the vast shrine of the Holy Sepulchre was “dismantled,” with the upper levels pulled down until the towering mound of stone blocks and rubble stood so tall that it prevented any further demolition. Then the Church of St. Mary on Mount Zion was leveled to its foundations, while the Church of St. Anne was completely obliterated and its stones used for new buildings on the site.

Al-Hakim devised new and ingenious means of putting pressure on local Christians to convert to Islam. He ordered Coptic and Orthodox Christians to dress only in black, “and to hang [heavy] wooden crosses from their necks, half a metre long and half a metre wide.” In 1013 he ordered Jews to wear large bells around their necks when they entered the public baths.16 Many succumbed and professed Islam. Yet Western pilgrims continued to stream into Jerusalem even during the fiercest persecutions of local Christians. Al-Hakim’s attacks on the “Peoples of the Book” were not part of a growing Muslim hostility to Christians in general. Many said that the Fatimid caliph was mad and impious, and his policies were certainly without precedent. Also in 1013 Al-Hakim declared that he possessed divine qualities and began to persecute Sunni Muslims with much the same vehemence as he had attacked the other faiths.17 Finally, in 1021, he died in mysterious circumstances, and his obsessions ended with him.

However, the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre resonated powerfully in Europe. Pope Sergius IV supposedly issued an encyclical to the faithful, exhorting them to send an army by sea from Italy that would rescue the sorely wounded city of Jerusalem:

Let all Christians know that news has come from the east to the seat of the apostles that the church of the Holy Sepulchre has been destroyed from roof to foundations by the impious hands of the pagans. This destruction has plunged the entire church and the city of Rome into deep grief and distress. The whole world is in mourning and the people tremble, breathing deep sighs …

With the Lord’s help we intend to kill all these enemies and restore the Redeemer’s Holy Sepulchre. Nor, my sons, are you to fear the sea’s turbulence, nor dread the fury of war, for God has promised that whoever loses the present life for the sake of Christ will gain another life which he will never lose. For this is not a battle for an earthly kingdom, but for the eternal Lord.18

After Al-Hakim’s death, the physical damage was slowly repaired. The Holy Sepulchre was partially rebuilt, although not on the same scale as Constantine’s great edifice. However, nothing could eradicate the folk memory of its destruction at the hands of the infidel.

The millennium of Christ’s crucifixion, in 1033, stimulated pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Yet those who journeyed to the Holy Land came back with tales of desolation in a country driven by war and of constant attacks by Bedouin. More and more, pilgrims had to travel in large and defensible groups: one from Germany in 1065 led by Gunther, bishop of Bamburg, totaled 7,0, including a number of nobles and an armed escort.19 But even for a party as large as this the journey was fraught with unexpected dangers. On March 15, with the Holy City almost in sight, they were attacked by raiders and suffered heavy losses. For two days they did not attempt to fight back, but as the tribesmen grew bolder the knights and their retainers armed themselves, and drove off their assailants. The column was saved by the amir of Ramleh, who arrived with his garrison and repulsed the raiders. Then he escorted the party on their way to Jerusalem. Thus at least on this occasion the authorities did what they could to protect pilgrims. But for those who eventually reached Jerusalem and came safely home, the strongest memories were of those who had died on the road. Of the 7,000 who had set out, only 2,000 returned.20

By the mid–eleventh century Palestine had been laid waste by war, and was full of robbers and brigands. Providing protection and supplies for the bands of pilgrims was beyond the capacity of the Muslim rulers, in a land that was short of food and water. These groups several thousand strong, with their armed protection of armored knights and retainers, and their fortified marching camps, must have seemed more like invading armies than parties of the pious. Increasingly, large groups of pilgrims seeking food and water met with a hostile response. There were skirmishes at ports such as Tripoli and later in roadside towns such as Ramleh, where the townspeople refused to admit the travelers within their gates. Pilgrims saw only that the Holy Land, which should belong to Christendom, was suffering at the hands of the “Saracens.” It had become a wilderness. In the pilgrims’ eyes there was little outwardly to distinguish those Muslims who like the amir of Ramleh behaved well toward them, from others who did not. The endless frustrations of the journey, the ceaseless demands for fees and bribes to pass through both Byzantine and Muslim territories, the requests for payments to ease entry into the holy sites fueled their undifferentiated sense of rage and resentment. So the thousands of pilgrims carried home tales of their difficult and dangerous journey, stories that were no doubt exaggerated with each retelling, to enhance their heroism.

IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE, AT THE START OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM, to reconstruct the popular understanding of the Holy Land during the eleventh century. But it is safe to say that few believers can have been ignorant of it. For most lay Christians at the time, their faith was determined by the ceremonies of the church, and God’s truth, but not directly through the texts in which it was inscribed.21 The word of God came to them via a series of verbal dramas enacted by their priests. The pioneer philologist Walter Ong called this an “oral literacy.” And he also noted the essentially dramatic quality of the Christian message. It was designed to be spoken, especially since it was structured around a set of narratives or parables. These possessed all three vital characteristics for a good story: location, character, and incident. The Qur’an, by contrast, despite its great poetic power, is essentially abstract and rarely topographical. The Christian narratives all have a precise topos: as with the stable in Bethlehem, or the feeding of the five thousand beside the Sea of Galilee. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, his trial and crucifixion in the city are all closely bound to a place.22 The imagined topography of the Holy Land became the staple of medieval art and illustration. Jerusalem in particular must have been a place more real to many Christians than Rome, Paris, Edinburgh, or London. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and above all, Jerusalem were part of every Christian’s inheritance. The immediacy of the region was heightened by the sense that many of the holy relics enshrined in Western churches had their origins in the East.23

The holy city, for Western even more than for Eastern Christians, was “the navel of the world, a land fruitful above all others, like a Paradise of delights.”24 It was the central point on the globe, where Dante entered hell at the beginning of his Divine Comedy. Jerusalem was not so much a place-name as an individual. Pope Urban II echoed this popular feeling, personifying the struggle, when he summoned Christendom to Jerusalem’s aid: “This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies … She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succour.” The pains and torments suffered in the East were human and not abstract. Evil men had ravished a land that belonged to Christ:

An accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire … it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font.

When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground.

Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent.25

Urban’s diatribe talked of Palestine, although in reality even under Al-Hakim assaults this severe had never taken place. But Urban’s invisible subtext was the cruel and bloody Roman martyrdoms so familiar to his listeners.

It is an open question as to whether the Crusades could have been launched without the oratorical skills of Urban II. He understood both his immediate and his wider audience. He skillfully reworked the elements known to his listeners—cruelty and barbarity, the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre, infidel rule—into an appeal that could have only one response. Unfortunately, we know tantalizingly little about his plans and intentions in the late summer of 1095 when he crossed the Alps into southern France. Had Urban already decided to make his appeal to Christendom, or did this conviction emerge as the autumn progressed? He had certainly chosen the venue with some care. The leaders of the church in France were summoned to meet the pope in Clermont, on the edge of the Auvergne; it was a point accessible from both north and south. On November 18, 1095, 300 churchmen and their clerical retinues gathered in the largest church of the city, filling it to capacity. There they settled disputes about discipline and good order: the king of France was excommunicated for adultery and the bishop of Cambrai for selling official positions in his diocese. But as the meeting proceeded, the pope suddenly announced that on Tuesday, November 27, he would speak not just to the church but to the world. A dais was built outside the eastern gate of the city and early on the morning of the address the papal throne was set up before a huge crowd.

For so momentous an event in history, the accounts of Urban’s speech are teasingly confused. No one wrote down a verbatim account and there are five different versions of what Urban said, each subtly different in tone and emphasis, to reflect the writer’s own preoccupations. However, clearly common to each version is Urban’s method of winning over his audience, and if the details differ, his intention and technique are evident. He was telling the vast crowd gathered before him a story, reminding them of facts they knew already, interweaving his ideas and narratives in ways that they had hitherto not considered. In one version, by Robert the Monk, he appealed to them as men of France, upon whom he called in the hour of Christendom’s need:

Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race chosen and beloved by God as shines forth in very many of your works; set apart from all nations by the situation of your country, as well as by your catholic faith and the honour of the holy church! To you our discourse is addressed and for you our exhortation is intended.26

In another (by Fulcher of Chartres), he carefully linked the issue of a pure church, which they had been discussing for nine days, with the great and manifest evil in the East. He called upon Christians to make a pilgrimage in arms to the East:

I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to … carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God.

As he spoke, the crowd shouted back their assent, Deus lo vult (“God wills it”), and as he finished, Adhemer, bishop of Le Puy, knelt before him, begging his permission to join the great expedition. Suddenly, the crowd surged forward, and the cries of “God wills it” rose to a crescendo. In Guibert of Nogent’s account, it was at this point that Urban blessed them all, making the sign of the cross with his hand, and then giving them the emblem under which they would fight: “He instituted a sign well suited to so honourable a profession by making the figure of the Cross, the stigma of the Lord’s Passion, the emblem of the soldiery or, rather, of what was to be the soldiery of God.”27

At Clermont, Urban II achieved what his quarrelsome (and arguably greater) predecessor Gregory VII had failed to accomplish. He stretched out beyond the issues of papal power and government to galvanize Christian society, clerical and lay, to action. The movement that he unleashed (and plainly, the potential for a war on God’s account existed before he spoke) had no set bounds or limitations.28 It had no name. It would be centuries before the term “Crusade” was first coined, and this did not become common usage until the eighteenth century, long after the first impetus had slackened. For Urban and his contemporaries it was a pilgrimage or a journey, but one made unique by the cross that they wore. Everything was embodied in the emblem, the undeniable mark of Christ, familiar to all Christians.29

The image of the cross marked a boundary between Christendom and the world of Islam. For Christendom it represented an elemental triumph—over death itself. It signified both Jesus Christ’s humanity and his divinity, especially when the body of Christ was depicted hanging on the cross. For the Muslim it marked the essential absurdity of the Christian claims to divinity. Muslims in the Levant were already well aware of the symbolic importance of the cross for Christians. It was for this reason that Al-Hakim had forced them to suffer the weight of heavy wooden crosses around their necks. It was for this reason that Christians were not allowed to place the holy emblem atop their buildings, and the cause of Muslim outrage when the victorious Crusaders placed a cross on one of the most holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem.

Urban’s call for a pilgrimage in arms, under the banner of the holy cross, produced a response among the population at large that exceeded all his expectations. This surge of popular feeling and commitment cannot be properly explained by material causes, like poor harvests, although such issues were certainly a factor. Those who rallied to his call to liberate the Holy Land seemed to have had some hazy idea of what their objective entailed. No practicing Christian could have been unaware that there was a place in the East where Christ had been born. Many must also have heard that this paradisal land was under threat. In some communities there might also have been a pilgrim who had already made the journey, and in a culture where knowledge was still passed by word of mouth, such a testimony spread with remarkable speed. Others might have known of the tales of great heroes like King Arthur, who were widely believed to have made the journey in earlier days. But latterly the pilgrims’ stories had not been of the glories of the holy city, but of their failure to complete the journey: they had found the road blocked and had to retreat. Peter the Hermit, who led the People’s Crusade in 1096, had already failed to reach the Holy Land on a previous occasion. The Turkish soldiers who controlled the roads to Jerusalem had forced him to turn back, cursing him as he went.

The Holy Sepulchre had been destroyed less than a century before, and this still resonated in the collective memory. Now, the holy places again seemed under threat. The fear if not the fact was real enough. The East was ravaged by war for much of the eleventh century, but in August 1071 the strategic balance between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslims had suddenly altered profoundly. The Seljuq Turks who had dominated the eastern Islamic world defeated the Byzantine armies at the battle of Manzikert in Armenia. Within a few months, Turkish riders had reached the shores of the Mediterranean, and a Seljuq sultanate was established in Anatolia. An army of Turks besieged Jerusalem in the same year but took the city from its Fatimid garrison only two years later. In 1077 the local Muslims rebelled against their new masters, and expelled the Turks. When these returned in force, the city was recaptured with a great slaughter of the qadi and all the leading Muslim families. The Turkish yoke sat as heavily on Muslims as on Christians and Jews. Heavy taxes were imposed indiscriminately.

THE NEW SOLDIERS OF CHRIST WERE “SIGNED WITH THE CROSS,” cruce signati. They were exempted from the normal processes of law while they were on their journey to the East. Their possessions could not be seized, no action could be taken against them. Up to that point Christendom had recognized two categories in society: those who belonged to the church establishment and the vast majority who did not. Now those who took the cross stood midway between the two, and over time, military orders of knighthood developed that acknowledged this intermediate status in a more formal manner. But in the “Crusade” launched by Urban’s words, the majority of those who set out for the East were neither of noble birth nor even skilled in arms. Where Urban, both by letter and by a ceaseless round of preaching, roused southern France for the armed pilgrimage, the call for a war to rescue Jerusalem was spread farther north by shadowy figures such as Peter the Hermit, a former monk from northeastern France.

Legend has perhaps exaggerated Peter’s physical characteristics—a heavy accent, a stocky but cadaverous appearance—his filthy clothes, and the aged donkey on which he covered huge distances. But the effect of what he said in villages and towns was electrifying. Guibert of No-gent said that he was constantly surrounded by “great throngs of people,” who used to pluck hairs from his mule, which they treated as holy relics.30 He summoned the people to a war for Christ, and they followed him immediately, bringing with them what weapons or implements they had to hand. From the Low Countries and northern France and the valley of the Rhine, he had gathered about 15,000 followers by the time he arrived with his army at Cologne early in April 1096.

Bands of these poorly armed but wildly enthusiastic soldiers for Christ began to march east.31 When this human mass finally reached the walls of Constantinople, the emperor Alexius greeted them warmly but refused them admission to the city. They were allowed through the gates to see the holy shrines only in parties of eighteen, and under heavy guard. The pilgrims set up a straggling camp below the walls of Theodosius, and lived off the land. They robbed the suburban houses and villas that surrounded the city, especially along the seashore, and even stripped the lead from the roofs of churches.32 On August 6, Alexius provided a fleet of small ships to ferry the pilgrims across the Bosphorus. He was pleased to see them depart: these were not the troops that he had hoped would help him resist the depredations of the Turks. Nor did he believe that this rabble could survive in battle with the Muslims. He would be proved right.

The people’s army advanced south, laying waste the land before them. They achieved some success, capturing isolated castles and amassing a large quantity of plunder. But in October the Turks gathered an army large enough to deal with this increasingly provocative enemy whom they regarded as Byzantine mercenaries.33 Spies lured the pilgrims out of their camp with tales that the largest and richest city in the region, Nicaea, only a few miles away, was ripe for seizure. At dawn on October 21 the entire force—of about 25,000 men on foot and 500 mounted knights—set out for Nicaea. Barely three miles from the camp they were ambushed by the Turks, who had hidden in woodland either side of a river valley. They were showered with arrows, and battered by sudden attacks by the Turkish horsemen, and all order broke down, with knights riding down their own men in an attempt to escape.

The popular Crusades that ended so disastrously were not the pilgrimages that the pope had envisaged when he issued his appeal at Clermont.34 Urban II had stipulated Constantinople as the meeting point for the pilgrims and by the spring of 1097 four columns of knights and men-at-arms, and a mass of armed camp followers, had converged on the city. By early June an army of 50,0–60,0 had been transported across the Bosphorus by the Byzantine navy. This large figure gives a misleading sense of the Crusade’s military strength. Only some 7,000 of this number were heavy armored cavalry, western Europe’s particular contribution to the art of war. Some of the remainder were experienced spearmen and a few archers, but the vast bulk were poor pilgrims, men and women, lured by the cross and the promise of plunder. Each armored knight (miles) was the nucleus of a miniature war band. He was supported by a retinue, some mounted and some on foot, but all well armed and loyal to their leader. In turn, most of the knights owed allegiance to one of the great lords or rulers who were in charge of the expedition. But it was a loose structure with little coherent sense of direction, an army managed by a committee of commanders. In the West, most warfare was local, and while many had been on pilgrimage, only the Normans from southern Italy had any experience of an Eastern way of war. Yet even they had no knowledge of the vast distances in Asia Minor, of the harsh climate, with deserts of salt where nothing could grow, and of a powerful enemy unlike any they had previously encountered.

West and East approached the conduct of war from different perspectives. The Western style was based on close combat, on the impact of an armored knight riding at full speed at his enemy, often with his retinue around him. European warhorses were larger and heavier than those in the East, and while Crusaders normally fought from horseback, with a heavy spear and a long straight sword, the versatility of Christian knights was remarkable. Their heavy chain-mail hauberks, like long shirts, reached to midcalf. An iron cap, often studded and reinforced, would deflect almost any blow. The late medieval image of the lumbering man in armor who had to be winched into the saddle did not apply to these armies. Mounted or on foot, a company of mailed Crusaders could cut a swathe through most Eastern formations.

While Western knights rammed themselves into the heart of the enemy ranks, the Turks usually stood off from their opponents, raking them with arrows and javelins from a distance, before darting in at speed to deliver the coup de grâce. The incomparable Turkish recurved bow was made from layers of horn and sinew; in the hands of a skilled man it could send arrows to punch holes through mail or an iron helmet. One account tells of a Crusader shot in the leg: the Turkish arrow went through two layers of mail and so deeply into the horse’s flank that it dropped dead, with the rider still pinned to its corpse. The Turkish horse archer could fire three shots in a few seconds, while riding at full speed, either charging forward or in retreat. Moreover, the armies of the East possessed specialized troops not yet developed in the armies of the West. Horse archery was the most notable skill of the Turks; the Syrians produced light horsemen (faris) skilled with the lance; the Persian cavalry were heavily armored, man and horse alike.

The Westerners found that the armored knight was not invulnerable. After the First Crusade, a local ruler held a trial combat between champions. In the tourney the Western knight charged his opponent with a heavy spear, aiming at his exposed chest. The Syrian faris threw a javelin into the shoulder muscle of the knight’s horse, causing it to stumble and crash to the ground. The knight was thrown off, but before he could get to his feet, the Arab had knocked him prostrate with his war hammer, and then jumped down to prick the Westerner’s exposed throat with his sword. At that point the mock combat was stopped. However, the Arabs and Turks quickly realized that these men were not like the Byzantines, whom they knew from many battles. An image of these powerful Franks (Franj in Arabic) surfaced in Arabic literature. They appeared as huge clean-shaven men “like leftovers from the race of Ad” or not men at all. They carried stout broad-headed lances or spears of tempered steel.35 The reckless courage and determination of the knights was incomprehensible to their Muslim peers. Usāmah ibn Munqidh, the Muslim paladin, tells a story of eight Arab warriors who met a single Crusader horseman. He demanded that they give him their camels. They cursed him and refused. One by one he killed or disabled four of them. Then he demanded the camels again, saying, “Otherwise I shall annihilate you.” Then he divided the eight camels and led four away. “He drove his four under our very eyes, for we were helpless with regard to him and had no hope for him. Thus he returned with his booty; and he was only one while we were eight men.”36

The first battle of the Crusade clearly showed how dangerous the Western style of war could be to much larger Eastern armies. The Crusaders besieged the town of Nicaea, which had been the fatal lure for the People’s Crusade. On June 16, 1097, the Seljuq sultan, Kilij Arslan, sent his best troops to relieve the garrison defending the chief city of his domain. The Turks descended from the high surrounding hills, shouting their battle cries and banging on drums. A thin line of Crusaders stood between the Turks and the ramparts of the city. Kilij Arslan’s men rushed at the city’s main gate, expecting to brush the Westerners aside. To their surprise, as they pushed forward, a column of Crusaders struck them a stunning blow to their flank. The Orientalist nineteenth-century painting of the battle by Henri Serrur is highly romanticized, but it captures the sense of a savage melee, with the knights steadily hacking their enemies asunder. In a battle that lasted from dawn to dusk, Kilij Arslan learned the devastating power of the long spears and heavy swords of the Westerners.

The Crusaders, for their part, soon learned to respect the accuracy and rapid fire of the Turkish archers. Little over a month after the fall of Nicaea, the Turks ambushed a Crusader column on its way to the old Roman road junction at Dorylaeum. They killed or wounded many Westerners, but the survivors regrouped, fought back, and then slaughtered the Turks. However great their losses, nothing halted the slow advance of the Crusaders. As they ran out of supplies and the horses died, the knights ended up riding oxen. But still they marched on. They made a huge sweep east and then south, over deserts and across mountains; they were losing men daily, but by October 1097 they stood before the huge city of Antioch, the key to the Levant. A massive urban sprawl, Antioch covered a plain almost three miles long and a mile wide between the river Orontes and Mount Silpius, where the Lebanon and the Taurus mountain ranges meet. Its long lines of ramparts followed the contours of the land, without any obvious weak points. Above the city walls stood a strongly fortified citadel. All through the winter the Crusaders camped before these impenetrable walls, suffering daily the sorties of the city’s defenders. However, the halt before Antioch allowed them to replenish their supplies. Fleets of ships brought food and equipment from Cyprus. Kerbogha, the ruler of Mosul, far to the east in modern Iraq, was also using the winter and early spring to rally a large army for the relief of Antioch. If the Crusaders did not take the city before he arrived, they would be in a dangerous position, caught between the walls of Antioch behind them and a new and confident enemy before them.

But on June 2, 1098, the Crusaders made as if they were striking camp and set off eastward, apparently to confront Kerbogha. Then, after nightfall, they doubled back, and a small band of knights scaled the northwest walls, which had been left unguarded. Inside the city, they met some of the Christian citizens of Antioch, who led them through the tangle of streets to two of the city’s smaller gates. There they cut down the guards and opened the portals. The whole Crusading army poured through into Antioch. In a single day every Turk, male and female, was killed. By nightfall on June 3, according to the Gesta Francorum chronicle, the Crusaders made an attempt, which failed, to take the citadel. They had blockaded Antioch for eight months. One day after they had captured the city (if not the citadel), the first outriders of Kerbogha’s great host appeared before the walls. The whole Muslim army soon arrived and took over the siege works built by the Westerners. Sandwiched between the citadel above them and the encircling army from Mosul beyond the walls, the Crusaders were trapped in a city that contained no food and little water. Men boiled and ate the leaves of figs, vines, thistles, and all kinds of trees. Others stewed the dried skins of horses, camels, oxen, or buffalo.37

They were saved by a miracle. Inside the city, morale deteriorated day by day, until an extraordinary relic was discovered on June 14. The holy lance that had pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion was unearthed beneath the floor of the ancient Church of St. Peter. Its location had been revealed in a vision. The find was taken as a message of God’s favor.38 Just two weeks later, after endless sermons, prolonged fasting, and the preparation of the fragile relic as a battle standard, the Crusader army marched, with soaring spirits, out of the Bridge Gate over the river Orontes, and headed straight toward the Muslim force encamped before it. The holy lance was held high in the vanguard for all to see. The army moved at a slow walking pace. Only about 200 of its warhorses were left after the long months of siege.39 But the foot soldiers walking before the few remaining mounted knights were not the nondescript muster of ill-equipped and untrained men, stiffened with a few trained spearmen, who had formed the infantry in earlier battles. Most of those in the line were skilled knights in full armor, whom it proved immensely hard to kill. Accounts told of knights bristling like porcupines with arrows, darts, and javelins, but still moving forward and fighting ferociously. While the mounted knight, the epitome of chivalry, possessed great striking power, the Turks had found that his horse was vulnerable. Against armored infantry, fighting in unison, the traditional Turkish tactics proved much less effective. Western knights were trained to fight on foot or on horseback: this versatility was the Crusaders’ salvation on June 28, 1098.

The Muslims gathered before the Bridge Gate were only a fraction of the main army, which was encamped some miles away to the north of the city. When they saw the army of footmen advancing, they perceived a forlorn and desperate attempt of an enemy on the verge of defeat. They had no reason to know of the Crusaders’ new sense of ecstasy. It seemed impossible that this mob of men on foot could prove as deadly as men on horseback. The Turks attacked, showering the Crusaders with arrows. Many of the camp followers were killed, but very few of the knights. They quickly came upon the Muslim foot soldiers who formed the bulk of the besieging force and cut them down in their thousands.40 They then turned north, keeping close to the river on their right so that they could not be outflanked, and advanced at a steady pace. Muslim horsemen charged and charged again, but they were brushed aside. Nothing halted the holy lance. By nightfall, the whole army of Kerbogha had retreated in disorder and the Crusaders had taken possession of its camp. They found a vast amount of plunder and food, numerous camp followers, and Kerbogha’s field treasury.

The God-given victory before the walls of Antioch was the first of a near-unbroken line of triumphs. The Muslim armies melted away as the Crusaders continued their progress south through the Levant to Jerusalem. From Antioch onward, the attitude of Muslims to the Western invader began to change. The Crusaders had made a decisive impact not just on the Seljuq Turks, but on the complex and fragmented political culture of the Levant. The Muslim chronicles now noted how very different the Franj were from the Byzantines: they were completely uncivilized. The Damascus chronicler Ibn Al-Qalanisi called them infidels, or “God-forsaken,” but his main complaint was that they broke solemnly concluded agreements. At the town of al-Ma’arra, “the Franks, after promising [the inhabitants] safety, dealt treacherously with them. They erected crosses over the town, exacted indemnities from the townsfolk, and did not carry out the terms on which they had agreed.”41 He did not include the most terrible occurrence at Ma’arra, which other Muslim and Christian historians recorded. Fulcher of Chartres wrote,

I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted. In this way [eating half-cooked meat] the besiegers were harmed more than the besieged.42

This was the behavior of animals and not men, and chroniclers noted example after example of this orgiastic violence. At Antioch, Fulcher recorded that when the Crusaders had captured the Muslim camp, they did not enslave the women that they found there (as Muslims would have done) but “in regard to the women found in the tents of the foe the Franks did them no evil [did not rape them] but drove lances into their bellies. Then all in exultant voice blessed and glorified God. In righteous compassion he had freed them from the cruellest of enemies.”43 A merchant from Ma’arra declared, “I am from a city which God has condemned, my friend, to be destroyed. They have killed all its inhabitants, putting old men and children to the sword.”44 Muslim chroniclers related many acts of treachery and brutality within Islam, but there was something different about the Westerners’ rude animal vigor. The qualities that made them so effective in battle also made them capable of any atrocity.

In Islamic eyes, the most extraordinary example of this viciousness came as Jerusalem was finally captured. When Muslims had first occupied the city, it had been regarded with respect and reverence, and with the exception of the brief period under the Caliph Hakim, Christians, Jews, and Muslims had existed side by side within its walls. But the Crusaders would treat the city like any other place that had offered resistance. Their army finally arrived at its destination on June 7, 1099. What the Crusaders saw came as a shock. Instead of the holy city of their imagination, they were faced by a fortress.45 Unlike Antioch, set on its flat plain and with its long walls, Jerusalem offered opportunities for assault, but the advantage lay with the fresh and well-equipped defenders of the city. Little over a year earlier, the city had been reoccupied by Fatimid troops, who expelled the Turkish garrison. They had worked energetically to improve the defenses and made it clear they would not yield without a fight.46 On the day after its arrival, the whole Christian army, many barefoot and in the clothing of penitents, processed around the city, to derisive shouts from the soldiers lining the walls. Then the army gathered on the Mount of Olives to hear sermon after sermon, which roused their spirits and reminded them of their journey’s purpose. The Crusaders no longer enjoyed the benefit of the holy lance. Its reputation had been tarnished by rumors that it was not a true relic. The monk who had discovered it, Peter Bartholomew, then demanded the right to defend his honor and that of the holy lance through trial by ordeal. Unfortunately, he was “horribly burned” in the flames and died twelve days later.47

The Crusaders outside Jerusalem now had news of a large army massing in Egypt to relieve the holy city. There was no chance of starving Jerusalem into submission—it could be taken only by assault. Once more, as at Antioch, they risked being trapped between the enemy within the walls and the enemy without. A long investment was therefore out of the question: the city had to be taken by storm. But there was no wood to hand from which they could make ladders and siege towers, and the garrison had poisoned the wells outside the walls. Parties were sent out to scour the country to find enough trees to build siege engines, and eventually two large mobile towers were made in secret out of wood, and clad with wet hides to prevent the Muslim garrison destroying them with Greek fire. On July 13, 1099, the larger of the two towers was rolled slowly into position close to the northern wall of the city, while a covered ram battered away at a lower outer wall that protected the main fortification. For two days the ram pounded at the wall, under constant enemy fire. But it slowly dislodged the stones in the wall so that on the morning of July 14 the tower could be pushed into position, close enough to lower the assault bridges onto the city rampart. The defenders made increasingly desperate efforts to topple it, but they were swept off the wall by a hail of arrows.

Suddenly, huge clouds of acrid black smoke poured out of the siege engines and drifted over the walls, choking the defenders. Seeing the direction of the light breeze, the Christians had lit bundles of damp straw inside the towers. As smoke enveloped the walls, the assault bridges were dropped and two Flemish knights crossed, jumping down onto the city wall. As they held off the defenders, more knights poured across the bridge, consolidating the position on the wall. The defense weakened, and then broke. Ladders were pushed up to the wall and more knights clambered into the city. As they advanced through the streets, the Muslim defenders fled before them. Some knights moved off to open the Gate of the Column, allowing the main body of the army into the city. Others pursued the defenders, and began the slaughter of every living thing within the walls. Count Raymond had given his safe conduct to the survivors of the garrison in the city’s citadel, but many were killed. Raymond of Aguilar, who was with him, wrote:

Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses …

Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.48

Then there was a hiatus. On the first day, the massacres took place in the heat of battle. On the next day,

in the morning our men climbed up cautiously on to the roof of the Temple and attacked the Saracens, both male and female, and beheaded them with unsheathed swords. The other Saracens threw themselves from the Temple … The Saracens who were still alive dragged the dead ones out in front of the gates, and made huge piles of them, as big as houses. Such a slaughter of pagans no one has ever seen or heard of.49

The Jews of the city had been confined to their synagogue, which was then set alight. All died. And one writer, Albert of Aix, mentions an event that none of those present in Jerusalem included in their reports. On the third day after the city fell, the leaders of the conquest decided that all remaining prisoners, men, women, and children, should be killed lest they side with the army advancing from Egypt in a new siege that the Crusaders expected and feared.50

But that Muslim advance was halted by one final, stunning victory. The elation of the Westerners was crowned by the recovery of some fragments of the true cross. These had been taken by Orthodox priests expelled from the city by the Fatimid commander before the Westerners’ arrival. After the conquest they returned with their precious treasure, and concealed it. The Westerners tortured them until they revealed its hiding place. Unlike the holy lance, the true cross had an unquestioned pedigree. Thus, when the army of Egypt moved along the coast to the city of Ascalon, it was faced by a reinvigorated Crusader army, bearing this most holy of relics in the vanguard.

The Egyptian army was mostly made up of footmen: Arabs, Ethiopians, men from North Africa, Armenians. They were well armed and well equipped. On August 11, the Crusaders, who had marched at full speed to meet their new enemy, came upon them before the walls of Ascalon. The Westerners had learned the lesson of Antioch: now their mounted knights were protected by a strong force of foot soldiers, many in armor. But at Ascalon, it was the Muslim army that charged into the Christian lines, led by the Ethiopians who wielded huge iron flails that could shatter flesh and bone. On both wings, the Egyptian cavalry and some horse archers tried to envelop the Crusaders. Pinned with their backs to the walls of Ascalon, the heaving melee of Muslim footmen provided a perfect target for the charge of the mounted knights. One or two charges threw them into complete disarray, then the Crusaders reformed and charged again, heading for the Egyptian standard. Finally, the Egyptians broke and fled from the battlefield.

At Antioch, the Crusaders’ desperate assault had panicked a much larger force, which had put up little effective resistance. At Ascalon, it was a much harder fight, and the Crusaders were fortunate that the full Egyptian force was not ready for battle when they opened their attack. But by August 1099, they had been hardened by three years of battles, sieges, and an epic journey. Moreover, they had refined the raw skills of Western war. Armored infantry played an increasingly important part and they recognized the value of lighter and more maneuverable mounted troops who could protect the more heavily armored knights, by chasing away the mounted Turkish horse archers. After Ascalon, there was no enemy likely to challenge their possession of Palestine. The Latin kingdoms of the East, stretching from the edge of the Anatolian plateau to the fringes of the Sinai desert, began to embed themselves.

The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted for eighty-seven years, from 1100 to 1187. Its counties, baronies, and lordships formed a frontier society which was constantly under threat. It is not surprising that the most notable and permanent impact that the Westerners made upon the land was in their huge castles and military architecture. The kingdoms in the East were sustained by irregular infusions of fresh manpower and money from the West, but never enough and rarely in a timely fashion. This was a foothold and not a comprehensive conquest, like the Norman occupation of England in 1066. There were perhaps some 3,000 adult Frankish knights, plus around 5,000 sergeants of men-at-arms, many of whom married local Christians or even took Muslim wives—the Western population of the kingdom cannot have exceeded 25,000 in total, amid a much larger population of Arabic-speaking Muslims and local Christians.51 On the borders to north and south lay hostile Muslim states, which eventually overwhelmed the Latin enclave. The Westerners were no more than a scattering of small colonies, usually centered on a castle or a fortified town, their power stronger in theory than it ever was in practice. The Holy Land came to dominate them, rather than the reverse.

I HAVE USED THE WORDS “CRUSADE” AND “CRUSADER.” EVERYONE does. But not a single “Crusader” participated in the First Crusade. At best they were Crusaders avant la lettre, before the word existed. The wars to rescue Jerusalem long antedated the word “Crusade,” which was first coined in Spain in the thirteenth century as cruzada, a generation after the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. It first entered English usage as the French word croisade about 1575, and it was not fully Anglicized as “crusade” until the early eighteenth century, after crusado, crusada, and croisado had all been tried and found wanting.52 “Crusade” has from the beginning been a floating, highly mobile and adaptive term, precisely denoting very little but replete with connotations. It has always been a versatile theory. Popes championed a useful concept that allowed them to declare a holy war on any individual or group, proscribing them as enemies of Christ.53 There were holy wars against Muslim infidels; against heretics like the Albigensians of Provence; against recalcitrant Christian monarchs; even against humble towns that failed to toe the papal line. But the first category, war against the Muslim infidel, was always popularly regarded as the true war “for and by the cross.”

Sanctified war was an innovation within the Christian church, which had for centuries struggled to impose the Peace of God upon adversaries. The bishops in the province of Narbonne had, forty years before Urban’s speech, declared, “Let no Christian kill another Christian, for no one doubts that to kill a Christian is to shed the blood of Christ.”54 And Urban II, according to Fulcher of Chartres, had expressly contrasted the evil of war with a struggle in a good cause. Urban told the throng at Clermont:

Let those of you who have formerly been accustomed to contend wickedly in private warfare against the faithful, fight against the infidel, and bring to a victorious end the war … Let those of you who have hitherto been robbers now become soldiers. Those of you who have formerly contended against their brothers and relatives now fight against the barbarians as they ought.

Islam had developed a coherent theory of a holy war long before. Muslim jurists had presented a world split into two parts—one was the House of Peace (Dar ul Islam), where a true Islamic ruler governed, and the other the House of War (Dar ul Harb), where Islam was not in control.55Muslims should strive to ensure that peace took the place of war.56 The Arabic root of the word “to strive or struggle,” J-H-D, generated the word jihad, which meant any kind of battle in a good cause. In everyday terms it referred to the internal struggle against evil or temptation and was called the “greater jihad,” much as later Christian writers came to talk of a holy war against sin.57 But the same word also meant a “holy war” in the purely military sense, which most Muslims regarded as a “lesser jihad,” derived from this process of inner purification.58 Most Western writers have subsequently focused on the secondary meaning, as Rudolph Peters succinctly put it:

The Islamic doctrine of jihad has always appealed to Western imagination. The image of the dreadful Turk, clad in a long robe and brandishing his scimitar, ready to slaughter any infidel that might come his way and would refuse to be converted to the religion of Mahomet, has been a stereotype in Western literature for a long time … The assumption underlying these stereotypes is that Moslems, often loosely called Arabs, are innately bloodthirsty and inimical to persons of a different persuasion, and that [is] owing to their religion, which allegedly preaches intolerance, fanaticism and continuous warfare against unbelievers.59

The theory of jihad was drawn from a few occurrences of the word in the Qur’an and more fully in the juristic commentary on the oral traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Mohammed. These statements often required considerable interpretation to mold them to events. In theory, for Islam as for Christendom, war was an evil. For battle and killing to be sanctified it had to be a struggle in a good and godly cause. Over time, therefore, both communities evolved superficially quite similar ideas for a just war in a good cause. But there were differences between the parallel but separate processes of evolution.60 In Christendom, the doctrine of holy war was hotly debated and transmuted over time into many different ideological strands, mostly in response to social and political change. The terminology of “Crusade” was highly mutable: “pilgrimage,” “journey,” “signed by the cross,” and so on, were other ways of describing it. In Islam, there were two terms commonly used—jihad, and ghaza in Ottoman Turkish—and there could be little debate about the meaning of these terms, and little theoretical investigation of their limits and boundaries. This was because in the dominant Sunni branch of Islam theoretical evolution was severely constrained; as contemporaries expressed it, the “gates of interpretation” (ijtihad) had been closed around the year 900. This meant that the principles of the faith, including the struggle for purity (jihad), were beyond debate and could not be altered.61

But Muslim scholars continued to adjust the application of these immutable principles, by “explaining and interpreting the eternal truths and applying the eternal laws.”62 It was not an ossified and monolithic system and if the theory was fixed, its application was not. Not all wars against infidels were declared to be holy wars, and resistance to the Franks in 1097–9 was certainly not regarded at the time as a jihad. But during the two centuries that the Franj occupied the Levant, the language of jihad grew louder and more sustained. Like the summons to the Crusade, this call to Muslims served a particular purpose.63 The summons brought together an otherwise disunited community. The new idiom of holy war provided a uniquely powerful rhetorical style. Before that fateful encounter in Palestine, Christendom had been focused upon the notion of the Peace of God, and most of the Islamic world had conveniently abandoned both the traditional rhetoric and its practice of the “lesser jihad.” As an outcome of their struggle in the Levant, both cultures were left with a well-honed ideology of war in a just cause.

When the organized forces of “Crusade” and jihad confronted each other directly on the battlefield, the contrast between them was immediately apparent. Visually speaking, the dominant motif of the Western Christian side overwhelmed all others. The Muslim banners carried many different emblems and texts, mostly the names and qualities of God and other suitable verses from the Qur’an. But on the Christian side the single image of the cross was dominant. From the first contact the defining characteristic of the Crusade was the symbol of the crucified Christ. The “Crusaders” were cruce signati, “signed with the cross.”64 In Arab Muslim eyes, there was something distinctive and disquieting about these Christians, the Franks, who wore the cross and had stormed Jerusalem in 1099.65

The cross wearers violated all the acceptable standards of society in ways unthinkable to the local Christians and even the Byzantines. The twelfth-century Muslim warrior Usāmah ibn Munqidh recounted the corrupting impropriety of the Crusaders’ behavior in the Holy Land. They were “without any vestige of a sense of honour and jealousy.” He told a story of a bath keeper whose establishment was frequented by the Franks.

One day a Frankish knight came in. They do not follow our custom of wearing a cloth around their waist while they are at the baths, and this fellow put out his hand, snatched off my loin cloth and threw it away. He saw at once that I had just recently shaved my pubic hair. “Salim!” he exclaimed. I came towards him and he pointed to that part of me. “Salim! It’s magnificent! You shall certainly do the same for me!” And he lay down flat on his back. His hair there was as long as his beard.

I shaved him, and when he felt the place with his hand and found it agreeably smooth he said, “Salim, you must certainly do the same for my Dama.” In their language Dama means lady. He sent his valet to fetch his wife and when they arrived and the valet had brought her in, she lay down on her back, and he said to me, “Do to her what you did to me.” So I shaved her pubic hair, while her husband stood by watching me. Then he thanked me and paid me for my services.

This colorful tale may have recalled a real event, or perhaps it was simply an anecdote. But the Franks certainly baffled Usāmah. “You will observe,” he wrote, “a strange contradiction in their character: they are without jealousy or a sense of honour, and yet at the same time they have the courage that as a rule springs only from the sense of honour and the readiness to take offence.”66 As Carole Hillenbrand has observed:

This story touches on the essential difference perceived by Muslims between their own society and that of the Franks. In a society where women were protected by their menfolk, not allowed to reveal their unveiled faces except to a prescribed number of close male relations, the conduct of the French knight and his wife … both castigates Frankish immorality and also [by contrast] reinforces the values of Muslim society.67

In fact their transgression went further than this. For Muslims, the Crusaders, by breaking the bounds between the forbidden (haram) and the permitted (halal), disrupted and destabilized not only their own lives but also the entire world around them. In Muslim eyes, the Franks created a constant and highly visible desecration. The dominant symbol of the cross was everywhere, atop churches and even the holy mosques of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. The military orders established within the Crusader states all used the cross as their emblem and it became a graphic symbol of defilement. This sense of pollution runs through one of the tales incorporated in the Thousand and One Nights. It tells how the dried excrement of the high patriarch in Constantinople was so revered among Christians that it was preserved and made into the “holiest incense for the sanctification of Christians on all solemn occasions, to bless the bride, to fumigate the newly born and to purify a priest on ordination.” Since the patriarch could not produce the volume required, “the priests used to forge the powder by mixing less holy matters with it, that is to say, the excrements of lesser patriarchs and even of the priests themselves.” Later, this same sanctifying incense was smeared upon a great wooden cross, which Christian soldiers were forced to kiss, and in this case, the narrator avers, “there could be no doubt as to the genuineness of the powder as it smells terribly and would have killed any elephant in the Muslim army.”68

This Rabelaisian burlesque, like Usāmah’s tale, related directly to the perceived filthiness (in a physical sense) of the Westerners but it also suggested their deeper offense to Muslim sensibilities. For them, the concept of Christ on the cross transgressed a wide range of taboos. God made flesh was unthinkable, and even more so a God who experienced a physical birth. In Islam God was transcendent, while the Western Christians proclaimed his materiality. The Crusaders’ capacity to pollute seemed limitless. They had, unwittingly or deliberately, defiled the holy site in Jerusalem (the Haram al-Sharif) from the first moments of their occupation. They had killed thousands within the holy precinct. They had briefly stabled their horses by the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, while one later visitor recorded that “as for the Dome of the Rock, the Franks had built upon it a church and an altar. They had adorned it with pictures and statues.” The same writer saw “pictures of grazing animals fixed in marble and I saw amongst those depictions of the likenesses of pigs.”69 Whether or not pigs were depicted is perhaps less significant than the certainty that for Muslims it seemed entirely plausible. Another Muslim traveler was shocked when he climbed up to the holy sites. “I entered Jerusalem and I saw monks and priests in charge of the Sacred Rock … I saw upon it bottles of wine for the ceremony of the mass. I entered the Aqsa mosque and in it a bell was suspended.”70 The most manifest evidence of this desecration to Muslim eyes was the large gold cross that had been placed on the highest point of the Dome of the Rock.

The cross soon became an emblem of every type of pollution associated with the Franks. In part at least, this Muslim revulsion was based upon the day-to-day reality of life in the Crusader kingdoms, where (unsurprisingly) Christian images supplanted Islamic aniconism. It was this public display that was so disturbing for Muslims. Many practices, such as the reverence for the cross, holy pictures, statues, and the like, were common among local Christians living under Islamic rule both before and after the Crusader occupation of Palestine. However, Christians living under Islam were normally prevented from displaying aural and visual manifestations of Christianity: no bells summoning the believers, no crosses upon their churches, no public processions. Nothing, in short, to offend the majority’s sensibilities, so Muslims normally were not confronted with Christian worship, which was largely invisible. The public triumph of Christianity, especially in the plethora of new churches and shrines that were built throughout Palestine, came as a visual and psychological shock.71 There had been numerous churches and shrines before 1099, but now the pace of new building was inexorable and barely slackened over six or seven decades. The Holy Sepulchre was extended to become a huge Romanesque pilgrimage church, guarding the greatest shrine in Christendom. The mosque called the Haram al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock) was left physically intact but was covered with frescoes outside and sacred objects inside: transformed into the Church of the Holy of Holies (Templum Domini), it was dedicated at Easter 1141. The physical “Christianization” of the city was accompanied by a shift in population. Muslims and Jews were mostly precluded from living within the walls, so that Jerusalem was now a Christian city, with even the old Muslim and Jewish quarters thronged with Western migrants and pilgrims.72

For centuries, except on a few rare occasions and regardless of who ruled the city, Jerusalem had been a neutral space. Jews, Christians, and Muslims had operated a Peace of God. Pilgrims could worship at their sacred places, scholars could come closer to God through study. Sometimes a kind of informal academy developed, where the different faiths could debate issues of belief. The First Crusade and the near-century of the Latin Kingdom interrupted that long tradition. But it also created a new sense of anger and anxiety in both the Western Christian and the Mediterranean Islamic worlds. Its roots lay earlier, in the seventh century, and a shadowy negative image of the infidel must already have existed within Western society in the eleventh century. Nothing else can explain the extraordinary response to Urban’s summons. But it was not a dominant discourse. After the First Crusade it was, both in the East and the West. During the period of Christian occupation of Jerusalem, from 1099 to 1187, the trope of defilement and the consequent need for purification grew more dominant among Muslim writers. In tone, if not in content, it was similar to the Western reactions to the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem in the years just before the conquest of 1099, and again in the centuries after the loss of the city in 1187.

The Muslim reconquest evoked a plethora of different responses in the West. By the 1340s the noted Dominican scholar and preacher Robert Holkot could argue that “it is not possible to teach the life of Christ unless by destroying and condemning [destruendo et reprobando] the law of Machomet.”73 He further asserted that Islam should be eradicated both by preaching, “the spiritual sword,” and if necessary by conquest and extermination. Nor was Holkot an insignificant figure. His reputation grew after his death in 1349 and his Study on the Book of Wisdom, in which this condemnation was contained, went through twenty printed editions between 1480 and 1520.74 But there were others, like William of Tripoli, writing in Acre, who believed firmly in the possibility of converting Muslims by peaceful means to the Christian life. He concluded his De statu Saracenorum with this confident assertion: “Solely by the word of God, without philosophical argument and without military weapons, they will like simple sheep seek the baptism of Christ and will enter into the flock of God. He says and writes this who by God’s will has baptised more than a thousand.”75

Yet his confidence in conversion was not widely shared. More typical were scholars who cast doubt on even the desirability of conversion. The Franciscan Alexander of Hales in his Summae universae theologiae of 1256 classed Muslims with heretics irredeemably tainted by their unbelief and who should therefore be killed by any lawful authority. Benoit of Alignan in his Tractatus fidei suggested that the “absurdities of Mahomet” should be extirpated by “fire and sword.”76 But no scholar suggested that the fact of Islam’s existence could ever be ignored. This was the vast “myth of Crusade” that Alphonse Dupront traced through his life’s work, a history on an almost Gibbonian scale. This myth, as he put it, became “an endemic reality, that is a [permanent] condition of the collective spirit.”77 But the medieval Crusades, like the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans and the two great sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683), had a double impact. They transformed the West, but they also transmogrified the East.

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