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Islam and Other Religions >
Who won the Crusades?

Two myths pervade Western perceptions of the Crusades: first, the Crusades were simply motivated by a religious desire to liberate Jerusalem, and second, Christendom ultimately triumphed. The Crusades (from crux, cross) were a series of military campaigns continuing over two centuries. This religious warfare or “holy war” was initiated by Pope Urban II to restore (Latin) Christian control over Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Jerusalem was and is a sacred city and symbol for all three Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Events leading up to the Crusades began in 1071 when the Seljuq (Turkish) army decisively defeated the Byzantine army. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, feared that all Asia Minor would be overrun, and so he called on fellow Christian rulers and the pope to come to the aid of Constantinople by undertaking a “pilgrimage” or crusade that would free Jerusalem and its environs from Muslim rule.

Muslims had ruled the area since 638. During that time the Christian population had been unharmed and Christian pilgrims were allowed continued access to their holy sites. Jews, long banned by Christian rulers from living in Jerusalem, returned to live and worship in the city of Solomon and David. Muslims had built a shrine, the Dome of the Rock, and a mosque, the al-Aqsa, near the area formerly occupied by Herod's Temple and close to the Western (Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple.

For Pope Urban II, the “defense” of Jerusalem provided an opportunity to gain recognition for his papal authority and its role in legitimating the actions of temporal rulers. Under the ostensible goal of uniting in a “holy war” to free the holy city, a divided Christendom rallied as warriors from France and other parts of Western Europe (called “Franks” by Muslims) joined forces against the “infidel.” This was ironic because, as scholar Francis E. Peters has observed, “God may indeed have wished it, but there is certainly no evidence that the Christians of Jerusalem did, or that anything extraordinary was occurring to pilgrims there to prompt such a response at that moment in history.”

In fact, Christian rulers, knights, and merchants involved in the Crusades, driven primarily by their political and military ambitions, were focused on the promise of economic and commercial (trade and banking) rewards and the promise of salvation for those who died in battle that would result from establishing a Latin kingdom in the Middle East. Among the populace, the appeal to religion captured minds and gained widespread support.

The contrast between the behavior of the Christian and Muslim armies in the First Crusade has been etched deeply in the collective memory of Muslims. In 1099, the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem and established Christian sovereignty over the Holy Land. They left no Muslim survivors; women and children were massacred. The Noble Sanctuary, the Haram al-Sharif, was desecrated as the Dome of the Rock was converted into a church and the al-Aqsa mosque, renamed the Temple of Solomon, became a residence for the king. Latin principalities were established in Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli, and Tyre.

What is rarely remembered is that this victory and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted less than a century. In 1187, Salah al-Din (Saladin), having reestablished Abbasid rule over Fatimid Egypt, led his army in a fierce battle and recaptured Jerusalem. The Muslim army was as magnanimous in victory as it had been tenacious in battle. Civilians were spared; churches and shrines were generally left untouched. The striking differences in military conduct were epitomized by the two dominant figures of the Crusades: Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted. The chivalrous Saladin was faithful to his word and compassionate toward noncombatants. Richard accepted the surrender of Acre, in Palestine, currently northern Israel, and then proceeded to massacre all its inhabitants, including women and children, despite promises to the contrary.

By the thirteenth century the Crusades degenerated into intra-Christian wars, papal wars against Christian enemies who were denounced as heretics and schismatics. The result was a weakening, rather than a strengthening, of Christendom. As historian Roger Savory notes, an ironic but undeniable result of the Crusades was the deterioration of the status of minority Christian sects in the Holy Land:

Formerly these minorities had been accorded rights and privileges under Muslim rule, but, after the establishment of the Latin Kingdom, they found themselves treated as “loathsome schismatics.” In an effort to obtain relief from persecution by their fellow Christians, many abandoned their Nestorian or Monophysite beliefs, and adopted either Roman Catholicism, or—the supreme irony—Islam.

By the fifteenth century the Crusades had spent their force. Although they were initially launched to unite Christendom and turn back the Muslim armies, the opposite had occurred. Amid a bitterly divided Christendom, Constantinople fell in 1453 before Turkish Muslim conquerors. This Byzantine capital was renamed Istanbul and became the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

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