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Crusades: Short Introduction

In Short, What are the Crusades? 

The Crusades were a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church during the medieval period in the Eastern Mediterranean with the objective of recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule. The difference between these campaigns and many other Christian religious conflicts was that they were considered a penitential exercise that brought forgiveness of sins declared by the church.

So in 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. He encouraged military support for Byzantine Emperor Alexios I against the Seljuk Turks and an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Moreover, across all social strata in western Europe there was an enthusiastic popular response. Volunteers took a public vow to join the crusade. Their motivations included the prospect of mass ascension into Heaven at Jerusalem; satisfying feudal obligations; opportunities for renown; and economic and political advantage.

Initial successes established four Crusader states in the Near East: the County of Edessa; the Principality of Antioch; the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the County of Tripoli. The crusader presence remained in the region in some form until the city of Acre fell in 1291; leading to the rapid loss of all remaining territory in the Levant. After this, there were no further crusades to recover the Holy Land.

The Crusades: Some Background  

Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity and Constantinople was founded by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, in 324. Eventually, the city developed into the largest in the Christian world. While the Western Roman Empire collapsed at the end of the 5th century. The city and the Eastern Roman Empire are more generally known as Byzantium; the name of the older Greek city it replaced. By the end of the 11th century; the period of Islamic Arab territorial expansion had been over for centuries. Its remoteness from the focus of Islamic power struggles enabled relative peace and prosperity for the Holy Land in Syria and Palestine.

The Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world were long-standing centers of wealth; culture and military power. They viewed Western Europe as a backwater that presented little organized threat. The Byzantine Emperor Basil II had extended territorial recovery to its furthest extent in 1025. So the Empire’s relationships with its Islamic neighbors were no more quarrelsome than its relationships with the Slavs or the Western Christians. Moreover, the Normans in Italy; to the north Pechenegs, Serbs and Cumans; and Seljuk Turks in the east all competed with the Empire and the emperors recruited mercenaries — even on occasions from their enemies — to meet this challenge. 

Islam: Expansion, Political Fragmentation, and a Halt

After the foundation of the Islamic religion by Muhammad in the 7th century; Muslim Arabs conquered extensive territory; before political and religious fragmentation halted this expansion. Still, Syria; Egypt, and North Africa were taken from the Byzantine Empire. The emergence of Shia Islam. In other words, the belief system that only descendants of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and daughter, Fatimah, could lawfully be caliph; had led to a split with Sunni Islam on theology, ritual, and law. The Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty ruled North Africa; swathes of Western Asia including Jerusalem; Damascus and parts of the Mediterranean coastline from 969. 

The Turks Join Islam and the Arab World 

So waves of Turkic migration into the Middle East enjoined Arab and Turkic history from the 9th century. Prisoners from the borderlands of Khurasan and Transoxania were transported to central Islamic lands; converted to Islam and given military training. Known as mamluks, it was expected that as slaves they would be more loyal to their masters. In practice, it took these Turks only a few decades to progress from being guards to commanders; then governors; dynastic founders, and eventually kingmakers.

The Seljuk Turks Take Over 

The political situation in Western Asia was further changed by later waves of Turkish migration. In particular, the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the 10th century. Previously a minor ruling clan from Transoxania, they had recently converted to Islam and migrated into Iran to seek their fortune. In the two decades following their arrival they conquered Iran, Iraq and the Near East. The Seljuks and their followers were from the Sunni Islamic tradition which brought them into conflict in Palestine and Syria with the Shi’ite Fatimids.

The Seljuks were nomadic; Turkish speaking and occasionally shamanistic; very different to their sedentary; Arabic speaking subjects. This difference and the governance of territory based on political preference, and competition between independent princes rather than geography; weakened power structures. Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes attempted confrontation in 1071 to suppress the Seljuks’ sporadic raiding leading to defeat at the Battle of Manzikert. Historians once considered this a pivotal event but now Manzikert is regarded as only one further step in the expansion of the Great Seljuk Empire.

The Papacy in the 11th Century 

The papacy had declined in power and influence to little more than a localized bishopric by the start of the 11th century. But in the period from the 1050s until the 1080s; under the influence of the Gregorian Reform movement, it became increasingly assertive. Conflict with eastern Christians resulted from the doctrine of papal supremacy. The Eastern church viewed the pope as only one of the five patriarchs of the Church, alongside the Patriarchates of Alexandria; Antioch; Constantinople and Jerusalem. In 1054 differences in custom; creed; and practice spurred Pope Leo IX to send a delegation to the Patriarch of Constantinople, which ended in mutual ex-communication and an East-West Schism.

Historical Reasons for the Crusades 

The First Crusade was an unexpected event for contemporary chroniclers. But historical analysis demonstrates it had its roots in developments earlier in the 11th century. Clerics and laity increasingly recognized Jerusalem as worthy of penitential pilgrimage. In 1071, Jerusalem was captured by a Turkish warlord; who seized most of Syria and Palestine as part of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks throughout the Middle East. The Seljuk hold on the city was weak and returning pilgrims reported difficulties and the oppression of Christians. Byzantine desire for military aid converged with the increasing willingness of the western nobility to accept papal military direction.

The desire of Christians for a more effective Church was evident in increased piety. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land expanded after safer routes through Hungary developed from 1000. There was increasingly articulate piety within the knighthood and the developing devotional and penitential practices of the aristocracy created a fertile ground for crusading appeals. Crusaders’ motivations may never be understood. One factor may have been spiritual – a desire for penance through warfare. The historian Georges Duby’s explanation was that the crusades offered economic advancement and social status for younger; landless sons of the aristocracy.

Other Historical Reasons for the Crusades 

This has been challenged by other academics because it does not account for the wider kinship groups in Germany and Southern France. The anonymous Gesta Francorum talks about the economic attraction of gaining “great booty”. This was true to an extent, but the rewards often did not include the seizing of land, as fewer crusaders settled than returned.

Another explanation was an adventure and enjoyment of warfare. But the deprivations the crusaders experienced and the costs they incurred weigh against this. One sociological explanation was that crusaders had no choice as they were embedded in extended patronage systems and obliged to follow their feudal lords.

The Disintegration of the Muslim World in the Late 11th-12th century 

From 1092 the status quo in the Middle East disintegrated following the death of the vizier and effective ruler of the Seljuk Empire, Nizam al-Mulk. This was closely followed by the deaths of the Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah and the Fatimid khalif, Al-Mustansir Billah. The Islamic historian Carole Hillenbrand has described this as analogous to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 with the phrase “familiar political entities gave way to disorientation and disunity”. The confusion and division meant the Islamic world disregarded the world beyond; this made it vulnerable to and surprised by, the First Crusade.




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Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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