Conquests like promises, are easier made than kept. The exhortations of Pope Urban II sent army after army of Christian warriors thundering eastward toward the Holy Land at the end of the 11th century, to wrest Jerusalem from the Turks. Three years it took to reach and capture the city where Christ was crucified, and the lives of countless Christians—along with those of other thousands who also worshipped one God, but called Him Allah. Christian and Muslim alike believed that the deliverance of Jerusalem was an expression of God's will, so when the battle flag bearing the cross fluttered from the ramparts of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, restoring the city to Christian rule after 460 years, it seemed history had turned full circle. Who could have guessed that this was not the end, but the beginning, that war would drag on for two centuries more and consume the fruit of seven future generations of man?
Had the Holy Land been the lush land of milk and honey the men of the First Crusade expected to find, history would have been very different. But the dreamy vision vanished in the reality of geography: brutal heat, jagged hills, unforgiving stone, rimmed by a stingy, miasmal strip of verdant coastline. The impoverished land could not possibly support the huge army necessary to defend it from the encircling Muslims, thirsting for justice. And so, their souls redeemed, Jerusalem restored, their saddle bags heavy with loot, and the dark cool forests of Europe beckoning, many of the victorious Christian warriors trickled away, like sand through an hour glass.
Left to defend Jerusalem was an insufficient force of 11,000 soldiers led by a handful of Frankish nobles, who proceeded to institute the most iron-bound feudalism of the Middle Ages. At the top of a caste system were the knights and nobles, and in descending order the burgesses, strangers, peasants and slaves. Laws the egalitarian East indigenous Christians of the more tolerant ' under the Muslims. that even the spoke wistfully good old days"
Since martial prowess was exalted as an outstanding virtue among the conquerors, the gentler callings were inevitably affected. The Hospital of St. John, established in 1048 during Fatimid rule to aid poor and ailing pilgrims, rapidly disintegrated under the Kingdom of Jerusalem into a brotherhood of militant, disciplined soldier-priests. Another monastic group, headquartered near the site of Solomon's ancient temple, became the Knights Templar, praised by St. Bernard as being "most learned in the art of war." In 1180 the Templars numbered but 300, the Hospitalers only 600, but both accomplished
prodigies in battle. In 1190 the two priestly orders, both immensely wealthy from the spoils of war, became three with the foundation of the Teutonic Knights of Acre, which centuries later would migrate and become the Prussian aristocracy of North Germany.
The fighting skills of the military orders and control; of the coastal seas--insured by granting commercial monopolies of the coastal cities to Pisa, Venice, Genoa and Amalfi in return for their sea power—were the two slim pillars on which survival of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the early years of the 12th century was precariously poised. A third was the Muslim weakness for fratricidal disunity, and the habit of committing their forces piecemeal against the united Christians. Still, they remained an implacable threat, as the capture of Edessa on Christmas day, 1144, by the Muslim Atabeg of Mosul, Prince Zengi, proved and in Europe it was soon necessary for St. Bernard of Clairvaux to launch a new crusade to save the Holy Land.
Like the First Crusade, of France took the cross in 1147, and so many countrymen followed that Bernard wrote to Pope Eugenius III that "cities and castles are emptied, leaving not one man to seven women, widows to still-living husbands." Following the route of the First Crusade, the Second passed into Asia Minor encumbered with chests of cosmetics for the ladies of the court who came along with troubadours and foppish courtiers, but with precious little tactical wisdom. At Dorylaeum, where exactly half a century earlier the first Crusade defeated Sultan Kilij Arslan, Conrad's army was cut to pieces by the Turks, with fewer than one in 10 of the army, computed by the Greeks with typical exaggeration at 900,566 soldiers, surviving. Behind them hastened the French army, deceived by false news of a German victory, into the same Muslim trap.
Conrad and Louis eventually made their way to Jerusalem—minus their armies. Together with Baldwin III of Jerusalem, they attempted to take Damascus with an improvised army, were repulsed with ease, and returned to a stunned Europe in disgrace. To many, the collapse of the Second Crusade was plain evidence of God's displeasure, a punishment for Christian sins, and from that time onward the simple faith that fired the soldiers of the First Crusade was never wholly recaptured.
Despite the failure of the Second Crusade, however, Christians in Jerusalem won a reprieve of 40 years when, in 1146, Prince Zengi was killed. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Jerusalem continued to undergo a profound metamorphosis. Arabic became the Christian rank-and-file's first language, intermarriage with Syrian women was frequent, commerce with Muslims constant, and eastern garb almost universal. In fact, until Reginald of Chatillon decided on his outrageous effort to conquer the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, open warfare had begun to subside. With the threat of attack on the holy places, however, there came to the scene a leader who would thereafter dominate the history of the Crusades: Saladin.
At the time of Reginald's. impious foray into the Muslim holy land, Saladin, a chieftain of Kurdish extraction, by capturing Syria and Egypt, had unified the Muslims, but had allowed Jerusalem to subsist in peace. Now, enraged, Saladin proclaimed a jihad—holy war—and swore to kill Reginald personally.
The decisive battle of the Crusades was fought at Hattin, west of the Sea of Galilee, on July 4, 1187. The Christians foolishly abandoned the impregnable castles that had been their salvation through the years and advanced against Saladin, who had put the Sea of Galilee at his back. To reach him, the Christians, numbering 3,000 horse and 10,000 foot, had to march across a waterless plain. Too late they realized that Saladin's force of some 20,000 cavalry stood between them and their next drink of water. On the night of the 3rd, the parched Christians camped, held at bay by flights of Muslim arrows, suffocating from smoke of fires built upwind by the enemy to blind them, sleepless and choked by the dust. At sunrise, retreat impossible, they attacked and were repelled, and threw themselves again and again in futile sorties against the Muslim foe who stood between them and the shores of Galilee. It was fight or die of thirst, so they fought—futilely. Most fell in battle and the rest were made captive or given the choice of acknowledging Muhammad the Prophet of God. Only Reginald was given no choice as Saladin, with a single stroke of his sword, fulfilled his oath.
The Crusades would never recover from the defeat at Hattin, but dreams die slowly. When Saladin advanced on Jerusalem, took it with little loss of life on either side and magnanimously freed thousands of his prisoners, and released the King and his nobles on their parole never to bear arms again against him, Europe still entertained the hope that Jerusalem could be recaptured. William, Archbishop of Tyre, prevailed on the 67-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to take the field. He did, but never reached his goal, tragically drowning while fording a river in Asia Minor, with only a pitiful remnant of his army straggling into the Holy Land where the Christians, from their redoubts of Tyre, Antioch and Tripoli, supplied their army besieging the Muslims at Acre.
Luckier—for a time—was King Richard I of the Lion Heart. This Christian hero, one of the last of the fighting monarchs, matched his opponent Saladin in courage, zest for battle, courtliness, ruthlessness, and generalship. Together the two men gave to the world a rare vision of war in an age of chivalry, by men whose characters could be painted only in primary colors.
Richard set out on the Third Crusade in 1190 with his Normans—few Englishmen ever marched in the Crusades—in company with the French King Philip Augustus, at 23 only eight years his junior.
Richard captured Cyprus, gave it to the deposed King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, and joined the siege of Acre already 19 months old. A few weeks later the Muslims agreed to surrender; when they were slow to pay the ransom, Richard had 2,500 captives beheaded to hasten compliance.
Richard advanced from Acre as sole leader of the Crusade, Philip having fortuitously fallen ill and returned home, fought and won a battle at Arsuf. Now began a long series of inconclusive battles and skirmishes which served only to illustrate the chivalry of the leaders. During one battle Richard's horse was shot from under him; Saladin ordered a cease-fire while he sent him another. Richard, during a lull in the fighting, proposed to end the Crusades by a marital alliance of his sister Joan with Saladin's brother; the Church denounced the idea, and war went on. When Richard was felled by a fever, Saladin sent his personal physician, along with fresh fruits and cooling snow from the mountains. Alternately savage and suave, the leaders fought a frustrating war in which neither gained a clear advantage, and the restless Richard finally turned home- ward, vowing to return and recapture Jerusalem. A crossbowman's arrow put an end to Richard's resolve and his life in Aquitaine, in 1199. Already, one year after Richard's departure for Europe, Saladin had died, aged only 55. He left a legacy of one dinar, and the reputation for courage, wisdom and magnanimity.
None of these attributes can be applied to the Fourth Crusade, which was to begin within a decade following Saladin's death. Repeating the now-familiar excoriations of the Muslims, Pope Innocent III proclaimed the Fourth Crusade, but with a vital difference: having observed the folly of marching by land through an Asia Minor swarming with Turks, Innocent proposed a flanking movement against Jerusalem, using Egypt as a base. To capture Egypt first required a fleet, which Venice pretended willingness to provide. In fact, however, Egypt was Venice's valuable trading partner, and the island republic had no intention of losing this profitable connection. Instead, pocketing a rich bribe from Egypt for diverting the force—as usual, largely French—the Venetians conspired to used French arms against its own enemies, in one of the most cynical, not to mention most successful, coups in the history of power politics.
The Doge of year old Henry Venice the blind 94-year old Henry Dandalo, cannily set a price for transporting their troops to the Holy Land well beyond the ability of the French to pay, and then generously agreed to forego the difference if the French land forces would assist Venice in the recovery of Zara. This maritime city, second only to Venice itself in Adriatic trade, was Hungary's sole outlet to the sea. It had once been a Venetian satrapy, had fought for and gained its independence, and now threatened Venice with unwelcome competition. Pope Innocent III denounced the vicious perversion of the Fourth Crusade into an attack against the eastern Christian state, but his words were lost in roars of greedy approval by the majority of French.
Zara was overwhelmed in five days. An emissary to the Pope begged forgiveness and absolution, which he gave, and the Venetians accepted. They retained the loot, and turned their talents for intrigue to the destruction of a second enemy, the first Christian power, Byzantium itself. In this city Venice had long maintained privileges, which the Emperor Manuel had incautiously abrogated by the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of ambitious Venetian businessmen who had attracted the jealousy of local merchants. This act was reason enough for Venice to strike, but the island-city needed a plausible excuse. It found one in the plea of deposed Emperor Isaac's son, Alexius, to the Venetians to restore his father to the throne of, Constantine. Dandalo and his willing allies, the French barons, squeezed from the youth the promise that, if Isaac was put back upon his throne, Byzantium would hand over to the crusaders 200,000 silver marks, equip an army of 10,000 for service against the Muslims and (as a sop to the papacy) submit the Greek Orthodox Church to Roman rule. The intended bribe didn't deceive Innocent, who threatened excommunication to all who participated in the unholy war against Christians; predictably, the warning was smothered in the clouds of dust raised as most of the crusaders scrambled aboard the 480 ships of the Venetian fleet, and, on October 1, 1202, sailed to Constantinople, where they quickly rolled up the Greek defenses, set a conflagration that spread through three miles of the city, and sacked the city more thoroughly than the vandals and Goths did Rome. The dazed Greeks cursed their impotence and wished aloud that their conquerors had been the moderate Saracen enemy instead of their rapacious Christian friends.
An uneasy peace settled, upon the smoking ruins. Henry Dandalo took the title "Doge of Venice, Lord of One-Fourth and One-Eighth of the Roman Empire," and lived very nearly a full century, full of dubious honors. His newfound Latin Kingdom of Constantinople did not survive so long, staying only long enough to weaken the city's social and military organization irremediably, so that in two centuries it would fall, too easily, to the Ottoman Turks. Of the crusaders, only the few denied their share of spoils reached Palestine; the others dispersed, replete with riches, to their homes in Europe.
In 1212 still another crusade began when a German youth named Nicholas announced that God had commissioned him to lead a Children's Crusade to the Holy Land. Despite the fulminations of the Church and parental opposition, some 30,000 children swarmed after him down the Rhine and up over the Alps, succumbing to hunger and wild animals, but actually reaching Genoa where they hoped to find ships to take them to Jerusalem. Disillusioned when they found none, they straggled back the way they had come.
It was a year of visions same time in France, a About the 2-year-old shepherd named Stephen reported the same command from heaven, and started south with 20,000 young of both sexes at his back. Arriving in Marseilles, they boarded ships whose owners promised to transport them free to their destination. For two of the shiploads of children, this proved to be the bottom of the sea when their ships went aground off Sardinia; for the rest, it was the slave markets of Tunisia or Egypt.
And still Europe was not sated with crusades. Pope Innocent III lived to preach another, in 1217, which proceeded with King Andrew of Hungary at its head to employ the discarded battle plan of the Fourth Crusade. Troops from Germany, Austria and Hungary besieged and took Damietta at the mouth of Nile after a year's hard campaigning, and all Egypt, it seemed, lay defenseless before the Europeans. The Sultan of Egypt and Syria, al-Malik al-Kamil, sued for peace with an offer that embraced the major goals of the crusaders: surrender of most of Jerusalem, repatriation of Christian prisoners-of-war, and the return of the True Cross. Greed triumphed over reason, and the Christians demanded in addition a stiff indemnity which al-Malik al-Kamil refused to pay, and the war went on. It went disastrously for the Christians, who finally traded Damietta and evacuation of Egypt for the True Cross.
The failure of Frederick II, Emperor of Germany and Italy, to come to his countrymen's rescue was the self-serving excuse of the defeated crusaders, and the Pope promptly excommunicated him. Denied the sacraments of the Church, Frederick II set out for Palestine on the Sixth Crusade, but the good Christians there shunned the excommunicate like a leper. Unable to win enough adherents to give battle, Frederick turned to diplomacy, entered into a correspondence with al-Malik al-Kamil that soon became cordial as the Sultan saw the extent of Frederick's understanding of and appreciation for the Arabic language, culture and traditions.
Gentle persuasion succeeded where the battle-axe had failed. To the consternation of the Christian world, the excommunicated Emperor in 1229 concluded an even more advantageous peace with the Muslims than King Andrew had been offered at Damietta. The treaty called for the return to Christendom of Acre, Jaffa, Sidon, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and all of Jerusalem but the Dome of the Rock. Prisoners on both sides were to be released, and hostilities were to cease for 10 years and 10 months. In the Holy Land, both sides hailed the end of strife, but Pope Gregory IX repudiated it as an insult to the Christians, and after a brief interval of Christian rule, Jerusalem fell in 1244 to the Muslims, this time for good.
The sesquicentennial of the First Crusade saw the astonishing spectacle of Pope Innocent IV preaching a crusade against—not the Turks or Syrians, but the hero of the Sixth Crusade, Emperor Fredrick II. It was symptomatic of the political purposes to which the crusades were increasingly subjected; when nothing came of it, the Pope sent the friar Giovanni de Piano Carpini to the Great Khan suggesting a union of Mongols and Christians against the Turks. Carpini returned sheepishly with the Khan's counterproposal: the papacy's submission to the Khan.
One last figure of faith and dignity was to stride across the canvas of the Crusades. King Louis IX of France embarked on the Seventh Crusade, captured Damietta, and then was stranded in the city for six months by the annual Nile floods. Enforced idleness, much eating, disease and indiscipline weakened the troops to a degree that when the next battle was fought at Mansura, the Christians were roundly defeated and 10,000 prisoners, including King Louis himself, were taken by the Muslim enemy. King Louis purchased his freedom for a ransom and the surrender of Damietta.
In his old age, with heaven close at hand no matter which way the issue turned, King Louis tried once again. But this Eighth Crusade was doomed from the start. Europe was finally too bored with crusades to lend the slightest support, and Louis launched his totally inadequate forces in Tunisia— rather vaguely hoping to convert the Bey of Tunis to Christianity—only to be taken ill with dysentery. He died soon after, in 1270. His last word was—"Jerusalem."
Although at intervals in the next two decades futile sorties, dignified by their leaders as "crusades," were launched against Muslim power in the Middle East, nothing resulted except the progressive exacerbation of relations between the two religions. The Christians retained their tenuous grip on the principal ports of the eastern Mediterranean, but in 1291, even they succumbed and the Kingdom of Jerusalem was no more.
The "Great Debate" between Christianity and Islam was primarily a dialogue between sword and scimitar, and yet in its sanguinary way it provided first contact, then familiarity, and finally a measure of understanding to bridge the wide gap between two cultures, two religions, two worlds. Warfare did not cease between Islam and Christianity with the end of the Crusades—far from it—but in the intervals when peace and reason reigned, the commerce of goods and ideas brought them into permanent involvement with one another, and the pursuit of their expanding horizons would carry them out of the Middle Ages into modern times.