Muslim Reaction to the Crusaders

No Muslim could have known, of the original seed or why it had fallen on such rich soil. It had been tossed by the Pope in 1095. Urban II was supposedly head of a super-state, Christendom, which in theory included most of Europe and also Rome’s so-called eastern empire in Constantinople, made into Rome’s successor by its founder Constantine. But Urban had severe problems. Firstly, he had just received a plea for help from Constantinople: the Seljuk Turks were advancing into the world of Islam and had, seventeen years before, taken the revered city of Nicaea, in Anatolia, present-day eastern Turkey, famous as a Christian centre for almost 800 years, since the great council of 325 that formalized what Christians were supposed to believe by stating the tenets in the Nicene Creed. Nicaea, the one-time symbol of Christian unity, was a mere 70 kilometres from Constantinople, so the barbarians who had swarmed through the city’s sturdy Roman walls were already inside the outer bulwarks of Christendom. Secondly, Christendom was not united at all, but divided between Rome and Constantinople, who were at loggerheads over a point of doctrine that sounds bizarre to non-Christians: since God was a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – did the Spirit proceed ‘from the Father’ (as the Orthodox east said) or ‘from the Father and the Son’ (as Rome claimed)? The so-called Filioque (‘and the Son’) Clause had been part of the western Creed since 1020. Bizarre perhaps, but so fundamental that Pope and Patriarch could never make up (and never have). Thirdly, the Pope’s own backyard, western Europe, was in disarray, France in particular. Pope rivalled emperor, baron fought baron, ordinary people suffered. Urban’s solution was that of many leaders seeking to unite unruly subjects: a foreign war and a cause that sounded noble.

His chance came at a gathering of French leaders in Clermont, south-west France, in November 1095. ‘Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels,’ he told a crowd of 300 bishops, knights and assorted lay people; ‘let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.’

According to one version of the speech by the chronicler Fulcher of Chartres in Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium.

His words fell on fertile soil. The once-backward region of Europe, which had fallen into barbarism after the end of the Roman Empire 700 years before, was beginning a slow revival. Charlemagne had kick-started the political process in 800 by making himself ruler of an incipient European state, the Holy Roman Empire. But there was also a revolution of another sort brewing. With metal-bladed ox-ploughs and crop rotation, farmers produced better harvests. With more food, couples had more and healthier children. Mercifully, there were no major plagues. The population grew, and spread into the badlands of eastern Europe. The Vikings, who had once nibbled at Europe’s flanks, had settled. So had the Hungarians, the last of the barbarian invaders. In the south-west, the tide of Islam that had flowed over Spain and into France had been dammed and turned back. By the time of Urban’s appeal, the people of Europe faced a future that was rosier, or at least less dismal, than their past. They could afford foreign adventure.

They loved the idea. Urban’s speech was, in the words of one historian, ‘probably the most effective speech in all history’. The crowd roared its approval and scattered to spread the message, summarized in a catchphrase, ‘Deus vult!’ (‘God wills it!’). Their focus was Jerusalem, where Christ had preached and (they believed) worked miracles and been crucified and risen from the dead. Somewhere in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lay a piece of the True Cross, which would surely have miraculous powers. The city had been in Turkish hands for 450 years. The time had come to take it back.

And they did, with extreme violence, because, in the words of the historian John Roberts, there would be opportunities for looting unavailable in Europe; ‘they could spoil the pagans with clear consciences’. By the spring of 1097, hundreds of knights leading a rabble of some 30,000 met in Constantinople. They were mainly French, or Franks as they were known – Franj as the Muslims called them – though there was little sense of nationhood to unite Normans, Provençals, Angevins and Flemings. Despite a scattering of Italians and Hungarians, ‘Franks’ became a catch-all term for the Crusaders. The only war aims were vague: take the Holy Land, convert the heathen, seize Jerusalem. And then? No one said. A few leaders were high-minded, some saw a chance to grab territory, many were romantics and adventurers, and most no more than rough peasants happy to escape a harsh life or ruffians eager for loot. All, though, could claim to be high-minded, displaying the Cross as the symbol of Christianity. This was what came to be called the First Crusade, the first of eight campaigns to the Holy Land over the next two centuries. Most failed, some were disastrous, but this first one did indeed achieve its aims, so is sometimes called a success, if extreme and unprovoked aggression can ever be classified as such.

There followed the recapture of the new Turkish capital, Nicaea, today the little town of Iznik. The siege involved an aspect of warfare that would soon have significance for Saladin. The Crusader army was simply not strong enough to overwhelm Nicaea’s immense walls or batter down its gates. The Byzantine emperor, Alexios Komnenos, knew this, because he had seen the army and knew the walls: 5 kilometres around, 10 metres high, 100 towers. It would of course be wonderful if the town could be retaken for Christianity, pushing back the Turkish and Islamic frontier. But how to do this, without throwing soldiers uselessly against the city’s walls? What the Crusaders needed was heavy artillery. The emperor happened to be a great military leader, aged forty-three, at the height of his powers, eager to recapture borderlands in present-day Turkey lost to the Seljuk Turks. War is often the necessity that mothers’ invention, and in this case Alexios was the father. He knew as much as anyone about heavy artillery in the form of trebuchets, the machines that could sling rocks astonishing distances. He had commissioned several of these devices for his army. They were of various types, all referred to as ‘city-takers’, and they will take centre stage in due course. Alexios was a designer as well as a commander. He created machines that broke new ground, literally and figuratively. His daughter Anna wrote of his new city-takers and their effect in the siege of Nicaea: ‘most of them were not old-fashioned according to the conventional designs for such machines, but followed ideas he had devised himself and which amazed everyone.’ Possibly these devices were the prototypes of the so-called counterweight trebuchets, whose specifications dwarfed earlier machines: 10-tonne counterweights, lever-arms 15 metres long, projectiles weighing over 100 kilograms, ranges of 200 metres. They cracked Nicaea open like a hammer on a nut, though Alexios took care to seize control of the town before the Crusaders had a chance to loot it. Alexios’s machines, which had so ‘amazed everyone’, changed warfare from then on. The improved versions would have dramatic effects when, eighty years later, Saladin got the power to command them.

On the Crusaders went: a pitched battle, a five-month advance across Turkey, an eight-month siege of Antioch (where by happy chance a mystic named Peter Bartholomew, guided by St Andrew, found a chunk of iron which he declared to be the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ), and more sieges, including the taking of Ma’arat, 80 kilometres south-east of Antioch, in today’s Syria. It was winter, the end of 1098, with food in short supply, so, according to a chronicler, the French ‘boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.’ An exaggeration? If the source had been Arabic, perhaps; but this was a Frank, Ralph of Caen, speaking. Another French chronicler, Albert of Aix, confirmed it: ‘Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs.’

Or Radulph, as he is also known; in Gesta Tancredi, quoted in Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, as is Albert of Aix.

What could Muslims do? Not much. There was no hope of a united response, whether from Islam as a whole or from local princes. Every leader, Sunni or Shia, wondered if the new arrivals might perhaps be of use against their Islamic rivals. Every town was on its own, and the only way to survive was to flee or to fawn: ‘Kiss any arm you cannot break’, in the words of a popular proverb. Delegates arrived bringing gifts of gold, jewellery and horses, hoping to bribe the ‘Franj’ either to become an ally or to move on in peace.

So the Franks advanced, with almost no opposition, to the walls of Jerusalem, which they assaulted for a month with two siege-towers and fourteen stone-throwing catapults. In mid-July 1099, they took the city, with terrible consequences for the place they claimed to venerate. In an outpouring of xenophobia and greed, all suffered – Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians. The Crusaders sacked the Dome of the Rock (sometimes wrongly called the Mosque of Umar, the second successor of the Prophet). They expelled from the Holy Sepulchre all eastern Christians – Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Copts and Syrians – who had shared the place for centuries. There followed the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men, women and children. ‘Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded,’ wrote the chronicler Raymond d’Aguilers. ‘Others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet lay in the houses and streets, and indeed there was a running to and fro of men and knights over the corpses.’ The mob of Crusaders, apparently berserk with bloodlust, burned the main synagogue around a mass of Jews hoping for sanctuary. Afterwards, Muslim survivors were forced to drag the bodies outside the walls, where they made piles ‘as big as houses’.

In early August, the newly appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem, Arnulf, made the discovery that all Christians wanted. Arnulf needed a coup of some sort. He and others had been doubtful about the previous ‘discovery’ of the Holy Lance in Antioch. Peter had countered the doubters with more visions, and finally with an offer to undergo an ordeal by fire, the idea being that if he was telling the truth, the fire would not touch him. The flames did what flames do. Scorched almost to death, and then mobbed by a crowd, Peter said Christ himself had actually protected him and blamed the crowd for his burns. He died twelve days later. After that, the Holy Lance lost its holiness, leaving the Crusaders without a talisman. The only one that really mattered now was the True Cross, which supposedly lay somewhere in the Holy Sepulchre, of which Arnulf was the guardian. Only the Greek Orthodox priests knew where it was, and they weren’t telling. Arnulf had them tortured until they did. The True Cross, as it was called – though it was in fact a piece of wood embedded in a gold-and-silver cross – became the most sacred relic of the Christian Holy Land. It was their object of power, to be displayed at the head of armies as if it were some sort of secret weapon.

No one seems to have known what was supposed to happen next. Most Crusaders trickled homewards, but many stayed, as soldiers helping to subdue other cities and as citizens of four ‘Latin’ statelets: Edessa, Antioch and Jerusalem, plus Jerusalem’s semi-independent offshoot, Tripoli. So by 1110 the four colonies controlled the coastal bits of present-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel by means of thirty-six formidable castles, which dominated the ports and trade routes.

Turks or Arabs at first saw the Crusaders as animals, drunk on a brew of religious zeal, bloodlust, xenophobia and greed. Devout Muslims demanded holy war, jihad. ‘Do you not owe an obligation to God and Islam?’ an anonymous poet begged the reluctant sultans.5 ‘Respond to God! Woe to you! Respond!’ But hatred and despair achieved nothing, because emotion was not focused by leadership. Despite overwhelming numbers and several counter-attacks, nothing worked, for many reasons – bad luck, treachery, lack of courage, lack of leadership – the main one being that, frankly, most Muslim leaders had better things to do fighting each other. Better a Christian than a heretic, better a Christian buffer state than a rival Muslim neighbour. ‘The sultans did not agree among themselves,’ wrote the historian Ali ibn al-Athir, ‘and it was for this reason that the Franj were able to seize control.’

The response, when it came, was not a holy war, more an unholy peace. Both sides accommodated. The Franks employed locals, introduced a form of feudalism that promoted mutual responsibilities, adopted the local dress and cuisine, and married into local families. Each side sought alliance with the other, each mini-state squabbled with others, each had its disputes over succession. Much changed superficially, and nothing changed fundamentally. By the time of Saladin’s birth in 1137–8, almost forty years after the loss of Jerusalem, hatred of the Franks had been diluted by both complacency – since many ordinary Arabs preferred the Franks to their own grasping and unreliable leaders – and a growing belief that no great leader would arise to heal Muslim rivalries and drive the Franks into the sea.


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