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Beginnings of the Crusades

posted on: Oct 13, 2021

First Crusade: “Battle delivered under the walls of Antioch between the crusaders led by Bohemond and the army of Karbouka

By: Lyric Ludwig / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Crusades were no doubt a series of events that altered world history as we know. To this day, the Crusades and their after-effects live on in the consciousness of Arabs, Europeans, and Americans alike. This is because the Crusades are largely remembered as an extremely brutal series of wars between “Christendom” and the “Islamic world”, which is alive in today’s political rhetoric. As right-wing pundits like to put it, today there is a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian West and the Arab Middle East, although this view is rooted in bigotry and ignorance. The first Crusade culminated in the siege of Jerusalem which saw the mass slaughter of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants at the hands of Frankish crusaders. This article will explore some of the political and cultural origins that led to this tremendously important event.

A statue of Pope Urban II

Many reading this article may have a passing familiarity with the Roman Empire and the Turks. By the 11th century, the Roman Empire in the west had long since fallen, but it continued in the Empire’s eastern provinces, with its capital in Constantinople. Today, many know this as the “Byzantine Empire”, although this was a term coined by a German scholar of the Holy Roman Empire (the so-called “Byzantines” still referred to themselves as Roman). During the 11th century, the Turks of the Seljuq Sultanate were also making their way into the Near East, particularly Anatolia, Roman territory at the time. This tension led to the massive battle of Manzikert, which was a devastating defeat for the Romans, as they lost the large army they fielded. Following this defeat, Emperor Alexios Komnenos requested aid from the Pope in Rome.

A depiction of Anna Komnenos, Roman princess and an important primary source on the earlier days of the Crusades

Relations between the Papacy and the Eastern Orthodox Romans were by no means completely cordial, as the two factions had religious and ideological differences. With this and the recent Roman defeat in mind, Pope Urban II had the opportunity to secure himself and the Church as the primary guardian of Christendom, to secure the holy land along with its pilgrimage routes and riches. Indeed, the actions of Pope Urban II calling upon the feudal lords and vassals of Europe to muster armies were a power grab on behalf of the papacy and “Christendom” itself. Initial armies died before reaching the holy land until more professional Norman-led armies set out in 1095.

Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin and David Thewlis as a Hospitaller Knight in the 2005 Ridley Scott film “Kingdom of Heaven”

The motives of the Crusade itself were justified by Pope Urban II himself as a defensive act, as he stated in his speech at the council of Clermont in 1095 that this was a defensive act against Islamic Turks and Arabs who had been enacting conquest and destruction on Christian lands. However, more telling of Pope Urban was his description of Arabs and all Muslim people as a “vile race” or in another translation simply “filth”. This was met by the enthusiastic cries of “Deus Vult” following the Pope’s speech. It is this disgusting hate-fueled Catholic ideology and the Church’s promise of wealth that fueled the slaughter of thousands of innocent Arabs and Jews in 1099.

A painting depicting and romanticizing the capture of Jerusalem in 1099

Overall, with the Crusade’s origins being that of bigotry against Arabs (and all who practiced Islam) and a power grab by the Church, it comes as no surprise that the Church also fell flat in its attempts to effectively champion Christian values. Subsequent actions taken by Crusaders saw violence against Eastern Christians, with knights and soldiers Fourth Crusade mass raping nuns and burning Constantinople itself. It is important to understand the legacy of violence caused by the crusades and how it persists to this day. Right-wing terrorists and zealots frequently label themselves with crusader imagery and titles and commit hate crimes against Muslims. Right-wing news inflames tensions by bringing up the rhetoric of “East vs. West” and “Christianity vs Islam”. Understanding the origins of hatred and violence is important in building bridges between cultures, to alleviate misunderstandings, and ultimately bring peace.

Ghassan Massoud as Saladin, delivering justice to the vile Crusader Reynold of Chatillon

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