Saturday, February 6, 2016

Understanding the Crusades (Pt. II)

As was mentioned in yesterday's post the Crusades were not wars of aggression against innocent Muslim Arabs but rather were reactions against atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians throughout the Middle East. Greg Scandlen, reviewing Rodney Stark's book God's Battalions, writes:
.... what would prompt hundreds of thousand Europeans to leave their homes and travel 2,500 miles to engage an enemy is a desert kingdom—especially after the Muslim conquest of Europe had been turned back?

There had been long-festering concern about the fate of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After his conversion to Christianity in the early 300s, the Roman Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of what was believed to be Jesus’ tomb, and other churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. These sites prompted a growing number of European pilgrims to visit the Holy Land, including Saint Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem for the last 32 years of his life as he translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. By the late fifth century, Stark reports, more than 300 hostels and monasteries offered lodging to pilgrims in Jerusalem alone.

But in 638 Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim invaders, and mass murders of Christian pilgrims and monks became commonplace. Stark includes a list of select atrocities in the eight and ninth centuries, but none worse than the some 5,000 German Christians slaughtered by Bedouin robbers in the tenth century.

Throughout this period, control of Palestine was contested by several conflicting Muslim groups. Stark writes, “In 878 a new dynasty was established in Egypt and seized control of the Holy Land from the caliph in Baghdad.” One hundred years later, Tariqu al-Hakim became the sixth caliph of Egypt and initiated an unprecedented reign of terror, not just against Christians but against his own people as well. He burned or pillaged some 30,000 churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb beneath it.

Soon enough, newly converted Turkish tribes came out of the north to seize Persia and Baghdad (by 1045) and press on to Armenia, overrunning the city of Ardzen in 1048, where they murdered all the men, raped the women, and enslaved the children. Next they attacked the Egyptians, in part because the Turks were Orthodox Sunnis and the Egyptians were heretical Shiites. While the Turks did not succeed in overthrowing the Egyptians, they did conquer Palestine, entering Jerusalem in 1071. The Turks promised safety to the residents of Jerusalem if they surrendered the city, but broke this promise and slaughtered the population. They did the same in Ramla, Gaza, Tyre, and Jaffa.

Finally, they threatened Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexius Comnenus wrote to Pope Urban II in 1095, begging for help to turn back the Turks. This was remarkable given the intense hostility between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Perhaps the pope saw an opportunity to unite or at least reduce tensions between the two Christian churches, but he responded with a call to create an army that would go to the Middle East.
Thus, a series of expeditions known as the Crusades were begun. I hasten to note that one shouldn't have the impression that the Crusaders were all noble soldiers of high moral caliber. They were, in fact, often a mixed lot, and some of them were little more than criminal thugs. A German contingent during the first crusade, enroute to the Middle East from Germany, slaughtered thousands of Jews in European towns along their way, apparently for sport, despite heroic attempts by Christian bishops to protect the Jews and universal opprobrium among Christians for what the Germans were doing. It was thought to be divine retribution that these men were themselves later massacred in a series of hostile encounters with local forces in Hungary.

The point, though, is that, in Stark's telling, the Crusades were fought largely for just reasons, and largely by valiant men with noble motives and were, when supported by their leaders back home and not betrayed by allies or ravaged by disease and starvation, quite successful. Indeed, as Stark puts it, the Crusader knights, "starving, riddled with disease, having eaten most of their horses, and with greatly reduced numbers," not only pushed the Turks back from Constantinople, but, "pushed on to Jerusalem and against all odds stormed over the walls to victory."

I highly recommend God's Battalions to anyone interested in the history of the Crusades and looking for a readable account of that history.