Few historical eras resonate in the Muslim and Christian worlds as much as the Crusades. This epic struggle for what both religions see as holy land helped shape the development of Europe and Southwest Asia politically, socially, and religiously for centuries afterwards. The heroic tales of chivalry, bravery, and determination are the stuff of legends. This series on Lost Islamic History will take a step-by-step approach to understanding the origins, battles, and outcomes of the Crusades.
The Muslim world in the 1000s was a political mess. The great Abbasid Empire that began in the mid-700s was just a shadow of itself, headed by puppet caliphs while the real power was in the hands of Turkish warlords like the Seljuks. The Seljuks ruled over Anatolia, where they established a domain called the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, the lands of Syria and Iraq, as well as Persia. However, they were not one united state. Each region (or even city) had its own emir (governor) who was regularly at war with his neighboring emirs. In North Africa, a rival Ismaili Shiite state, the Fatimid Empire, was in charge. The Fatimids regularly attempted to extend their domain into the Sunni Seljuk areas, with the frontier between the two usually being near the holy city of Jerusalem.
Despite this disunited political scene, the Turks were extending their empire into Byzantine land. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks soundly defeated the Byzantines, practically taking all of their territory in Anatolia, and extending the Seljuk domain right up to the great Byzantine city ofConstantinople. In 1095, the Byzantine emperor Alexios sent a letter to the Catholic Pope Urban II in Rome, asking for help against the increasingly powerful Turks. That letter would prove to do far more than just bring in reinforcements.
Pope Urban took the letter plea for help as an excuse to raise a huge army and conquer land from the Muslims to add to his own domain. He dreamed of a Latin kingdom in the Holy Land and the destruction of the Muslims as a political and military force. At the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban roused Catholics to create an army and march to the Holy Land. A fighting force of over 30,000 men, along with women, children, and the aged was recruited and sent towards Constantinople.
The first Muslims who had to deal with the Crusaders were the Turks in Anatolia. A Seljuk emir of the Sultanate of Rum, Kilij Arslan, was able to win some early victories over the first Crusaders to cross into his territory. However, the sheer size of the Crusader army was too much for the Turks to handle. As the Crusaders marched through Anatolia, they simply looted and pillaged the countryside to get the supplies they needed, even though the vast majority of the population there was Christian.
By 1097, the Crusaders reached the fortress city of Antioch, which is in present-day southern Turkey, very near the Syrian border. The city was defended by it’s Seljuk emir, Yaghi-Siyan and around 6000 troops. Normally, 6000 Turkish soldiers against a Crusader army of over 30,000 would be no contest. But the city of Antioch was almost unconquerable. The city was surrounded by some of the strongest walls in the Muslim world, as well as a river, a mountain, and a steep valley that perfectly protected it from invaders. The Crusades very well could have ended at the walls of Antioch, were it not for two things that killed the cause of the Muslims: disunity and treachery.
Yaghi-Siyan sent out messengers to all the surrounding cities asking their emirs for assistance against the Crusaders. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Turkish emirs of the day was one of “every man for himself”. They were unlikely to help out a rival emir unless they felt threatened themselves. As a result, the emirs all over Syria ignored his pleas for help. Some even felt that if Antioch were to fall to the Crusaders, it would benefit them since Yaghi-Siyan would be out of the picture. Despite this, Antioch may well have still held out, were it not for one man inside the city.
Firuz was an armor maker who was in charge of the defense of Antioch’s towers during the siege. He was found guilty of black-market trading by Yaghi-Siyan before the Crusaders and thus was fined a hefty amount. He figured that the best way to get back at Yaghi-Siyan would be to let the Crusaders into the city. In June 1098, over 200 days since the siege started, Firuz let some Crusaders climb into his window in the dead of night. These Crusaders opened up the gates for the rest of the army, and by morning, the city was lost. Massacre followed as men, women, and children were killed in the streets and the city was set on fire. All because of one armor maker who was upset with a fine.
With the best defended city out of their way, the Crusaders continued their march towards Jerusalem. The same treachery of Antioch continued in most cities they passed. Emirs of cities would regularly sell out their neighbors in the hope for protection themselves. Almost all the cities along the coast gave the Crusaders a free pass through their lands to avoid the same fate as Antioch.
On June 7th, 1099, the Crusaders reached their goal, the city of Jerusalem. The city was in no position to defend itself. Just one year earlier, the Fatimids of Egypt had conquered Jerusalem from the Turks, extending Shiite control into Syrian lands. The walls were damaged, there were nothing more than a few hundred soldiers defending the city, and no help seemed to be coming from anyone.
After a month-long seiege, the walls were breached and the holy city of Jerusalem, the city from which Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended to heaven during the Israa and Mi’raj, was lost to the Crusaders. A massacre followed, with over 70,000 civilians (Muslims and Jews) being killed in the streets. Muslims fled toMasjid al-Aqsa, but were massacred in the holy masjid as well. One Crusader chronicler boasted that the blood of the Muslims was “up to the ankles”. Masjid al-Aqsa itself was looted and defiled. The nearby Dome of the Rock was turned into a Christian church. For the first time since the time of Umar ibn al-Khattab, no adhan was heard in the streets of Quds nor was salah performed in its masjids.
Despite this shocking and disgusting capture of the third holiest site in Islam, the reaction from the rest of the Muslim world was disappointing. It would be years before a real effort at liberating the city would take root.
On Friday, August 9th, 1099, it was the 29th day of Ramadan. Suddenly, Abu Saad al-Harawi, a respectable qadi (Muslim judge), burst into the main masjid of Baghdad and began eating publicly in front of everyone, even though it was Ramadan. He had just traveled 3 weeks from Damascus to bring news of the loss of Jerusalem and rouse the Muslims into action. He figured nothing would get more attention than eating during the day in Ramadan. The people of Baghdad began to weep for the lost holy city. Al-Harawi pled his case before the Caliph of Islam, a young man called al-Mustazhir. The Caliph promised to put together a committee to explore a possible retaliation. It ended up being just a promise.
The Muslims of the day were in no position to stand against the strong Crusader army. Petty Turkish emirs fought regular wars against each other, leaving cities and the countryside in ruin. The Caliph himself actually had no real power at all, he was nothing more than a puppet in the hands of Turkish generals. The pan-Islamic unity that was seen in the early centuries of Islam was nothing more than an old legend at this point.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders were strong, unified, and determined, qualities that the Muslims of the day lacked. They established four Crusader kingdoms along the coast of the Mediterranean, and ruled them as they would European principalities in France or Germany. Although Muslims were ethnically cleansed from most of the conquered cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Beirut, most Arab (Muslim, Christian, and Eastern Christian) rural peasants remained in the conquered territories. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem itself, over 300,000 Arabs lived.
A unique aspect of this of this occupation was the slow assimilation of the Crusaders into Muslim culture. In the centuries before the Crusades, the Muslims had been at the forefront of scientific, philosophical, technological, and cultural innovation. While Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages of ignorance, the Muslim world had a quality of life unheard of in Europe. As the Arab chronicler Usamah Ibn Munqidh, a contemporary of the Crusades, wrote: “All those who were well-informed about the Franks saw them as beasts superior in courage and fighting zeal but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.”
Slowly, Muslim practices began to permeate into the culture of the occupying forces. While the Muslims learned nothing from the Crusaders besides European ideas of castle-building, the Crusaders began to imitate the actions of their Muslim subjects. Muslim medicine, language, agriculture, engineering, and math all made their way West through the Crusades. Even the iconic game of chess, which was originally developed in Persia, was introduced to Europe through this conflict.
However, the Crusader invasion into the Muslim world did not create anything near a Utopian multi-religious society (that actually existed at this time in Muslim Spain). Muslim civilians were in constant fear of massacre by the foreign Europeans. For example, according to Crusader sources, in November 1098, the Crusaders massacred every civilian in the Syrian city of Ma’arra, and then proceeded to eat the bodies. Tales of such brutality at the hands of the Franks slowly brought the Muslim world out of its slumber. But in the early 1100s, victory still seemed far away. It was not until the leadership of Imad al-Din Zengi in the 1130s that the tide began to turn.
The initial Muslim response to the Crusader invasion was indeed a sorry one. An ineffectual caliph in Baghdad did not bother rousing the Muslims to defend their holy places. The numerous Seljuk emirs around the Muslim world were too busy fighting each other. And the Shia Fatimid Empire in Egypt was regularly allying with the Crusaders in order to harm the Sunni Seljuks. The Muslims were in no position to stand up to the invasion. Slowly, however, the Muslims began to reunify and oppose the Crusaders.
The first emir to really stand up to the Crusaders and be successful was a man by the name of Imad al-Din Zengi. He was the emir of Aleppo (in present-day Syria) and Mosul (in present-day Iraq). Although he was still similar to the many fueding Turkish emirs in many ways, he was the first leader in a long time that show the characteristics and qualities needed by a Muslim leader. Although in his lands there were many palaces he could stay at, he chose to live a simple life, just like the soldiers under his authority. He was so austere in fact, that the great Muslim historian, Ibn Athir, referred to him as “a gift of divine providence to the Muslims”.
With his well-disciplined and highly trained army, Zengi began the reconquest of Muslim lands by taking the city of Edessa in 1144. This was the first city that the Crusaders used as a base in Syria during the initial invasion, and it now became the starting point of the liberation of the Holy Land. Zengi had grand plans for a full-scale united Muslim attack on the Crusaders, but he came to an unexpected end in 1145 when he was assassinated by a Frankish slave. However, because of the emphasis Imad al-Din Zengi placed on unity of the Muslims, the small empire he founded did not break apart when he died, but it went to his son, Nur al-Din Zengi. Nur al-Din continued his father’s wars and attacked the Principality of Antioch, while making an alliance with the emir of Damascus, to unite the two great Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
For a few decades, the younger Zengi continued the fight against the occupying forces of the Crusader kingdoms, but was unable to advance much. It was at this time that the Muslim leader that will eventually bring victory comes to the scene: Salah al-Din.
During this time, Egypt was under the control of the Shia Fatimid Empire. At times, this empire cooperated with the Crusaders to the detriment of the rest of the Muslims. In the 1160s, however, the Fatimid Empire was very weak and the Crusaders decided to invade Egypt and try to conquer it. Zengi decided to send his army to rescue his Muslim brothers. At the head of this army, he appointed a Kurdish general: Shirkuh. The Kurds are an ethnic group split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Shirkuh brought along his nephew, Salah al-Din.
The Muslim army made it to Egypt in time to defeat the Crusader army and rescue it’s Muslim population. Soon after this victory, Shirkuh died of a stomach illness. His nephew, Salah al-Din took control of the army and government of Egypt, effectively ending the Fatimid Dynasty.
Before we continue into the political intrigue surrounding Salah al-Din, let us look at his qualities and characteristics as a Muslim. By age 36, Salah al-Din was one of the most powerful people in the world as the leader of Egypt. And yet, all the chroniclers of the time, Muslim and Christian, talk about his humility. He never cared about the pleasures of this life and remained focused on his role in the liberation of Muslim lands. It was said that he never laughed in any situation. When confronted about this, he replied “how can I laugh when Masjid al-Aqsa is under the control of the Crusaders?” His advisers that were in charge of the treasury had to hide away a sum of gold from him as a reserve, because if he knew it existed, he would spend it to better his army in the face of the enemy. The people around him used to say that he was very harsh on himself, and very lenient on others, which echos the character of the first 4 Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam. This was the type of character that was needed to liberate Muslim lands.
Soon after Salah al-Din took control of Egypt, observers thought that a conflict would soon develop between Salah al-Din, and his emir, Nur al-Din Zengi. Salah al-Din denied this and insisted that he was loyal to Zengi and wanted to remain united with him to defeat the Crusaders. In any case, Zengi died in 1174, leaving Salah al-Din as the effective leader of both Syria and Egypt. His domain now surrounded the Crusaders in Palestine.
Salah al-Din immediately set about making sure that the Muslims were united to prepare for an attack on the Crusaders. He had to deal with the remnants of the Fatimid Shias, a group called the Assassins, who promoted their political goals through the assassination of Muslim and Crusader leaders. Despite their interference, Salah al-Din managed to keep the Muslims united in order to face the Crusaders.
This process took a few years, but by the early 1180s, Salah al-Din had an army ready to liberate the Holy Land from the Crusader occupation. The Crusader states at this time were very weak, had no strong leaders, and were disunited against each other; much the same situation that the Muslims were in when they lost the Holy Land 80 years earlier. In 1182, Salah al-Din crossed into Crusader territory and began the final confrontation with the Franks.
An especially brutal opponent of Salah al-Din’s was Reynald of Chatillon. He regularly harassed Muslims in the occupied lands, and attacked Muslim caravans on their way to the Hajj. He even threatened on more than one occasion to attack the cities of Makkah and Madinah themselves. Salah al-Din would not tolerate this attack on Islam itself and vowed the punish Reynald personally.
The battlefield of Hattin, in northern Palestine
Salah al-Din would get his chance at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders brought the majority of their army from Jerusalem to the battle, about 20,000 men. The united Muslims countered with a force of 30,000 men. The Crusaders, used to European battle, marched through the desert to the battlefield in heavy metal armor with a serious lack of water. By the time the battle began, they barely had the energy and ability to stand and walk, much less fight. In a quick and decisive battle, the Crusader army was devastated, and Reynald was taken prisoner. While Salah al-Din showed amnesty to most of the Crusader leaders, he personally executed Reynald, a just punishment for a man who had shown bigotry and disrespect to his adversaries.
With the main Crusader army destroyed, Salah al-Din was able to march on Jerusalem itself, which was lightly defended. On October 2nd, 1187, Salah al-Din’s army liberated the Holy City, 88 years 2 months and 17 days after it was captured by the Crusaders.
Salah al-Din victorious after the Battle of Hattin in 1187.
The real character of Salah al-Din is seen in his treatment of the Christians living in the city. 88 years before, the Crusaders massacred all the residents of the city, until the “blood was to the ankles”. In the Muslim liberation, Salah al-Din allowed everyone to peacefully leave the city with all their belongings if they paid a small ransom. And for the poor who could not afford the small ransom (around $50 in modern money), he allowed them to leave for free.
The liberation of Jerusalem provoked another European Crusade which arrived in the Holy Land in 1189. At the head of this Crusade was the English king, Richard the Lionheart. After a number of indecisive battles between Salah al-Din and Richard, the Crusade failed and Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands. Even through these battles, Salah al-Din continued his generosity and chivalric behavior. In one battle, he noticed that Richard’s horse was killed, so Salah al-Din sent him a horse from the Muslim army because he believed no general should ever have to be without a horse to lead his troops from. The generosity and kindness of Salah al-Din became a legend in Christian Europe among his enemies, who had great respect for him.
The leadership and dedication of Salah al-Din ushered in a new era of Muslim unity. Even after his death, the state he founded, the Ayyubid Dynasty (later the Mamluks) upheld his ideals and united the Muslims in the face of invasion for hundreds of years. The Holy Land of Palestine and Jerusalem stayed in Muslim hands until the year 1917, when it was conquered by an invading British army as part of the First World War. Although the days of Salah al-Din are long gone and we face new difficulties today, we must never forget the story of Muslim unity during the Crusades.