At some point, slightly over a millennia ago, the entire civilized world decided to collectively go nuts. European armies rampaged through the Middle East, Islamic armies rampaged through the Balkans, and a whole lotta people died in a crazy religious war. Known as the Crusades, this state of affairs lasted the best part of 200 years.
Since then, the Crusades have taken on an almost mythic resonance in both cultures. Everyone knows them… or at least thinks they know them. But the history we’re sold of the Crusades isn’t exactly the full version. In fact, go digging through the tall tales and mountains of propaganda, and you’ll uncover a whole lot of information suggesting the Crusades were even crazier than you ever thought possible.
10. They Weren’t Totally Unjustified
The standard image of the Crusades is one of opportunist European mercenaries trashing the Middle East under the guise of ‘religion’. While there’s plenty of evidence that individual crusaders didn’t care much about spreading Christianity, the same can’t be said of their commanders. According to historian Rodney Stark, the decision to launch the first crusade was both religiously motivated and totally justified.
Before the Franks started devastating Asia Minor and the Levant, the Islamic Empire had undergone a crazy period of expansion. Mohammed had turned his tribe from a minor group into a global power, and they’d moved out of the East and into Europe. Spain, Sicily and Southern Italy had undergone extreme wars of conquest, and Seljuk Turks were threatening Christian Constantinople. In Stark’s view, Pope Urban III’s call to the First Crusade was an example of Europe getting its act together to defend itself from an expansionist superpower.
On a personal level, too, some of the crusaders had justifiable motives. Many knew relatives who’d been killed on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and signed up to fight to avenge them. Popular history may say the Crusades were an unprovoked attack, but Stark’s reading suggests otherwise.
9. The Arab World Hasn’t Held a Grudge All this Time
Osama bin Laden used the Crusades as justification for 9/11. Islamist terror groups use them to spread an ideology of vengeance. Even mainstream Arab politicians consider the Crusades a dreadful historical wrong that should be taught in schools. Way to bear a grudge, right?
Not exactly. See, the idea that the Arab-Muslim world has stewed over the Crusades for a thousand years may sound plausible, but it’s anything but. Until the mid-19th century, Arabic didn’t even have a word for ‘Crusades’.
By the 18th century, most Arabic societies had long forgotten about the Crusades. They were wars that had happened centuries ago; about as relevant to their lives as the 30 Years War or the Battle of Agincourt are to yours. The only reason they came back into the public consciousness is because early-19th century French scholars ‘rediscovered’ them at around the same time France invaded Algeria. Suddenly, these 800-year old battles were being used in Paris as justification for the current ‘civilizing’ war.
But the real trigger came with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As European powers gobbled up Turkish territory after WWI, Arab scholars searched for a historical analogue for their present suffering. They seized on the crusades, and they’ve stayed in people’s minds ever since.
8. They Weren’t Just about Christianity vs. Islam
In our current, troubled, times, the desire to look back on the Crusades as an epic clash between Muslims and Christians is strong on both sides. To be sure, the majority of battles did take place between those two groups. But all of them? Not even close. An integral part of many of the Crusades was the elimination of everyone from Jews to pagans.
These guys weren’t just accidentally caught up in the crossfire. They were the targets of the Crusaders themselves. In the First Crusade, for example, Count Emicho switched the Levant for the Rhineland in modern Germany, where he laid siege to Jewish towns and massacred their inhabitants. The Albigensian Crusade of 1208-29 took place in France itself, and only targeted members of the Albigensian-Christian minority. Then there were the Baltic Crusades of 1211-25, which went after pagans in places like Transylvania. For those involved in these wars, seeing even a single Muslim or a patch of desert was as likely as you seeing an escaped rhinoceros on your way to work.
Across the whole Crusader period, significant battles were being fought with nary a Muslim in sight. And, while we’re on the subject…
7. The Crusaders Totally Sacked Christian Cities, Too
If anyone out there still believes the main goal of the Crusades was a clash of Islam and Christianity, we invite them to explain the Fourth Crusade. Called by Pope Innocent III, it started with Christian armies marching off to invade the Levant… and ended with the Crusaders sacking the Christian city of Constantinople and massacring its inhabitants.
At the time, Constantinople was the beating heart of the Byzantine Empire, an Eastern offshoot of the bygone Roman Empire that had traded pagan worship for Christian. No other city on Earth was so central to the spreading of Christianity about the world. And still the Crusaders declared it a target and destroyed it. On April 12, 1204, they entered the city and massacred thousands of their co-religionists.
There were semi-logical reasons for this course of action, related to the split between Western and Eastern Christianity and the internal politics of the Byzantine Empire (most of which is too complex or confusing to go into here). But the result was still one of the nastiest Christian-on-Christian massacres of the entire Crusades. Not the sort of outcome you’d expect if you truly believed this was a holy war between Allah and God.
6. Islamic Commanders Spent More Time Fighting Other Muslims than Christians
Given all this infighting and confusion in the Christian lands, you might expect to hear the Islamic commanders took advantage of it to portray a united front. Well, you’d be wrong. Just like the Crusaders themselves, the Muslim forces weren’t into this whole clash of civilizations narrative. By which we mean they spent almost as much time fighting other Muslims as they did the European invaders.
Seriously, just look at the story of Saladin. A Muslim commander famous today for standing up to the Crusaders, Saladin was way more two-faced than his reputation suggests. Between 1174 and 1187, he spent most of his time beating on other Muslims, netting his family a vast dynasty that stretched all the way from Aleppo to Mosul, via Damascus. During this period, he even made truces with the Crusaders to free up his forces to fight his fellow Muslims.
Nor was he the only one. Saladin’s teacher, Nur al-Din, spent the time between the Second and Third Crusades riding into Egypt to whup Shi`ite Fatimid butt, ignoring the outposts of Christendom all around him. If these two were motivated by a hatred of all things Christian, they sure hid it well.
5. No One Realized for Ages that the Crusades Were Meant to be Religious
The First Crusade started way, way back in 1096. It was remarkably successful. By 1099, Jerusalem had been captured, Christian states had been established at Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa, and the Levant was no longer purely under Muslim control. With such a blaze of religious violence, you might have expected everyone to see the Crusades as we do now. But that simply wasn’t the case. According to history Professor Jonathan Phillips, no one realized the Crusades were meant to be religious for ages.
You gotta remember that the medieval period wasn’t a nice one to live in. Empires were constantly clashing, raiding parties routinely massacred entire towns, and pirates dominated the coastlines. So when a bunch of Europeans swept through the Levant, toppling Islamic governments and killing Muslims, most locals simply shrugged and decided they were just another raiding party.
It wasn’t until the First Crusade had ended that anyone realized there was something deeper going on than mere opportunism. Rather than sack Jerusalem and run off with its riches, the Crusaders stayed around, ruling their new territories as part of Christendom. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 1105 that conquered Muslims began talking about waging a jihad in response, and it wasn’t until 1144 that anyone actually agreed to do so.
4. It Wasn’t Just the Catholics
It’s an undeniable fact that the First Crusade was called by the Pope, at a time when most of Europe was Catholic. As a result, many still fervently believe that the Crusades were carried out entirely by Catholics. However, this version of events misses some pretty fundamental truths about religious alliances in the 12th and 13th centuries. Far from going it alone, the Catholics were often joined by members of the Orthodox Church.
One of the most-famous was Patriarch Heraclius, who fought alongside the Crusader nobleman Balian during the Siege of Jerusalem. Another was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who got the Crusades kick-started by appealing to the Pope to save Constantinople from Turkish hordes (eventually leading, ironically, to the sacking of Constantinople by those same Crusaders). On a lower level, there were Greek Christians involved in various crusades, alongside Armenian Christians and even some Russian Orthodox.
In short, many different branches of Christianity got involved, and the same was true on the Muslim side. Sunni, Shi’ite and various sub-divisions all piled in, creating a multi-faceted campaign where no group was obviously pulling all the strings.
3. The Mongol Conquests Were Much, Much Worse
Pretty much everyone agrees the Crusades were bloody. There’s a reason groups like ISIS love to bring it up as an example of Christians beating on Muslims. But the idea that they were unprecedented is, frankly, nonsense. From an Arab perspective alone, the Crusades were far from the worst calamity to hit the region. The Mongol Conquests were much, much worse.
If the European invasion was like having a gang of masked men ransack your house, its Mongol counterpart was like having your house torched while you’re still tied up inside it. The Mongols swept across the Middle East, laying waste to everything in their path. When they sacked Baghdad in 1258, over 200,000 people were put to the sword, and the Caliph viciously beaten to death. This followed on from their total destruction of the Sunni Muslim Khwarezmid Empire, which had seen around 1.25 million slaughtered in less than three years.
It’s impossible to state how much the region suffered under the Mongols. From 1240 to 1300, various Khans laid waste to Aleppo and Damascus, and conducted repeated raids into the Levant. Unsurprisingly, it was these super-massacres Arab historians tended to remember, rather than the less-violent Crusades.
2. One of the Great Muslim Commanders Wasn’t Even Religious
A lot of this article has dealt with how our beliefs about the Crusades and religion are kinda misguided. Well, prepare to have your minds blown all over again. It wasn’t just the Christian side that had a great big mixed bag of religious viewpoints. One of the greatest commanders of the Muslim armies, Zengi, wasn’t even religious at all.
In a 2010 article for History News Network, Professor Johnathon Phillips claimed that Zengi was a “secular individual.” This is pretty shocking, as Zengi was one of the great commanders of the Muslim fightback against the invaders. In 1144, he captured the major Crusader city of Edessa, inspiring Saladin to get involved in the wars, which led to Christians being driven out of many areas. Yet all available evidence shows Zengi wasn’t really interested in religion at all. When he wasn’t retaking Crusader strongholds, he was busy sacking Muslim cities, as part of his personal crusade to (presumably) get rich or die tryin’.
1. The Crusades May Have Led to the Discovery of America
The Ninth and last Crusade ended in 1272. Columbus discovered America over 200 years later, in 1492. In temporal terms, he was as distant from the rest of this article as you are from the Napoleonic Wars. So how could one possibly lead to the other? To answer that, we’ll have to hand over to cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney. In 2011, Delaney published a book on Columbus’s motives for discovering the New World. Rather than a thirst for adventure, or a desire to enrich himself, she maintains that Columbus was secretly hoping to find enough gold to finance a Tenth Crusade.
At the time, Jerusalem had been in Islamic hands for centuries. According to Delaney, Columbus considered this an affront against his religion. So he set off to collect the funds needed to raise an army and take Jerusalem back for Christendom. It was while on this mission that he accidentally stumbled across America.
If true, that would mean that everything from New York, to the Brazilian football team, to Eva Peron and Simon Bolivar, to this very website are all a historical accident caused by the inconclusive end to the medieval Crusades. Now there’s a weird thought.