The Crusades: the consequences and the comparisons

August 09, 2003 12:00 AM

For most people living in the modern day Middle East, the Crusades are more than just a period in medieval history. The two hundred years of conflict between European invaders and the various Muslim princedoms are used as a metaphor to describe, morally judge or even distort many political events. The repetitive colonial encounters between Arabs and Europeans that followed the Crusades kept the memory alive. The fact that the conflict went on for 200 years, full of all kinds of events of war and peace, made it easier for modern day politicians to find an equivalent  to almost any current political situation in which they find themselves. In times of war, politicians would cite Al-Zaher Baybars’ (the second Mamlouk sultan of Egypt and Syria) uncompromising campaigns of revenge against the Crusaders, the Moguls and whoever cooperated with them. In times of peace, they might point out the peace treaty between the king of Egypt and the emperor of Germany, handing over Jerusalem to the Crusaders, after it had been liberated by Saladdin, in return for sparing Cairo.

Yet the most cited event from the time of the Crusades is a nonevent; the long period of time between the fall of Jerusalem and the first serious Muslim reaction to the loss of the city. Only 80 years after the fall of Jerusalem in the hands of the Crusaders did the Arab world regroup in a manner that could allow serious resistance against the invaders.

Arab politicians, throughout most of the twentieth century, where most of the Arab world had fallen under colonial European control, usually referred to this in an attempt to postpone the passionate calls for national liberation by their constituencies. Nevertheless, the mere comparison between the 20th century colonial powers and the 11th and 12th century Crusaders further ignited the passions of the public and this used to increase the pressure on the concerned politicians.

It is not usually noticed, even at the time of the Crusades, that this conflict of identities was overcome more than once, by the necessities of the balance of power. After Saladdin united Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Northern Iraq, cornering the Crusaders in Palestine and Lebanon, he signed a truce that was supposed to remain in effect for 30 years. His priorities were clearly to consolidate his power over his vast, unstable state. The truce would have held if it weren’t for one Prince Renault, who attacked the fortress at Karak in southern Jordan and slaughtered Muslim pilgrims heading from Syria to Mecca through the Jordanian plateau. Renault’s adventure cost him his life, and Saladdin started a massive attack against the Christian princedoms in the Palestinian coast. Grouping the armies of Egypt, Mosul, Aleppo and Diyar Bakir in Damascus, Saladdin marched south to the village of Hittin near Lake Tiberius, and positioned his armies so that the Crusaders, coming from Jerusalem and Acre would not be able to reach the water. The Crusaders were defeated and all their princedoms fell one after the other, starting with Jerusalem. Tyre was the only stronghold of the Crusaders that survived Saladdin’s massive war. It also became the bridge-head for the Third Crusade led by England’s Richard Lion Heart and France’s Philip Auguste. It is not often remembered that this campaign reoccupied most of the coast, and that Saladdin had to reach an agreement with them, that he would let them keep the coast, in return for Jerusalem. When Richard Lion Heart, astonished at Saladdin’s acceptance of the deal, sent an envoy asking the Muslim Sultan for the reasons of his acceptance, the story goes, Saladdin said: “The Kings of the Franks are three months away from their homeland; one day, they will have to leave, along with their armies. As for me, this is my home, I am staying here, my soldiers are staying here; sooner or later, I will take it all back again.”

Unhappy with this ominous answer, Lion Heart and Philip August returned home

and Saladdin’s prophecy couldn’t have

been truer.

Saladdin reduced the Christian princedoms in the Middle East from regional superpowers to a group of weak states at the fringe of Middle Eastern political life. When the Monguls came sweeping across Asia, the Crusaders thought of them as natural allies against the Muslims, especially as Hulagu, the notorious Mongul commander, and the ruthless conqueror and destroyer of Baghdad, was married to a Christian. Nevertheless, thanks to Saladdin’s campaign, the Frankish princedoms of Acre and Tyre were too weak an ally for the Moguls to accept.

But Saladdin’s campaign was not the final chapter in the story of the Crusades. Actually, one long century passed between Saladin’s initial attack in 1187 and the final fall of Acre into the hands of the Mamlouk sultans of Egypt and Syria in 1292. Throughout this century there were commercial as well as cultural relations between the various Muslim princedoms and the Crusaders. The various Arabic words that trickled down into in Romance languages bear witness to this kind of cultural interaction: sugar, is the Arabic sukkar, syrup is the Arabic sharab

(meaning sweet drink), algebra is the Arabic al-Jabr, etc.

While I should not allow myself to use the Crusades in the manner politicians usually do, I think that there are important parallels that could be drawn between our current encounter with Europe and Europe-extended (that’s America) and the patterns of violent as well as peaceful interactions that used to take place 800 years ago. Many American as well as European liberals point to free trade as a means by which the emotional gap between East and West could be narrowed. Very few of those who know the Crusades, and know how the Crusades are remembered, would support such a view. It is true that war did not prevent trade, but it is also true that trade did not prevent war. The existential threat posed by the Crusades, the colonial mandates of the early 20th century, the state of Israel, and now by American neocolonialism, is too severe to be put down by trade. Both war and peace stubbornly still characterize the relation between the Muslim world and that of Europe and Europe extended (that includes America) without one element overcoming the other.

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