Introduction to the Crusades (1096–1291)

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Introduction to the Crusades (1096–1291)

Between the late eleventh and late thirteenth centuries, the Middle East was subject to waves of invasion known as the Crusades. Thousands of western European Christians came to Palestine, Egypt, and Syria with the idea of placing these areas in Christian hands. The primary motivation was genuine piety; they believed that God willed them to do it. However, other motivations also inspired individuals, ranging from greed or desire for land, to simple adventure.

Pope Urban II made the first call for Crusade. In 1095, Emperor Alexius of the Byzantine Empire requested aid to help regain territory in modern Turkey overrun by the Muslim Seljuk Turks. What he received was unexpected. Rather than recruiting a few hundred knights as Alexius desired, Urban called for a holy war against the Muslims, urging all to take the cross and fight to restore the lands of Jesus to the Christian world. Although not known as a Crusade at the time, the term gained ground, coming from the Latin word crux, or cross, the symbol of Christianity. As an enticement to leave their homes and take on the enormous financial burden of the trip, Pope Urban promised salvation to those who marched to Jerusalem or died in the cause. Thousands of people from all walks of life answered the call, sewed red crosses on their clothing, and marched east.

Despite the dangers of the trips, over one hundred thousand Crusaders marched east between 1096 and 1101. During the course of this period, they established four states: Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem (the largest, eventually stretching from Gaza to Beirut), and the County of Tripoli.

Although the original idea was to restore conquered territory to the Byzantines, the knights secured the territories for themselves, as they mistrusted the Orthodox Byzantine emperors. Secured with castles, they eventually adopted many of the customs of the indigenous population. Although the bulk of the Crusaders, regardless of which Crusade, would return to Europe, those who stayed learned the reality of the situation. In order to survive they made alliances with Muslim rulers and occasionally fought each other.

In 1144, Edessa fell to Zengi of Mosul, triggering another Crusade. The Second Crusade (1147–1149) failed and never even attempted to regain Edessa. Lack of unity—a constant problem for the Crusaders—undermined it from the start. Meanwhile, the foreign presence helped Middle East leaders like Zengi, his son Nur ed-Din, and the leader Saladin unify resistance against the “Franks.”

Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, and the Third Crusade (1189–1192) sailed to the Holy Land to capture it back. This is the most famous Crusade as Saladin faced Richard the Lionheart, King of England. While Richard triumphed over Saladin on several occasions, he could not capture Jerusalem.

Afterwards, other Crusades took place. Many of them were disorganized and often did more harm than good for those who dwelt in the Crusader states. The term had lost its luster, but even so, the significance and impact of the Crusades remains relevant in the Middle East of the twenty-first century.

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Introduction to the Crusades (1096–1291)

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Introduction to the Crusades (1096–1291)