How the great Christian ‘Holy Wars’ were less like the wars for religion than traditional Western history has painted them as.
Traditional history taught that the Crusades were ‘holy’ wars where followers of the Christian God fought against followers of Muhammad’s Allah: that it was a push to take the ‘Holy Land’ for God instead of letting it be controlled by ‘heretics’. Islam and Christendom states that Christians saw the sudden growth of the Islamic religion and State and were frightened. The traditional view pushes that they were zealous in their actions and goals- carried by God’s power and strength. The idea of their fright moving them towards the Crusades counteracts that. This pure religiously-driven image is contradicted through a study of the actual motives of the Crusaders themselves. It is clear that while Franks said they were conquering ‘the Holy Land’ for God, there were many who were doing it to gain wealth and power for themselves. This conclusion is based on three events of the Crusades: the Christian response during the conflict over Xerigordon and Nicaea, the alliance made between the Franks and Arab Damascus, and the purpose of English King Richard I in the Third Crusade.
Before the Crusades began, the Byzantine state was having a hard time going against the Arab Empire’s expansion. They made requests to the West for help, but it wasn’t until 1095 that those pleas were heard. At this time, Pope Urban II gave a sermon that called for all Christian armies to move to free the Palestinian Holy Lands for the Christian God. In response to this sermon, many European nobles created armies and moved towards the Arab Empire’s land, resulting in Four Crusades. During the First Crusade(1095-1099), success for the Christian armies was quick as they gained the County of Edessa, Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the kingdom of Jerusalem. When the Turkish commander Zengi took back Edessa, the Second Crusade(1147-1149) began. Due to the loss of element of surprise, they were quickly defeated by Muslim forces. In the Third Crusade(1189-1192), Richard I of England and Phillip II Augustus of France tried to take Jerusalem back from Saladin, but this proved impossible. In the Fourth Crusade(1202-1204), instead of marching to attack Muslim lands, they took the Christian city of Constantinople. In the end, by the conclusion of the Fourth Crusade, all success of the First Crusade had been erased.
There were many who were fighting for Christ and that was shown in their zealous actions for salvation; but it is a misconception that all Western fighters were fighting for God and Christianity. Many, after conquering the Holy Land of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, did simply go home as they believed their goal was finished, proof of that religious motive. But, over time the original reason for the Crusade began to diminish until, in the very last Crusade, they completely ignored the original declaration of Pope Urban II to regain the Holy Land and stop the Muslims and instead attacked a city controlled by other Christian followers: Constantinople. Similar things to that are seen throughout the book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes– scenes and the choices of individuals that shows there were other motives that Christian fighters had; motivations that were not religious at all.
At the beginning of the First Crusade, Franks soldiers were marching towards Arab lands. In July 1096, Sultan Kilij Arslan learned of this and was perplexed in how to deal with it. As the soldiers got closer to Nicaea, he made sure the city’s fortifications were well-prepared in case of attack. As the months wore on, the danger grew. The book paints a picture of stalwart Franj soldiers, marching into an unknown land, braving the scorching heat, stopping anyone in their way, matching up well with the traditional view- soldiers of God full of righteous strength ready to stop the ‘heathen’ Muslims. Sultan Arslan’s first cavalry patrol sent out was completely destroyed by the Franks, only a few survivors left. Next, the Franks took the Stronghold of Xerigordon. Hearing this, Sultan Arslan rode out to the Stronghold and penned them in. After a week, Reynald- the leader of the expedition -surrendered. To the shock of Sultan Arslan, Reynald and some of his men gave up their Christian Religion and willingly became Muslim. Even more, Reynald stated that he would fight against his previous allies. Of course, there were many of the men in Reynald’s expedition who chose death by the sword rather than surrendering their Religion, but the traditional view is that every Christian Crusader was fervent in their belief in God and would never concede in any way to the Islamic Religion: Reynald’s and several of his men’s choices to side with Sultan Arslan shows that they were willing to give up their religion and even join the perceived ‘heathen’ religion to save their own lives- definitely not the actions of zealous Christian soldiers.
But it is not just Reynald’s and a few of his men that act in non-religious ways. Once Reynald and his men surrendered, Sultan Arslan sent two Greek spies to the Civitot camp to give the idea that Reynald’s and his men “had succeeded in taking Nicaea itself, whose riches they had no intention of sharing with their coreligionists”. The book says that in response to these rumors “A mob gathered, shouting insults against Reynald and his men; it was decided to proceed without delay to share in the pillage of Nicaea.” Of course, after this the rumors were proven false and the Franks at the camp set out to avenge Reynald and his men, but their previous reactions cannot be ignored. If this was a fervently religious group, then why would they care that Reynald and his men were taking all the riches of Nicaea? What would their God care about treasure? Wouldn’t He only care about their purpose- to fight in the Crusades and take the ‘Holy Land’ for Him? Shouldn’t they be celebrating the fact that the men succeeded in conquering Nicaea rather than being angry about a loss of wealth? This angry clamor against Reynald and his men shows that many of the Frank soldiers at the Civitot Camp were more driven to gain the riches of Nicaea than to fight for God; conquering for wealth rather than for religion.
As stated previously, the Second Crusade was started due to the actions of Zengi in conquering Edessa. Edessa was not the only place he was trying to conquer though- he also wanted to take Damascus. After failing to create an alliance through marriage and in response to the murder of Mahmud in July 1139, Zangi set out to Damascus. Due to cruel actions at Baalbek, the Syrians of Damascus united together against Zangi behind ‘Unar. From here, ‘Unar started his secret plan: create an alliance with the Frank army to save Damascus. The book states that, “This was not to be a one-off operation, but the inauguration of a proper treaty of alliance that would last beyond the death of Zangi.” They succeeded in their goal through this: Zangi retreated and didn’t attack Damascus as it was protected by the Franks and Syrians. It’s this fact that is the focus of this argument; the whole purpose of the Crusades was to defeat the heretical Muslims and take back the ‘Holy Land’, but instead the Frank army makes an alliance to help some of these heretical Muslim and Arabs? How can that fit with the religious motives of the Crusades? The Second Crusade was just a few years away from starting and yet the Christian Franks were creating an alliance with the very people they were supposed to fight? In this, what is driving them is the desire for power- they would protect Damascus and even fight at the sides of Muslims and Arabs to gain control of more land. Through this alliance they would essentially control the state of Damascus and regain the city of Baniyas for the king of Jerusalem; they would even be given hostages from many of the families of the city’s dignitaries. Calculated and diplomatic, yes, but not the religious drive that the traditional view pushes.
During the Third Crusade in June 1191, Richard the Lionheart, the King of England, joined the fighting Crusaders. Many were excited to be led by a warrior such as Richard I. On the eleventh of July, they took Acre. At this, many of the Frank soldiers were emboldened; Richard seemed to have doubts, though. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes mentions the question that “Had not the king of England often repeated that he yearned to return to his far-off kingdom?” This question brings the perspective of Richard I; he was not focused on the Crusades- on fighting for God. Instead, he worried for his own kingdom and wished to go back, to leave the Third Crusade. Despite this he continued on, determined to conquer Jerusalem. He tried multiple times to trick Saladin, to take Jerusalem from him, but Saladin was stubborn and clever and wouldn’t give up Jerusalem or Ascalon. Finally, Richard I conceded on Ascalon, and in September 1192, a Five Year Peace Treaty was signed, giving Saladin control over the land that included Jerusalem. The Franks gave up on retaking the Holy Land- the very reason the Crusades had begun.
One interesting point comes up, though, when Saladin allows the Christians safe passage to pray at Christ’s tomb. Christ’s tomb is such an important symbol and place to all Christians- to have the chance to go there is priceless. Many rushed to pray there, but not Richard. The book says that “Richard refused to go. He would not enter as a guest a city that he had sworn to storm as a conqueror. A month after the conclusion of peace, he left the East without ever having seen either the holy sepulchre or Saladin.” In a logical way, it is easy to see why Richard I made this decision. But, in a religious way, it does not make much sense. Here is Richard I, a great Third Crusade leader, having the chance to step into the Holy City of Jerusalem to visit and pray at the tomb of Christ. Instead, his logical warrior side overrides his religious side and he refuses, heading back to England without ever finishing the traditional goal of the Crusades. One could maybe argue that he didn’t want to face God at Christ’s tomb having failed in the goal of the Crusades, but that seems too much like the coward’s way out for a man like Richard the Lionheart. This creates a very convincing image that Richard I was driven more by power and control- to conquer the great city of Jerusalem politically rather than any religious reason; that his reputation as a warrior and conqueror was more important to him than his religious desires in this situation.
It is clear that the traditional view of the Crusades doesn’t hold up to study. While many were religiously motivated to participate in the Crusades, others throughout the Four Crusades were driven more by a desire for wealth and power than God and it is those that mattered overall in the success and actions of the various Crusades. Reynald and many of his men willingly gave up their religion for Islam, siding with Arslan to save their own lives; the Frank soldiers at the Camp at Civitot were furious at the rumors about Reynald and his men, desiring the riches they were said to have from Nicaea’s destruction instead of celebration the taking of land from the Muslims. The Frank army before the Second Crusade created a long-lasting alliance with Damascus for political power of the land there, allying with the Muslims and Arabs instead of following the religious purpose of the Crusades. Finally, Richard I was a great figure of the Third Crusade, and yet he had doubts in continuing the fight, wanting to return to England many times. Understandable, of course, considering how far the Arabian Peninsula is from England- but from the traditional stories of Richard the Lionheart, he was a man devoted to God and to the Crusades, sure in his decisions. Upon their surrender and signing of the Five-Year Peace Treaty, he refused to enter into the Holy City of Jerusalem to visit and see Christ’s tomb, placing his position and reputation as a warrior over his role as a Christian. All three of these events show that, while many did fight righteously in the name of God, many other Crusaders were driven by desires for wealth and power- to take the land and riches found in the Arab lands rather than securing the ‘Holy Land’ for God.
Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.
Smith, Jane I. “Islam and Christendom: Historical, Cultural, and Religious Interaction from the Seventh to the Fifteenth Centuries.” In The Oxford History of Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford.