....Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In A.D. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion.
Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia. By A.D. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.
What had happened? Most people actually know the answer, if pressed—though for some reason they do not usually connect the answer with the crusades. The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory at the expense of Islam’s neighbors. Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. The attacks continued, punctuated from time to time by Christian attempts to push back. Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about A.D. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus and began to island-hop across from North Africa toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837.
A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. In the hundred years between 850 and 950, Benedictine monks were driven out of ancient monasteries, the Papal States were overrun, and Muslim pirate bases were established along the coast of northern Italy and southern France, from which attacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them.
The surviving central secular authority in the Christian world at this time was the East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Having lost so much territory in the seventh and eighth centuries to sudden amputation by the Muslims, the Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack on Egypt, the first time since 645 that they had dared to come so far south. Between the 940s and the 970s, the Byzantines made great progress in recovering lost territories.
Emperor John Tzimiskes retook much of Syria and part of Palestine, getting as far as Nazareth, but his armies became overextended and he had to end his campaigns by 975 without managing to retake Jerusalem itself. Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed, and the Byzantines barely managed to retain Aleppo and Antioch. The struggle continued unabated into the eleventh century. In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim Twenty-fourth Sunday in ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews. He was soon deposed, and by 1038 the Byzantines had negotiated the right to try to rebuild the structure, but other events were also making life difficult for Christians in the area, especially the displacement of Arab Muslim rulers by Seljuk Turks, who from 1055 on began to take control in the Middle East.
This destabilized the territory and introduced new rulers (the Turks) who were not familiar even with the patchwork modus vivendi that had existed between most Arab Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects. Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine: notable armed pilgrimages occurred in 1064–65 and 1087–91.
In the western and central Mediterranean, the balance of power was tipping toward the Christians and away from the Muslims. In 1034, the Pisans sacked a Muslim base in North Africa, finally extending their counterattacks across the Mediterranean. They also mounted counterattacks against Sicily in 1062–63. In 1087, a large-scale allied Italian force sacked Mahdia, in present-day Tunisia, in a campaign jointly sponsored by Pope Victor III and the countess of Tuscany. Clearly the Italian Christians were gaining the upper hand. But while Christian power in the western and central Mediterranean was growing, it was in trouble in the east. The rise of the Muslim Turks had shifted the weight of military power against the Byzantines, who lost considerable ground again in the 1060s. Attempting to head off further incursions in far-eastern Asia Minor in 1071, the Byzantines suffered a devastating defeat at Turkish hands in the battle of Manzikert. As a result of the battle, the Christians lost control of almost all of Asia Minor, with its agricultural resources and military recruiting grounds, and a Muslim sultan set up a capital in Nicaea, site of the creation of the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325 and a scant 125 miles from Constantinople.
Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks. In the early 1070s, the pope was Gregory VII, and he immediately began plans to lead an expedition to the Byzantines’ aid. He became enmeshed in conflict with the German emperors, however (what historians call “the Investiture Controversy”), and was ultimately unable to offer meaningful help. Still, the Byzantines persisted in their appeals, and finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade. Whether a crusade was what either Urban or the Byzantines had in mind is a matter of some controversy. But the seamless progression of events which lead to that crusade is not.
Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive. The crusades were simply one tool in the defensive options exercised by Christians. To put the question in perspective, one need only consider how many times Christian forces have attacked either Mecca or Medina. The answer, of course, is never. To be continued...BACK TO LIST