The series of wars known as the Crusades (roughly 1095-1291) offer interesting lessons for modern observers.
Unfortunately, contemporary readers often learn the wrong lessons from the Crusades. For instance, they see the glamour and glory of a larger-than-life leader like Saladin or Richard the Lion-Hearted and ignore the ugly big picture.
In reality, the Crusades were an endless cavalcade of torture, massacres, pirate raids, robbery, double-dealing, slavery terrorism, and petty politics. Both Muslims and Christians showed their dark sides by engaging in endless, slavery, slaughter, pillage, and betrayal.
For a good overview of the ugly reality of the Crusades see Sir Steven Runciman’s excellent three volume A History of the Crusades. Runciman’s scholarship will quickly disprove any notions you have of Medieval Chivalry.
The Crusades; however, still have a profound hold on modern thinking. Muslim political leaders; for instance, often brand non-Muslim foes “Crusaders.”
Additionally, participants often invoke the term Crusade in other wars. Notably, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called his World War II campaigns “A Crusade in Europe.” Ike even called his war memoirs Crusade in Europe.
What we can Learn from the Crusades
Despite the misuse of the term Crusades there is a lot we can learn from the catastrophe known as the Crusades.
Lessons the Crusades can teach us include:
Terrorism and Piracy can lead to Disaster
Strangely, piracy and robbery led to the destruction of the great Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187.
Moslem leader Saladin; the Sultan of Syria and Egypt, left the Kingdom of Jerusalem alone until a Crusader lord named Reynard of Chatillon turned pirate. In 1182 Reynard launched a pirate fleet into the Red Sea.
In the Red Sea, Reynard robbed ships carrying Moslem pilgrims to Mecca, and raided Islamic ports. Reynard’s targets included al-Raghib, a port of Mecca. Reynard also landed and pillaged caravans crossing the desert.
Reynard’s plundering united Muslims against the Crusaders and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Just as the September 11 attacks united Western nations against terrorism in the 21st Century. Muslim leaders who had been willing to ally with the Crusaders turned on them.
Saladin had no choice but to launch an all-out war on the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The war took four years because Saladin had other enemies on other fronts.
After the surrender of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s army to Muslim forces at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. Saladin himself executed Reynard by cutting the pirate’s head off with his sword. Saladin, however, spared most of the Kingdom’s leaders.
One man’s greed; and a few months of piracy, destroyed a Kingdom that lasted for nearly a century. Instead of cowing the Muslims, Reynard’s terrorism angered them and laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Chivalry was for the Rich
The supposed chivalry of Medieval leaders like Saladin had its limits. For instance, after the Horns of Hattin, Saladin spared the wealthy leaders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; including King Guy.
In contrast, Saladin ordered the execution of all captured Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. One reason for Saladin’s mercy was that Guy, and the nobles, were rich.
However, the Templars and Hospitallers were mostly petty noblemen with no money. Therefore, Saladin let Moslem fanatics kill the members of the military orders.
Sadly, Saladin was repeating a common practice in the Crusades. Both Crusaders and Muslims let nobles and other leaders go. Meanwhile, both sides killed common people, or sold them into slavery.
One way both Crusaders and Muslims paid for their war effort was by ransoming wealthy enemies. They quickly sold; or killed, prisoners, because it cost money to feed captives.
Wars of Religion usually turn into Religious Civil Wars
The Crusades supposedly began as a Western European Christian effort to secure Holy Places for Christianity.
However, in the 13th Century, the Crusades became a Christian Civil War. To explain, in the Fourth Crusade the Crusaders target was the Greek Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire.
Instead of invading the Holy Land, the Crusaders invaded the Byzantine Empire, looted its capitol of Constantinople and divided up its land among themselves. One aim of the Fourth Crusade was to destroy Orthodox Christianity and replace it with Roman Catholicism.
Hence, the Fourth Crusade destroyed one of the greatest Christian states; which had endured for nearly 1,000 years. In Byzantium’s place, the Crusaders organized the so-called Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261); which lasted for less than 60 years.
Economics Trumps Religion in Warfare
One of the principle motivations for the Fourth Crusade was the mercantile Venetian Republic’s desire to destroy its rival Byzantium.
Another motivation was the Italian City States’ desire to seize control of the lucrative trade routes in Asia Minor. Notably, Constantinople was the Western terminus of the Silk Road, the main overland trade route to China and India.
Seizing Constantinople enabled Italian cities like Genoa and Venice to control the Asian trade to Europe. Holding Constantinople could give Genoa and Venice a monopoly on lucrative luxury goods such as spices, jewels, and silk.
Interestingly, financing the Crusades was one of the main pretexts for the invasion of Byzantium. The Crusaders hoped they could use the loot from Constantinople to pay the Venetians for passage to Palestine. Tellingly, after the Fourth Crusade, most of the Crusaders went home after pillaging Constantinople and never got to the Holy Land.
Likewise, Saladin only mobilized the large forces necessary for the destruction of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, after it became an economic threat to this empire. To explain, Saladin attacked the Kingdom after Reynard of Chatillon began pillaging ships and caravans and disrupting the Islamic economy.
Thus, economics became the principal motivation for the Crusades. Much as seizing and protecting oil is becoming the goal of the 21st Century “War on Terror.”
Governments and States built by Military Force Seldom Last
The Crusaders established several states in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Cyprus, and elsewhere.
Like many conquerors, the Crusaders easily crushed their enemies and established governments. However, only one of the many Crusader states, the regime of the Knights of Saint John; or Knights Hospitaller, on Malta lasted into modern times.
Instead, the Crusader states fell apart as military support from Europe dwindled. For instance, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was unable to defend itself without large reinforcements from Europe. When no new Crusades came, the Abuyites easily conquered the Kingdom.
Just like the Soviet Communist puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, the Crusader states fell apart without constant support. Another reason the Crusader states fell was that Medieval Europeans lacked the organization and resources to support a continuous colonial presence overseas.
Various European Kingdoms could organize Crusades; large military expeditions, but not a prolonged occupation. When war at home distracted the Europeans; or the nobles tired of overseas adventures, the Crusading states collapsed.
Predictably, the only Crusader state that endured was the one closest to Europe, the Knights of St. John on Malta. Strangely, the Knights’ regime on Malta lasted until 1798 when Napoleon I conquered the island on his way to Egypt.
War Does not produce Security
Strategically, the Crusaders had three goals.
First, to secure the religious sites in the Holy Land. Second, to secure the historic trade, invasion, and pilgrimage routes across Asia Minor and the Balkans. Third, to establish strong buffer states to keep Islamic forces from invading Europe through the Bosporus and the Balkans.
The Crusaders achieved the first goal with the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, the Kingdom only lasted for 92 years from 1099 to 1187. Saladin reconquered Jerusalem and the holy sites for Islam after his victory at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.
Strangely, the Crusaders briefly recovered Jerusalem in 1229. The Christians regained the city through a peace deal between the German Emperor Frederick II and the Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil, Saladin’s brother and successor.
Under the deal, they demilitarized Jerusalem and placed it under Crusader administration. However, the city had no walls or troops to defend it under the terms of Frederick and Al-Malik al-Kamil’s “peace deal.”
In 1244, Turkish Khwarismian mercenary cavalry riding in the service of the Ayyubid sultan sacked Jerusalem. The Ayyubids, used the Khwarismian rampage as an excuse to reclaim the Holy City for Islam. No Christian army would enter Jerusalem again for nearly 700 years. Until General Allenby’s British forces overran the city in World War I.
The Crusaders never achieved the second goal. They never destroyed the Turkish states which threatened the roads across Asia Minor.
Instead, the Turks came together in a powerful new state the Ottoman Empire: which eventually conquered all of Asia Minor and the Balkans. Additionally, the Turks became more effective militarily through contact with the Europeans. For instance, the Ottomans developed a strong, centralized standing army and adopted European infantry tactics to counter the Crusaders.
The states the Crusaders established in Greece and Asia Minor were too weak to survive. Plus, the Crusaders so weakened the Byzantine Empire it could not resist the Ottoman advance.
In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. By 1529, Ottoman armies were operating in Central Europe and threatening Vienna.
Thus the Crusades made Europe and Christendom less secure. The Crusaders destroyed the most powerful Christian state in the Middle East; the Byzantine Empire. Consequently, millions of Christians lived under Islamic rule because of the Crusaders’ battle for Christianity.
Today’s would-be crusaders need to learn the lessons of the Crusades. The Crusades show those who wage war for security and faith are likely to destroy both.