Although there were many crusades throughout history, the most famous and significant crusades in history occurred during the Middle Ages in the area known as The Levant. The Levant is the area in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region now inhabited by the nations of Israel, State of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars fought by Christian kingdoms against Muslim kingdoms beginning in 1096 and ending in 1291. The goal of The Crusades was to help fellow Christians of the Byzantine Empire repel attacking Seljuk Turks and recover the Christian Holy Land that was taken from the Christian Byzantines by Muslim forces in the years 638-641.
For over 300 years, the entire area around the Mediterranean Sea from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Anatolia (present day Turkey) was predominantly Roman Catholic Christian. Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and later, the Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire.
The Prophet Mohammed (570-632), a member of the Arab Quraysh tribe, started a long and history making journey in the area known today as Saudi Arabia. Mohammad founded a new religion called Islam and his followers were known as Muslims. He and his followers rapidly expanded throughout Arabia and the surrounding area and gained numerous followers to their new faith. Mohammad, and later his successors, unleashed a new and powerful political and military force on the Middle East and eventually the world.
In 638 Muslim armies under the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, conquered the Holy City of Jerusalem. By 641, Muslims drove the Byzantines out of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Soon North Africa, Spain and most of the Middle East was under Muslim control.
The Byzantine Empire
During the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was suffering from major attacks by invading Muslim Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks conquered considerable land from the Byzantines in what is now Turkey and Armenia. During the same period, Western European kingdoms, remnants of the long dead Western Roman Empire, were becoming more powerful and confident of their role of protectors of Western Christian Civilization.
The Byzantine Emperor Alexius asked Pope Urban II for military support to help fight the Seljuks. In November of 1095 at the Council of Clermont in France, Pope Urban called on Western Christians to aid the Byzantines and recover the Holy Land from the Muslim invaders.
The response to the Pope’s request was overwhelming. European Christians from all walks of life jumped at the chance to stop the Muslim threat and recover the Holy Land. Moreover, promises and expectations of the forgiveness of all sins, divine guidance and favor for their endeavors helped swell the ranks of Christian Crusaders.
The First Crusade
There were multiple Crusade campaigns throughout the almost 200 year history of The Crusades. The most successful was that of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemond of Taranto and Hugh of Vermandois; four large Christian armies left the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, in August, 1096, on the way to the Holy Land.
After taking Nicea, the Anatolian capital of the Seljuks, the Crusaders captured Antioch in Syria and finally Jerusalem in 1099. The success of these conquests and others allowed the Crusaders to establish permanent settlements throughout the Holy Land. These Crusader states or kingdoms were centered in Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa and Tripoli. These new Kingdoms were fortified by formidable forts and castles. The most famous Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria survives to this day.
The loss of Jerusalem after the defeat of a large Crusader army at Hattin resulted in the launch of the Third Crusade (1187-1191). The Third Crusade is perhaps history’s most famous Crusade due mainly to the charismatic leaders of the opposing Christian and Muslim forces.
Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or to the Western world, Saladin (1137/38-1193), was the famous Kurdish leader who founded the Muslim Ayyubid Dynasty. Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the strategic battle of Hattin in 1187. Saladin consolidated control over Egypt; defeating rival Muslim Fatimids and expanded his Ayyubid Sultanate to include Syria, Mesopotamia, Yemen, Hejaz and parts of North Africa.
Christian forces during the Third Crusade were commanded by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Phillip of France and King Richard I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart. During the Battle of Arsuf, King Richard’s forces defeated Saladin’s army and recaptured the strategic city of Jaffa. Christian control of the area was recovered and allowed Richard to sign a peace treaty with Saladin. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was reestablished and the Third Crusade ended.
It was widely discussed and recorded throughout both the Christian and Muslim worlds that both leaders, Richard and Saladin, demonstrated noble and chivalrous behavior during their battles and consequent peace negotiations. Rather than becoming a hated figure in Europe, Saladin became a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry. Richard became a feared but respected symbol of Christian power and chivalry.
Dynastic infighting among different Muslim sultanates and the invasions of the ferocious Mongol hordes distracted Muslim forces from the remaining Crusader Kingdoms. Additionally, Christian infighting, the decline of Byzantine power, political intrigue and the decline of Papal authority impacted the fervor and power of consequent Crusader campaigns.
A new power in the region, the Mamluks, overthrew the Ayyubids and took control of Egypt and Syria in 1250. Mamluks, descendents of Turkish slaves, stopped the Mongol advance in the region. The Mongols were a potential ally of the Christian Kingdoms and their defeat was a serious setback for Christians.
The Mamluk Sultan, Qalawan, after defeating Mongol forces in 1281, now focused his attention on the Crusader Kingdoms. He captured Tripoli in 1289 and with a huge army laid siege to Acre, the remaining major Crusader city in the area.
Acre fell after only seven weeks and effectively ended The Crusades and the Crusader Kingdoms after almost two centuries. Total Muslim control over the entire region was reestablished.
The Crusades were a history changing event for Christian Europe in many significant ways. A rejuvenation of faith spread among all Christians; noble and serf, rich or poor. New and exotic peoples, ideas, inventions, languages, foods, medicines and much more from the Muslim world had a major impact on Europeans slowly emerging out of the barbarian Dark Ages. The Crusades, with the exchange of ideas and knowledge with the Eastern World, became a foundation of the later European Renaissance and the Age of Exploration; which ultimately helped propel Western Europe to world domination.