The Crusades – an Introduction and Overview
On November 17th 1095, Pope Urban II gave an important speech at the end of a church council in Clermont, France, calling for the nobility of Western Europe to assist their Eastern brothers in a Crusade to liberate the Holy Lands from the Muslim Turks, who were rapidly encroaching on the Byzantine Empire. The Turks had already overrun most of the Byzantine Empire and were within striking distance of the capital, Constantinople. He also called for the liberation of Jerusalem, the most sacred of places in Christendom. The response was overwhelming, something Pope Urban could not have envisaged. Some 130,000 men and women joined the armies that left for the East over the following six years. But what were the Crusades? What had occurred to prompt this call to arms?
In order to understand why and how the Crusades took place, we need to look at the history surrounding Europe and the Middle East leading up to this time.
At the beginning of the first century A.D., the religion known as Christianity arose in Palestine and spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had become officially and primarily Christian, as a result of peaceful missionary activity from within society (later Church law forbade forced conversions from one religion to Christianity). Jerusalem, Palestine and Syria, all within the boundaries of the expanding Roman Empire, became predominantly Christian (the Jewish population of Jerusalem had been largely dispersed by pagan Roman authorities following the Jewish anti-Roman revolts of A.D. 66-70 and 132-135, and few Jews remained in the area).
In the seventh century A.D., the religion known as Islam arose in the Arabian Peninsula. It was ruled by an Arab-speaking elite which, with great mosques and universities, had made itself the heir to the classical Mediterranean. Like Christianity, Islam officially condemned forced conversions. But unlike Christianity, Islam instructed its followers to ensure that the world was under the political control of the Faithful. Hence Islam’s political domination could be, and was, spread by the sword.
Carried on the backs of Arab cavalry, Islam exploded out of Arabia and it wasn’t long before it took control of the Middle East. Byzantium and Persia, the two powers in the area, were exhausted by prolonged conflict with each other. Persia was completely defeated and absorbed into the Islamic world. The Middle Eastern armies of the Christian Byzantine Empire were defeated and annihilated in A.D. 636, and Jerusalem fell in A.D. 638. Through the rest of the seventh century, Arab armies advanced inexorably northwards and westwards.
After AD 750 the Abbasids ruled the Muslim world. The Abbasids were Arabs descended from Muhammad’s family and although not all people under their control were Muslim, they tolerated non-Islamic people, permitting pilgrimages to the Holy Land, allowing the Westerners to visit their great shrines of their faith without let or hindrance, and the number of Christians who came to pray increased steadily as the years went by.
This relatively happy state of affairs came to a sudden end. In 1040 a new force appeared on the scene. The Arabs were displaced as leaders of Islam by the Seljuk Turks, a race of nomadic shepherds from the Steppes of central Asia, who had converted to Sunni Islam even as they conquered the Arabs, taking control of Afghanistan and eastern Persia. The Turks disrupted the area’s political and social structures and created considerable hardships for Western pilgrims. Up till now most Arab rulers of the area had been fairly tolerant of Christian interest in the Holy Places (one notable exception was the “Mad” Caliph Hakim at the beginning of the eleventh century, who destroyed churches and persecuted Jews and Christians). By the second half of the eleventh century, most pilgrims were going to the Holy Land only in large, armed bands, groups who look in retrospect very like crusade rehearsals.
They entered Baghdad in 1055 by invitation of the Caliph there and became masters of an empire that stretched from central Asia to the northern borders of Syria. Here they came into contact with the Byzantine Empire; there were skirmishes on the frontier in which people on both sides were killed. Small unofficial wars appeared when Turkish nomads wandered over the border into the uplands of Anatolia in search of pasture and came into conflict with the Byzantine farmers and land owners whose homes they thus invaded. It seemed inevitable that the two powers were drawn along a collision course which would lead to the destruction of one or the other. It was the Byzantine army that fell, at Manzikert in what is now Eastern Turkey. It was a massive defeat for the Byzantine Empire and it closed the roads across Asia Minor to western pilgrims to the Holy Land. If Christians in the West wanted to visit the Holy Land they would either have to travel by sea or help their fellow Christians in the East recover the lands they had lost.
In March 1095 an embassy from the Byzantine emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II for help.
What followed were the Crusades.