This blog is dedicated to discussing the Crusader Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus. I will post information about the history and legacy of these remarkable kingdoms, as well as post reviews of books relevant to the crusades and the Crusader Kingdoms.
I have joined the Real Crusades History team and will posting simultaneously to the Real Crusades History Blog.
films like “Kingdom of Heaven” or in novels like “Jerusalem” by Cecilia
Holland, the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem is most frequently depicted as a
desert wasteland dotted with massive castles on barren hills. This image traces
its roots at least in part to accounts by crusaders and pilgrims from Northern
Europe, who found the Holy Land oppressively hot and comparatively dry. But
those images are deceptive.
students of the crusader states should keep in mind that most pilgrims arrived
in the spring, at the start of the warm, dry season, and departed in the fall
before the rains. Crusaders who remained
longer in the Holy Land, like Richard the Lionheart, encountered drenching rain
and even sleet and hail along with far less than tropical temperatures. More
important despite some climate change over the last 800 years, it is reasonable
to assume that the climate of the “Land of Milk and Honey” is not so very
different today from what it was during the period of the crusades.
The landscape near the Sea of Galilee The coast near Ascalon
In short, far
from being a crucible of heat and sand, the Holy Land under Latin Christian
rule was still a highly fertile and agriculturally productive environment. That
was what made it so valuable to invaders from all corners of the earth over the
But the new
rulers from the West did not simply take over the existing territory, they
increased its productivity substantially. Of the estimated 650,000 inhabitants
of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the 12th century,
roughly 140,000 were “Franks” — Frank being the collective term for the Western
Europeans that came to the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th
centuries. Of these, roughly half lived in rural villages. These sixty thousand
rural “Frankish” settlers lived predominantly, archaeologists believe, in new
settlements and so represented a significant influx of new agricultural labor
and — even more important — brought more land under cultivation.
important and far too often under-estimated, the Western settlers that came to
the Holy Land during the first century of Latin rule, adapted their
agricultural techniques to the new environment so effectively that their
presence led to what historian Malcolm Barber calls a “agricultural revival” of
the region. Thus, in addition to traditional Mediterranean products such as
wheat, barley, olives and grapes, with which they were already familiar, the
Western settlers in the crusader states developed commercial production of
dates, sugar cane, figs, bananas and citrus fruits. The cities of Outremer —
including Jerusalem itself — were not surrounded by barren desert but rather by
a blooming agricultural landscape of orchards and plantations catering to the
The ancient olive orchard outside Jerusalem - The Mount of Olives - as probably been here since crusader times.
archaeological evidence further suggests that the typical settler village was
not walled, did not have a citadel or tall keep or even a defensible church
tower as in other “frontier” areas as, for example, Prussia. This discovery strongly
undermines the notion that the Franks lived in constant fear of the more
populous native population. Rather the pattern of settlement reproduced typical
settlement patterns of Southern France adapted architecturally to the climate,
and so reinforces the thesis that the Franks in Outremer lived in harmony with
their neighbors. The great castles and
walled cities were built to protect the entire population from foreign
(Saracen) invasions, not to protect the local lords from their subjects.
It should also
be remembered that even the non-Frank workers on the farms and in the factories
were not slaves. They were for the
most part natives of the region, which meant they were predominantly Christian
and their status was similar to that of serfs in Western Europe. They had clearly
defined rights and privileges as well as obligations, and they were ruled by
local administrators of the same faith, who administered traditional law rather
than imposing foreign customs on the population. Even Muslims and Jews retained
a strong degree of judicial autonomy in settling family and civil cases.
Far from being the desert battleground of popular literature and film, the Kingdom
of Jerusalem — like the Kingdom of Cyprus — were agriculturally fertile, rich
kingdoms in a mild, Mediterranean climate. This was the land of “milk and
honey” that had seduced — and continues to seduce — conquerors since the start
of recorded time.
Far more has been written about
the crusades than the states they established and supported. Yet it was the threat to the Christian states
that justified every crusade after the First. Furthermore, the crusader states
were catalysts for a number of key developments in Western Europe from dramatic
improvements in shipping to the exchange of goods, technology and ideas with
Constantinople and the Arab/Turkish world.
Indeed, historian Claude
Reignier Condor wrote at the end of the 19th Century that: “…the
result of the Crusades was the Renaissance.” (The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291 AD, The Committee of
Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, p. 163.)
Professor Malcolm Barber, a
distinguished scholar who has already produced seminal works about the Templars
and Cathers, has produced a long overdue work that provides a comprehensive
history of the crusader states rather than the sporadic crusades. It is
meticulously researched and documented, as one would expect from a professor of
history, and as such is an invaluable reference work for anyone interested in
the period and indeed in the West’s presence in the Near East.
Whereas histories of the crusades
invariably focus on military campaigns and so on “aggression,” Barber reminds
us that the crusader states themselves were builders rather than destroyers.
Barber concludes his comprehensive history by noting that: the crusaders “pragmatic
approach to the challenge of providing for defense, administration and economic
development produced political entities which resist stereotyping…and
predetermined models.” He furthermore stresses that their accomplishments
cannot be reduced to military conquests but also “entailed the rebuilding and
embellishment of the holy shrines” and notes that they “ultimately produced
their own independent and vibrant culture.”
Barber draws on a wide range of
primary and secondary sources in Latin, Arabic, French, and German, and his
bibliography alone is a treasure trove for the historian. However, the very detail of his account tends
to slow the pace and complicate the flow of the narrative. This is more a
reference or a research resource than a good read.
Most popular literature about the crusader states alleges that the Latin rulers were “less tolerant” of
religious diversity than their Muslim predecessors. It is hard to trace the
origins of this myth – other than in an excess of political correctness in
It is true that in the four
centuries of Muslim rule in the Holy Land preceeding the crusades some Muslim rulers were content to live-and-let-live, but -- as my last entry stressed -- there were
also periods of extreme repression.
Furthermore, at all times Christians (and other non-Muslims) were taxed
extra and treated as second-class citizens, certainly they had no right to
positions of power and influence.
This is the standard against
which the Christian leaders should be judged. If used it is quickly clear
that the Christians were not more oppressive than their Muslims predecessors. Indeed, as far as I know, there is no
evidence that Muslims, or other non-Latin subjects, were subject to special
taxes as was the case under Muslim rulers for non-Muslims.
Furthermore, while inhabitants were allowed to follow their own religion
during Muslim rule, the price of trying to preach or convert a Muslim to
Christianity was death – as it is to this day in many Muslim countries. (A woman was only recently condemned to death in Sudan, for example, for claiming to be a Christian and marrying a Christian man.)I have
never read or heard about a similar law punishing the preaching of Islam with
death in the crusader kingdoms.
It is true that the crusaders
took the Holy Land by force – as had their Muslim predecessors. It is also true that while the Muslims
allowed Christians to live in Jerusalem, the crusaders prohibited Muslims from living
there. Nevertheless, they did not
tear down the Dome of the Rock or destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, as the Caliph
al-Hakim had leveled the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The crusaders simply converted these
buildings to Christian or secular purposes.
Islam's most sacred shrine in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, was not destroyed;
it was converted into a Church instead.
It is also true that Latin clergy
was given control of the most sacred places and put into the positions of
greatest ecclesiastical power, such as the patriarchies in Jerusalem and
Antioch. Whether the Abbaids, the Fatamids, or the Seljuks were in control,
however, they too put their own men into positions of power; Sunnis do not
tolerate Shiia religious leaders in their mosques and madrassas and vice versa.
Conquerors always take the best spoils for themselves.
The fact that hardly any city
resisted Saladin’s conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Battle of
Hattin is often taken as evidence that he non-Latin population in the kingdom preferred Muslim rule. This is hardly a sustainable argument since the reality was
that the kingdom was simply not defensible after the losses sustained at
Hattin. Under the circumstances, the
civilian population was eager to avoid the destruction and retribution that the
rules of war designated for cities that resisted and were taken by storm. The civilian population preferred to trust to
Saladin’s reputation for clemency. The
situation might have looked very different if the notoriously brutal Zengi had
been mopping up – or Baibars or one of the other equally merciless Mamluke sultans had been the opponent in 1187.
Rather, those who assert the
“preference” of the subject peoples of the crusader states for Muslim over
Latin rule ought to ask why there were no revolts against the Latin leaders? Why
was there no “Intifada” against the Christian kings? How could the tiny Latin Christian elite rule
for nearly two hundred years, if their subjects were secret allies of their
enemies? Why weren’t Christian towns betrayed to the Muslims each time a Muslim
army appeared – and not just after the devastation of Hattin but during Saladin's invasions in 1177, 1179, 1181, 1182, and 1183.
It is safe to say the loyalty of
the various non-Latin elements in the crusader states varied across regions and
time. Initially, the Armenians appear to
have been very enthusiastic about crusader rule after decades under the
Turks. Later, they became disillusioned,
at least in Eddessa, probably due to misrule and greed on the part of the Latin
rulers. In Antioch, the Armenians appear to have been considerably more loyal.
Yet in both states, the continued presence of an independent Armenian kingdom
undoubtedly undermined loyalty to the Latin elite by keeping alive hopes of
reincorporation in a greater Armenian state.
In the County of Tripoli and the
Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Armenians played a much less significant role and the
other religious groups were fragmented, so that no one group was in a position
to seriously challenge Latin leadership.
Furthermore, a Muslim traveler from Spain lamented the passivity of the
Muslims under Christian rule. In his
religious zeal, he may have forgotten or discounted the fact that even the
majority of Muslims in the Holy Land were not ethnically Arab or Turkish. They viewed the Latin rulers as just one more
alien invasion in a millennia long history of such invasions. They had indeed become passive, accepting and
accommodating of each change of regime. Furthermore, there was a significant
amount of intermarriage between males from Western Europe and females native to
the Holy Land. This tended to reinforce
tolerance on the part of both rulers and ruled.
Last but not least, the prominent
role played by sergeants in the armies of the Holy Land suggests that the
crusader states commanded considerable loyalty among the native, middle-class
population. Some historians speculate
that sergeants were drawn from the large population of “half-breed” youth, who
– they postulate – did not qualify for knighthood because of native blood. The
theory is not convincing, because knighthood could be bestowed on anyone, even
full-blooded Arabs, Turks or Kurds. A more logical explanation is that the
conditions of fighting in the Holy Land, particularly the fact that the Turks
could muster armies with tens of thousands of light horse, made it necessary to
have more mounted fighting men than the knightly class could support. The development of light cavalry on the
Christian side was a response to the overwhelming number of cavalry on the
Because horses were expensive, however,
these sergeants had to be recruited from among the social classes with
comparatively high incomes, albeit not rich enough to afford the armor, arms
and training of knights. The fact that secular leaders of the crusader kingdoms and the militant orders could recruit
such men in such numbers (there was an almost two to one ratio of sergeants to
knights at most of the Templar and Hospitaller castles) makes it very clear
that the “middle classes” in the crusader states -- whether half-breeds or
non-Latin Christians –- stood firmly behind the Christian regime.
That hardly seems reasonable if the Christian
rulers were as “intolerant” as many modern books portray them.
It has become commonplace to
allege that prior to the crusades, Muslims and Christians lived
together in harmony in the Holy Land. These assertions ignore the fact that in
the 7th century the Holy Land was conquered for Islam with the sword
– not gently proselytized by peaceful imams. It also ignores the fact that the
Seljuk Turks wrested the Holy Land from the (over time complacent and comparatively
benign) Fatamids also by the sword between 1071 and 1085. Finally, it ignores the fact that the Muslim
Caliph al-Hakim utterly raised the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and many other
churches. It ignores the massacre of some 3000 Christian pilgrims in the decade
between 1185 and 1195. In short, it ignores all the abuses referenced in Pope
Urban II in his call for the First Crusade.
It is no longer politically
correct to believe there was any truth in Urban II’s catalogue of crimes
committed by Muslims against Christians in the Holy Land. Undoubtedly, Pope Urban the Second and the
Byzantine Emperor Alexis I, who approached Urban with a request for Western
help against the Seljuks in the first place, were both seeking to manipulate
emotions. Urban II furthermore had a hidden agenda – namely increasing the
power of the papacy, possibly healing the schism with the Eastern Church, and
getting rid of excess numbers of violent young men, who were disruptive factors
in Western feudal society. Alexis I
wanted mercenaries to keep the aggressive Seljuks at bay.
Nevertheless, it is disingenuous to
assert that all the allegations made by Alexis and Urban respectively were pure
fantasy. The archeological record alone testifies to the destruction of
Christian monuments under Seljuk rule, belying the vaunted “tolerance” of
Muslim rulers. Furthermore, the abuse of Christians was well enough documented
to result in an almost complete halt of pilgrimage traffic and even trade with
Europe during the period following Seljuk seizure of the Holy Land; Christian
pilgrims and merchants had been made to feel unwelcome and unsafe once the Holy
Land was in Seljuk hands.
Even under the more moderate
Fatimids, Christians in the 12th century – no less than in the 21st
century – were second-class citizens, subject to extra taxes and excluded from
positions of power and authority. The
Fatimids, no less than the Seljuks, silenced the church bells, and punished
attempts by Christians to spread their religion with death.
This is not my definition of
“tolerance” – not then any more than now.