Jerusalem fell to invading Muslim forces in 638 AD. It was conquered by force of arms after a year-long siege -- NOT (as some modern commentators would have you believe) by gentle persuasion and enlightened preaching. It would be 1099 AD or 461 years before it was returned to Christian hands.
That over four hundred year gap between the Muslim conquest and the Christian liberation has led many to argue that 1) Christianity didn't really care all that much about Jerusalem, 2) after so much time it has become a Muslim city, anyways, and so conclude that 3) the First Crusade was not defensive or liberating but rather offensive and aggressive.
Continuing with my two-part series, I look at that "461-year gap" between the Muslim conquest and the Christian re-conquest of Jerusalem. Today's entry looks at the West in the period from 800 to 1099 AD.
In the West, the setbacks had started sooner than for the Eastern Empire. In 827 the Muslim conquest of Sicily commenced and, although it would take until 902 to complete, it would eventually be successful. Meanwhile, in 837 a Muslim army had landed on the Italian mainland, ironically at the request of the Duke of Napes who wanted help in his squabbles with his local enemies. Throughout the rest of the century, the various Italian cities remained divided among themselves and all too ready to accept Muslim assistance, which in turn opened the doorway to Muslim mercenaries sacking, pillaging and pirating from bases in Italy. In 846 Rome itself was attacked by a Muslim raiding force and the basilica of St. Peter was looted but not destroyed.
When three years later a larger Muslim fleet set out to attack Rome again, however, it was met by a combined Christian fleet that defeated it. What followed, however, was not peace but rather a long struggle for control of the Italian mainland. Indeed, the Muslims succeeded in establishing a base for raiding on the coast of Provence at La Garde-Freinet in about 888. While neither the raids from Italy nor Provence were comparable to the great Muslim conquests of the 7th century, they posed a menace to travel and trade and kept Western Christendom on the defense.
This did not end until 915 when an alliance of Roman and Byzantine forces drove the last Muslim strongholds off the Italian mainland. For a time, however, the Muslims continued to raid the Italian coastal cities. In 934/35 Genoa was sacked, its male population massacred and the women and children carried off into slavery. Pisa beat off attacks in 1004, 1011, and 1012. Four years later, Salerno came under siege and was only rescued by a band of Normans -- notably on an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
It was only now, at the start of the 11th century, that the tide began to turn in favor of the Christians in the West. The Italian city-states were gaining sufficient wealth to finance stronger defenses. In 1034, the Pisans launched an attack on Muslim North Africa. A generation later the Pisans again raided Muslim territory, this time Palermo in 1062 and 1063. Finally, in 1087, a combined force raised from Pisa, Genoa, Rome, and Amalfi struck at the main base for many Muslim pirate attacks on Italian ships and cities: Mahdia in what is now Tunisia. The expedition was so successful that it enabled the victors to free prisoners, obtain huge reparations payments, and gain trading privileges. Most importantly, after the raid on Mahdia, Muslim attacks on Italy ceased almost entirely.
But just as the Western Christians were gaining strength again, the Eastern Roman Empire underwent a new crisis. The Seljuk Turks had converted to Islam and with the passion of the newly converted and the skills of nomadic warriors they set about establishing their domination over Syria and then turned on Armenia, Cilicia, and the Levant, driving the Byzantines out, before striking at Anatolia. The Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes assembled his forces and rushed to the defense of this vital heartland -- only to be decisively defeated on August 26, 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert. Shortly afterward the embattled Byzantines started sending appeals for help to the apparently now stronger West. That aid would, a quarter century later, materialize in the form of what we have come to call the First Crusade.
In summary, Christendom did not "wait" four hundred years to respond to the loss of Jerusalem. On the contrary, throughout the four hundred years between the fall of Jerusalem in 638 and the First Crusade in 1095, Christendom had been fighting perpetually -- and often desperately -- for its very survival. The First Crusade was not a "late" response to the fall of Jerusalem, but rather the first successful attempt to retake the city of Christ's passion that had never, for a single day, been forgotten by Christendom.
Knowing the history of Jerusalem is useful in understanding the thinking and attitudes of people in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem -- the context of my "Jerusalem" trilogy.
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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com