Thursday, September 12, 2019

Seljuks - The Crusaders' Prime Enemy

When the Crusaders invaded the Near East at the end of the 11th century, they entered a complex world already fragmented by political rivalries, ethnic divisions, and religious conflict. Far from breaking in upon a peaceful Arab society enjoying a golden age of scientific progress and artistic creativity, they confronted a cauldron of unrest which had seen Jerusalem change hands four times in the thirty years before the Crusaders arrived. The Golden Age of Arab Enlightenment was already a distant memory, and the Levant had become a battleground between the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the protectors of the Abbasid Caliphate in Damascus. At the heart of those tensions were the Seljuks whose arrival in the Near East in the first half of the 11th century disrupted previous power structures. 
Today I take a closer look at the Seljuks and their impact on the Levant.  

Central Asia was the home to a large number of nomadic tribes characterized by a warlike nature, which made them excellent fighters and mercenaries, and a mobile lifestyle suited to both following the grass for their herds -- and invading other territories. Historians believe, for example, that the "Huns" were simply one of many Turkic tribes that migrated to the west with devastating effect. The Bulgars were another. There were also Peshenegs, Uzes and Kumans.  Most of these tribes stayed north of the Black Sea, but one tribe led by a certain Seljuk chose to move south through what is now Iran to establish an empire that stretched across the Near East down to the Persian Gulf and to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This tribe had been converted to Sunni Islam in the second half of the tenth century and in 1055 the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad summoned the (Sunni) Seljuks to liberate him from his Shia protectors, the Buyids. This they successfully did, making their leader at the time, Tugrul Beg, the "Sultan" -- i.e. the secular protector of the religious leader, the Caliph. Tugrul Beg died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan, who delivered a crippling defeat to the Byzantine army under Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. 

Although Alp Arslan died not long afterward in 1073, his victory over the Byzantines had the effect of opening all of Anatolia to Seljuk conquest and settlement. Furthermore, the Seljuk victory sparked the appeal to the West for aid that culminated in the First Crusade.  Meanwhile, Alp Arslan's successor Malik-Shah moved deeper into Western Syria (Aleppo) and also seized Antioch. However, on the death of Malik-Shah in 1092 the Seljuk empire fragmented among competing rivals and feuding between various warlords.  

Furthermore, the move to the Mediterranean, occupying roughly what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, also brought the Seljuks into direct conflict with the Fatimids based in Cairo. The importance of this confrontation cannot be overstated. 

As Niall Christie explains in his excellent history Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources:

"...this conflict had religious as well as political dimensions. This was not merely a conflict over territory fought between two Muslim powers. The Seljuks, as Sunnis, sought to present themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true faith against dangerous heretics who had taken control of a disturbingly large amount of territory and posed a real threat to the Abbasid caliphate... The Fatimids, in the meantime, saw themselves as the representatives of the true line of caliphs, and saw the Seljuks as supporting a heretical pretender whose ancestors had usurped power in the eighth century. Thus the Levant was the site of struggle between two powers, each of which regarded the other as a legitimate target of holy war fought on behalf of Islam. [1]

In short, jihad was already on the agenda of these powers, but to fight one another. 

Leading crusades scholar Christopher Tyerman points out that: "It was precisely because the Near East was already a scene of violence, competition, disruption and dislocation that [the Crusaders] prevailed at all."[2] 

Obviously, this means that the popular notion that the First Crusade shattered the "irenic peace of a stable, sophisticated and tolerant Arab Muslim world"[3] is wrong -- a fact underlined by the response of contemporary Muslim observers, who "by the 1090s [were] only too familiar with alien foreign conquerors and overlords." [4]

The latter is a vitally important point. Christie summarizes the situation as follows: 
" is important to remember that the region was one in which poulations were ruled by people who were in the minority, and often ethnically or religiously different from them. In Egypt, the Fatimids, who were Isma'ili Shi'ites, ruled over a population that was mostly Sunni Muslim, Christian and Jewish. The Fatimid armies in the meantime, consisted of a mix of Nubians, Berbers, Turks and Armenians, all of whom had been imported at one point or another and thus were foreigners in the eyes of the Egyptian population. The Sunni Muslim Turkish Seljuks, in the meantime, based their power above all on Turkish mamluks and Turkomen troops, using them to maintain power over a population that in the Levant consisted larely of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Jews from a wide range of ethnities incuding Turks, Kurds and Arabs.[5]
Christie is actually understating the situation. To the inhabitants of the Levant, the Seljuks -- like the Arabs before them -- represented an alien occupation. Historians from Ellenblum to Jotischky and MacEvitt now believe that more than 50% of the population of the territories later incorporated into the crusader states was Christian. Professor Tyerman points out that "Surviving crusaders' letters and early narratives suggest [the Crusaders] quickly grasped the divided circumstances of the Seljuk princes and how they had terrorised the indigenous peoples of the region."[6]

Thus, while the Seljuks proved formidable foes, whom the Crusaders came to respect as one does a difficult opponent, their oppressive and divided rule also provided the opportunity for Crusader success. It was a situation that the Crusaders effectively exploited for three generations before the Kurdish leader Saladin forged new unity across the Near East. 

Throughout my Award-winning "Jerusalem" trilogy and my newer books, the Islamic enemy is depicted as realistically as possible.

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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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Niall Christie.  Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources. [London: Routledge, 2014], 15.
[2] Christopher Tyerman. The World of the Crusades. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019], 31.
[3] Tyerman, 31.
[4] Tyerman, 41.
[5] Christie, 16.
[6] Tyerman, 56.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Lost Opportunity - The Knights Templar on Cyprus

Richard the Lionheart had conquered Cyprus not for his own gain nor for England or his dynasty. Rather, he recognized the strategic importance of Cyprus to the crusader states of the Levant and he had seized an opportunity to secure this vitally important island that controlled the sea lanes and could serve as a base for operations and a source of supplies. The Plantagenet king, therefore, made no attempt to hold on to Cyprus but rather sold it to an institution that appeared most suited and capable of securing Cyprus for the strategic purpose of supporting the established crusader states: the Knights Templar. Ironically, had the Templars managed the situation intelligently, they would have had their own independent base, similar to what the Hospitallers later established on Rhodes and then Malta -- and would have survived Philip IV's attacks and might still be in existence today. But the Templars completely fumbled their opportunity with tragic consequences. 

The Cypriot Coast from the Byzantine Castle of Kantara

In the summer of 1191 Richard I of England, cognizant of his inability to govern Cyprus, made the strategic decision to sell the island to the Knights Templar. It was a wise decision because he was fully engaged in a struggle to regain the Holy Land itself and also had a vast empire back in Europe that would inevitably require his attention sooner or later. By selling Cyprus to the Knights Templar for 100,000 gold bezants, Richard not only replenished his war-chest to ensure adequate resources for the task at hand (the war against Saladin for the Holy Land), he also ensured that the strategically critical island of Cyprus was in the hands of Christians fanatically devoted to the cause of securing and defending Christian control of Holy Land in the long run. It seemed like a perfect solution.

Professor Malcolm Barber in one of the best books on the Knights Templar ever written (The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 1994), notes that this was an opportunity for the Order to “establish their own independent state,” something later achieved by the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Hospitallers on Rhodes/Malta. It goes without saying, that had the Knights Templar controlled Cyprus from this date onward, they would have concentrated their treasure and forces there and so have been better positioned to withstand Philip IV’s attack on them in 1307. Cyprus is an island encompassing nearly 10,000 square kilometers of mostly fertile land including extensive forests. It has ample water resources, significant mineral deposits, notably copper, and a mild Mediterranean climate. It is located 65 km south of modern Turkey and 95 kilometers from the Syrian coast. Given its wealth and location, it the Templars had established themselves here in a sustainable manner the Order might still exist today. 

However, far from establishing a strong, independent state, the Knights Templar returned the island to Richard of England less than a year after they had purchased it. Barber explains their failure with the fact that “the project proved too ambitious,” (p. 119) while another historian of the Templars, John Robinson (Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books, 1991) noted that the Templars “totally committed to an active military campaign [on the mainland], could spare only a few men….” (p. 187). All sources agree based on common primary sources that the Templars committed only 14 knights, while George Hill (A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432, Cambridge University Press, 1948) adds that the knights were supported by 29 sergeants and 74 infantry. But the Templars didn’t just give up; they were driven from the island by a rebellion.

Given the fact that Richard of England had taken the island so rapidly in May 1191 (see Conquest of Cyprus I and II) largely because of widespread support from the population, an uprising against Templar rule was anything but inevitable.  Although he’d expropriated for himself half the royal revenues of the island, along with all the personal treasure taken from the self-styled “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus (who was widely viewed as a “tyrant” if not also a “usurper”), the English King's regime was not viewed as “oppressive” ― at least not in the very brief period he spent on the island. This may have been because he had promised a restoration of the laws as they had been under the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus.

It is possible that after the euphoria of defeating “the tyrant” had worn off, the inhabitants of Cyprus began to resent foreign domination. The population was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox by faith and had been part of the Byzantine Empire for since 330 AD, with only sporadic periods of Muslim rule. An indication of possible popular disaffection is the fact that, at least according Hill, there was one uprising against Richard’s administration by a Greek monk, related to the deposed tyrant.

However, it appears that Richard’s men (and only two knights are ever listed as being left on the island by him, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham) were able to put this rebellion down very easily, hanging the pretender, without any losses or apparent bloodshed. This rather suggests that the pretender had virtually no support. This is hardly surprising when we consider that Richard’s two knightly administrators would not have been in a position to institute any widespread changes in the laws and taxes of the island, but rather had been tasked to restore the laws of widely respected Manuel I.  Since Camville and Thornham could hardly have known what these Byzantine laws entailed, they would have been compelled to depend upon the existing bureaucracy to collect traditional taxes owed the monarch. In short, from the point of view of the population of Cyprus, Richard the Lionheart’s rule was a restoration to the period of good governance that had preceded the usurpation of power by the tyrant Isaac Comnenus and there was truly little to rebel against.
Cypriot Coast - "The Birthplace of Aphrodite" - on a calm day.

That was not the case under the Templars. On the contrary, when rebellion broke out on April 5, 1192 it was apparently supported by such a large number of people that the most effective fighting force in the Holy Land, famous for their discipline in attack and retreat and for overwhelming the best professional soldiers of Islam, took refuge from the angry mob in their commandery in the city of Nicosia. Furthermore, an offer to surrender the entire island in exchange for a safe-conduct to a port was rejected by the mob. This strongly indicates that the Templars were not just unwelcome ― they were hated.

Clearly, something had changed. So what exactly had they done?

Barber suggests the Templars “alienat[ed] the population with their heavy taxation and arbitrary rule.” (p.119). Robinson is more colorful (as usual) saying: “Their arrogance in taking whatever they wanted, and their insulting treatment of the local barons and people had generated increasing animosity….” (p. 191.) Hill argues that the Templars imposed fresh dues on the markets, in addition to the existing taxes, in order to pay the balance of the 100,000 bezants still owed to Richard of England. But people have a tendency to find ways to evade taxes, especially when the tax-collectors are in cahoots with the taxpayers as would have been the case here, given the small size of the Templar garrison and the continued need to rely on the existing bureaucracy.

Turning to one of the most credible primary sources, one based in part on the contemporary chronicle by a resident in Outremer, The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, (Peter Edbury’s translation published by Ashgate as The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade), we find a far more graphic and compelling reason for a revolt. Namely: “[The Templars] thought they could govern the people of the island in the same way they treated the rural population in the land of Jerusalem. They thought they could ill-treat, beat and misuse them….” In short, the Templars attempted to impose new taxes not traditional to the period of Manuel I (and so representing a breach of Richard’s promise), and more important treated the Greek Orthodox population (and one suspects their priests) as if they were Muslim peasants. 

What happened next has unfortunately become very distorted in some modern accounts. While sober accounts like that of Barber refer only to a “desperate charge” to free the Templars trapped in Nicosia, Robinson adds that they engaged in a “fierce attack on the local population.” Hill, an otherwise serious historian, indulges in a dramatic account, claiming:

On Easter Sunday morning, therefore, having heard mass, they sallied forth, completely surprising the Greeks, who had never suspected so small a force of so audacious an enterprise. The Latins slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; the mounted Templars rode through the town spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood….The Templars rode through the land, sacking the villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains. (Hill, p. 37)

Really? With 14 knights and 29 sergeants? Against a population that had successfully hemmed them into their commandery in the first place? And then, despite this complete and utter victory they gave the island up? Obviously not. This is sheer hyperbole, and significantly Hill does not provide a single source for his dramatic and exaggerated account. It appears more a device to set up the island as ripe for the arrival of Guy de Lusignan.

Turning instead to The French Continuation of William of Tyre we find an account that without whitewashing or minimizing the violence of the Templars nevertheless keeps things in perspective. Namely:

When Brother Reynald Bochard who was their commander and the brothers realized that the Greeks would have no mercy, they commended themselves to God and were confessed and absolved. Then they armed themselves and went out against the Greeks and fought them. God by His providence gave the victory to the Templars, and many Greeks were killed or taken. They immediately came to Acre and explained what had happened to the master and convent. They took counsel among themselves and agreed that they could no longer hold island as their property, but…would return it to King Richard in exchange for the security that they had given him. (Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998. p. 112)

This account makes clear that the Templar sortie was a hard-fought battle (not a slaughter of “sheep”), and while the Templars managed to cut their way out at considerable cost to the Greeks, they headed straight for the coast to take ship for Acre and wash their hands of the entire island! The Templars did not leave behind a “desolated” and depopulated island, with the inhabitants cowering in the mountains. They left behind an island in the hands of the local elites. This is a very significant point and one to keep in mind when examining the establishment of Frankish rule on Cyprus under the Lusignans. 

However, there is also an element of tragedy in this short episode in the history of the Knights Templar. Had they handled the situation in Cyprus better, the Knights Templar would not have been vulnerable to King Philip IV's machinations just over a century later.  Although Templars might have been arrested and properties confiscated in France, the Order itself would have survived -- just as the Hospitallers did from their independent bases of Rhodes and then Malta -- to decay at its own pace. The nonsensical conspiracy stories and allegations of heresy etc. would never have taken root, and, who knows, perhaps the Templars would have proved a stronger bastion against the Ottomans. 

Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.University of Cambridge Press, 1994.

Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998.

Hill, George. A History of Cyprus: Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432.  Cambridge University Press. 1948.

Robinson, John J.. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1994.

Cyprus is the setting of Dr. Schrader's most recent release: The Emperor Strikes Back

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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at: