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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Diverse Peoples of the Crusader States

It is commonplace for people today to portray the crusaders not only as barbarians vis-à-vis their Islamic enemies, but as “oppressors” of the native Christian populations that lived under crusader rule. These popular views have their roots in books by scholars such as Runciman, Smail and Prawer, all of whom have argued to varying degrees that the crusader elites, like colonists, lived segregated lives from the natives of the Holy Land, and (as Prawer put it) practiced a form of “apartheid.” Yet earlier historians had argued quite the opposite, claiming those crusaders who settled in Outremer soon “went native” and became “more oriental than European.” Based on the most recent research and archaeological evidence, the picture of crusader-native relations is undergoing a revision again.

Research of the last three decades, based on expanded the source material including local chronicles as well as drawing on data mining and archaeological surveys, demonstrates that the bulk of the native population of the crusader states supported, identified with and indeed was willing to die for the Franks. It shows that Jews immigrated to the crusader kingdoms and established a vibrant new center for Talmudic studies while the Muslim population never rebelled. Indeed, Muslims sought refuge in the crusader states during the Mongol invasions. The complex legal system enabled different courts to go-exist, so that most Muslims continued to live under Sharia Law and the Jews were governed mostly by Jewish law. (For more specifically on the legal system see: 

Here are more details, looking at each element of the native population in turn.

Native (Orthodox) Christians:

The Christian population of the crusader states made up the majority of the population in the areas which came under Frankish rule in the wake of the First Crusade — and later made up roughly 98% of the population of Cyrus, the last of the Crusader states. This population, however, was not homogeneous, being divided religiously into three main groups: Melkites (more commonly but confusingly called Greek Orthodox although on the mainland many of them did not speak Greek), Jacobites, and Armenians. In addition, there were small pockets of Maronite, Nestorian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christians resident in the Holy Land. 

The Armenian and Jacobite Christians indisputably made up the vast majority of the population in what was to become the County of Edessa and the Principality of Antioch, while the population of Cyprus was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox. In what was to become the County of Tripoli, on the other hand, Maronite Christians were more numerous, but it is no longer clear if they made up an overall majority of the population or not. The Kingdom of Jerusalem appears to have had the most fragmented population with all of the above Christian and Jewish communities present, as well as some Muslims. After the fall of Edessa in 1144, however, large numbers of Armenians immigrated to the Kingdom of Jerusalem where they thereafter made up a sizeable portion of the Christian population.

An understanding of the demographics of the Kingdom of Jerusalem is complicated by the fact that liturgical and linguistic differences were not conform. While as a rule, Armenian Christians spoke and heard Mass in Armenian, the same cannot be said for Melkite Christians, who might still speak and hear Mass in Greek (as on Cyprus), but were just as likely to speak and worship in Syriac or Arabic in Syria and Palestine.

Jacobites, Copts and Nestorians appear to have spoken and worshiped predominantly in Syriac and Arabic, but this adds to confusion when dealing with contemporary records since neither the use of Arabic in documents nor Arab-sounding names necessarily denoted Muslims ― a factor that has undoubtedly contributed to earlier exaggerations of the size of the Muslim population under crusader rule.

All these forms of “Orthodox” Christians were viewed with various degrees of skepticism by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and the Jacobites, Maronites and Nestorians were viewed as heretics by the Church in Constantinople. Theologians of all faiths were intensely concerned about ― to layman’s eyes ― microscopic differences in doctrinal interpretation. Rome viewed most of the various Orthodox churches as “schismatics” rather than "heretics." Yet the operative point is that the crusader states were not theocracies run by religious scholars, but secular states run by educated but fundamentally hard-nosed, practical, fighting men.

The feudal elites of the crusader states might have been pious enough to take the cross, but that did not make them masters of theological fine points. They had answered the Pope’s call to “liberate” the native Christians from Muslim oppression, and the evidence is quite overwhelming that they did exactly that. Nor did they suddenly start oppressing those Christians themselves. On the contrary, all local Christians, regardless of liturgical rite, were immediately freed of the taxes, humiliations, and indignities imposed on them by Muslim rule. (For more on what dhimmi status in the Muslim states actually entailed see Bat Ye'or's meticulously documented study The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam [Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1996])

The rule the crusaders “imposed” on the liberated territories, furthermore, borrowed far more from the traditions of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) than Western Europe. Recent scholarship demonstrates that, contrary to earlier assumptions, the crusader states did not introduce any form of serfdom on the native peasants ― Christian or Muslim. On the contrary, although agricultural workers were effectively “tied” to the land, they did not owe any of the other feudal dues. Thus they were not required to work the lord’s land, did not have to pay to marry, and paid sometimes as little as one quarter of the corps to their lord.

Furthermore, for members of the native elites, the situation under crusader rule was full of opportunities for advancement and enrichment. The new rulers needed the support of local elites in order to govern. The native elites had opportunities in a wide range of fields from collecting taxes and administering rural communities as “scribes” and “ra’is,” to serving as tax-collectors, harbor-masters, and accountants in the cities. Christopher MacEvitt in his excellent work The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance has provided examples of native Christians being land-owners in their own right, and being wealthy enough to make charitable bequests of significant value. In addition, numerous examples of native Christians serving as knights and, in one case, even as Marshal of Jerusalem have been documented.

Recent scholars such as MacEvitt and Tibble site ample evidence of the Frankish and native Christian communities intermingling not just in the bazaars and taverns, but by undertaking the same pilgrimages, by sharing churches, by taking part in the same processions, and by using each other’s priests as confessors ― a clear indication that for the average Frank the common belief in Christ outweighed the theological differences that animated church scholars.

Riley-Smith notes that native Christian clergy enjoyed the privilege of being exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts just as much as Latin clergy did. MacEvitt notes that the reason almost all Greek Orthodox patriarchs were replaced by Latin patriarchs is that they had already fled the Holy Land in the face of Muslim persecution before the arrival of the crusades. He notes further that on their arrival in Antioch “the crusaders enthroned the Greek patriarch...recognizing his authority over Latins and Melkites alike." (MacEvitt, p. 111.) Adding, “more Melkite bishops could be found throughout Palestine after the crusader conquest than had been there in the previous fifty years.” (MacEvitt, p. 112). The only instance of a Melkite bishop being ousted had to do with power politics (an attempt by the Greek Emperor to impose his authority) not church politics.


Yet perhaps the most telling evidence of the degree to which the native Christians identified with and supported the Frankish states can be found in the military. Recent scholarship demonstrates that by far the largest portion of any army fielded by the Franks was composed of native Christians -- both as mounted archers and in the infantry. The Armenians and Maronites were particularly valued as fighting men, and played a role even at senior levels in Frankish armies. They probably provided the bulk of the so-called Turcopoles, light cavalry composed of native horsemen. It has been demonstrated that Turcopoles made up on average 50% of the cavalry in the Frankish armies. The fact that native Christians were financially in a position to provide mounted troops underlines the fact that they were affluent and empowered. (Muslim laws prohibited Christians from riding and owning horses.)

But the military role of the native population did not end there. Armenians and Maronites particularly were also employed and valued as troops for the garrisons of castles and towns. City garrisons, on the other hand, were largely composed of the entire able-bodied male population of the city itself, and this meant that native Christians of all kinds played an important role in the defense of the crusader states -- often dramatically, tenaciously and against all odds as at Beirut, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tyre in 1187. (The best recent source on this is Steve Tribble's The Crusader Armies [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2018])

The fact that native Christian communities consistently provided large numbers of troops to both offensive and defensive armies led by Frankish kings and barons shows that native Christians did far more than just intermingle much less "co-exist." The local Christian population came to identify strongly with the crusader states. Far from longing for a return to Muslim rule ― as so many superficial modern commentators suggest ― many native Christians of Outremer were willing to fight and die for the crusader states.

Jews and Samaritans:

Everyone has heard how the crusaders slaughtered all the inhabitants of the Jerusalem when they captured the city by storm on July 15, 1099. Among the dead were allegedly the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem at the time. We also know that long before the first crusaders reached Jerusalem, in 1096, Jewish communities in the Rhineland were attacked and massacred mercilessly, and that all subsequent crusades were likewise accompanied by greater or lesser outbreaks of violence against Jews in Western Europe. It may therefore come as a surprise that Jews in the crusader states themselves suffered no persecution. On the contrary, by the end of the 13th century, the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem had become home to a flourishing community of Jews and a major center of Talmudic studies.

The initial contact between crusaders and Jews had been bitter. The Jews actively supported the Muslim defenders of Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities of the Holy Land. When these cities fell to assault, the Jews were massacred along with the Muslim defenders — although we know based on Jewish records from Egypt that even at Jerusalem itself many Jews did survive to be ransomed. Furthermore, when the cities agreed to terms, the Jews were allowed to withdraw with their portable goods and chattels as as the Muslims were. Within ten years, most Jews, who were predominantly urban-dwellers, had been driven out of the territories held by the crusaders. In Jerusalem itself, a ban prohibited Jews from ever re-settling in the Holy City.

Yet there is ample evidence of the fact that the Jews remained or returned to other cities ― or never left at all. Records show there were large Jewish communities in Tyre and Acre, smaller communities in Ascalon and elsewhere. Furthermore, there were two dozen villages occupied entirely by Jews in Galilee, between Tiberias and Nablus. Even more astonishing and significant: the First Crusade sparked a Jewish messianic movement.

According to the Israeli historian Joshua Prawer, “in some communities the Jews sold their property and waited for the Messiah who would bring them to Jerusalem.” Certainly, the establishment of the crusader states and regular trade and pilgrimage traffic between the Holy Land and Western Europe allowed European Jews to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and other sacred places in the Holy Land.

The pilgrim traffic to the crusader states included a significant portion of Jews ― and like their Christian counterparts, many of these chose to stay in the Holy Land after they arrived. They were encouraged to do so not merely by the proximity to their holy sites, but by the prevailing atmosphere of tolerance in the crusader states ― in sharp contrast to the situation “at home” in Western Europe.

Precisely because the Frankish elite was a minority in the crusader states, they were dependent upon the cooperation and contribution of a variety of native inhabitants. As note above, the majority of these were other kinds of Christians, but there was also a large Muslim population. People in the Holy Land had to learn to deal with all of them; Jews were just one more “flavor” in the mix.

This social tolerance was underpinned by the laws of the crusader states that did not discriminate against Jews either. Rather, Jews were treated the same way as Muslims and non-Latin Christians in that they were allowed to retain their own laws and customs, living according to their own traditions and celebrating their festivals and rites without interference. In consequence, there were rabbinical courts in both Acre and Tyre (and possibly Tiberias), and Palestine in the crusader period was one of only three centers in the world for Talmudic Study.

Furthermore, the Jews continued to pursue respected professions such as medicine, and took part in commercial activities, particularly glass making and dying. There is no evidence that they were required to wear distinctive clothing or live in segregated communities, although it is almost certain that, like the remaining Muslim population, they were subject to additional taxes.

In addition, there was still a large Samaritan population. (Note: Samaritans accept only the first five books of the Hebrew bible as divinely inspired.) Although many Samaritans had been driven into exile across the Middle East, the center of Samaritan worship and scholarship was located in Nablus, and this was where the largest Samaritan population was concentrated in the crusader era. The Samaritans appear to have flourished under crusader rule and a large number of Torah scrolls produced by Samaritans have survived, suggesting a flourishing of activities rather than the reverse.

To be sure, the Jews welcomed Saladin’s victories because he allowed Jews to re-settle in Jerusalem, but within a few decades the situation there had become too precarious. In 1229, the Sultan al-Kamil handed Jerusalem back to Fredrick II Hohenstaufen for ten years, and the Emperor immediately re-imposed the anti-Jewish ban. The Turkoman invasion of 1244 resulted in the sack of Jerusalem, and the Mongol raids of the 1260s made life in and around Jerusalem dangerous. Yet tellingly, the Jews moved not further east to Damascus and Aleppo, but rather preferred to live in the remaining crusader cities, notably Tyre and Acre.

As a result, from the second quarter of the 13th century until its fall, Acre became a vibrant Jewish center, a “cross-section of the different communities of the Diaspora. The leading elements were Jews from Spain and from northern and southern France, in addition to eastern Jews, whether Palestinian-born or from neighboring Moslem, countries…Here a Talmudic academy continued the tradition of the French Tosafists, whereas rabbi Salomon Petit expounded the Kabbala and Spanish Jews continued their own tradition.”

Tragically, despite Islam’s vaunted “tolerance” for Judiasm, this Jewish center and the entire Jewish community that fed and surrounded it were exterminated mercilessly by al-Ashraf Khalil when he captured Acre in 1291.


One of the most popular misconceptions about the crusader kingdoms is that the crusaders were a tiny Christian elite ruling over an oppressed Muslim population. This picture is incorrect in two regards: Muslims did not form the majority of the population and they were far from oppressed. Indeed, they lived significantly better than Christians did under Muslim rule.

Remember the Muslims formed only a minority of the population in the crusader states even before the large influx of Christian and Jewish immigrants from the West during the period of Frankish rule. Research has further demonstrated that the Muslim residents were concentrated in specific areas (e.g. around Tyre, in Samaria), while other parts of the crusader states such as Antioch, Tripoli, Beirut, and the area around Jerusalem itself were predominantly Christian. Notably, the vast majority of the Muslims living in the Crusader States were not converts but immigrants, settlers from other parts of the Middle East, who had come to the Holy Land in search of a better life.

After the establishment of the crusader states in the early 12th century, the Muslim population was made up predominantly of peasants and nomads because the Islamic elite had been killed or (more often) allowed to emigrate on surrender. In short, whether they had come with Abbasids, Fatimids or Seljuks, the wealthy and educated Muslims who had formed the ruling-class during the four hundred years of Muslim dominance were pushed out of the Holy Land by the Christian invaders. They returned to territories still controlled by Muslims. Left behind were the poor, the poorly educated, the non-political, those who had no place to go and no expectations of being powerful somewhere else since they had never had power.

These simple people were, based on Arab accounts, treated no worse -- and possibly better -- by their Christian overlords and landlords than they had been treated by their Turkish ones. For example, Ibn Jubair, who visited the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1183 from Grenada, noted that the Muslim peasants he saw in Galilee were living "in a state of contentment with the Franks." (Christie, Niall, Muslims and Crusaders. Routledge, 2014. p. 69) Significantly, Ibn Jubair reports that they received "justice" from their Frankish overlords compared to "tyranny" from Muslim lords in neighboring countries. Clearly, they did not feel unjustly discriminated against.

Strikingly, the Muslims in the crusader states were treated markedly better than Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule -- the obvious point of comparison. To be sure, like dhimmis (Christians and Jews in Muslim states), Muslims in the crusader states paid an extra tax. They were not, however, forced to wear distinctive clothing as Christians and Jews were forced to do in Muslim-controlled states. Furthermore, Muslims could travel freely about the kingdom, engage in trade and be both patients and doctors at the establishments of the Hospitallers.

The Hospitaller Complex in Acre

Most important, however, was the freedom to practice of religion. In Muslim controlled regions, Christians were prohibited from building churches, worshiping in public, wearing Christian symbols, or speaking Christian texts out loud -- even in a private place. The Franks, on the other hand, allowed Muslims to practice Islam and worship publicly. Given their own treatment of Christians, Muslim sources noted with surprise that mosques were allowed to function (and be built new) in the crusader states and Muslim subjects were allowed to visit not only the Dome of the Rock but other sites of importance to Islam as well as participate in the haj. Furthermore, where mosques were converted into churches, special areas remained set aside for Muslim worship.


This mosque in Acre post-dates the Crusades but I have no pictures of crusader-era mosques in my possession.

Behind this astonishing tolerance lay the fundamental fact, that as Andrew Jotischky notes, “the First Crusade was a war of liberation and conquest; it was not a war for the extermination or conversion of Muslims.” (Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. Pearson Longman, 2004, p. 127) Far from being forced to convert, the Muslim villagers were allowed to live largely as they always had before, governed at the local level by their own elders and religious leaders. Thus there was a council of elders who in turn appointed a “rayse” to represent the community to the Christian lord, while all spiritual and social matters were regulated by the imams in the community in accordance with Sharia law.

Arguably even more important, in cases of conflict between parties of different faiths, a special court, the Cour de la Fonde, had jurisdiction. Again, this is in sharp contrast to the situation of Christians and Jews under Muslim rule, who were always brought before the Qadi, or Islamic judge, in cases involving a Muslim.

Other factors contributing to a sense of well-being among the Muslim population were the exemption from military service and overall economic prosperity. The Franks did not trust their Muslim subjects sufficiently to trust them in battle against their fellow Muslims. This meant that Muslim peasants in Christian territory (unlike their Christian neighbors) were free from conscription, while Muslim farmers living on the other side of the border were obliged to serve as the infantry for the armies of Islam.

Finally, the Franks brought a number of innovations to farming and invested extensively in infrastructure from roads to irrigation and mills. This, combined with the revival of the ports, made the Frankish territories substantially more prosperous during the crusader period than they had been before or were afterward. The Muslim population in the crusader states benefited from the increased prosperity of the region, particularly the increased trading opportunities, no less than the native Christian population did.

Perhaps it was the religious freedom, perhaps the higher standards of living, but whatever the cause the Muslim population was not rebellious. There is not one recorded instance of a Muslim revolt or riots. Indeed, even during Saracen invasions of Christian territory, there is no evidence of widespread cooperation and collaboration on the part of the Muslim inhabitants of the crusader states with the Saracen invaders.

Furthermore, the archaeological evidence of isolated farms and manors, as well as the towns and villages built without any kind of fortification, is evidence that the Christian elites did not fear the Muslims living inside their territories. The construction of defenses can be clearly dated to periods of external threat rather than related to a fear of the local population.

Hard as it is for people to believe, the Franks lived in evident harmony with their Muslim subjects.

All my novels set in the crusader states attempt to reflect this complex society realistically. Find out more at:





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