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Monday, November 7, 2022

Demographic Overview of the Crusader States

The popular perception of the Holy Land in the era of the crusades is one in which a native Muslim population is ruled by a tiny, Christian elite. Indeed, leading historians of the last two centuries portrayed the crusader states as ‘proto-colonial’ in character. However, over the previous quarter-century, this picture has been profoundly altered by new archaeological finds, analysis of neglected sources and data mining of a variety of documents. To understand the demography of the Holy Land in the era of the crusades, it may therefore be useful to forget preconceived notions and begin with the basics.

When Jerusalem fell to Muslim forces in 638, the population was entirely Christian; the Jews had been expelled after supporting the Persian assault on the city a quarter-century earlier. The establishment of a Muslim regime in the region did not result in the instant conversion of the entire population to Islam. On the contrary, the Quran condemns forced conversions, and while they are known to have taken place wherever Muslim regimes were established, conversions were neither wholesale nor instantaneous.[i] The Arab conquests of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries did not result in the spread of the religion of Islam so much as the spread of regimes ruled by Islamic military elites. 
Despite the oppression and humiliation of non-Muslims under Islamic rule throughout the Umayyad period (661-750), non-Muslims still constituted the majority of the population throughout the Arab empire in 1000 AD, including in the Holy Land. The Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi writing at the end of the eleventh century, noted that the countryside around Jerusalem was entirely Christian. Indeed, many towns in Palestine were still overwhelmingly Christian in 1922, nearly 1,300 years after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. In other words, although the territory controlled and ruled by Islamic elites expanded dramatically between 634 and 1099, the number of people adhering to Islam grew at a much slower rate. 
Furthermore, between the Muslim conquest and the First Crusade, the Holy Land changed hands between Abbasids, Fatimids and Seljuks. To the natives of the Levant, the Arabs and Egyptians were no less ‘alien elites’ than the Romans and Byzantines, who had ruled the region before 638 AD, and the Turks and Franks, who ruled after 1099 AD. In all cases, the conquerors formed the political, military and, to a lesser extent, the economic elites during their respective period of dominance, but they did not replace the native population. Both Arabs and Turks relied heavily on troops drawn from outside the region (e.g., Turcoman tribesmen) and slave-soldiers (Mamluks), a factor that contributed significantly to their unpopularity. 
Levels of oppression measured in terms of expropriations, massacres, deportations, enslavement, suppression of religious establishments, harassment, discrimination, social ostracism, labour conscription, taxation and other financial burdens varied over the centuries depending on the individual ruler. Accounts written by the natives — as opposed to those reported by the Arab/Turkish chroniclers — catalogue the massacres, torture, wholesale enslavement, financial oppression and humiliations that impoverished and demoralised the Christian and Jewish populations, even under allegedly enlightened and tolerant regimes.[ii] These methods inevitably led to ‘voluntary’ conversions, often to escape death, slavery, expropriation or the sale of children to the Muslim state, yet at a much slower rate than was assumed in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.  
Furthermore, the minority Muslim population found in the Holy Land at the time of the First Crusade was less the product of the gradual Islamization of the native population than a result of immigration. Nomadic Arab tribes had been encouraged to migrate to conquered territories, where land, infrastructure and entire villages had been handed over to them after the slaughter, enslavement and deportation of the native population. This immigration occurred unevenly across the region so that concentrations of Muslim inhabitants were found in some areas but not others.  
Although the crusaders did not seek either extermination or mass conversion of the Muslim population, the numbers of Muslims population in the Holy Land shrank during the Frankish conquest due to both casualties and voluntary emigration. Thus, while the populace of cities such as Ascalon, Acre and Tyre had been predominantly Muslim before the First Crusade, siege and assault took their toll. Furthermore, terms of surrender enabled Muslim inhabitants to withdraw with their movable property. Most ruling Muslim elites were not interested in remaining in places where they had lost their power and status, and so departed. Left behind were the poor and powerless. After the establishment of Frankish rule, Muslims were prohibited from residing in selected cities such as Jerusalem and Ascalon yet remained a significant minority in other cities such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut and Sidon.  
In short, the demographics of the crusader states were highly complex and varied considerably from region to region. Nevertheless, some features are clear. The urban populations of most cities, with the notable exceptions of coastal Antioch (Latakia and Jabala), were predominantly Christian, in some cases with small Jewish and Samaritan minorities. The rural population in Edessa, Antioch and Cyprus was predominantly Orthodox Christian, with Christians accounting for two-thirds of the population in Edessa and Antioch and 95 per cent in Cyprus. Tripoli was probably 50 per cent Christian, while the Kingdom of Jerusalem was the most ethnically and religiously diverse crusader state. Altogether, historians now estimate that when the kingdom was established, native Christians made up more than 50 per cent of the populace, while Muslims formed a sizeableminority and Jewish and Samaritan communities represented smaller minority groups. 
During the first half-century of Frankish presence, however, the balance tipped in favor of Christian dominance. An estimated 140,000 predominantly Christian immigrants from Western Europe settled in the region, and their offspring were also Christian. In addition, the Kings of Jerusalem pursued a policy of encouraging (Orthodox) Christian immigration from neighbouring Muslim states. Melkite Christians are known to have left the Sultanate of Damascus to resettle in Jerusalem and possibly other cities, while Coptic Christians from Egypt settled in Ascalon. 
Furthermore, when Nur al-Din’s forces overran the County of Edessa between 1144 and 1150, tens of thousands of Armenian refugees fled to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here they formed a large, dynamic and loyal community. In 1172, this Armenian community was enlarged when the Armenian Patriarch in Egypt relocated to Jerusalem, bringing many of his flock with him. Finally, many Muslims converted to Christianity in this period. Some converts may have been nominal Muslims, men and women who had adopted Islam to avoid being killed, enslaved or impoverished and humiliated as ‘dhimmis’. Another motive for conversion was the draconian punishment for interfaith marriage, which put many women under pressure to convert to marry a Christian. Estimating numbers, much less motives, is nearly impossible, yet some sources claim that conversions were ‘extensive’.[iii] 
On the mainland, roughly half of the total population lived in the large urban centres, while on Cyprus, the inhabitants were 90 per cent or more rural. Although urbanization was greater in the Holy Land than in Western Europe in the same period, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was not a predominantly urban society until the hinterland was lost in the wake of Saladin’s conquests.  
Altogether, the total native population of the mainland crusader states is estimated at approximately 600,000, of which 450,000 were in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 100,000 in Antioch and about 25,000 in Edessa and Tripoli each. In Cyprus, the population probably numbered about 100,000. Added to the native people were the 140,000 immigrants from Western Europe. Unaccounted in the above numbers are the Franks born in the Holy Land, predominantly the children of mixed marriages. Given the fact that the Franks were cultivating land that had become depopulated and lost to desertification by building irrigation systems and other infrastructure, it is probable that significant population growth occurred during the Frankish era. While no precise estimate of the population growth is possible, the combined population of the crusader states by 1187 might well have reached one million people.

[i] The myth of Muslim tolerance is so embedded and widespread in modern Western views of Middle Eastern history that it cannot be addressed adequately in this book. The documentary evidence of Islamic oppression and religiously-rationalised exploitation, humiliation, enslavement and extermination are, in fact, vast. Readers interested in the topic should start with Bat Ye’or’s books such as The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996) for the situation in the Near East or Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain  (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2016). For specifics on forced conversions, see Ye’or, 88-91. Both book provide ample bibliographies for pursuing further study on the topic.

[ii] See note 1, Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (for the situation in the Near East) or Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise for Islamic Spain.

[iii] Yuval Harari, ‘The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles: A Reassessment’, in Mediterranean Historical Review:  12:1:105.

The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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  1. Never thought otherwise. Christianity preceds Islam in the Holy Land by some 600 years. Ethiopia too. Why would anyone think the place was predominately Muslim at the time of the Crusades?

    1. Good question! I wish more people would use their heads when reading about the crusades! The prevailing view remains that the Christians were a tiny minority.


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