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Monday, November 14, 2022

The Orthodox Christians in the Crusader States

Orthodox Christians made up the majority of the native population in the crusader states, however, they were not a homogeneous population; the Christians in the Holy Land of the crusader era were extremely diverse. In order to understand the crusader states it is therefore necessary to understand the differences between these groups and how they interacted with the new Latin elites.


The most numerous Christian populations were Melkites, Armenians, Jacobites and Maronites, but there were also smaller communities of Coptics, Georgians, Nestorians and Ethiopians. Furthermore, the distribution of these groups was uneven across the crusader states. Edessa, for example, was essentially an Armenian state with a Jacobite minority. Antioch was mostly Melkite (Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox) with considerable communities of Armenians and Jacobites. The Christian half of the population in the County of Tripoli and the far northern parts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (what is now part of Lebanon) were predominantly Maronite. The rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, in contrast, was predominantly Melkite. However, it was also home to smaller communities of Greek-speaking Orthodox as well as Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christians. 

Differences of doctrine separated all these various Christian denominations from one another and the Latin Church, as the Roman Catholic Church was commonly called in this polyglot environment. Confusingly, linguistic differences did not always conform to doctrinal differences. Thus, Melkites and Greek Orthodox shared the same basic doctrines and viewed the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of the church, but the former spoke Syriac or Arabic, while the latter retained the use of Greek in the liturgy. Syriac or Arabic was used by Jacobites, Maronites and Coptics, although they differed on doctrine. Serious tensions and frictions existed between the various Orthodox communities dating back to Byzantine rule, when Armenians, Jacobites and Maronites had all been viewed as heretics and persecuted to various degrees by the Greek Orthodox state. 

The assumption that the Latin Church likewise viewed these various other Christian denominations as heretics and sought to suppress them, however, is incorrect. Pope Urban II, in his initial appeal, explicitly described the Eastern Christians as ‘brothers’ and ‘sons of the same Christ’.[i] Furthermore, recent research based on Orthodox sources reveals a surprisingly nuanced and tolerant approach to the various Christian groups on the part of the Latins. The Patriarch of the Jacobite church writing in the twelfth century noted that the Franks ‘never sought a single formula for all the Christian people and languages, but they considered as Christian anyone who worshipped the cross without investigation or examination’.[ii] 

While it is true that all forms of Orthodox Christianity were viewed with various degrees of skepticism by the Roman Catholic theologians, the crusader states were not theocracies run by religious scholars. They were secular states governed by educated but fundamentally hard-nosed, practical, fighting men. From the very start, Frankish knights, sergeants and settlers mingled with the local population, sharing not only markets and taverns, but churches and confessors ― a clear indication that for the average Frank, the common belief in Christ outweighed the theological differences that animated church scholars. Furthermore, with time, the Frankish feudal elite intermarried with the local aristocracy, while farther down the social scale, intermarriage with local Christians came sooner and occurred on a wider scale. The Frankish kings viewed themselves as the protectors of all their subjects, regardless of religious affiliation. 

Undoubtedly, in both secular and ecclesiastical spheres, the apex of society was occupied by Franks, who were, by definition, Latin Christians. In the context of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this was normal. People of this era unanimously recognised the simple rule: to the victor go the spoils. The Orthodox Christians living in the crusader states did not look at their position through the lens of modern human rights activists or political scientists expecting absolute equality of legal status and opportunity. On the contrary, the native Christians viewed the Franks in comparison to their predecessors. 

Much has been written over the last century about the tolerance of Muslim regimes towards Christians and Jews, the so-called ‘dhimmis’ or non-Muslims sharing the same roots as Islam. Most of what has been written focuses on the theories propounded by Muslim scholars of the golden age and anecdotal evidence of non-Muslims, especially Jews, who rose to positions of privilege and power. In contrast, in her seminal work, ‘The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude’, Egyptian scholar Bat Ye’or’s study of the prevailing practice of Muslim regimes over 1,300 years of history based on Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Syriac, Latin and Greek sources demonstrates that the treatment of non-Muslims was based on verse 9:29 and the example of Mohammad’s treatment of Jews and Christians which included the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Medina.  

Conquest in the name of ‘jihad’, furthermore, meant that all non-Muslim inhabitants of newly-conquered territories were legally prisoners of war, who had to ransom their lives, property and freedom through the payment of tribute — in perpetuityunless the ‘captive’ converted to Islam. In the early years of Islamic expansion, the standard treatment of ‘prisoners’ was massacre and enslavement; the numbers of slaves recorded in conquest after conquest are in the tens of thousands, all of whom were deported to reduce the likelihood of revolt. They were replaced either by Muslim settlers or, more often, (Christian) slaves from somewhere else. While slaughter and enslavement were standard practice throughout the world, other powers such as Persia, Byzantium, or the Vikings, did not justify their treatment of conquered people with religious dogma. The factor that made the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries unique was that the Muslims based their sense of superiority on religion (Quran 3:106) and believed they were ‘fulfilling a religious duty and executing the will of Allah’.[iii] 

Gradually, however, as regions became pacified, ‘the predations … upon the natives, the only taxable labour force, assumed such catastrophic proportions that the revenue of the Umayyad state diminished considerably’.[iv] In consequence of this economic imperative, Islamic jurists developed sophisticated theories on the correct treatment of ‘dhimmis’, which have charmed modern historians. Indeed, there is evidence that some Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian elites prospered under Muslim rule. On the one hand, the ‘dhimmi’ leaders — often the religious leaders of the respective subject faiths — were responsible for collecting and paying the tribute to the Muslim rulers; some — a sometimes much — of what they gathered found its way into their own pockets. On the other hand, as with the Franks themselves, the Arab and Turkish military elites responsible for conquest needed educated and experienced administrators. Christian and Jewish secretaries, accountants, diplomats, translators, bankers and merchants were too useful to exterminate, so a small class of non-Muslim urban elites enjoyed comparative immunity from the discrimination and oppression of their poor, uneducated and rural co-religionists.  

The prosperity and privileges of the few should not obscure the misery, impoverishment and denigration of the vast majority. There are countless examples from Muslim, Christian and Jewish sources that demonstrate the discrepancy between the fine theories laid out in Islamic legal texts and the reality on the ground. At best, the legal protection offered dhimmis by Islam resembled the ‘protection’ provided to the Jews of Western Europe by the pope. There were equally wide discrepancies between the fate of urban elites and the peasant majority. 

This majority was systematically decimated by massacres, reduced to slavery or — at best — impoverished by taxation (tribute), arbitrary theft, which destroyed their livelihood during Muslim rule. Oppression was so great in some periods and regions that it resulted in mass exodus, leaving entire villages abandoned. ‘The Syro-Palestinian oases cultivated since antiquity, the agricultural and urban centres of the Negev, Jordan, and the Orontes, Tigris and Euphrates valleys … had disappeared and become ghost towns, abandoned to pasturage, where herds of goats and camels grazed amid the ruins’.[v] 

Most Christians and Jews who survived in this oppressive environment had no legal protections because their word was considered worthless in an Islamic court. They were required by Sharia law to live in smaller and more dilapidated homes. They were not allowed to build houses of worship or conduct any religious rite or ceremony in public and were prohibited from wearing symbols of their religion. They were required to wear distinctive clothing and carry proof they had paid their taxes. They were forbidden from riding horses or camels and from bearing arms. The Muslim population was actively encouraged to demonstrate contempt for non-Muslims by shoving them aside or otherwise demeaning them. 

Compared to such humiliations, the difference in the status between Orthodox and Latin Christians in the crusader states was negligible. The two centuries of crusader rule constituted a period of economic and religious revival for the Christians of the Levant. Orthodox monasticism experienced a significant expansion under Frankish rule as old monasteries were restored, and new monasteries were built. The Frankish elite also proved generous patrons to Orthodox parish churches, while the Orthodox clergy enjoyed the same privilege of being exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts as the Latin clergy. The squabbles over titles and sources of income between the senior clergy of the various Christian denominations tend to obscure the fact that, at the parish level, the Orthodox faithful remained under the care and guidance of Orthodox priests and free from interference, much less pressure, to convert to Latin rites. 

The most lucrative and prestigious ecclesiastical posts did come under the control of the Latin church in the crusader era, but not because of the expulsion of the Orthodox clergy. On the contrary, after capturing Antioch, the authority of the Greek Patriarch over both Latins and Melkites was explicitly recognised by the crusaders. However, many Orthodox prelates had fled Muslim persecution prior to the arrival of the crusaders, and these vacant sees were filled by the crusader leadership with Latin bishops. The only instance of a Melkite bishop being ousted from his post to do with power politics (an attempt by the Greek Emperor to impose his authority), rather than church politics. The bottom line is that ‘more Melkite bishops could be found throughout Palestine after the crusader conquest then had been there in the previous fifty years’.[vi] 

Meanwhile, Frankish rule offered opportunities for Orthodox secular elites. The Franks, particularly in the first decades of the First Kingdom, were far too few in number to control their rapidly expanding territories without the active support of the indigenous population. They needed men capable of collecting taxes, customs duties, market fees and other revenue. They needed men to enforce the laws and administer justice to the local communities. They needed a functioning economy, which meant not disrupting agricultural activities or interfering in existing trade patterns. Christopher MacEvitt, in his excellent work, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance, demonstrates that many Orthodox Christians became wealthy landowners and merchants throughout the crusader states. Armenian lords were major landowners and vassals. Orthodox knights not only fought with the Franks; in some instances, they commanded Frankish knights and, in one case, rose to the prestigious position of Marshal of Jerusalem.  

While individuals might be exceptions, there is evidence of more widespread identification between natives and Franks. For example, native Orthodox Christians were patrons of both the Templars and Hospitallers. Chronicles in Syriac express admiration for the piety and charity of the Franks. Perhaps most poignant, two poems written in the late twelfth century by different Syriac authors lament the fall of the Frankish kingdom, revealing complete identification on the part of the native authors with the Franks, by referring to them as ‘our people’.[vii] 

The greatest evidence of native support for the Franks, however, is the fact that the native (Arabic-, Syriac- and Armenian-speaking) population of Syria and Palestine contributed materially to the defence of the crusader kingdoms. On the one hand, Christians living both inside and outside the crusader states contributed to an effective intelligence network. We know anecdotally of native Christians acting as spies and scouts. At least one modern scholar claims ‘the Frankish field intelligence was better than the Muslim one’.[viii] Exactly what this intelligence network looked like, however, is unclear. 

On the other hand, and of far more importance, was the contribution of native Christians to the military forces of the crusader states. This is especially surprising in light of the fact that, except for the Armenians, centuries of ‘djimmi’ status had completely demilitarised the native population. Yet, in the period of Frankish rule, the native population formed a substantial portion of urban garrisons and contributed to the infantry of the field army. Steve Tibble in his recent study, ‘Crusader Armies’, argues that not only were there very few ‘genuine crusaders’ in the armies that defended Outremer, but that ‘even local Franks were in a minority, marching in units with Armenian-speaking comrades, or with other native [Arabic-speaking] Christian soldiers’.[ix]  

Most significant and startling is the dominance of native Christians in the light cavalry, particularly mounted archers. The latter was an arm of cavalry unknown to the West but militarily essential in the Near East of the crusader period. In his excellent study of Frankish turcopoles, Yuval Harari demonstrates definitively that the term ‘turcopole’ did not refer to Muslim mercenaries, much less to apostate Muslims or the children of ‘mixed marriages’, as is so frequently alleged in popular literature. On the contrary, the turcopoles of the Frankish armies were predominantly Christians — native Christians. Harari also reveals that these troops made up, on average, 50 per cent of the cavalry of the crusader states in any engagement.[x] In short, native Christians were financially able to support the huge expense of training, equipping and maintaining a cavalryman and his mount, i.e., they were affluent and empowered, and they were in large numbers willing to fight — and die — for the crusader states.

[i] Pope Urban II quoted by Baldric of Dol in The Crusades: A Reader, eds. S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 37-38.

[ii] Michael the Syrian quoted in Christopher MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 25.

[iv] See note 1, Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, 60.

[v] See note 1, Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, 107.

[vi] See note 5, MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East, 112.

[vii] Benjamin Z. Kedar, Franks, Muslims and Oriental Christians in the Latin Levant (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), V-212.

[viii] See note 3, Harari, ‘The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles: A Reassessment’, 115.

[ix] Steve Tibble, The Crusader Armies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 98.

[x] For details, see note 3, Harari, 75-116.


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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