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Monday, April 17, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader States: Religious Tourism and Financial Services

  Although the costs of protecting and maintaining the holy shrines of Christianity were enormous in both blood and gold, the existence of so many pilgrimage destinations within its borders contributed to the economic base of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In an age before the concept of ‘tourism’ had evolved, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had a thriving tourism industry, complete with high and low seasons and other characteristics of modern mass tourism.


 The news that Jerusalem had returned to Christian control had barely reached Europe before the first ships carrying pilgrims set out. At the start of the twelfth century, these ships were small, taking on average only fifty passengers in addition to cargo. Soon, however, to meet the enormous demand, specialised ‘pilgrim’ ships with a capacity for 200 passengers were built. By the thirteenth century, pilgrim ships could take as many as 1,500 passengers per voyage.

The Templars and Hospitallers both engaged in this trade. Records show, for example, that the Port of Marseilles restricted the military orders to two large passenger transports twice per year, presumably to ensure that the bulk of the trade went to local shipowners. Undoubtedly, the military orders transported passengers from other ports as well, mainly Messina, Taranto and Brindisi. Assuming the same number of ships per port, the military orders alone would have transported 48,000 pilgrims to the Holy Land each year. Meanwhile, the majority of pilgrims would have travelled aboard commercial ships owned by local shipowners or the Italian maritime powers such as Venice, Pisa and Genoa. The number of Western pilgrims travelling annually to the Holy Land easily topped 100,000. In addition, pilgrims came from the Byzantine Empire, from Egypt and as far away as Ethiopia, if in smaller numbers. In short, in good years the number of tourists must have approached 120,000.

Nor did the tourist trade disappear when the Christians lost control over Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Jordan River. Throughout the thirteenth century, the pilgrims continued to come, passing through the coastal ports still in Frankish hands like Acre, before embarking on the dangerous journey through Muslim-held territory to reach the holy sites. When such travel became too hazardous — and there are many recorded incidents of pilgrims being killed, kidnapped or robbed while travelling in Muslim territory in the thirteenth century — the Church began offering indulgences and remission of temporal punishment for visiting specific sites in Acre and possibly other Frankish cities. In short, throughout its existence, the Kingdom of Jerusalem accommodated massive numbers of tourists compared to the size of the resident population.

The pilgrims arrived in two great waves, one at the end of the stormy season in the spring and the other just before the storms resumed in October. During these peak periods, hundreds of pilgrim ships clogged the harbors of the kingdom, particularly Acre. Like today, the pilgrims differed in the capacity to pay and in their expectations for services. The very wealthy could charter entire ships for themselves, their companions, entourage and servants, ensuring more comfortable accommodation, increased security and higher-quality food. The less affluent but still well-off could take advantage of ‘all-inclusive package deals’, which included transportation, food, beverage and servants for the duration of the voyage. The poorest were packed together in the bowels or on the open deck of cargo ships and brought their own food with them for a trip that averaged three to six weeks. 

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, meanwhile, developed a sophisticated economic sector dedicated to meeting the needs of these tourists on arrival. This included accommodation, food and entertainment, outfitting, livery and transport services, interpreters, guides and security services for visits to the more distant and isolated destinations, and, of course, souvenirs such as reliquaries, icons and religious jewelry, all of which were produced and sold in the kingdom. Meanwhile, the passenger ships needed refitting for the return voyage, and so chandleries and repair yards also flourished. Altogether, the religious tourist industry created thousands of urban jobs.

The diverse origins of the pilgrims meant they also took advantage of another key service sector in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, money exchanges. Nevertheless, it was not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that financial services became a main economic sector in the crusader states — in Cyprus rather than Jerusalem. The Italian banks established representatives in Nicosia, turning it into a centre for lending — much to the outrage of the local archbishop, who railed against usury. Indeed, the archbishop noted a variety of shady practices that had the effect of raising interest rates far above the accepted norms. These included fake sales, i.e., the borrowers purchased fictitious goods and sold them back at a loss, imaginary penalties for fabricated late payments, and making the borrower sign for a larger sum than was received. ‘The fact that borrowers were clearly prepared to go along with such subterfuges, however, despite the unethical character and the high rates of interest they had to pay, shows that there was a strong demand for capital that was to be used to finance commercial ventures’.[i]

[i] Nicholas Coureas, ‘Economy’, in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, eds. Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Christopher Schabel (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 127.

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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