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Monday, March 27, 2023

Diplomatic Relations with Muslim Powers

Diplomatic relations with the Muslim world were complicated by theological and strategic issues, yet they were a fundamental feature of politics in the Holy Land throughout the crusader era. Indeed, the first diplomatic exchanges between crusaders and Muslims predate the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of the First Crusade. Diplomacy with Muslim powers continued throughout the existence of the crusader states and were characterised by sophistication and nuance, more often resulting in success than failure.


This is surprising when one remembers that while Islam preaches the ideal of peace, the definition of peace is the absolute victory of Islam. To obtain that ideal, Muslim leaders were obliged to wage war against any part of the world not already absorbed into the ‘dar al-Islam’, the realm of Islam. Indeed, the very term used for regions not governed by Islamic law is ‘dar al-harb’ — the realm of war. 

Thus, unlike their Christian counterparts, Muslim leaders needed no justification for bringing war to infidels. Instead, they needed to justify making peace with them. Furthermore, the Muslim theology of this period viewed permanent peace with the ‘dar al-harb’ as anathema and specified that truces should not extend beyond ten years and ten months. Added to this ideological barrier to peace was the fundamental strategic one that both parties sought control over the same territory, the Holy Land. This meant that long-term foreign policy goals were inherently incompatible and mutually exclusive.

Yet practical considerations served to soften and blunt the seemingly irreconcilable differences and deflect some conflict. Then as now, wars were costly and their outcomes unpredictable, creating a natural reluctance on the part of responsible leaders to risk it. This bias towards peace was reinforced in medieval society by the fact that agriculture was extensive, vulnerable and produced less surplus. This meant that if wars destroyed successive harvests or damaged agricultural assets such as irrigation systems, terracing or orchards, it took years to replace them and famine became a serious possibility. Finally, the economic argument for peace was made more compelling in the Near East by the fact that both the Franks and their Muslim neighbours profited enormously from trade and travel (pilgrim) networks that cut across the religious divide. If trade or pilgrim traffic were significantly disrupted, the urban population in both the Christian and Muslim states suffered reductions in their standard of living. Only with the advent of the fanatical Mamluks, who were prepared to do without the revenue generated by trade through the ports of the Levant, did this compelling argument for finding diplomatic accommodations disappear.

The crusader states also gained temporary peace by diplomatically exploiting the incessant wars between the Islamic powers, dynasties and princes. These created countless and nearly continuous opportunities for the Franks to play Muslim rivals against one another. Over time, the Franks exploited the conflicts between Fatimid Egypt and Abbasid Syria, the Zangids and the Ayyubids, and between various princes within these different entities, such as the rivalry between the viziers Shawar and Dirgham, or between al-Kamil in Egypt and his brother al-Muazzam in Damascus. Tellingly, there is only one case in which the Muslims succeeded in driving a wedge between Christian powers, namely the treaty between Saladin and Constantinople.

The willingness of both sides to deal with one another — at a tactical rather than strategic level — went back to the First Crusade itself. The Fatimid caliphate tried to divert the crusade from Jerusalem into attacks on their Sunni Seljuk rival in the north. Although the crusaders had no interest in concluding such an agreement with the Fatimid state, they were perfectly willing to come to terms with the many local Fatimid leaders in control of coastal towns and fortresses along the route to Jerusalem. For their part, the semi-autonomous rulers of the region ‘were all, when it suited them, prepared to form alliances that cut across the religious divide, rather than submit to suzerainty of a greater [Muslim] power’.[i]

The willingness on both parts to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war. One hundred and twenty treaties between the Franks and their Muslim opponents have been identified in the historical sources, of which 109 were implemented. The initiative for truces varied considerably over time. The Muslims were more likely to seek truces in the early period (1098-1124), and the Franks were desperate for truces after 1250. In the century and a quarter in between, neither side was preponderant in seeking peace, suggesting an overall balance of power.[ii] Notably, until the Mamluk period, both sides negotiated in good faith and, for the most part, abided by the terms of the agreements concluded.

While the First Kingdom expanded primarily by force of arms, the Second Kingdom expanded primarily through diplomatic success. The latter was assuredly due primarily to the fact that Saladin’s successors were constantly fighting with one another and hence too fragmented to undertake a major campaign against the Franks. Furthermore, these Ayyubid princes were all enjoying the benefits of trade and not terribly interested in jihad. Nevertheless, it is to the Franks’ credit that they effectively exploited the rivalries of their opponents and played upon their love of luxury to obtain one concession after another, more through the threat of force than the use of it. 

The incremental growth of the Second Kingdom culminated in the so-called ‘Baron’s crusade’, an absurd campaign ironically characterised by Christian disunity and a single disastrous battle. Yet it was this crusade that resulted in the near complete restoration of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the borders of pre-Hattin 1187 — including Sidon, Ascalon and Jerusalem itself — by diplomatic means. In short, during the first half of the thirteenth century, the Franks proved themselves masters of diplomacy in dealing with their Muslim neighbours — until they fatally backed the wrong side leading to the disaster at Le Forbie.

Perhaps even more astonishing than these diplomatic successes, however, are the number of instances in which Franks and Saracens concluded alliances across religious borders. The Sultan of Damascus countered Zengi’s growing strength and efforts to displace him by forming an alliance with King Fulk of Jerusalem. It was this alliance that was broken during the Second Crusade with no positive result. Yet, the alliance was soon in place again because it served the interests of both sides. Likewise, Frederick Barbarossa, intent on the restoration of Jerusalem to Christian rule at the start of the Third Crusade, had no qualms about concluding a temporary non-aggression pact with the Sultanate of Rum. During the War of Antiochene Succession (1201-1210), Bohemond sought and received the assistance of Muslim leaders in both Aleppo and Iconium to help him against his (Christian) Armenian rival. The most fateful instance of an interfaith — and offensive — alliance, however, was the backing of as-Salih Ismail of Damascus and an-Nasir Daud of Transjordan against as-Salih Ayyub of Egypt, which ended in the disastrous defeat at Le Forbie in 1244. What is consistent across all these various treaties, however, is that ‘each side dealt with the other as fellow politicians, not devils incarnate’.[iii]

Yet here were limits to such dealings. While a head of state might strategically conclude an alliance with a Muslim counterpart, any attempt — and there were several — to pull the Saracens into the crusader states’ internal politics was viewed as treason and consistently failed. When Hugh le Puiset, Count of Jaffa, called in Egyptian help for his rebellion against Fulk d’Anjou, he instantly lost the support of his vassals, a fact that led directly to his defeat. Princess Alice of Antioch made the same mistake in 1132, completely alienating her barons by appealing to Zengi for support; they turned at once to the King of Jerusalem to intercede and remove her from power. Likewise, in 1160, Gerard de Grenier, Lord of Sidon and Beaufort, isolated himself and lost his barony when he sought aid from Nur al-Din in a dispute with Baldwin III. The most famous instance of such an alliance between an individual Frankish lord and a formidable Muslim leader was the separate truce Raymond of Tripoli concluded with Saladin after refusing to do homage to Guy de Lusignan in 1186. This move nearly tore the kingdom apart and resulted in a devastating Frankish defeat at the Springs of Cresson. Only Tripoli’s remorse and the diplomatic efforts of Balian d’Ibelin enabled the Franks to patch up their differences and face the Saracens united at Hattin a few months later.

Overall, the inter-religious negotiations were similar to truces throughout the West, yet they had some unique features. In the West, for example, there was a well-established custom of meetings directly between leaders. One needs only to think of the frequent meetings between Henry II and Louis VII. But summit diplomacy had no tradition in the East. In the West, gifts were usually symbols of submission and homage; something offered at the end rather than the beginning of negotiations. In the East, in contrast, the exchange of gifts usually signaled the desire to open negotiations and seek a truce.

Such differences in practice led to a number of misunderstandings in the early years. With time, however, both sides learned to read the other better, and rituals evolved that prevented unnecessary confusion. In this sense, the crusades contributed to the professionalization of diplomacy, including the practice of granting envoys safeguards against harm and retribution, something we know today as ‘diplomatic immunity’.

Lastly, unlike the West, where the terms of treaties were mostly concerned with the control of territorial assets such as cities and castles, peace agreements between Franks and Saracens usually contained a human component. The free passage of pilgrims of both religions through territory controlled by the other was an important feature of most treaties. A more important — and poignant — element was the return of captives.

Throughout the crusader era, the Franks and their Orthodox Christian allies faced slavery every time they were taken captive, whether in battle, siege or raid. Only the highest noblemen were excepted, as they could be held for ransom. While we hear the most about noblemen’s ransoms, they were the exception. For every nobleman held for ransom, there were scores of knights, hundreds of turcopoles and sergeants, and thousands of peasants, women and children sold into slavery. The latter were often the victims of small-scale raiding, a perennial phenomenon even during official truces.

At any one time, thousands of Christians, former subjects of the Frankish kings and princes, were held in captivity by the Muslim enemies of the Franks. Some of these were Frankish settlers; more of them were native Christians. Surprisingly, they were not forgotten. On the contrary, in truce after truce, the Franks remembered their captive subjects. The return of captives – not just noble or knightly prisoners – was a component of negotiations with the enemy. There are recorded incidents when the Franks leveraged a Muslim desire for peace to secure the release of thousands of captives. In one instance – viewed as an example of Frankish ‘arrogance’ – the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir records:

The Franks sent to review those male and female slaves of their people who had been taken from all the Christian lands and bade them choose whether they would stay with their lords or return to their homelands. Anyone who preferred to stay was left, and anyone who wanted to go home went there.

 This clearly refers to women, which highlights the fact that such agreements were not confined to the release of fighting men. Furthermore, this particular agreement was extremely comprehensive as it applied to the entire city of Damascus. Again, thousands of captives must have benefited from the negotiated settlement. 

Yet, such agreements were only possible if the Franks held good cards, i.e., if they were negotiating from strength. As a result, many captives languished for years in slavery before a change in fortune enabled the Franks to extract concessions from their opponents. The fact that some captives waited a long time for release does not diminish their importance. On the contrary, even years later, relatives, friends and comrades were determined to obtain the release of those they loved. The fact that Frankish negotiators -- always members of the Frankish elite – recognised and respected this is to their credit. 

In summary, the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean. The exact opposite of the religious fanatics depicted in film and fiction, the Franks readily and frequently concluded truces with their Muslim enemies and were also willing to ally themselves with individual Muslim leaders in the pursuit of tactical objectives. Frankish diplomacy was based on respect for their enemies and a profound appreciation of their differences and rivalries, which belies portrayals of the Franks as racist. Although the Franks were not always successful at navigating the tricky waters of shifting Muslim power politics, they were not insensitive to them. Likewise, they understood Byzantine perspectives and prejudices and ultimately found ways to exploit Byzantine vanity for their own advantage. Meanwhile, their relations with the West remained rooted in the common recognition that the crusader states were the guardians of Christianity’s most sacred sites. Despite superficial differences in lifestyle, language and tactics, the crusader states retained solid ties with the papacy and the leading Western European powers throughout their existence, ties which they exploited a much as possible to their advantage without ever surrendering their sovereignty.

[i] Andrew Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States (London: Pearson Longman, 2004), 106-107.

[ii] For details, see Yvonne Friedman, ‘Peacemaking: Perceptions and Practices in the Medieval Latin East’, in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), 229-257.

[iii] Christopher Tyreman, The World of the Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 222.

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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Monday, March 20, 2023

Diplomatic Relations with the Orthodox Powers of the Mediterranean

In contrast with the fundamental alignment of foreign policy goals between the crusader states and Western powers, tensions with Constantinople existed from the very start. Yet, it is wrong to assume that relations between the Franks and Byzantium were consistently hostile. On the contrary, diplomatic relations between the Christian powers in the Eastern Mediterranean were complex and fluid. 

The baseline of these relations was drawn by the Byzantines, who called themselves ‘Romans’ and viewed anyone not part of their empire as ‘barbarians’. To the Byzantine elite, the Kings of France and England were no more civilised than the Sultans of Damascus and the Atabegs of Aleppo. Even in the twelfth century, during a period of accord between Constantinople and the crusader states, the Byzantine emperor could describe Latin Christians as ‘barbarian peoples whose way of life is entirely incompatible with our own. Their gaze is scarcely human, while ours is full of humanity; our speech is agreeable, while theirs is harsh and garbled. They are all armed and … bloodthirsty … while we are peaceful and compassionate and refuse to carry weapons needlessly, not being in thrall to Ares’.[i]

In addition to a profound sense of cultural superiority, the Byzantines viewed Constantinople — not Rome or Jerusalem — as the centre of the Christian world. In the eyes of the ‘Romans’ living in the ‘Roman Empire’, Constantinople was not only the new Rome, it was also the new Jerusalem since it was here that the emperor, the Head of the Church, resided and ruled. Because the patriarchs viewed the emperor as the Church head, the pope’s influence in Constantinople was nil.

To complicate relations further, the concept of Holy War was alien to Greek Orthodox theology.[ii] What the Byzantine emperor envisaged when he requested aid from the West in 1097 was several hundred trained knights ready to serve as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The emperor expected to place these fighting men under the control and command of Byzantine authorities. As described, what he got was tens of thousands of undisciplined ‘armed pilgrims’ (an oxymoron in Byzantine tradition). The Byzantine government and administration were overwhelmed, baffled and ultimately frightened of the monster they had created.

This had a profound and long-lasting impact on Frankish-Byzantine relations because the failure of the Byzantines to understand crusading led them to assume the ‘real’ goal of the crusades was the capture of Constantinople. The emperor’s daughter Anna Comnena wrote in her history: ‘to all appearances, they were on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality, they planned to dethrone Alexius and seize the capital’.[iii] A Byzantine historian writing about the Second Crusade (1147-1159) likewise claimed: ‘The whole western array had been set in motion on the handy excuse that they were going to … fight the Turks … but [in reality] to gain possession of the Romans’ land by assault and trample down everything in front of them’.[iv] The fact that the crusaders made no assault on Constantinople and, in fact, continued to the Holy Land was attributed to the brilliance of Byzantine policy. The Byzantine court patted itself on the back for deflecting the crusaders from their evil intentions and successfully diverting their energies to the conquest of Muslim-held territory instead. 

The conquest of Jerusalem failed to assuage Byzantine suspicions but instead created new problems. First, Byzantine emperors claimed all the lands conquered by the crusaders since they had once been part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Second, the Byzantine emperors as (in their eyes) the Head of the Christian Church claimed to be the protectors of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet the crusaders were understandably unwilling to recognise the claims of the Byzantine emperors for conquests won with hard fighting, blood and casualties. Nor did  they acknowledge the emperor as head of the Church.

In the century after the First Crusade, the main bone of contention was Antioch. This had belonged to Constantinople as recently as 1086 and thus had only been in Seljuk hands twelve years when it fell to the crusaders. Yet the siege of Antioch had been bitter and costly, and the majority of the crusade’s leaders refused to recognise Byzantine sovereignty over Antioch. Every new Prince of Antioch tried to assert his autonomy, but the perennial Seljuk threat, particularly after the loss of the County of Edessa, eventually forced each Latin prince to turn to Constantinople for aid. As a result, periods of relative Antiochene independence alternated with periods of abject submission to imperial domination.

In contrast, Byzantine claims to the territories composing the Kingdom of Jerusalem were nominal. Palestine had not been under Constantinople’s control since 637, and no serious pressure was exerted on the Kings of Jerusalem to do homage for Jerusalem. This made it easier to find common ground. Nevertheless, relations first hit a new low when Reynald de Châtillon invaded Byzantine Cyprus and engaged in an orgy of savagery, including the mutilation of prisoners, extortion, rape, pillage and destruction. 


Surprisingly, this incident proved to be a turning point in Frankish-Byzantine relations. Baldwin III came north to meet with the emperor. He was prepared to make symbolic concessions in light of the Second Crusade’s failure and the ensuing reluctance of the West to respond to his appeals for aid. Manuel, for whatever reasons, was prepared to meet Baldwin halfway and not press for absolute submission. 


What emerged was a thaw in relations between Jerusalem and Constantinople that produced quantifiable benefits for both parties. Not only did the alliance deter Seljuk attacks on Antioch, it put an end to Nur al-Din’s rhetorical threats to Jerusalem itself. Furthermore, the Byzantine fleet assisted Amalric in his ambitions in Egypt, while Byzantine gold flowed into the Kingdom of Jerusalem, particularly for projects such as the renovation of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In exchange for Manuel adopting ‘crusader rhetoric’ and recognizing crusader goals as honest and worthy, he received some vague form of homage from King Amalric of Jerusalem. Although the exact nature of Amalric’s submission is not known, he paid a state visit to Constantinople in 1171 and evidently recognised the emperor as his overlord in some unrecorded manner; this was a more symbolic than material submission to the emperor. 


The new relationship between Constantinople and Jerusalem was cemented by three strategic, royal marriages: Manuel Comnenus married the Princess Marie of Antioch, and Baldwin III and Amalric both married Byzantine princesses. The period of détente between the two major Christian powers of the eastern Mediterranean lasted almost a quarter-century until Manuel’s death in 1180. 


Just three years later, however, Andronicus I Comnenus swept into power on the back of fervent anti-Latin feelings. He had exploited anti-Latin riots – which had resulted in the slaughter of the Latin population in Constantinople – to seize power and murder Empress Marie and her lover. He first had himself crowned co-emperor with Manuel’s son Alexius, but two months later strangled Alexius and took sole power for himself. His foreign policy consisted fundamentally of repudiating Manuel I’s pro-Western policies and alliances with the crusader states. 


Significantly, Andronicus had fled to Damascus and Baghdad when out of favor in Constantinople. In June 1185, he sent an envoy to Saladin proposing a treaty of alliance between their empires. The purpose of the proposed pact was the destruction of the crusader states. Before Saladin's ambassadors could reach Constantinople with his official response, Andronicus was savagely torn to pieces by the mob in Constantinople and replaced by Isaac Angelus. The latter, however, readily renewed the treaty with Saladin — sending off alarm bells in Jerusalem and igniting outrage in the West.


By 1189, the situation had changed yet again. The Franks had been obliterated at the Battle of Hattin, but a major crusade to retake the Holy Land was gathering. Arab accounts suggest that Saladin was especially unsettled by the prospect of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, bringing a large army to the Near East. Saladin sent ambassadors to Constantinople to renegotiate the terms of the anti-Western alliance. He expected the Byzantines to prevent – or at a minimum, harass, delay and impede – the passage of any crusading armies transiting Byzantine territory. Isaac happily agreed to the new terms yet singularly failed to live up to them — though not for want of trying. 


Thus, by 1191 Saladin recognised that his treaty with Constantinople was worthless. Arab sources summarised the alliance with Constantinople as follows: ‘In truth, the Greek king has never succeeded in his enterprises; we gain nothing from his friendship and need fear nothing from his enmity’.[v]

But the damage to Byzantine-Frankish relations had already been done. Although the alliance between Damascus and Constantinople ended in 1192, it left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. Furthermore, the West, particularly the Holy Roman Empire, viewed the Byzantines as duplicitous traitors to Christianity. This ill-fated alliance, along with the massacres of the Italians in 1177 and again in 1182, laid the foundations for the so-called Fourth Crusade. 


In 1204, Constantinople fell to an army of mercenaries in the service of the Doge of Venice. The victors established the Latin Empire of Constantinople, a fragile association of states with Latin rulers that controlled Constantinople and much of what is now Greece, but failed to destroy Byzantine opposition. Instead, Byzantium fractured into several competing states, all claiming to be the rightful successor to the old empire. Already by 1261, Constantinople was again in Orthodox hands, and the restored Byzantine Empire lasted nearly another 200 years. 


Relations between the crusader states and the Latin Empire of Constantinople is a topic that has not been adequately investigated by scholars. Perhaps the most important diplomatic trend of this period was the fundamental change in Byzantine attitudes towards the Latin West. Chris Wright, in his fascinating article ‘On the Margins of Christendom’, argues that the Byzantines could no longer dismiss Western culture and politics as irrelevant. He suggests that while rightly outraged by the attack on Constantinople, Byzantine elites, for the first time, recognised that the earlier crusades had been genuine efforts to liberate the Holy Land. They began to skillfully evoke crusader rhetoric to condemn the Pope’s self-serving calls for new ‘crusades’ to defend Latin control of Constantinople. 


Unfortunately, no study of the response of the Franks of Outremer to this development has been published. Likewise, the diplomatic relations between the restored Byzantine Empire and the crumbling crusader states in 1261-1291 remains an unexplored diplomatic chapter in the history of the Latin East. However, there is evidence that the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus maintained cordial diplomatic ties with the Byzantine emperors-in-exile. Also noteworthy, if inadequately documented in western literature, was the overall positive diplomatic relationship between the crusader kingdoms and the Armenians, except for the bitter war of Antiochene succession between 1216 and 1233.

[i] Manuel Comnenus quoted in Michael Angold, ‘The Fall of Jerusalem (1187) as Viewed from Constantinople’, The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 291.


[ii] An excellent summary of Orthodox attitudes towards the church militant is provided in: Nikolaos Chrissis, ‘Byzantine Crusaders: Holy War and Crusade Rhetoric in Byzantine Contacts with the West (1095-1341)’, in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 259-277.

[iii] Chris Wright,  On the Margins of Christendom: The Impact of the Crusades on Byzantium’, in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 61.

[iv] See note 4, Wright, ‘On the Margins of Christendom’, 62.

[v] Abu Samah, quoted in Charles Brand, ‘The Byzantines and Saladin, 1185-1192: Opponents of the Third Crusade’, Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XXXVII, # 3, April 1962: 178.



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.


           Buy Now!                                                  Buy Now!                                                    Buy Now!

          Buy Now!                                               Buy Now!                                                      Buy Now!