Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Crusades: How did they begin, and WHY?

When we look back at the crusades, we have the belief it was Christian soldiers from Europe invading Islamic countries.  That the Pope decided to rid the middle east of the Muslims, and make this area a Christian stronghold.

Although, some of these statements might be true, many of what we believe to be fact about the crusades, is false.  Time and attitudes change the perception we have of the past; we must always look at history with an analytical mind, not only judging facts, but also how they were reached.

Perhaps, the biggest falsehood about the crusades is that it was an aggressive war by Europeans. This aggressive war is what is described in many textbooks, and in popular culture such as in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005).  This concept is also taught in many schools; I even was under this impression for many years.

First, we must examine the history, and like science, we look at the factors and then interpret them.  Yes, I said interpret, for science and history is not just facts and figures.  Facts and figures are just that; information with no meaning.  A historian, and scientist must look at this information and give them meaning and understanding and interpolate a conclusion.  Many reading this post will disagree with my conclusion, but that if fine.  History is nothing more than interpretation; based on our personal values and beliefs, so please come to your own conclusion of what I present.

The initial crusades were, in fact, not an aggressive war, but a defensive war. To fully understand this we must examine some historical facts.

I have mentioned many times about the effect of the fall of the Roman Empire.  This caused a void in political and government around the area of Europe and the Middle East.  One of the factors was that Muslim controlled countries expanded into other areas with little or no resistance.  This expansion occurred for several hundred years.

Let us examine this expansion. 

635 Damascus falls to Muslim Armies.

636 At the Battle of Yarmuk in Syria Muslim Armies defeat the Byzantines.

634-707 North Africa falls to the Muslim Armies.

673-678 Arab armies besiege Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.

End of the 8th century, almost the entirety of Spain was conquered by Moorish Armies from North Africa.

807- Caliph Harun al-Reashid orders the destruction of non-Muslim prayer houses and the church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.  A caliph is both the Muslim civil and religious ruler, he is considered the religious successor of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and is the leader of the Muslim community. When this occurs, the political-religious state is called a Caliphate.

813 Christians in Palestine are attacked, they flee the country.

831 Muslims capture Palermo Italy, raids begin in Southern part of the country.

900 Muslims occupy Sardinia, Italy. This date is technically unknown, for the city moved back and force into controlled hand during the Muslim conquest of Sicily which occurred from 827-902.

1009  Destruction of the Church of the Resurrection (aka Church of the Holy Sepulchre ) in Jerusalem .  Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered to destroy the non-Muslim churches and artifacts in Jerusalem, Egypt, Syria. 

1071  Turks defeat the Byzantine Army at the battle of Manzikirt.

There were many other battles, and events, which were occurring during this time, but I mentioned these few to make a point. There was an expansion of Muslim Armies into Christian held territories, and also attack upon non-Muslims during this timeframe before the crusades.

As a historian, I am not judging what occurred above.  All religions and political movements must expand if they are to survive. The ends to achieve these goals are sometimes violent and destructive, but also very common. Christianity is filled with its share of a bloody path as it tried to expand, and or maintain its hold on countries.

The point I am making with these events on the timeline; is they were acts, which were invasive, and penetrated into other areas.  If someone is to retaliate against this wave of movement, then those actions become a defensive war.

Perhaps, the most significant distinction which displays how the crusades were a defensive strategy is how they began. In 1095, Alexios I, of the Byzantine Empire, send ambassadors to Pope Urban II requesting military support against the invading Turks. As you see in the timeline above, the Byzantine Empire suffered numerous defeats by the incursion of the Muslim Armies. This request for assistance from Turkish incursions, and the response form Pope Urban II for an army, was the start of the crusades.

As I stated, I am neither condoning, nor judging these acts during this time, but merely using them as examples to establish the point that the initial crusades were a defensive war.  It does not matter how you view these events, either favorable, or unfavorably, they themselves are examples of expansion into Christian held territories. Any aggression to recapture these Christian territories, are then considered a defensive strategy, and thus the initial Crusades by the Europeans are a defensive war.

So we have established the events which lead to the first crusade, next time we will continue with more myths and facts about the war. 

W.A. Rusho is an amateur historian, professional wrestler, martial artist and author of the Medieval fantasy novel, "Legend of the Mystic Knights".  Find out more about him by visiting his website.


  1. There are always different versions of history which leads to confusion. This is a well researched post it seems.

    I was unaware of the facts you have revealed here.
    It is always good to read an authentic post like this.

    Thank you

  2. What is confusing when you look at this with our modern sensibilities is that religion is some ways took on the role that that countries do now. We would never consider, for example, an offensive against ISIS by France and Russia and the U.S., as an initiative (or for that matter crusade) of Christians against Muslims. But if you look at it from a medieval sort of perspective that is what it would look like and it could likewise be thought of as defensive. We now know that ISIS doesn't represent Muslims and France doesn't represent Christians but we have access to knowledge of what is happening in the world which folks at the time of the first Crusade did not.

  3. I don't have a deep enough knowledge of the Crusades to agree or disagree with your perspective. I think that even wars which start as defensive wars can have brutally aggressive battles, in history and in modern day.

    What I do know is that the facts of history are always viewed through the lens of current thinking. As you are doing, we need to take a bigger, balanced view and look at the pieces. Trying to understand history via one or two incidents doesn't work. The perspective of history can easily change in a generation. When I was in school and studying local history, Louis Riel was portrayed as rebel. By the time my daughter studied history, he was a hero.

  4. When I first saw Kingdom of Heaven, I asked my husband, did that really happen? His response was maybe. I didn't realized that the area transferred hands so many times over the years. That must have been quite confusing for the residences. Thanks for sharing.

    1. When it comes down to it, it is often the population of an area that gets stuck in the middle of these wars. This part of the history which is missing from the textbooks.

  5. Agree or disagree, I always enjoy your discussions about historical events. Jews in Spain (known as Sephardic Jews) flourished during the Muslim occupation.

    1. Yes it did, for a time. After the death of Al-Hakam II Ibn Abd-ar-Rahman things declined. There was the massacre of Granada, in which 4,000 Jews were killed in one day.

  6. I remember very little about my Crusade studies when I was in college, so this was quite interesting to read.

  7. William, in some ways this was like reading a current news report - the West, representing Christianity, against ISIS, representing Muslims. Of course we know that isn't really so but may well be looked at that way in the future.
    Always interesting to read these posts.

  8. Well, that's your interpretation of historical events. Correct or not I bet you are having fun. Historians argue constantly about what happen and why. My sister is one so I get to hear a lot about it. Pity we can't go back and interview them.

  9. Historical revisionism is an interesting area of study, but I had no beliefs or perceptions to overturn in this case as I don't know jack about the Crusades. Relatedly, I can't recall covering any pre-Christopher Columbus topics in my history classes in school - Leif Erikson might have gotten a brief mention and that would have been it - but then again, history was my least favorite subject back in the day. ;-)

  10. hi william; you make a compelling case. wonder why more of this wasn't taught in my high school. and as you say regardless of nationality or religion if countries aren't at least striving to expand their territory or influence in other ways they are dying. solid post. thanks for sharing, Max ps its this kind of research that makes your books so good

  11. Why did the Muslims invade and kill all non-Muslims, and destroy their Churches in the first place ? If the "angel" Gabriel enlightened him, who was the same Gabriel that appeared to Moses, and Mary(Jesus' Mum),why would they destroy people who essentially all believed in the same God ? Forgive my ignorance on this, just asking.

    1. Isn't that the question humankind has been asking since the beginning.
      Fractions, even between the same religion, has always caused the most aggression, sometimes worse then those of different ones.
      In Christianity, the crusades, inquisitions, and war has been waged upon by those who have a different way to worship the same God.