A Brief History of the Crusades
A concise overview of one of the most significant periods in Medieval history
Setup: First Crusade & Revival of Muslim Jihad
Of all the military conflicts between Christianity and Islam, the 200-year long holy wars — Crusades — are of the greatest significance vis-à-vis their impact on the ever-changing geopolitical landscape of two of the greatest religions in the history of mankind.
Led by Western European Christians, Crusades were a series of military campaigns, aimed at regaining the control of former Christian territories including the holy city of Jerusalem, which had been conquered by the Muslims in the last five centuries, and to prevent the further expansion of Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, the question is what actually transpired that, after five centuries of constant Muslim conquest and the rapid expansion of Islam, the Christians finally resorted to a unified effort of war against Islam.
Well, there are a number of key factors, responsible for that but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll only take into consideration the most important one; the Battle of Manzikert.
Battle of Manzikert was fought between Turko-Persian Seljuk Empire and the Byzantine Empire in 1071 A.D. and ended with a damning defeat for the Byzantines — depriving them of their control of Anatolia.
Seljuks, who had already captured Baghdad and were at the realm of the Muslim world, saw this as an opportunity to expand their empire. Thus, after an astonishing victory, Seljuks established the Sultanate of Rûm in Anatolia.
However, in 1092, the great Seljuk Emperor Malik-Shah I died and this led to the fragmentation of their empire. As a result, the local warlords started sacking Christians from their Holy land and this is when the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Komnenos asked the Latin Church for military aid. Thus, Pope Urban II then called the Western European Christians to join hands for crusading the Muslims, who were in control of former Christian territories.
Pope was aware of the opportunity, in the form of Crusades, to unite the Catholics and Orthodox Christians and to restrengthen the Christendom after almost 500 years of humiliation at the hands of Muslims. So, he ensured to label this pursuit as a Holy War and even called it a chance for the nobles and knights to atone their sins.
At the Council of Clermont, he delivered such a powerful speech — arguably one of the greatest of Medieval Ages — that it injected a new spirit of religious zest and, consequently, was met with the response of Dues Vult(God wills it).
Interestingly, in theology, Christianity didn’t have a concept of holy wars but Pope knew that religious euphoria — coupled with the idea of spiritual salvation — would make the European Christians, especially nobles and knights, unite for this cause. Thus, the whole idea of Crusades got turned into a belief that these military expeditions were holy wars for the regaining the lost territories of Christendom.
Consequently, many Christians thought of sacrificing their lives in the name of Christ and Pope Urban II succeeded in his attempt to unify the Western European Christians for fighting against the common enemy.
After the call from the Pope, a number of peasants and low-ranking knights started moving towards the East for the assistance of the Eastern Roman Empire on their own. They were unorganized and scattered groups of common people, mainly driven by the desires for fortune and spiritual salvation.
In the command of Peter the Hermet, this group of marchers later came to be known as the People’s Crusade and they were the first ones to reach Constantinople.
On receiving them, the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I, quickly sent them to the frontlines to fight against the Turks. Nonetheless, having no experience of military warfare and struggling with the leadership vacuum, the People’s Crusade was destined for a crushing defeat. Thus, at the Battle of Civetot in northwestern Anatolia, the Turks slaughtered them.
After the failure of the People’s Crusade, a well-organized army of about 60,000 men under the command of different knights from various areas of Europe marched forward and finally converged at Constantinople.
Unlike the People’s Crusade, Princes’ Crusade had the strength, organization, and leadership to achieve the desired results.
Interestingly on the other side, the Seljuks were busy fighting among themselves and against Fatimids from Egypt. As the Seljuk Empire was getting weaker because of intra-empire conflicts, Fatimids had the opportunity to conquer Seljuk areas including Jerusalem. Thus, in 1098, Fatimids finally captured Jerusalem, and consequently, when Crusaders reached Jerusalem, Fatimids were in control of it.
Fall of Jerusalem
After almost three years of marching, the Crusaders finally reached Jerusalem in June 1099. However, the Fatimid governor was confident of holding them back as the Crusaders were short of supplies.
Crusaders, on the other hand, driven by religious zeal and spiritual elation started their siege of Jerusalem and it didn’t take them long to figure a way in. Thus, in July 1099, Crusaders succeeded in their ultimate mission as the holy city of Jerusalem fell to them.
As the Crusaders entered the city, they slaughtered both Muslims and Jews and put an end to a tiring three years-long journey with an examination mark.
An expedition, which had started three years ago in the name of Jesus, appeared to have ended with success and bloodshed. However, it was just the beginning as in the coming centuries, Christians and Muslims kept fighting for the ultimate control of Jerusalem.
Christians’ Settlements and Response from Muslims
After capturing the holy city of Jerusalem, Crusaders saw the opportunity to bring demographic and social changes in the conquered areas. Thus, they started establishing new Christian settlements in the conquered lands and called them Crusader States i.e County of Tripoli. Furthermore, Baldwin I established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and even proclaimed himself to be the king.
With the aim of expanding the Crusade Empire, the rulers of the Crusade States started inviting European Christians to come to the newly conquered areas.
Till now, Crusaders had only settled on the coastal line as they believed in the geographical advantage of coastal areas but later, they thought of expanding their authority in the inland areas. Especially, Crusaders from the Italian states, who were more interested in the economic side of things than the religious ones, wanted to gain the financial benefits so, they started moving towards the inland areas.
As a result, Crusaders, who had already captured a large portion of the Muslim Levant, moved from Antioch towards Aleppo and they even succeeded in getting control of the city. However, this very act led the Muslims to realize the gravity of the situation and the expansionist motives of the Crusaders — eventually leading them to start their own movement of resistance in the form of Jihad.
The Revival of Muslim Jihad
The fall of Jerusalem led the Muslim preachers and scholars to travel to Baghdad for rousing men to recover Al-Aqsa Mosque from the Crusaders. Moreover, Muslims had now started realizing that Crusaders were not in a mood of limiting themselves to the conquered areas; they wanted to expand the Crusade Empire. Thus, the idea of Crusaders’ expansionism started making sense to them and that was what led to the first wave of Muslim Jihad against the Crusaders.
Abbasid Caliphate, which was a mere shadow of its former self, didn’t have the power to resist the Crusaders but the Seljuks had. So, on the request of the Abbasids Caliph, Al Mustazhir, Seljuk Sultan sent his governor of Mosul, Mawdud Ibn Altuntash, who led Muslims to their first prominent victory against the Crusaders in the Battle of Al-Sannabra in 1113. Nonetheless, Mawdud couldn’t survive the Shia-Sunni rift and was assassinated in Damascus by Toghtekin.
Fortunately, the predecessor of Mawdud, Imad al-Din Zengi, excelled him and unified Muslims to regain control of the County of Edessa in 1144. His victory proved to be quite pivotal in elevating their spirits and giving Muslims a new sense of unity.
Muslims — who till now were only defending the Crusades — had finally moved to the front foot and started their own holy war against the Crusaders. Edessa was first of the captured lands, and it proved to be the biggest stimulus in unifying Muslims against the Crusaders.
Later in 1146, just like Mawdud, Imad al-Din Zengi also got assassinated and his son Nur ad-Din Zengi succeeded him. However, Nur ad-Din Zengi carried the mission of his father and even transcended him by recapturing more territories and igniting a new sense of Jihad in Muslims.
Upon watching this, European Christians called for another expedition, and this time Pope Eugene III succeeded in sending a new military expedition, led by two European kings.
Confrontation: Rise of Salah ad-Din & the Liberation of Jerusalem
The loss of Edessa to Muslims jolted the Crusaders and the Western Christians — making them respond through another military expedition. However, this time, the Crusaders were led by two European kings — Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany — and in addition to the restoration of Edessa, they had other motives as well.
Driven by religious zeal and led by two kings, the Western Christians and the Crusaders had great expectations vis-a-vis recapturing Edessa and further expanding the Eastern Christendom.
However, riddled with conflicts between Byzantines and the Crusaders, Second Crusade couldn’t deliver the expected results, rather it failed quite miserably — resulting in strengthening Nur ad-Din Zengi’s stronghold on the Muslim Levant and giving rise to one of the greatest Muslim conquerors, Salah ad-Din Ayyubi aka Saladin.
In response to the fall of the County of Edessa in 1144, Western Christians and Pope Eugene III sent another military expedition — Second Crusade — towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
Led by two kings — Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany — Second Crusade left Europe in the summer of 1147 with high expectations and elevated spirits to recapture the lost territory and to further expand Christendom in the East.
Nonetheless, Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I Komnenos wasn’t particularly pleased about the arrival of a new set of Crusaders, mainly because he had already made a truce with the Sultanate of Rûm. So, when Conrad III reached the Byzantine territory, his men suspected the motives of Manuel I Komnenos and this resulted in distrust and conflicts between the Crusaders and the Byzantines.
As Conrad III was skeptical about the Byzantine Emperor, he neglected his advice and decided to reach Anatolia directly through Nicaea. Consequently, it proved to be a fatal move as the Turks killed a number of his men and left him with no option but to retreat to Nicaea.
On the other hand, Louis VII had just arrived in Constantinople so, upon reaching the capital of the Byzantine Empire, he heard the news and went straight to Nicaea to join forces with Conrad III.
After teaming up in Nicaea, both Kings moved towards Antioch. However, as they reached Antioch, they had already lost a number of their men and had a slight hope of recapturing Edessa. Thus, instead of fighting for the restoration of Edessa, they moved towards Damascus and tried to capture the city in 1148.
The reason being, they wanted to take control of the city before Nur ad-Din Zengi. Moreover, they were skeptical of the Christian rulers, who had already settled in the East and had established the Crusade States. Thus, they sieged the city in the hope of undermining Nur ad-Din’s authority in the region and getting an upper hand on him.
Nonetheless, they couldn’t succeed as the conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the Western Crusaders, poor planning and even worse execution led to the embarrassing failure and the Second Crusade fell on its face.
Failure of the Second Crusade and Unification of Muslims
Following the failure of the Crusaders in Damascus, the city came under the command of Nur ad-Din Zengi and this particular event played quite a pivotal role in changing the history of the Crusades.
Possessing a renewed spirit of Jihad — which had been inculcated by Nur ad-Din — Muslims started organizing themselves under the unified banner of Islam.
Moreover, the failure of the Second Crusade proved to be a morale-booster for Muslims as they were now confident of their leaders vis-a-vis dealing with foreign military threats.
Interestingly, at the same, political transition was happening in the South. Fatimid Dynasty was declining and Egypt was also up for grab.
Now, both King Amalric I of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Nur ad-Din knew the geographical significance of Egypt so, they both started their pursuit of capturing Egypt. In addition to the geopolitical advantages, Egypt was also rich in resources and both rulers had some idea that Egypt’s annexation could surely strengthen their economies.
Egypt-Levant Nexus and Rise of Salah ad-Din
Nur ad-Din was sure that by making Levant-Egypt nexus, the Crusade states could be encircled and the land, which had been captured by the Crusaders, could be conquered. Thus, in 1164 Nur ad-Din sent his army under the leadership of his commander, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh.
On the other hand, Amalric also knew that he couldn’t afford this connection to happen as it could prove to be the demise of the Crusade Empire. So, he also started making moves to stop Nur ad-Din from getting control of Egypt.
However, in 1169, after almost 5 years, Shirkuh along with a young man with the name of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub finally succeeded in expelling the Crusaders and capturing Egypt.
Later, Shirkuh became the Vizier of the First Caliph of Egypt and after his death, that young boy Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub took the position and ushered in a new era of Muslim conquests in the region.
Two years later in 1171, Fatimid Caliph, Ad-Adid died and as Salah ad-Din was from the Sunni school of thought, he brought an end to Shia Fatimid Caliphate and aligned his loyalties with Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.
Now, Nur ad-Din Zengi had the geographical advantage and a valiant commander to finally fulfill his mission of expelling the Crusaders from Jerusalem. However, in 1174 Nur ad-Din died and his death started a struggle among Zengis to succeed him as the ruler.
Muslims — who had been unified for the very objective of liberating the holy city of Jerusalem — started fighting among themselves. So, Salah ad-Din wasn’t left with any option but to capture Damascus, which he did in 1174.
After taking control of Damascus, he was proclaimed to be the Sultan of Egypt and Syria by the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. However, he still had to face a lot of resistance from the sons of Nur ad-Din Zengi, who were still in control of Aleppo.
On the other hand, the kingdom of Jerusalem was also riddled with the issue of succession as in 1174, Amalric also died — passing his throne to his 13 years old son, Baldwin IV. As Baldwin IV couldn’t rule the Kingdom, Jerusalem was then ruled by regents including the very likes of Raymond III of Tripoli.
Battle of Hattin and Liberation of Jerusalem
In 1182, after almost a decade, Salah ad-Din finally conquered Aleppo — becoming the ruler of the majority of Muslim Levant.
Now, he had the geographical advantage but he didn’t want to execute his grand plan yet. So, instead of marching towards Jerusalem, he decided to honor the truce, which he had made with Raymond III of Tripoli a decade ago.
Salah ad-Din shifted his attentions to cement his rule and to organize his army, while the liberation of Jerusalem remained his ultimate goal.
Consequently, in 1187, Raynald of Châtillon violated the truce and it gave Salah ad-Din the opportunity to finally fulfill his mission of liberating the holy city of Jerusalem. Thus, in the summer of 1187, Saladin’s army starting moving towards Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Crusaders, being aware of the imminent threat, also mobilized their army and occupied the strategic location of La Saphorie. They had an army of around 20,000 but they were without a single, supreme commander.
Thus, a conflict between King Guy of Lusignan and Raymond III led them to leave La Saphorie and to advance towards Salah ad-Din forces. And that was what Salah ad-Din wanted; to meet the Crusader army in the open battlefield.
Moreover, on reaching the Horns of Hattin, the Crusaders found themselves in quite unfavorable circumstances; they were in the open battlefield against a superior army and they didn’t even have access to the nearest source of water as Salah ad-Din’s forces were standing between the Crusaders and the Sea of Galilee.
As the defeat for the Christians seemed inevitable, the Crusaders eventually surrendered and Muslim forces tasted the greatest victory against the Crusaders.
When both belligerents met on the battlefield, Muslims emerged triumphant under the valiant leadership and charismatic command of Sultan Salah ad-Din Ayyubi.
After an astonishing victory in the Battle of Hattin, Salah ad-Din moved the last few pieces to finally execute his grand plan. He sent his troops to get hold of the coastal areas because they were of great strategic significance vis-a-vis the conquest of Jerusalem.
His men succeeded in getting control of all the areas but Tyre remained under the control of the Crusaders. However, Salah ad-Din shifted his attention to march towards Jerusalem and to liberate the city from the Christians.
On reaching the gates of the city, Salah ad-Din offered them to surrender and even promised to spare the lives of all the Christians. And that was the moment when they witnessed that Saladin’s chivalry was even greater than his valiance.
Although Salah ad-Din had every right to repeat the slaughter of 1099 — when Crusaders killed every Muslim in the city — yet he spared their lives and let them walk through the gates of Jerusalem alive.
Finally, on October 2nd, 1187, Balian of Ibelin surrendered Jerusalem, and Muslims — under the command of Sultan Salah ad-Din — liberated Jerusalem, 88 years after his conquest by the Crusaders.
Moreover, after the liberation of Jerusalem, Salah ad-Din emerged as the supreme leader of the Muslim world — having all the Levant under his control.
However, one coastal area — Acre — was still under the control of the Christians. Salah ad-Din men sieged the city for almost two years but couldn’t succeed.
Also, Christians were struggling with politics, succession-conflicts, and famine and it was becoming difficult to hold the Muslims forces back. However, that was exactly when they got the news of the arrival of the Third Crusade in 1191.
The fall of Jerusalem jolted the whole of Europe — sending waves of shock in the West. As a result, in 1189, the Church sent another military expedition — Third Crusade.
Led by three European Kings — Philip Augustus of France, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and Richard the Lionheart of England — Third Crusade was aimed at recapturing the holy city of Jerusalem from Salah ad-Din Ayyubi.
Frederick Barbarossa was the first of three to reach the Byzantine territory because the other two were still figuring out their differences. However, in June 1190, Frederick got drowned before reaching the holy land. Whereas in Europe, Philip, and Richard had finally put aside their differences and were ready to mobilize their armies.
Philip arrived at Acre and was later joined by Richard and together, they rejuvenated the siege of the city and made Salah ad-Din’s forces to surrender. Later, both parties reached an agreement and Acre remained under the control of Christian rulers.
After the end of the siege of Acre, Philip left for France and it left Richard as the only leader in command. However, upon returning to France, he started threatening Richard’s authority by capturing his lands. Thus, it left Richard with no option but to make an agreement with Salah ad-Din and left the East for saving his own rule in England.
More importantly, Philip, on two occasions, tried to march towards Jerusalem but he couldn’t lay siege to the city. Thus, his departure meant that the Third Crusade had mainly failed in its prime objective of recapturing the holy city of Jerusalem.
In terms of the conquest of Jerusalem, the Third Crusade failed miserably but Richard the Lionheart successfully recaptured most areas of the Crusade Empire — enabling Christians to keep fighting for another century for the conquest of holy city of Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, Salah ad-Din died in 1193 and as no one could fill the shoes of Saladin, it weakened the Muslim stronghold in the Levant and gave Christians the opportunity to send more military expeditions for another 100 years.
Resolution: Rise of Mamluks & the End of the Crusades
Unlike Salah ad-Din, his successors relied on the policy of reaction and it gave the Crusaders a chance to regroup themselves and also provided the Church with an opportunity to send another military expedition.
Thus, in 1199, Pope Innocent III — who had already made Crusades a major concern of the Latin Church — called for the Fourth Crusade towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
Fourth Crusade (1199–1204)
Contrary to the first three Crusades, this time the Crusaders were aiming for Egypt, which has now become the center of Muslim power in the region. So, they asked Venetians to provide them the transport and to help them reach Egypt.
Called by Pope Innocent III and led by Boniface of Montferrat, initially the Fourth Crusade was aimed at recapturing of the holy city of Jerusalem. However, driven by political and economic factors, the Fourth Crusade couldn’t achieve its objectives, rather it led to the Sacking of Constantinople in 1204.
When the Crusaders reached Venice, they were only about 12,000 men and they didn’t even have the money to pay Venetiants for transporting them. As a result, they agreed to the offer of Doge Enrico Dandolo — the leader of Venice — and helped him in recapturing the city of Zadar.
After helping Doge in getting the control of Zadar, the Crusaders sailed from Venice with the goal of recapturing the holy city of Jerusalem but they ended up sacking Constantinople.
Sack of Constantinople, 1204
Boniface of Montferrat, who was now leading the Fourth Crusade after the death of Thibaut III of Champagne, had links with the Byzantine Prince, Alexios Angelos, who wanted to topple the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius III. Thus, he wanted to lead the Crusade towards Constantinople.
The Crusade leadership, on the other hand, was riddled with political, economic, and religious factors. Hence, they were left with no option but to divert the Crusade towards Constantinople for putting Alexios Angelos and his father on the throne. Consequently, the Crusaders succeeded and Alexios Angelos became the emperor.
However, the differences between Western Christians(Catholics) and Byzantines(Orthodox) and the inability of the emperor, Alexius IV, to provide them their promised reward led the Crusaders to sack the city of Constantinople.
Motivated by economic, political, and religious factors, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade deviated from the original goal and indulged themselves in a fight against the Byzantine Emperors — First, Alexius III, and then Alexius IV.
Thus, the Fourth Crusade, which was called for recapturing of Jerusalem, ended with the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire — further aggravating the Catholics vs Orthodox divide.
Fifth Crusade (1217–1221)
The failure of the Fourth Crusade in recapturing Jerusalem led to another military expedition — aimed at conquering Cairo and then Jerusalem.
Led by King Andrew II of Hungary and Leopold VI, Duke of Austria, the Crusaders made plans for first getting hold of Egypt and then to liberate Jerusalem from the Ayyubids.
The Crusaders wanted to take control of Egypt because it could’ve resulted in breaking the Muslim rule in the region. Thus, the Crusaders marched forward for capturing the strategic port of Damietta and they succeeded in their mission in 1219.
The Crusaders, however, couldn’t move further for more than a year as they were waiting for the Emperor Frederick II. As Frederick didn’t arrive so, in 1221, it was finally decided to enter Egypt through the port of Damietta and to march towards Cairo.
However, they soon found themselves trapped at Al-Mansoura and Ayyubid Sultan, Al-Kamel, made use of the situation to flood the Crusaders camp. As a result, a large number of Crusaders retreated while a lot of them had to surrender. Consequently, the Fifth Crusade also failed miserably.
Sixth Crusade (1227–1229)
The failure of the Fifth Crusade had to be compensated and it was Emperor Frederick II, who now had the duty of leading another Crusade towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nonetheless, Frederick’s issues with the Church delayed this campaign and also resulted in his excommunication. Therefore, it took almost seven years for the Sixth Crusade to march towards Egypt.
In 1227 — seven years after the failure of the Fifth Crusade — excommunicated King led another military expedition for getting the control of Jerusalem.
Interestingly, this military campaign got converted into a diplomatic mission as several factors were at play. Thus, negotiations started between the Ayyubid Sultan, Al-Kamel, and the emperor, Frederick II.
Later in 1229, an agreement was finally reached, which led to the recapturing of Jerusalem by the Crusaders without a fight or bloodshed. However, the rule couldn’t be sustained because of internal conflicts and external threats.
Moreover, after the expiry of the treaty of 1229, a new power in the Muslim world — The Khwarezmians — emerged and started making moves for the liberation of Jerusalem from the Christian rulers. So, it was a matter of time before Muslims could regain control of Jerusalem.
Seventh Crusade (1248–1254)
In 1244, Muslims recaptured Jerusalem and ended the 15-year long rule of Christians in Jerusalem. As a consequence, King Louis IX of France decided to wage another military expedition — the 7th Crusade — in 1248.
The Seventh Crusade also followed the path of the Fifth Crusade and entered Egypt through the port of Damietta. However, as they reach Al-Mansoura in 1250, the Crusaders had to deal with a new class of opponents — Mamluks.
The Crusaders soon found themselves trapped by the Mamluks, who not only took the King as a prisoner but also killed many knights and nobles. Thus, the Seventh Crusade also fell flat on its face.
The failure of the Seventh Crusade resulted in the cementing Mamluks as the new Muslim power to reckon with. However, for gaining supremacy in the region, Mamluks had to deal with both the remaining Crusaders as well as the imminent threat of Mongols.
Furthermore, this period coincided with the Siege of Baghdad(1258) and the rise of the Mongols as a supreme power in the region. As the Mongols wanted to extend their rule to the shores of the Muslim Levant, they thought of capturing Damascus and Aleppo, which they did in the next two years.
Nevertheless, the remaining part of the Muslim Levant was still under the control of Mamluks. So, the Mongols shifted their attention towards Mamluks and met them in the Battle of Ain Jalut.
Qutuz, however, was soon killed and Sultan Baibers became the Sultan of the Mamluks. It was him, who now had the responsibility to finally put an end to the Crusades.
Hence, Baibers recaptured most of the region in the Muslim Levant, including the principality of Antioch — one of the remaining strongholds of the Crusaders.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the erosion of the Church had already set in and the sovereign states had already started emerging, which ultimately prevented the Western Church from sending more military expeditions.
A few years later, in 1291, Acre fell to the Muslims and after almost two centuries of constant warfare, geopolitical maneuvering, strategic alliances, and peace agreements, one of the most significant periods in Medieval history — Crusades — finally came to an end.