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Even Muslims flourished in Crusader states

Historian Michael Haag says that, contrary to the common image, Frankish rule in the Middle East was benevolent

By on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Crusaders (Kingdom of Heaven)

The Crusades have always excited political controversy, both at the time and since. They have sometimes been used as a stick to beat the Catholic Church, or to condemn modern western powers.

Instead, I have looked at the conditions in the East as they were before the Crusades, at the circumstances of the beleaguered population – a population that remained overwhelmingly Christian 400 years after the Arab conquest. This Christian East had recently suffered a new invasion, this time by the Turks who in 1071 overran not only Palestine and Syria, but also Asia Minor, a vast and prosperous part of the Byzantine Empire, and soon stood on the Bosphorus opposite Constantinople, whose emperor called to his fellow Christians in the West for help.

These dangers and oppressions in the East understandably aroused a reaction in the West. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a Crusade, but neither Christianity nor the West was the cause of the Crusades. Rather, for centuries Islam had been on the attack. Already in the eighth century Muslim forces had occupied Spain; soon they invaded southern France, Sicily, and the toe and heel of Italy. In 846, a Muslim fleet even sailed up the River Tiber and sacked Rome. The Crusades were part of a centuries-long struggle between Islam and Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world.

The title of my new book, The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States, refers to the fate that overcame the Order of the Knights Templar, the remarkable elite force of fighting monks. The king of France accused them of blasphemy and heresy, and in 1314 their leaders were burnt
at the stake. But the ultimate tragedy was the fate of the Crusader states, which when fell in 1291, leaving the Christian population in the East defenceless against renewed oppression.

The Templars were founded to protect pilgrims travelling along the roads between Jerusalem and the other holy places in Palestine, but soon they became the backbone of defence the Crusader states. Their bravery and fighting ability won repeated victories against overwhelming odds, though not without considerable sacrifice. In the beginning, both the Templars and the Crusader states were seen as noble causes and were supported with the greatest enthusiasm, but in the event both failed and what support they had enjoyed turned into recrimination and worse.

The Crusader states, founded after the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099, were a rare period of security and prosperity for the Christians of the East. During the two centuries of their existence the Crusader states greatly improved the lot of the local population. The Franks (as the westerners were known) intermarried with the local population and created a distinctive civilisation which enjoyed something approaching local rule, representing local interests. Outremer, “the land across the sea”, as the Crusader states were known, was a remarkably tolerant place. As Michael the Syrian, the late 12th-century Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, said: “The Franks never raised any difficulty about matters of faith, or tried to reach an agreed statement of belief among Christians ethnically and linguistically separated. They regarded as Christian anybody who venerated the Cross, without further inquiry.”

Things had not been like this during the early centuries of Christianity. But now in Outremer pragmatism, cooperation and toleration came to the fore, and both individuals and whole sections of society found ways of working together.

Behind this atmosphere of toleration was the reality that eastern Christians felt closer ties to their fellow Christians from the West than to either the Muslim Arabs or the Turks. But probably the biggest factor that encouraged the Franks and the native inhabitants of Outremer to get along was that they shared a common enemy: the Turks. But it was not only Christians for whom the Turks were the enemy; they were the enemy for many local Muslims, too.

Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Muslim who had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, wrote of his journey through Outremer in 1184 as he travelled between Damascus and Acre: “The Muslims here own their own houses and rule themselves in their own way. This is the way the farms and big villages are organised in Frankish territory. Many Muslims are sorely tempted to settle here when they see the far from comfortable conditions in which their brethren live in the districts under Muslim rule.

Unfortunately for the Muslims, they have always reason for complaint about the injustices of their chiefs in the lands governed by their co-religionists, whereas they can have nothing but praise for the conduct of the Franks, whose justice they can always rely on.”

Ibn Jubayr’s account is all the more striking as he was otherwise resolutely opposed to the Franks. But he could not deny the respect with which the Franks treated his fellow Muslims. In Acre itself he discovered that, though two mosques had been converted to churches, Muslims were nevertheless free to use them as meeting places and to pray in them, facing towards Mecca. There was nothing unusual about this; the Arab diplomat Usamah ibn Munqidh had mentioned the hospitality he received from the Templars who welcomed him to pray in their chapel within their headquarters on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

In 1291, the Templar fortress in Acre fell and all those left alive in the city were led outside the walls, where their heads were cut off, and their city was smashed to pieces until almost nothing was left standing. As the Templars looked back along the receding mainland, the devastation was already beginning. Mameluke troops, that is, Turkish soldiery based in Egypt, laid waste to the coastal plain. Orchards were cut down and irrigation systems wrecked, while native Christians fled into the mountains. Contemptuous of the lives and welfare of the local people, they destroyed anything that might be of value to the Franks should they ever attempt another landing.

Even four centuries after the Franks were driven from this coast, the devastation wrought by the Turks was still apparent. In 1697 the English traveller Henry Maundrell recorded the “many ruins of castles and houses, which testify that this country, however it be neglected at present, was once in the hands of a people that knew how to value it, and thought it worth the defending”.

The fall of Acre was followed by numerous local insurrections against Mameluke rule, which was brutal and repressive. Nor were the uprisings only among the Christians. Shia Muslims living in the northern part of the Bekaa Valley and in the mountains north-east of Beirut had joined with Druze in an uprising against the Sunni Mamelukes.

Christians and Jews throughout Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt were again oppressed by the old Muslim laws. Among other things, they were forbidden to ride horses or mules and were forced to wear distinctive clothing. Nor could they build or rebuild places of worship.

Fanatical Muslims looted and destroyed all the principal churches of Egypt and Christians suffered wholesale massacre.

In Syria and Lebanon things were hardly less difficult for the Maronites. They had been condemned by the Church as heretics in the seventh century for their belief not in the single nature of Christ – Monophysitism – but rather in the single will of Christ – Monothelitism – but in 1182 the Franks helped bring them into communion with the Catholic Church at Rome. More than 50,000 Maronites were said to have died fighting alongside the Franks during the 12th and 13th centuries to defend Outremer against the Muslims. When the Franks left, they escaped into the mountains of northern Lebanon which remain a Christian stronghold to this day.

The fall of the Crusader states caused grief and anger in the West. The sins of the inhabitants of Outremer were blamed, as was the failure of the leaders of European Christendom to provide ample and timely aid, and the Templars were blamed too. No one was exempt. But it was the Templars who felt the loss most intensely. The defence of the Holy Land and the protection of pilgrims was their raison d’être. Now cast out from the Holy Land, the Templars found themselves vulnerable to the machinations and greed of the king of France, who wanted the Templars’ wealth and to destroy their reputation as a way of advancing his nationalist agenda against the claims of universal dominion made by the papacy and the Church.

After seven long years of tortures, imprisonments and trials, the last of the Templars, the grand master Jacques de Molay, finally expected to be released. He had falsely confessed to heresy in order to save his life, expecting absolution by the Pope, which would free him from his nightmare and allow him to live again in sunlight among those loved by the Church and Christ. Instead he was condemned to harsh and perpetual punishment, to starve and rot in prison until he was released by a lingering death.

Now in the midst of betrayal and despair, he loudly protested his innocence and asserted that the order of the Templars was pure and holy. At once the king ordered that he be condemned as a relapsed heretic, and on that same evening, at Vespers, he was taken to a small island in the Seine, and bound to the stake.

A chronicler described how Jacques de Molay asked to face the Cathedral of Notre Dame and calmly prepared himself to endure the fire. The last of the Templars went to his death with courage, in the tradition of their order.

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag is published by Profile Books, priced £16.99

  • teigitur

    A very interesting article.

  • John

    There’s a masonic organizations for teens called DeMolay International, named after Jacques De Molay. I was curious as to how the Masons developed their alternative view of Templar history where they insinuate that the Templars where rebels rather than loyal to the church.

  • Neville

    Excellent article.  It is time people realised and accepted that the Crusades were aptly named as crusades to save the Christian holy places from the incursions of Islam.  The Muslims were later arrivals.  I much look forward to reading your book, Michael. 

  • la catholic state

    I wish we had the courage and spirit of the Crusaders today.  Not necessarily in their war-like ways (though that does have its place and may very soon come into being again)…..but in the way they centered their lives and their nations on Christ!

    Secularism is so bland (and so evil) in comparison.

  • allos

    It is good to see someone putting the record straight: the eastern Mediterranean littoral was Christian long before the arrival of Arab and Turkish conquerors. The notion that the Christian West from time immemorial has sought to oppress and humiliate Muslims is the work of propagandists and bigots. And, by the way, when was slavery prohibited in Arab and Turkish lands?

  • Isidorus

    An interesting article indeed. However, Jacques de Molay was not “the last” of the Templars, as a fair trial was held in Spain and former Templar knights were permitted to join other military orders in Castile, Aragon and Portugal.

  • Thomas Kohwagner

     Some (!) Masononic branches claim (!) heritage from the Templars. This is totally unproven speculation. And: Other branches deny this heritage. Therefore the view of the Masons is not more relevent than the view of anybody else. By the way: There are contemporary Templar organizations today that are not Masonic. Why don’t you dig there?

  • Irene

    We need to hear more about the true story of the crusades, as in the excellent article above. Thank you! Prof. Jonathan Riley Smith, an expert on the crusades, has also written a number of excellent articles and books on this crucial topic. Sadly, most catholics are more or less ignorant about this, like in so many other important issues, therefore they are not able to defend the Church. In today’s increasingly atheistic and catholic bashing society, good and solid knowledge is crucial. What I have reacted to is that I have never, ever, heard any parish priest mentioning anything about the crusades; what they really were, namely a desperate and courageous attempt to rescue Christendom which found itself threatened by the enormous advance by muslim invaders. It was a question of survival, to prevent christendom to be wiped out, to defend the christian values and traditions, or to surrender to the muslim invaders. A natural sense of healthy pride as to the immense sacrifices the templars and so many other christians endured, needs to be nourished within ordinary catholics. This formation and information should be considered of vital importance, since actually it was the Catholic Church that built western civilization. Almost everybody I have talked with, including my intellectual and academic friends, are utterly amazed at even the mere thought that the christians would not at all have been so uneducated and primitive, compared to the muslim invaders, who, to almost 100 % are being portrayed as widely superior to the christian culture at that time.It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly naive most catholics(and others) seem to be, since apparently they have swallowed and digested the exclusivel pro muslim and anti christian and anti western propaganda by the aggressive secular media, politicians, various intellectuals and, not to forget, from the extremely liberal Hollywood.The same thing can be applied to the astounding lack of knowledge as to the immense and concrete aid the Church, especially through Pope Pius XII, offered during WWII. The famous prof Albert Einstein thanked the church officially, in an American Newspaper, after the war, saying that the catholic church, and pope Pius XII(especially) had been THE only institution that had done its utmost to save the lives of so many jews. I strongly recommend you to read about this, as well as about the crusades, on EWTN, where a great number of excellent articles, written by historians, can be found. 
    It is estimated that the pope saved around 800.000 jews from being deported to death camps, either directly or indirectly. Even the chief rabbi in Rome at the time, was so impressed by the Pope’s fearless and evident courage in the face of the nazis that he soon after the war became a catholic and even took the name of the pope that he had before becoming a pope(Pacelli.)
     I even met a catholic priest, who, in a rather disrespectful manner, immediately rejected this information, although it was obvious that he was the one who was ill informed and had grounded his scepticism on liberal anti catholic prejudices and liberal, anti catholic media. 
    While priests need a solid formation in general, we must also expect them to be extremely well informed on these matters. The church has to teach on all of this; wars of life and death, all the wars against evil, in various epochs in history. If only more people, catholics and others, could come to know and understand the truth about all the lies and grave distortions about the church out there, the general respect for the catholic church would increase considerably. People who hate the church instinctively sense that most (sadly, that’s my impression) catholics are not prepared to defend the church, moreover, that they are both ignorant and indifferent and this definitely does not create any respect from their part.
    If millions of catholics were willing to endure death being burnt by the stake at the time of the crusades, and later on, as well, it remains a great mystery to me that there seem to be so utterly few courageous catholics today, when nobody is risking their lives, at least not in western society.
    Quite disturbing, in fact…


  • A Western woman

    They were mere men and as all men they were as corrupt and bloodthirsty as the next man, we should not make out that people who killed non-combatants including their fellow Christians as saintly. They invaded a land and came from overseas to do so, Jesus was a Jew of Arab descent, so that in itself shows that the Jews and Arabs were natives of the land, unlike the Europeans. One cannot justify any invasion of another persons land and then to state they were heroes is just fundamental wrong.

  • Belfire

     The invaders were the Arabs and later the Turks; they came from far away, imposed a different language, culture and religion on the Middle East, and oppressed the native Christian population which shared a common culture with their fellow Christians throughout the Mediterranean world.  You should read the article again, more closely this time, or better yet read the book, which is excellent, and you would understand how misconceived your remarks are.  And by the way Jesus was not a Jew of Arab descent.  The Arabs did not enter Palestine until they did so by force over six hundred years after Jesus’ death. 

  • David Mchardy

    Moreover – the Jews themselves had been invaders! Should the land then be handed back to the Canaanites? Time to get a grip on history, I think!

  • Aglarodrigo

    “Jesus was a Jew of Arab descent”

    A what?
    Jesus was a jew of jew descent. He was no more arab than he was roman.