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