by Lars Brownworth, author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (Crown, 2009).
There are few words as controversial—or as misunderstood—as ‘crusade’. Those who doubt that need only remember nine years ago when President George W. Bush casually used it to describe the War on Terror. The ensuing firestorm caused frantic verbal backpedaling, and resulted in the President spending the next seven years repeatedly explaining that he was not waging a war against Islam.
Yet for all the disbelief and outrage, most people today know only a few basic ‘facts’ about the Crusades. They are largely regarded as an exercise in hypocrisy, an unprovoked assault into the Middle East by an expansionist West. Goaded on by the Pope, the knights of Europe sewed crosses onto their shirts and smashed their way into Jerusalem, committing horrendous atrocities in the name of a supposedly peaceful religion. The shocking events traumatized the Islamic world, poisoning relations and leading many Muslims to conclude that the West—and Christianity in particular—was out to destroy them. The chance for peaceful co-existence was lost, and it has been war ever since.
Like so many popularly accepted storylines, this one depends on a short view of history. The Crusades were indeed filled with atrocities on both sides, and Christians did indeed seize Jerusalem from its Muslim masters, but Christendom’s contact with Islam goes back much further than the eleventh century. It began in the year 628 when Muhammad allegedly sent a letter to the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Emperor Heraclius inviting him to convert to Islam or face the consequences. If he did indeed get such a letter, the emperor is not likely to have paid any attention. The Arabs had never been remotely threatening in the past, and he was preoccupied with a bruising war against Persia. Muhammad, however, was no fleeting Arab strongman. He united the squabbling tribes of Arabia and inspired them with a new vision of a world divided between those who had submitted to Islam (Dar al-Islam) and those who had yet to be conquered (Dar al-Harb). Prevented from fighting each other, they spilled outward in the first great wave of jihad.
Six years after Heraclius had supposedly disregarded Muhammad’s letter, the Muslims reached imperial territory and Syria and most of Palestine fell in rapid succession. When the Byzantine army tried to reclaim its lost provinces they were lured into the desert and massacred. Land that had been Roman for centuries now found itself part of the Caliphate and was used as a springboard for further attacks. Then in 637 the greatest blow fell. Christendom’s holiest city Jerusalem, which had managed to hold out for four months, surrendered to the advancing Islamic army.
The loss profoundly shocked the Byzantines, and they continued to fall back before the onslaught. Within half a century Muslim armies had taken the rest of Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. At one end of the Mediterranean they had crossed over into Spain, and at the other they were beneath the walls of Constantinople itself poised to obliterate the Christian Empire. Thanks to a secret weapon called ‘Greek Fire’ and a resourceful Syrian shepherd named Konon, the city was saved, but its days of greatness seemed over.
For the next three centuries, however, Byzantium stubbornly clawed its way back. By 976 two of their emperors had marched down the Levantine coast, and nearly managed to re-conquer Jerusalem. Unfortunately for the empire, both of these soldier-emperors were assassinated before they could complete their work, and the imperial recovery was cut short by the arrival of the Turks. The Byzantine army was broken in 1071 trying to defend Armenia, and Asia Minor was flooded with Turkish settlers. Once again lands that had been Christian for nearly a millennium were wrenched from their orbit and absorbed into an expanding Islamic state.
It took a decade for Byzantium to staunch the bleeding. Under the deft guidance of an emperor named Alexius, the empire managed to hold the line in Asia Minor, but its armies were too hopelessly shattered to mount a counteroffensive. Desperate for reliable troops, Alexius took pen in hand and wrote a letter to the Pope asking for a few mercenaries.
What he got instead was the First Crusade.
The Crusader’s conduct as they entered Jerusalem made it a black day for their faith, but it was hardly the defining moment in the long conflict between the two religions. Nor, despite later attempts to cast it as such, was it somehow responsible for Muslim animosity against the West. That struggle had been flaring for centuries before the first Frenchman knelt on the field of Clermont and swore to liberate Jerusalem. The Crusades—and the larger conflict that they were part of—can’t truly be understood without first knowing the story of Byzantium. The continuing tragedy is that here in the West, it remains largely unknown.
Lars Brownworth, a former high-school history teacher, is the creator of the podcast phenomenon “12 Byzantine Rulers” that iTunes named as one of the “podcasts that define the genre.” Brownworth and his podcast have been profiled in the New York Times, Wired, and USA Today, and were featured on NPR.