Why You’re Wrong About the Crusades

LOST TO THE WEST by Lars Brownworth

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.


Filed under Author Essays

3 responses to “Why You’re Wrong About the Crusades

  1. Panagiotis Karras

    Lars Brownworth corrects some common misunderstanding in this article. However, unfortunately, he tells only half the story. He fails to mention that the Crusades were also directed against the Empire of the Romans itself, and seized and sacked not only Jerusalem in 1099, but Constantinople in 1204 as well – and planned to repeat the latter feat even after the city was liberated in 1261, until such French plans were frustrated by the Sicilian Vespers in 1282.

    Furthermore, far from being inconsequential, these events have indeed left their mark in those affected. It is surprising the Lars Brownworth fails to mention these facts in this article. In his book, he does a quite better job. Using the Empire of the Romans, a victim of the Crusades, as a scapegoat for them is unethical and far below the standard of this author.

    • Damian Lewis

      Just as you accused Lars of not telling the whole truth, you (Panagiotis) have done the same.
      Lars is talking about the era surrounding the first crusade and the Byzantine empire, dates roughly covering 648AD – 1099AD. This is his specialty in history.

      The circumstances you are decribing related to the 4th crusade, where west attacks east. This happened centuries later. There were reasons for this, and many are debateable, however they are to long for this small column.

  2. David Northcutt

    I am reading Mr. Brownworth’s book with great pleasure and am nearing the end. The tale is heartbreaking for the numerous opportunities the Byzantines had to preserve their civilization (and that of Rome) that were lost or squandered. He is of course right to point out the huge deficit in the popular understanding of the Crusades. I’m reminded of a lecture by Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Islam, in which he described the Crusades as a “limited and unsuccessful counter-attack” against centuries of Islamic conquest.
    Unfortunately, the popular image allows even former U.S. presidents to refer to the Crusades to excuse, or at least explain, such modern-day atrocities as the September 11 attacks.

    I agree with most of Mr. Karras’ comments, but I think I disagree with his claim of Mr. Brownworth’s failure to be sympathetic to the sufferings of the Byzantines at the hands of the Crusaders. It seems to me that in his essay, Mr. Brownworth is defending the Byzantines by explaining their sufferings at the hands of Arab and Turkish Muslim imperialists, by showing the reasonableness of their overture to the Pope for assistance, and by explaining that we can only understand the Western Crusaders, and their justifications for their actions, by understanding the noble struggle of Byzantine Christians — spiritual brethren, at that moment, of the Crusaders. He could have said much more, certainly, but that might not have been his purpose here. I think he does the subject justice in his book.
    Perhaps the saddest thing in the long history of the Byzantine Empire was the mutual distrust that erupted at the dawn of the First Crusade in the relations between the Crusading knights (due largely to their arrogance and greed) and the Byzantine emporer. What might the world have been but for that failure to come together as Christians rather than to fall deeper into enmity as rivals?

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