As we celebrate a rather sobering Easter Sunday amid the Red Pandemic, I wanted to share some tales of the Holy Land and the Crusades. A new book, Crusaders, by Dan Jones is quite a comprehensive study of a pivotal era for the West and its relations with Islam.
Most of us were brought up with tales of King Richard the Lion Heart of England, or his nemesis Saladin the Muslim leader – but they were only cameos in the sordid history of the Crusades.
The word Crusades comes from the Medieval Latin cruciata (“to mark with a cross”); and they weren’t confined to the Holy Land. Sicily was under Arab rule until 1091, as was most of Spain and many islands in the Mediterranean. Pagans ruled in the lands between Russia and Poland. The Christian Europe we see today came about through conquest, not merely conversion.
It was the popes who tenuously led Europe after the fall of Rome. With the power of excommunication and the forgiveness of sins, the popes motivated Christian Europe – that ethnic mosaic of Latin, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic and Magyar – to wage war against Islam, pagans, and heresies. Pope Nicholas II egged the Norman occupiers of southern Italy to oust the Arabs from Sicily, which they did by 1091. In Spain, crusades against the Muslim occupiers lasted some 600 years until Ferdinand and Isabella finalized the victory in 1492, and only then were they able to launch the Italian Navigator on his journey west.
The fight for the Holy Land began with a written appeal from the Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople in 1091. That letter spoke of Greek Christians being murdered, holy sites being desecrated, and Christian women violated. How much was true we shall never know, but it was enough for Pope Urban II to encourage European knights and princes to launch the First Crusade.
There were eight or nine crusades over one hundred years, with varying degrees of success and failure. Over the century, many cities were taken and lost by the Crusaders, including Jerusalem. They became fiefdoms of European princes and military orders like the Templars, but eventually all were lost to Muslim warlords. Butchery, rape, and pillage were commonplace, whether committed by Christians or Muslims. Eventually, every murderous horde in Asia was sucked into the area – Sunnis, Shi’ites, Moguls, Mamluks, Turks, and Kurds. What we see in the Middle East today is just a continuation of that era.
Most fascinating is the story of Enrico Dandolo (DAHN-doe-lo), a doge of Venice. Already in his nineties and blind, Dandolo cut a deal with some European princes to provide transportation to the Holy Land for the 4th Crusade. Venice, Genoa, and Pisa were naval powers back then. It was their galleys that ruled the Mediterranean and carried on a hugely profitable business with the Middle East – a trade monopoly that only ended with Columbus.
To fulfill their part of the bargain, Venetians prepared a fleet of two hundred ships and purchased massive quantities of wine, cheese, salted meat, and fodder for horses from all over Italy. When the Crusaders arrived at Venice, they brought only half the money they promised and half the men. Venice had been shortchanged!
Ever resourceful, Dandolo had a Plan B: in lieu of cash, the Crusaders agreed to help Venice subdue a Christian city on the Balkan coast that had also reneged on a deal. No sooner was that city taken and plundered then Dandolo cut another deal, this time with the pretender to the throne of Greek Constantinople. If Dandolo and the Crusaders restored him to power, the pretender would pay Venice handsomely.
So, what began as a Crusade against Muslims to wrest back control of the Holy Land, became a war against fellow Christians. In 1204, Dandolo and his Venetian-Crusader force took Constantinople only to find that the pretender also reneged on him. No problem. The city would pay dearly with rape, theft, and arson. Today, four bronze horses stand proudly at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice – taken from Constantinople. The Shroud of Turin with its purported image of Jesus was also taken from the city. One year later Dandolo died, age 98, and was buried in Constantinople’s (now Istanbul) Hagia Sofia – the only individual entombed there.
As a postscript, it is worth noting that among the reasons Columbus sought riches in Asia was to finance another Crusade to liberate Jerusalem.-JLM