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History of the Crusades

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

History of the Crusades

The Crusades were a series of European military expeditions against Islamic power in the Near East. Both Christians and Muslims would claim that these were holy wars; the Muslims were defending their territory against the Christian heathens, while the Christians were trying to retake once-Christian territory from the Islamic heathens. From a modern perspective, of course, these wars were territorial and political struggles, with the cloak of a religious imperative thrown over them as a rallying point and a justification.

The Crusades began when the Byzantine emperor appealed to the pope for aid in the long, losing struggle against Turkish aggression. Realizing that success in battle against the Muslims would add significantly to his and the Church’s prestige, the pope agreed to raise an army that would sail east from the major port cities of Venice and Genoa. Motivated by a variety of forces, thousands of Europeans answered the call. First, the mass of knights and vassals had an absolute obligation to serve their lords; they had no choice but to accompany their lords on the Crusades if so ordered. Second, the call to arms had come from the Church; that meant the Crusade would be considered a holy pilgrimage that would earn the soldiers official forgiveness for any sins they committed. Third was desire for a share of the plunder; the Crusaders were well aware that there were great riches and valuables to be seized in the East. Last was the common human sense of adventure and the desire to see new places.

The First Crusade embarked from Europe in 1095; it resulted in the establishment of four Christian states in the eastern Mediterranean. These were Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch, and Acre—fundamentally the same territory that comprises present-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The taking (the Christians considered it retaking) of Jerusalem was symbolically the most important victory, because Christians believed that the site of Jesus’s grave should be in Christian hands.

The primary reason for the success of the First Crusade probably lies in the squabbling and conflict among the various Turkish ruling factions. Malik Shah’s descendants ruled Aleppo and Damascus, but they were at daggers drawn with one another and with all other rulers in the region. However, the Turks man- aged to hold off the troops of the Second Crusade, which ended in 1148 with the European failure to take Damascus.

The turning point of the Crusades came in 1154, when the Turk Nur al- Din, who had by then succeeded to the throne of Aleppo, annexed Mosul and Damascus. When the Christian king of Jerusalem sent troops into Egypt to defeat the Fatimid dynasty, Nur al-Din sent his general Saladin after them. Saladin and his followers quickly defeated the Europeans; in 1171, they proceeded to overthrow the Fatimids, thus establishing the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and restoring Sunni Muslim rule.

A few short years after Nur al-Din’s death, Saladin overpowered his rivals and installed himself as Nur al-Din’s successor. In 1187, he and his troops defeated the Crusaders in a battle near the Sea of Galilee. A determined attack by King Richard I of England at the head of the troops of the Third Crusade nearly defeated Saladin in 1189, but after Richard fell in battle, the Europeans were forced to acknowledge that they had been beaten. The Europeans lost the Fifth Crusade in 1221; seventy years later, the Mamluks captured Acre, ending the era of Christian rule in the Near East.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Rise of the Turks Practice Test

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