The World at the Time of the Crusades
The history of the western world has often been framed by the conflict between East and West. At no other point has the conflict pervaded so many levels of society than at the time of the Muslim Conquests of the 7th – 9th centuries when the armies led by Muhammad rode out of the Arabian Desert to conquer and convert the civilized Persian and Roman peoples. To understand the crusades, a picture must be painted of the state of the world in which the crusaders lived.The West, at the time, was characterized by the concept of Christendom which can be understood as the lands inhabited and governed by Christians, no matter the sect, stretching between Europe, North Africa, Anatolia, and the Levant. Another way of looking at these regions is to simply trace the outline of the Roman Empire, past and contemporary. The Romans made Christianity the state religion and by the time of the Muslim Conquests there had been a Christian majority within all the regions of Christendom for hundreds and hundreds of years.
When the government of the Western Roman Empire was overthrown in the late 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire (hereafter referred to as Rome) was stronger than ever with its thriving capital city Constantinople straddling the crossroads of some of the largest trade routes of the middle ages. Militarily, the Romans were second to none and for the most part they had few problems fending off barbarian invasions from any direction. When not in direct conflict with the Persians on the eastern border, they watched each other and postured. The Romans and Persians saw each other as the greatest existential threat and so an enormous amount of effort was wasted on wars that resulted in very little change; really a series of campaigns and proxy wars. Both were headed by emperors that required military victory in order to cement their rule which is the likely cause of several prominent Roman-Persian wars.
The long stalemate between Rome and Persia finally ended during a massive war waged for nearly three decades beginning in 602 AD. The Persians had the upper hand for much of the beginning of the war and had steam rolled past much of the lands that made up the usual battlefields and into the heart of some of Rome’s most prosperous provinces when they occupied Roman Mesopotamia (modern day Northern Iraq), Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Northern steppe tribes and Slavs took advantage of the total shift in Rome’s attention east to raid the northern border entering into the Balkans; part of a process of southward migration where many Slavs now live to this very day.
After 20 years of miserable defeat, the Roman emperor Heraclius began a long slog towards victory. By exploiting the overextended Persian war machine, he was able to pick at the edges of their empire where they were weak in order to collapse their efforts completely with time. A massive Persian army had besieged Constantinople itself and so they have the distinguished honor of being one of the few armies in history with the hubris to give it an honest shot. Of course, the army was smashed up against the massive multilayered Theodosian walls while another army was defeated in the field. This defeat sent the Persians into a tailspin from which they’d never recover. However, if it’s any consolation for the defeated, the Romans will never enjoy the same level of power ever again. These two juggernauts ravaged each other in a great war to end all wars. They would soon learn to regret this as each depleted power was defeated, spectacularly so, by the hordes of desert people led by a warlord named Muhammad.
Muhammad led an army of 30,000 religious zealots out of the Arabian Desert in 630 AD which meant the 26 year Roman war with Persia had been over for about a year when Heraclius was forced to turn his attention to a desolate unassuming corner of his empire. Muhammad had consolidated control over the Arabian peninsula by this time and was looking to direct his combined army towards the wealthy cosmopolitan Romans of the Mediterranean. Expansion had come quickly as only seven years earlier he had been raiding trade caravans and stealing camels from other tribes in the desert. Via a series of battles, sieges, and a process of forced conversion, Muhammad had built up the ranks of his army while continuing to fine tune what was then becoming a religion. Before he could oversee more conquest he died in 632 AD and was succeeded by Abu Bakr and then Ummah.
For the next few years, the Arab armies hammered the weakened armies of Rome and Persia. By the end of the early conquests, the Romans had lost all their territory past the Taurus Mountains. They lost Egypt for good, the whole Levant, most of North Africa, and Roman Mesopotamia. The Persians lost everything despite joining with their former Roman foes to prevent such a loss. Rome would never take these territories back but the other nations of Christendom would and relatively soon as far as the narrative goes.
By 750, Muslim armies had occupied all of North Africa, most of Spain, Cyprus, the eastern half of Anatolia, the Holy Land, Mesopotamia, and the rest of the Persian territories east into what is now Pakistan and north biting into Central Asia. The nations of Christendom endured raids by land and sea. Arab pirates ravaged the Mediterranean even going as far one day as to raid the Vatican and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Arabs took slaves from the European towns they raided and took many thousands of women and children to be used as sex slaves in the Caliphate. The Romans in Constantinople had to endure piracy, slaving, and destructive raids in Anatolia that wouldn’t end until they had lost Anatolia forever. Arab pirates would sack their seaside towns and farms raping women and children, carrying off slaves, and taking loot. The people of Christendom had to endure this on their borders for centuries. In fact, there were hundreds upon thousands of raids and invasions perpetrated on a divided European people for centuries; absolutely relentless Jihad.
The Europeans of Christendom finally fought back in 1095 when Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos pleaded for help from the nations of Europe in fighting back the Muslims. He sought help from the Roman Catholic Pope Urban II asking him for help taking back Roman lands. Only recently the Seljuk Turks had completed their conquest of Anatolia meaning the capitol Constantinople was directly on the border between Christendom and Islam.
The Muslims had been conquering Christian lands for centuries without answer. The Crusades were the result of centuries of weathering an onslaught without end. The army of the First Crusades agreed to help the Romans by taking back their lands of Western Anatolia. They continued on and conquered many cities that had been taken by the Muslims in years past. The tables had turned. Often outnumbered, the Crusaders won battle after battle eventually conquering all of Syria and Palestine. The Holy Land was theirs once again and there they built up Four Kingdoms based around the principle cities. By establishing themselves in the Holy Land, they had created a focal point for Muslim Jihad which was for a time directed mostly at the Crusader Kingdoms rather than the Christian people they usually attacked throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. Had the Crusaders been united politically, the invasion could have been even more successful and could have created more permanent nations. Each King was instead primarily motivated by their own expansion of power. Eventually, the Crusader States were taken out one by one by the slightly more unified Muslim armies. For the next few hundred years, Crusades were launched from Europe in an attempt to recapture the triumph of the First Crusade but fizzled out from a lack of central vision and organization.
The Crusades were a slight reprieve in the face of constant unrelenting Jihad in European territory. Europe was ravaged by Muslim pirates and slavers all the way into the 19th century when they were ultimately quelled almost in their entirety by modern European technology and weaponry. Many European and Americans sailors lived out their lives in slavery in the Barbary States of North Africa. The people of the Balkans and Greece, and Central Europe endured Ottoman Raids and Invasions into their territory for hundreds of years into the modern period without anything close to a large scale organized counter offensive. There was little that could be done by the small nations of Europe against the combined Ottoman armies. In 1453, the grand city of Constantinople which had been the capitol of the Roman Empire for over a thousand years was taken by the Turks and has never been taken back. The Muslim armies had encroached upon Europe so greatly that they had even taken their greatest city.
The context surrounding the Crusades is really that of centuries of unchecked aggression from the East. The memory of raiders raping and pillaging the coasts of Europe is indelibly written into the minds of the people of those regions. Living anywhere that was accessible by Muslim pirates and armies was a horror that could be blamed on the weakness of European countries who only sought to mount a defense when they were threatened themselves. A unified European response came late, but the world would look much different if that response never came at all.
When people denigrate the Crusaders and mention that they acted purely out of pointless greed, it is very likely that they hadn’t considered the context of their actions or the world in which the Europeans were living. They are looking at the Crusades in a vacuum without acknowledging the centuries of brutality millions endured at the hands of Muslim Jihad. Southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, the Balkans, Greece, and anyone living within 50 miles of the sea was subject to constant raids by Muslims pirates. The recent sentiment doled out by people seeking to appear nice and enlightened is that it is not right to defend oneself because violence is wrong and that committing violence against a violent aggressor makes you just as bad as they. To that I say, who ever thought of that kind of rubbish philosophy would have been right at home watching their town burnt to the ground and their wife and children dragged away to be used as sex slaves in the caliphate.
The lessons learned from the time period of, and beyond, the Crusades is that the ebb and flow of nations is best viewed through the lens of Realpolitik. No matter how technologically and culturally advanced a people may be they are not immune to the hordes of barbarians waiting just on the other side of the hill who have absolutely no deference to your weak moralizing and may even use it against you. The Crusades were the Western answer to Eastern aggression and represent a lesson replete throughout Western history.