Friday, October 28, 2011

The Crusades in Context

The Arabs have memories just as spotty and biased as our own. Thus with western incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, they have talked about the Crusades—but in tonalities as if those by now ancient wars had been unprovoked aggressions. That period had never properly gelled in my mind. I thought I’d get myself a broader perspective on this subject.

To sum up my conclusions briefly, the Crusades turn out to have been a relatively brief and not very successful attempt by European kingdoms to counter the massive northward expansion of the Muslim culture. That culture’s penetration was largely successful in the East, less so in the West. In both cases it touched places my family intimately knows. In the west the Muslims conquered Spain where Monique had lived and studied; that thrust penetrated into France; it was stopped at Tours, where Michelle lived for a while. In the East, much later, it reached the edges of Vienna in Austria; thus it had covered all of the places where I had lived in Hungary as a child.

Let’s take a look at this expansion over time. When Emperor Diocletian retired in 305 AD, the Roman Empire had been split in two halves, one ruled from Rome the other from Byzantium. I show a map here from BibleStudy.org (link). The red line indicates the border between the Western and the Eastern (and future Byzantine) reaches of the Roman Empire. In effect this is also a picture of Christendom projected geographically.



Let me next trace the Muslim expansion in cartoon fashion now, beginning in 305. I have the outline from a kid’s site, MrDonn (that’s where one really learns things) (link). The map’s a little clumsy; the Black Sea is a little tilted. Muslim expansion began in the east just about 300 years later (in 630). The Byzantines lost their African holdings as well as the Levant. These thrusts reached well into Byzantine territories so that the Empire had to defeat the Muslims twice (674, 714) just to hold on to Constantinople. In the west the Arabs invaded Spain (then the Visigothic Christian Kingdoms) in 711. By 732 they had penetrated into France, but they were stopped, and rolled back, in the Battle of Tours. I show the situation in 750 AD.

By 1097, two years after the First Crusade (1095-1099) began, Byzantium had lost all of Turkey in the East. My cartoon, as it were, shows the situation before, the next one the situation after the period of the Crusades. Within a year of this beginning, the Crusader States had been established in the Levant and Spain’s reconquest had then begun. The last of the cartoons shows the situation as of 1204, with gains made by Christendom shown in yellow. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) had recovered parts of Western Turkey (the Empire of Nicaea). My own impression is that both the gains in Turkey and in Spain were ordinary political ventures—reactions to the centuries-long Muslim push north. Only the slender gains in the Levant, the carving out of Crusader States, so-called, were intimately linked to recovering the geography where Christianity had had its founding. But it was a recovery. The Byzantines had once ruled that geography.

Levant? The word’s meaning is “orient,” where the sun rises in Middle French—thus regions east of Rome and Greece. It means the area now occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. The Crusader States were all established in the period 1098-1104. The longest-lasting of these was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which ended in 1291 after 192 years of rule. Here is a graphic that shows the Crusader States in some detail:


During these centuries the Byzantine empire was also effectively dismembered by the establishments of independent kingdoms from the north (Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria), from the West (Venice, the holder of the Empire of Nicaea), and from the South (the Muslims). But these successor states eventually yielded their sovereignty to the Ottoman Empire, thus another powerful representative of the Muslim culture. Its expansion in stages is shown in the following graphic. Both the last and following maps are from Wikipedia Commons (here and here).


The Muslim culture still rules Turkey, regions south of there, and all the regions of North Africa. The process is still going on—witness attempts by the west not to convert the Muslims to Christianity but to persuade them to embrace representative democracy. All that changes is the same-old. And in 1947 we did manage to reestablish the Kingdom of Jerusalem again, if by another name. Yes. The process continues. And the maps will keep on changing. La Reconquista of Spain, by the way, took until 1300. And the break-up of the Ottoman had to await the end of World War I.

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