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The Back Story to the First Crusade

One of the charges made against the west when the west responds to terrorism (Iraq, Afghanistan) is that the west is on a crusade against Islam. The use of the word “crusade” is used to remind Moslems that in the 11th Century the west did begin to launch crusades spurred on by western popes who sought to liberate the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks (1st Crusade).

Personally, I think the crusades were spurred on by the western popes for a mixed bag of motives. Here’s why.

The Seljuk Turks were the 11th Century nemesis of the Byzantine Empire which was a scaled down version of the old Roman Empire. In fact, the Byzantines called themselves “Romani” and not Byzantines. It was the Byzantines who ruled what we call the Holy Land as well as most of what we call Turkey (and a good part of the Balkans). In other words, before the Seljuk Moslem Turks had the Holy Land the Byzantines had it having taken it back from Arab Moslems who had taken it from the Byzantines prior. Confusing, isn’t it? In any event, the Holy Land was nominally Christian before it became nominally Moslem. If anything, Islam is the Johnny come late-lies to the area so when they scream about who was there first they really need to read their own history.

English: Byzantine empire before the Crusades ...

Prior to the 1st Crusade

Here is the back story behind the 1st Crusade which started the whole mess that has ramifications to the present day.

The Seljuks had won a major victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikart in AD 1071 which left the empire without influence in the Holy Land but also meant the loss of much of what we now call Turkey. This meant the Byzantines lost much of their best recruiting grounds for native soldiers in Turkey and this was something of a big deal. In fact, the Seljuks called their new province the Sultanate of Rum (Rome) which shows that the area was considered Roman.

English: Alp Arslan led Seljuk Turks to victor...

Alp Arslan-Seljuk who defeated the Byzantines at Manzikart.

The Byzantines had a professional army at its core but it was supplemented by competent provincials or semi-professionals from Rum so the loss of this area meant they had to go elsewhere for good, top-quality soldiers.

The Byzantines  also used plenty of mercenaries of all stripes and types. This included the famous Varangian Guard which by the late 11th Century consisted of Scandinavian Vikings, the Rus (the Kiev area settled by Swedish Vikings) and even English Huscarls (also of Scandinavian influence) who had escaped from Britain following the Norman conquest of Britain in AD 1066.

After the Byzantines lost the Battle of Manizikart and their premier recruiting grounds (Rum) to the Turks and so they had to rely more on mercenaries like the Varangians. This led to the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, to swallow some pride and ask the west, notably the western Pope Urban for help. (A good part of any Byzantine Army was Cavalry due to the fact that most of their enemies especially the Turks were cavalry. This meant the type of mercenaries that Alexius was most interested in was the Western Knight.)

The Byzantines did not trust the west since they did not share the same catholic (small “c” intentional) faith. The Byzantines were Eastern Orthodox while the west was Roman Catholic. There had been a recent schism between the two branches of Christianity and little love was lost between the two which went beyond religious differences.  In fact, the Byzantines once controlled a good part of Southern Italy and Sicily before a different set of Normans took it away from them. In other words, the Byzantines had recently fought western “Latin Catholic” warlords and Seljuk Turks even while recruiting soldiers from each into their own armies as mercenaries. This certainly suggests that some things were more important than religion to many western Catholics, many eastern Orthodox and many Turkish Moslems who did not mind at all serving against their fellow Moslems.

These political/religious differences made an alliance between east and west Christendom to liberate the Holy Land extremely unlikely and it’s probable that Pope Urban’s call for a crusade was an over reach and just possibly driven by other motives than to liberate the Holy Land. Some historians believe that all Alexis wanted was more mercenaries that he could control and what he got was land-hungry crusaders who were truly a mixed bag when it came to motive for a crusade. I concur with that analysis.

Whatever the motive the Crusaders became a dominant force in the Holy Land while the Byzantines held on to as much of their dwindling empire as they could. Crusaders from Byzantium’s commercial rival of Venice would eventually (AD 1204) sack Constantinople and send the empire into further decline thus settling the stage for the Ottoman Turks (successors to the Seljuks) to push the remnant empire over in AD 1453 and to rename the great city Istanbul which is what it is called today.

I understand why some Moslems use the word “crusaders” to inflame the masses. The truth is the crusaders behaved horribly on numerous occasions which illustrates that much of the motive for the crusades had nothing to do with the gospel. This does not mean the crusaders enemies, Moslems of Turk or Arab origin, Sunni or Shia did not behave badly for they did. In fact, the Moslems killed knights of the religious orders such as the Templars as soon as they captured them.

It was a brutal age spurred on by superficial religious motives on both sides.

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