Since people are talking about the crusades a lot lately on FB, which seems to have to do with something the American president has said on some breakfast prayer thing, I thought it might be a good idea to bring some balance and some historical perspective with a quote from Philip Jenkins, from his very interesting but challenging book ‘the lost history of Christianity’
“The story of the Crusades is well known, but less celebrated is the much more acute challenge to Muslim power caused by Christian attempts to create an Eastern Front against Islam. During the thirteenth century, the Muslim states suddenly found themselves under attack from a lethal enemy whose activities made the Western Crusades look like fleabites. The Mongol assault on the Islamic world began in 1219 when the forces of Genghis Khan attacked the Khwarezmid Empire of central Asia, taking such great cities as Bukhara and Samarkand. Over the next forty years, Mongol power extended over most of western Asia, through a series of campaigns in which they devastated ancient cities. When Merv fell in 1221, the
Mongols slaughtered virtually every man, woman, and child in the city, not to mention many thousands of refugees from surrounding areas. Contemporary accounts claim that the dead ran into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Ani in Armenia never recovered from the sack of 1236, while Mongol devastation ended the golden age of the Christian kingdom of Georgia. In 1258, the Mongols under Hulegu, Genghis’s grandson, perpetrated a historic massacre in Baghdad itself, ending the caliphate and conceivably killing eight hundred thousand residents. Over the next century, Hulegu’s successors ruled the Ukhanate, one of the Mongol successor states, a vast empire stretching from the boundaries of India to western Anatolia. When modern-day Iraqis denounce American occupiers as the New Mongols, they are invoking memories of the direst moment of their history. The Mongol threat remained acute until 1303, when Egyptian forces decisively defeated them in Syria.” (p120-121)
Yes, thinking of the crusades as very important to the history of Islamic empires in the middle-East is quite Eurocentric and not very realistic in that it forgets much more powerful and important players, Philips even says the crusades were like fleabites compared to the Mongol powers, who did end the mighty Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad in 1258, the third caliphate to sucdeed prophet Muhammed himself. (As a sidenote: there were parallel caliphates in this age, but afterwards the caliphate has never been resurrected in the same way, even though two rogue groups did proclaim a new caliphate in 2014, the IS in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria!)
Some more historical notes:
1. The Mongols did have several state religions, afterwards they converted to Islam and they were part of the erasure most of Asian Christianity between the Middle-East and China, often without a trace.
2. the crusades did harm other Christians too, and more than fleabites actually: the fourth crusade, which didn’t even reach Jerusalem did bring a much greater split between the Catholics and the Orthodox than the great schism itself did: when they conquered Constantinople in 1204 and did a lot of evil and very unchristian things there. It was the final break-up between Western and Eastern Christianity!
(Not to mention the later Albigensian Crusade which did erase the heretic Albingensians and most of the Waldensians from Europe… They just had the wrong religion…)
3. We should not think of the Europeans as being more powerful colonisers and conquerors than the Muslim empires all the time. If we go back and forward in time from the crusades we see that there are other times when a Muslim conquest of Europe wasn’t as unthinkable as it is to us now. Charles Martel had stopped the early Arab conquests into Europe at the Battle of Tours in 732, which might have meant the end of Western Christianity in the heart of Europe (at a moment where Eastern Christianity in the form of the East-roman empire was quite strong btw).
The Ottoman empire after overtaking the Byzantine (East-Roman) empire by conquering constantinopole in 1453 was a formidable power that, again, could have succeeded in taking over much of Europe. Emperor Philips II of Spain managed to drive them back (a turning point was the battle of Lepanto in 1571)
But don’t forget that parts of Spain (yes, the mighty mighty European Power that not only did send the inquisition and the army of Duke Alva here to the Netherlands long ago but colonised much of South and Middle America) was in hands of Islamic powers between 711–1492. The year the Americas were discovered was the year Europe was freed of Muslim powers, and then they could go on colonising themselves…
By the way: f Philips II wouldn’t have to fight the Turks he probably would have had the power to fight the protestants in the North, and have erased protestantism not just from the Southern Netherlands (He did that very thoroughly, Flanders and the Southern part of the current Netherlands were quite universally catholic after the fall of Antwerp in 1585 and remained so until the dechristianisatoion of the 20th century…)
(Someone of facebook told me this week that Americans associate Spanish with poor illegal immigrants. We in this part of Europe see the Spanish as a powerful aggressive invading power who brought the inquisition here to rid us from heresies like protestantism. And I do think the Inca and Aztec people would have even stronger opinions about them…)
4. If we’re talking about the Europeans as colonisers we should not forget that the powerful European powers who colonised other continents were often oppressing other Europeans closer by. And the great colonising wave in the last 500 years is only unique in that Europeans did cross great distances. Empires in Eurasia, inculding the Mongols, Arabs and the Ottomans named already and earlier the Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Huns and Greeks have been conquering big parts of the Eurasian continent at least since Alexander the Great. The crusades against Muslims were not that spectacular at all in this big picture., let alone successful.
The big difference with the European colonisation wave in the last 500 years is the superior technology, not only when it comes to weaponry but also far-distance travel, which made it possible to colonise places far away over the ocean. Something that hadn’t happened before in the history of the planet. The Arabs and Ottomans had conquered a vast empire for example in West-Asia and North-Africa, but only in places they could reach by land or from a short distance over sea… (This includes the crusades.)
The only parallel with what Europeans colonisers did in the last 500 years might be the Polynesians who did colonise a lot of Oceania and even very remote places as Hawai, Easter Island and New Zealand, but they generally didn’t steal countries from other people with much violence as the modern Europeans did, they colonised mostly uninhabited places. (where they ravaged ecosystems and brought extinctions, but that’s outside of the scope of this post)
Last Note: Islam and Christianity are very diverse religions, and can never be seen as one ‘power’. If I speak about an ‘Islamic power’ or empire, I mean an empire that has the Islamic religion as core part of their identity. But there have always been more different Islamic countries, some of which did fight each other. Lumping all Muslims together is the same as thinking that the Byzantine empire of the 1400s and contemporary America or Mexico are the same thing, because they all are Christian…