Sunday, May 10, 2015

Islam and the First Crusades

Abbasid Heavy Swordsmen

Arab Tribal Warriors

The two centuries from the establishment of the Saljuq sultanate in 1055 to the demise of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in 1258 witnessed the decisive retreat of Isma’ili Shi’ism from the centre of the political stage and the resurgence of Sunnism, supported now not solely by the ‘Abbasid caliphs but by the Saljuqs and similar politico-military elites whose leaders claimed to be sultans acting on behalf of the caliph. However, Saljuq successes were quickly overshadowed by the occupation of the Levantine coast by Crusaders from France, Flanders and other northern European countries. The Crusades were triggered by the Saljuq victory against the Byzantines at Manzikart in 1071 and the establishment of the sultanate of Rum in the 1080s, which persuaded the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus to swallow his natural distrust of Latin Christians and appeal to Latin Christendom for military assistance. He probably had in mind mercenaries who would do his bidding, but instead Pope Urban II responded by preaching the First Crusade and Alexius found himself face to face with the much more ambitious and much less malleable Crusaders. The Byzantines would live to regret their appeal to their Western co-religionists.

On the Muslim side the Crusades were totally unexpected and quickly revealed that the Saljuq empire was, in some ways, a rather shaky edifice. The military prowess of Turkish tribal cavalrymen was offset by their reluctance to submit to authority and their constant search for pasturelands for their flocks which could make them disruptive and unreliable. At the same time, there were tensions within the Saljuq clan itself. According to Turkish political norms, possessions belonged to the clan and not to an individual; therefore the empire did not belong to the sultan but to his clan, the members of whom expected their share. As a result the sultans had to parcel out the eastern Islamic lands between numerous relatives who then became independent potentates on their own patch. This led to a high degree of political fragmentation within the Saljuq realm, which was exacerbated by the fact that the Turks’ warrior lifestyle meant that many princes died young leaving their fiefs to infants or minors in whose name regents known as atabeys ruled. By the onset of the Crusades in the late 1090s, Greater Syria had been parcelled out to several mutually suspicious Saljuq princes and atabeys who saw no reason to cooperate when the Crusaders did appear in the north. Moreover in the years immediately preceding the First Crusade almost every major Muslim political figure had died - the Saljuq sultan Malikshah, his chief minister Nizam al-Mulk, the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi, and his Fatimid rival al-Mustansir - creating a complete political vacuum in the Middle East.

The Saljuqs quickly dissipated the infamous People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit, which had expended most of its energy on massacring Jews across Europe, but they were defeated by the knights of the First Crusade at Dorylaeum in 1097. Baldwin of Boulogne then diverted east and insinuated himself into the court of Edessa in northern Mesopotamia, which was ruled by a Christian Armenian lord called T’oros. In the strangest story of the First Crusade, Baldwin persuaded the childless ruler and his wife to adopt him by means of a bizarre ceremony during which he pretended to suckle from the ageing queen. Soon after, he murdered his unfortunate adoptive parents and became lord of Edessa. Various Crusaders held the County of Edessa until 1144, when the city was captured by the Muslims.

The other Crusaders proceeded south from Asia Minor into Syria and besieged Antioch. Dissension among the Saljuq princes and their regents prevented a relief force having any effect, and after six months the city fell when an armourer surreptitiously let in the Crusaders. In contravention of the specified aim of the Crusade - the liberation of the Holy Land from Muslim control - and oaths the Crusaders had taken to Alexius Comnenus, Bohemond I took Antioch as his appanage and left the rest of the Crusaders, led by Raymond of Gilles and Godfrey de Bouillon, to proceed south. In 1097 the most sinister and notorious event of the Crusade took place, the sack of the small town of Ma’arra where, as Radulph of Caen later admitted, ‘our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled’ Jerusalem was finally taken in 1098, its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants slaughtered by the vengeful Crusaders. A horrified Ibn al-Athir recorded that the Jews of the city were barricaded in their synagogue and burnt to death while a massacre of the city’s Muslim inhabitants ensued, causing the streets literally to run with blood. Godfrey de Bouillon became custodian of the holy city on behalf of the pope, and Raymond, the only eminent Crusader not to have acquired a fiefdom, hastened north to make good his claim to Tripoli on the Levantine coast.

By 1100 the map of the Middle East had become a mosaic of small principalities clustered around the notional centres of Baghdad, where the ‘Abbasids and Great Saljuqs held court, and Cairo, the capital of the Fatimids. In the Levant the handful of Crusaders who remained established a precarious foothold, dependent on supplies brought by the ships of the Italian city-states of Genoa and Pisa. 

West of Egypt, a new Berber regime, the Almoravids, had emerged from the Sahara desert below Morocco to create an empire encompassing parts of West Africa, the Sahara, Morocco and the southern Iberian Peninsula. Somewhat ironically given the political disintegration in the Middle East, the Almoravids chose to pledge their allegiance to the ‘Abbasids and thus technically brought North Africa and Spain into the ‘Abbasid fold for the first time. Although the ‘Abbasids held no real power in the west, the fact that the Almoravids believed that offering them their loyalty and service would be politically useful shows the power of the caliphal idea even in such testing times.

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