“Allah Akbar…was no longer heard in the city. It was replaced by the returning sounds of ‘Christ conquers, rules, and commands.’”
—Ursinus, a First Crusader
“The Lord bestowed on you, Duke Godfrey, the highest reward, the rule of the city. But not for long did you discharge this function, for by nature’s command you passed away. With the sun arising under Leo’s sign, you, happy, arose to Heaven with Michael [the Archangel] coming to meet you.”
—Fulcher of Chartres
Beginning in the fourth century, when the Roman Empire started to Christianize, Jerusalem—where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected—took on great importance and became the center of pilgrimage. In the 330s, Constantine the Great ordered the construction of the Holy Sepulchre, a massive temple complex over the site of Christ’s burial; and the True Cross, believed to consist of fragments of the instrument of execution, was unearthed. Both would take on great importance for Christendom and shape the course of this book.
Precisely three hundred years after Constantine’s death in 337, the Arabs, who had recently unified under the banner of Islam, conquered Jerusalem from the Eastern Roman Empire in 637. Thereafter, the Christians of the Holy Land were, “generation after generation,” persecuted, “to the point of slaughter and destruction, suffered at the hands of Muslim rulers.”
Not every Muslim leader was committed to the destruction of churches and persecution of Christians; some were more pragmatic, leaving dhimmis alone on payment of jizya and acceptance of social inferiority. That said, and as in other Muslim-occupied territories, whether the next ruler would be “radical” or “moderate”—to use an anachronistic but familiar dichotomy—was always a coin flip away. As for the Muslim populace, then as now, mobs were always ready to rise against and plunder Christians under any pretext.
Even the Holy Sepulchre, Christendom’s most sacred church, was not spared. In 936, “the Muslims in Jerusalem made a rising and burnt down the Church…which they plundered, and destroyed all they could of it,” records one Muslim chronicler. Similarly, in 1009, Fatimid Caliph Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021) ordered one of his officials “to destroy the [Sepulchre] church and have the people plunder it so thoroughly all traces of it were obliterated. He did exactly that.” Such wanton vandalism “plunged the entire church and the city of Rome into deep grief and distress,” to quote the pope of the time, Sergius IV (d. 1012). Not content, Hakim further ordered the destruction of, according to Muslim accounts, some thirty thousand churches throughout Egypt and Greater Syria.
Although a much smaller church was rebuilt over the Sepulchre of Christ in 1048—subsequent Muslim rulers preferred the vast revenues raised by Christian pilgrimages to the destruction of yet another “infidel” church—it too remained under threat. As William of Tyre (1130–1186), an important Crusades chronicler born and raised in the Holy Land, writes, when the Muslims “desired to exact anything by force from either the patriarch or the people, any delay in rendering obedience was immediately followed by the threat that the church would be pulled down.”
Around the same time the Sepulchre was being rebuilt, the Seljuk Turks rose to power in Afghanistan and eastern Iran in the 1040s, occupied Baghdad in 1055—keeping the Abbasid caliphs as figureheads—and continued marching westward into Syria. No other Muslim peoples would come to spearhead the jihad as the Turks had; both friend and foe attest to their martial prowess and religious zeal. As Bernard Lewis writes, “the converted Turks sank their national identity in Islam as the Arabs and Persians had never done.” Accordingly, “under Turkish influence, Islam regained the zeal of the early Arab conquests and reopened holy war against its Christian foes on a significant scale.”
Matters went from bad to worse for the people of the ancient Christian region of Asia Minor—the future “Turkey”—particularly those on its easternmost edge, where the Turks first began to invade, namely, the Armenians. Hundreds of thousands of these Christians were either massacred or enslaved; and thousands of churches were torched or transformed into mosques. The pivotal moment came in 1071, after the decisive Turkish victory over the Eastern Roman Empire at Manzikert, which opened the rest of the Anatolian plain to Turkic Islam. Then, the Seljuk sultan, Muhammad bin Dawud Chaghri (“Alp Arslan”) called on his followers to run “through the countryside day and night, slaying the Christians and not sparing any mercy on the Roman nation.” Eagerly they obliged and penetrated westward; as a result, “cities were obliterated, lands were plundered, and the whole of Rhomaioi [Anatolia] was stained with Christian blood,” writes the Eastern Roman princess, Anna Komnene. “All that was left were devastated fields, trees cut down, mutilated corpses and towns driven mad by fear or in flames.” Like the Armenians before them, hundreds of thousands of Anatolian, Greek-speaking Christians were massacred, enslaved, or compelled to convert to Islam (this latter point was recently confirmed by DNA studies).
Anna’s father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r.1081–1118) recounted his people’s travails in a letter addressed to his friend, “Count [Robert] of Flanders and to all the princes of the whole kingdom, lovers of the Christian faith.” In it, he lamented “how hard the most holy Roman Christian Empire is being pressed” by the Turks, “pillaged daily and constantly raided, with Christians being murdered and mocked in various indescribable ways.”
Not only did the Muslim invaders “defile the holy places in innumerable ways, and destroy them,” continued the emperor, but they would “circumcise Christian boys and youths above Christian baptismal fonts, pour the blood from the circumcision into the fonts in mockery of Christ, force them to urinate on it, and then drag them round the church and force them to blaspheme the name and faith of the Holy Trinity. Those who refuse are subjected to various punishments and eventually killed.” As for Christian women,
Things fared little better in the Holy Land. Jerusalem’s Christians “endured far greater troubles [under the Turks],” writes William of Tyre, “so that they came to look back upon as light the woes which they had suffered under the yoke of the Egyptians [Fatimids] and Persians [Abbasids]…. Death threatened them every day and, what was worse than death, the fear of servitude, harsh and intolerable, ever lowered before them.” William proceeds to offer a typical example:
Nor were European pilgrims to Jerusalem spared: “As the Turks were ruling the lands of Syria and Palestine, they inflicted injuries on Christians who went to pray in Jerusalem, beat them, pillaged them, [and] levied the poll tax [jizya],” writes Michael the Syrian (b.1126). Moreover, “every time they saw a caravan of Christians, particularly of those from Rome and the lands of Italy, they made every effort to cause their death in diverse ways.”
It was in this abysmal context that, at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II called for what came to be known as the First Crusade. After describing to the assembled lords and nobles the plight of Eastern Christendom under Islam, he cried, “who is to repair this damage, if you do not do it?…. Rise up and remember t...