The Long View: Warriors of God

It is hard to remember now, but Palestine was a sleepy backwater in the domains of the Romans, and then the Ottomans for a very long time. It was not locally ruled any time in the previous twenty centuries except for the longer Hasmonean Dynasty and the very brief Bar Kohkba revolt.

Warriors of God:
Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade
by James Reston, Jr.
Doubleday, 2001
364 Pages, US$27.50
ISBN 0-385-49561-7

The Third Crusade (1187-1192) is one of the best imaginable topics for a popular history. The people involved are pretty much the same disputatious crew that we meet in the film, "The Lion in Winter." They and their Muslim opponents and colleagues really did do the kind of things that are supposed to happen only in comic strips. James Reston, who has written about medieval subjects before, does not disappoint in this book. He is to be particularly congratulated for consulting Muslim sources from the period, to balance the well-known European ones. "Warriors of God" has a bibliography short enough to be useful.

The problem is that Reston has adopted uncritically the anticolonialist reinterpretation of the Crusades that became fashionable in the 20th century. The model does not fit. In the context of the Third Crusade in particular, it makes little sense to speak of a war of Arab resistance, much less of Palestinian nationalism. Richard the Lionheart of England and Phillip Augustus of France were not native to the Levant, but then neither was their principal opponent. Saladin (Salah ad-Din, born Yusuf ad-Din) was a Kurd. His most important troops and commanders were Turks. Those were the people who would dominate the area into the 20th century.

Neither does it make much sense to think of the Crusades in terms of Muslim natives against Christian aliens. Though Reston's years of research do not touch on the fact, much of the land conquered by the Crusaders still had Christian majorities throughout the Crusader period. Islam, we should remember, spread in the Middle East by force; only gradually did the religion filter down to the general population. We do know that Levantine peasants were often less unhappy when their overlords were Franks. (Frank is a generic term for "Europeans," though it also covered the indigenized aristocracy of the Crusader States.) Frankish lords treated the peasants like European serfs, which meant the peasants had enforceable rights and a personal relationship with their lord. Muslim landlords treated the peasants like sharecroppers.

The background of the Crusades is this. Islam in Africa and western Asia had been built on the conquest of Christian societies in the three generations after Islam was founded in the 7th century. Though the Jihad's penetration into Europe had been thrown back, as in Italy, or contained, as in Spain, militant Islam remained a lethal threat to all of Christendom. The First Crusade, launched in 1095 after the ringing endorsement of Pope Urban II, was a response to a request for aid from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexis I Comnenus, whose Orthodox Christian empire in Anatolia was being overrun in a renewed offensive by the Seljuk Turks. The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. They established a string of minor principalities, the Crusader States, along the east coast of the Mediterranean, in what are now Israel and Lebanon and Syria. The leading Crusader State was the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Franks of the Levant soon went native in most ways, not least in local power politics. They made and broke alliances with each other, the Byzantines and the regional Islamic powers. Most important among the latter were the mutually hostile Sunni regime in Damascus and the Shia regime in Cairo. The Second Crusade, directed largely at Damascus, failed because of Frankish disunity. Towards the end of the 12th century, in contrast, the Shia in Egypt were overthrown by Damascus. The resulting empire, controlled by Saladin, was in a position to attempt the conquest of the Levant. The key event was the Battle of Hattin in 1187, in which Saladin destroyed a combined army of the Crusader States and took King Guy of Jerusalem captive. Not long afterward he took Jerusalem, accepting a surrender on terms. All that remained of the Crusader States were a few ports on the coast, the most important of which was Tyre.

The revisionist history of the Crusades tends to contrast the magnanimity of Saladin in accepting the surrender of Jerusalem with the ferocity of the Crusaders in 1099, who sacked the city and depopulated it. In point of fact, Saladin depopulated Jerusalem, too. He enslaved the almost entirely Christian population, but let a large fraction ransom themselves for a fixed price per head. When the earlier Crusaders took Jerusalem by storm, they killed many of the Jews and Muslims who lived there. (There had been a large Christian population, too, but some genius decided to expel them as potential fifth columnists when the Crusaders approached; the refugees met the Christian army and told them their tales of woe.) For the rest, the Crusaders ransomed those civilians whose families or communities could afford to pay. Though there was nothing on the Muslim side quite like the anti-Jewish pogroms that broke out in Western Europe when the First Crusade started, neither side was superior in humanity to the other.

Western Christendom was appalled by the fall of Jerusalem in 1187. The principal rulers of the Franks immediately attempted to devise a coordinated strategy to recover the Latin Kingdom. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was to lead an army of over 100,000 Germans overland to the Holy Land, while kings Richard I of England and Phillip Augustus of France made their way by ship. Things soon went wrong. Having reached the Middle East, the old emperor died of a heart attack while crossing a river, and his army disintegrated. The remnants of it that reached the Levant received little help or respect from the other crusaders. The Germans bore a special grudge against Richard, the animating spirit of the maritime Franks.

Proceeding with a small fleet of his own, Richard had an extraordinary time before he even reached Tyre. Among his other adventures, he offhandedly conquered Cyprus, where the ship bearing his fiancee, the Princess Berengaria, had been ignobly detained by the local "emperor." Unfortunately, that petty tyrant happened to be a relative of a real emperor in Constantinople. The Byzantines took it particularly ill when, by and by, Richard installed the ransomed ex-king of Jerusalem as the new ruler of the island. Thus, both of the great Christian empires turned against Richard; the Byzantines routinely sent intelligence to the Muslims.

Richard and Phillip, as Reston loses no opportunity to remind us, had been lovers. This may explain something of the catty quality of their numerous disputes and reconciliations in Europe and the Holy Land. They did, however, collaborate in the great achievement of the Third Crusade, the successful prosecution of the siege of Acre. The city was in Muslim hands, but invested by a scratch army of Franks, who in turn were being besieged by Saladin. The arrival of Richard and Phillip made Saladin back off. The city surrendered not long thereafter, its population expelled.

The crusaders then had two objectives: securing more ports along the coast to ensure communication with Europe, and retaking Jerusalem. However, Phillip tired of being upstaged by Richard and returned to Europe. Richard demonstrated that he could defeat any Muslim army that came against him. Indeed, the comparative casualty figures from the engagements he fought were as lopsidedly in the Franks' favor as were those of the British Army in Indian and Africa five centuries later. However, he also came to understand that he could not replace his invincible knights and their huge quarter-horse mounts.

Richard took several more sites along the coast. He even rebuilt the city of Ascalon, a strategic key that could have supported the invasion of Egypt of which he dreamed. However, though he set out for Jerusalem twice, he never besieged it. On this one count the Franks accused their Lionheart of cowardice, but the fact was that he understood the logistics. Jerusalem might be taken, but the supply routes to the coast and to Europe could not be defended. Neither could the Latin Kingdom as it had formerly existed hope to maintain itself against the combined empire of Damascus and Cairo.

While all this was going on, Richard and Saladin were in continual communication. During one long truce they discussed the possibility of joint control of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they could imagine no way of doing that other than through a dynastic marriage whose partners would rule the city. Neither of their religions would countenance such a union without one partner converting to the faith of the other. If the idea of a municipal republic with a Christian and Muslim for chief co-magistrates occurred to them, Reston does not mention it.

The negotiations between the two were prolonged, courteous, and sometimes hilarious, but the most interesting aspect of this part of the story is the strikingly different political cultures of the two sides. Richard had no equals, but he did have peers, even after Phillip departed. He could be outvoted in the council of leaders and often was. Saladin, though a restrained and reasonable man, was in the final analysis answerable only to his own judgment. He consulted his emirs and he sent polite notes to his nominal suzerain, the Caliph of Baghdad, but he was far less constrained than his notoriously impulsive Frankish rival.

The sources for the two principal biographical portraits Reston gives us have radically different tones. Medieval chronicles are blunt, even raucous; those qualities come through in Reston's depiction of Richard. Saladin, in contrast, appears as a pious old man, one who dealt with his problems by seeking for an apt verse in the Quran. Maybe patience was indeed Saladin's characteristic virtue. Still, it seems pretty clear that some of the people Reston talked to wanted to make the old sultan out to be a saint. The result is that sometimes "Warriors of God" reads like "Batman versus Gandhi."

Eventually, they reached a compromise. A diminished Latin Kingdom would continue to exist. Pilgrims passing through it could have free access to Jerusalem. However, the city would stay under Muslim control. Richard had to go. There was treason at home, and even his formidable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was having trouble controlling it.

Going home was a problem, since Richard had alienated the ruler of every country through which he might pass. (An Atlantic journey through the Straits of Gibraltar was out of the question at that time of year, which was winter.) In those days, sovereign immunity meant that the king could not be sued; it did not mean that a sovereign could not be waylaid and held for ransom. That was what happened to Richard. Attempting to sneak through Central Europe by way of the Adriatic, he was taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria and imprisoned for a time in the appropriately sinister-sounding Castle Duernstein. The duke sold him to the new Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, who held him for quite literally a king's ransom. This was hard to raise, since his no-account brother John was trying to gain control of England for himself, while the ever-spiteful Phillip was picking off bits of Richard's continental territory, in violation of his Crusader's oath.

Nonetheless, the money was eventually paid, and Richard returned to England. We also know that he visited Nottingham Castle, and even Sherwood Forest. Did he meet Robin Hood and Maid Marian there and bless their union? Reston gives the only possible answer: "Of course he did!"

It would be possible to tell this tale without connecting it to events in the Middle East today, but Reston has not chosen to do so, so the matter requires some comment. The analogy he repeatedly seeks to draw is between Israel and the Crusader States. The comparison is not original with him. Muslims eagerly point out that the Franks held Jerusalem for less than 90 years. The Jews have held it for little more than 50, and there is no reason to think their tenure will be any longer. Many Arabs blame their weakness on their disunity, and pine for another Saladin to unite them. The claim to be the new Saladin, in fact, is how ambitious Arabs seek to legitimize themselves.

The analogy is scarcely irrational. Israel and the Latin Kingdom do have things in common. Both had military technique and equipment vastly superior to that of their enemies. Both of them, however, also have to win every war; the strategic depth of the Levant is no greater in the 21st century than it was in the 12th.

The real difference between the two eras is this. Islamic societies today do not need unity. They had centuries of unity under the Ottomans and choked on it. Cultures really do age. In the 12th century, Islamic culture was full of potential. That potential was actualized long ago, and now there is no more. Such a culture can still break things, but it cannot make anything new.


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site