The Crusades: the fall of Jerusalem

August 02, 2003 12:00 AM

After Jerusalem’s fall to Crusaders in 1099, a massacre was conducted against Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians living in the city. While the numbers given by historians can be doubted, they are still indicative of the horrific impression the massacre had on contemporary observers. People were killed in their homes, in the streets and, when they tried to take refuge in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they were followed and slaughtered. Synagogues were burned with Jews hiding inside, and the sacred relics of Orthodox churches were taken away.

A few survivors, however, managed to save one of the most ancient copies of the Koran and escape to Damascus. They reached it during Ramadan, went to the mosque and put the copy in front of Abu Saad al-Harawy, the grand judge of the city and the highest religious authority in the princedom. Next Friday, the judge went to the mosque, dressed in black, not wearing his turban and with his head shaved as a sign of grief. He mounted the preacher’s platform in the mosque and started to eat bread in public. Breaking the fast of Ramadan by the highest religious authority was a great crime ­ doing it in public was a declaration of mutiny. When the guards came to arrest him, he shouted to his audience of believers: “Jihad to regain Jerusalem is more of a religious duty than praying and fasting in Ramadan,” and the point was made. A sweeping wave of anger and calling for jihad against the invaders swept the Muslim world, especially the Arab parts. Harawy went to Baghdad, taking his call for jihad to the caliph. The mission failed and the caliph answered with little more than tears. Nevertheless, and maybe because of this mild reaction, the call from the judge of Damascus was eternalized, romanticized and spread through the Arab world.

It is worth noting that since that Friday, the concept of jihad has greatly transformed. Before the Crusades, jihad had two essential meanings. The first indicated the inner conflict between good and evil within the human soul ­ a good believer had to fight a jihad against his own desires; this was called al-jihad al-akbar (the greater jihad). The second notion referred to the expansionary wars fought by the early Umayyad Empire against the non-Muslim nations in Persia, Turkistan and North Africa. However, after Jerusalem’s fall, jihad became the medieval Islamic equivalent of the modern concept of national liberation. It became a war of self-defense against foreign invaders. It is mainly the effect of the Crusades that the concept was so much romanticized and glorified beyond its original meaning. In fact, the notion of jihad as an expansionary war of missionary imperial dimensions has been almost totally abandoned since that famous Friday in Damascus.

It is also worth noting that the deaf ears upon which the first call of defensive fihad fell became part of the tradition of calling for jihad. Very few times has that call been answered, for it takes more than an over-charged public opinion to start a regional war. Since the time of the Crusades, jihad was an asset of poets and a burden of kings. The balances of power during the first phase of the European invasion of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine did not allow for a quick reaction. The region’s people had to wait another 50 years before the Zingids established their strong state with its two capitals in Aleppo and Mosul, and started pressing the attack southward toward Jerusalem. The actual liberation of the city, however, took more than a united Syria; another resourceful state had to be added to the equation: Egypt.

The Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Cairo was living its last hours, a 13-year-old caliph was a prisoner is his own palace, while Egypt witnessed a civil war between two of his viziers. One of the two made the mistake of asking for the help from the Crusaders. The young caliph, seeing the Christian armies advancing, and under the influence of the other vizier, called for the help of the Zingids, the only force in the Levant that could balance the Crusaders. To make sure Nour al-Din Mahmoud Ibn Zingi, the prince of Aleppo, Mosul and Damascus, would answer the caliph’s call, the later sent him a silver box, where the caliph’s women had put some of their hair. In the symbolic language of the time, the caliph was telling Mahmoud, “Either you come to save us, or my women will be unveiled by the Crusaders.”

The help came from Aleppo, through Jordan, under the leadership of one Youssef Ibn Ayyoub, later known to the world as Saladdin. He reached Cairo before the Crusaders. They were defeated and the Fatimid caliph was saved. However, to the Shiite caliph, the Sunni commander sent by the prince of Aleppo was a mixed blessing; soon after the Crusaders had withdrawn, Saladdin, who became the strongest man in Egypt, declared the end of the Shiite Fatimid rule and that the country was now a Sunni princedom following the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, and one of the provinces of the Zingids.

After the death of his Zingid master, Saladdin could easily unite Egypt, Syria and Jordan, strategically cornering the Crusaders in western Palestine and Lebanon. At last, the balance of power allowed for someone to head the call of the Damascene judge.

Except for Tyre, Saladdin was eventually able to destroy all the Frankish princedoms and regain Jerusalem. That he had to unite Syria, Egypt and Iraq to do it further developed the concept of jihad. Now the word also implied unity. Looking at the political discourses of governments and oppositions in the contemporary Arab world, one can recognize how powerful are the memory of the crusades and the concept of jihad ­ a memory kept alive not only by the extent of the trauma caused by the original experience, but also due to the repetitive colonial attacks on the region, from Napoleon Bonaparte to George W. Bush. 

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::