The Crusades: the invasion

July 26, 2003 12:00 AM

CAIRO: For a politician, university professor, news reporter or tourist to understand the Levant, he or she must know something of the Crusades.

In Western tradition, the Crusades are studied as an episode of late medieval European history that held the seeds of the much brighter episode of Italian Renaissance. The war drums of the armies heading east were a prologue to the rhythms of Dante Allegieri that woke old Europe from her millennial slumber.

Paradoxically, the European Christians who were eventually defeated and driven back see the Crusades in a more positive light than the victorious Muslims. To most Arabs, Kurds, Turks, and Persians in this part of the world, the Crusades were traumatic, a prolonged armed robbery, and “200 years of carnage, aggression and rape” as Lebanese novelist Amin Malouf once described them. For, despite the military victory, the Crusades ushered in the decline of Islamic world power. The Mamlouk and Ottoman periods that followed were almost devoid of serious intellectual production in the Arab world, except for two great books: Ibn Manzour’s dictionary, Lisan al-Arab, and Ibn Khaldoun’s Muaqaddima. The first was obsessed with preserving the greatest pillar of the shaking temple of Arab civilization: Arabic language. The second was obsessed with the mechanisms of the rise and fall of empires. It is worth noting that conservation of the old, and understanding the reasons of defeat symbolized by those two great works, have since been Arab intellectuals’ two major concerns.

In 1095, Pope Urban the Second called for the Crusades, claiming the Turks, “who are a race of Persians,” were obstructing the passage of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Blessings were the trophy of the peasants volunteering for the holy war, while “the land of the East, flooding with milk and honey” was the trophy of the nobles.

The first attempt, led by Peter the Hermit, to infiltrate Anatolia into Syria, was catastrophic: The young king of northern Anatolia, Qalaj Arsalan, defeated the Crusader Army. The second attack is that on which poets, singers, film-makers and novelists center their grief: Qalaj Arsalan lost his capital. The army advanced into Syria and besieged Antioch.

European chroniclers of the Crusades repeatedly mention the story of a bishop traveling with the army at Antioch, and who saw a vision of Jesus Christ telling him that he had buried a spear near the walls of the city. If the army could find Christ’s spear, they would triumph. The spear was of course found. Muslim chroniclers insist the bishop had buried it there one night before. Regardless, the city fell, and the inhabitants were massacred. While most of the army was busy looting, a battalion went to conquer the town of Miarra, where, 40 years before, one of the greatest poets in Arabic history, Abu al-Alaa al-Miarri, had lived. He was the one who said: “They are useless, in my creed, the weepers’ tears and the singer’s melodies. Can you tell whether that dove sang or wept on her … branch? For the voice of weeping and voices are almost the same. My friend, tread lightly, I believe the surface of earth is made of nothing but our bodies. So walk humbly in the air if you can, and don’t boast on the remains of your brothers.”

The poet’s town was burned and only a few stones mark its location. The victorious army advanced south, capturing the Lebanese and Palestinian coasts. While cities like Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre and Acre offered some resistance, the advancement through the marshes of Syria and Palestine was fairly easy.

The reason was internal quarrels among the Muslim rulers of Syria. Two brothers, Duqaq, the prince of Damascus, and Radwan, prince of Aleppo, were at war, polarizing all other princes in the Levant and preventing them for uniting against the foe. The war ended with Duqaq assassinated and his brother having to sign a humiliating peace with the invaders.

When the Levant princes were sure they could get no help from Aleppo and Damascus, they turned to the caliph, the patron of all Muslims in Baghdad. There they found the city indulged in another war between two brothers, Mohammed and Barakiariq, two Turkish sultans of Persia who fought over Baghdad and the caliph’s blessing.

When the Crusaders advanced south of Tyre, they exited the borders of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate and entered into the Shiite Fatimid caliphate, based in Cairo. There, two of the sick caliph’s viziers fought over power. Naturally Jerusalem fell.

The Crusades eventually became a metaphor used to describe, judge and even distort the present. Yet regardless of the way  the metaphor is used, its omnipresence in almost every political, religious and cultural discourse in the Arab world is undeniable.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::