How Do Arab Nations Teach the Crusades?
The Crusades are seen as a milestone in European history. Especially through romanticizing eyes, they are often viewed as a heroic age, with legendary tales of pious folk, honor-bound knights, and even epic narratives imbued with mystical and semi-mythological elements, such as the search for the Holy Grail.
Modern historians, however, tend to view the crusades more than a little less romantically. For example, viewed more as the pope’s political maneuvering to establish power via the policy of the milites christi. And in the early going from a very practical standpoint simply a way to give various knights causing problems on the home front something to do, and in a far off land. The events are considered as a precursor to the eras of exploration and colonialism respectively, as the Crusades were an early instance of the effort to deal with the overpopulation of Europe by trying to establish colonies. Furthermore, the failure of the eastward expansion and the related blockage of the routes to the eastern markets would gradually encourage the search for indirect ways to the East by circumnavigating Africa or – most famously since Columbus – by going westwards in search of India.
Negative aspects are pointed out, like the massacres of local citizens such as in Antioch and Jerusalem, regardless whether they were Christians or Muslims. But even under the light of this revisionism, the view of the cultural superiority of the Europeans is sometimes still present in popular culture. One example is the 2005 movie “Kingdom of Heaven”, in which Orlando Bloom arrives as a Crusader at an estate in Palestine and goes on instructing the locals in canalisation techniques, as if the cultures of the fertile crescent – where agriculture was born – were waiting for the Crusaders to learn how to turn an arid land into a fertile one.
At this point, the question might occur what the Muslim or Arab perspective is towards the Crusader era. But it’s a difficult one to answer. Depending on in which decade and in which country one is born, a student will receive different information regarding the Crusades. The reason is that the event is highly politicized today.
A common ground, however, is that the Western Christians are viewed as “barbarians” and unaware of the most elementary rules of honor, dignity, and social ethics. What will differ is where the teaching focuses and to what extent the event is taught at all, which is related to the region, era, and the political atmosphere. This can be seen by works targeted towards the western public, where two main themes arise. In the first, represented by Amin Maamlouf’s 1983 book “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes”, the events are viewed as a general clash of Western and Eastern culture. The second is represented by an Al-Jazeera documentary series of 2016, “The Crusades: An Arab Perspective”, where the theme of Christianity versus Islam is particularly highlighted.
So let’s now talk about schools. The school textbooks in Arab countries are generally regulated by a government institution, such as the Ministry of Education of each country. As an internal matter, the books will deviate from one another, but one can observe similarities, indicating a certain alignment at least regarding some aspects. This was more observable especially in the second half of the 20th century, influenced by the policy of pan-arabism, which was promoted in history and literature disciplines. Nowadays, a concentration on the political unity within each country is mostly the norm, which can cause further deviation between the Arab countries.
Regarding the Crusades, pupils get their information out of history and social studies textbooks and even literature, but the way this is done and the school year in which this period is presented differs from country to country. (As analytically presented in a 2008 article by Jörg Determann,) in Egypt, students learn about the Crusades in their 5th and 11th year, in Jordan in the 6th year, 7th in Palestine, 8th in Syria, Lebanon and Libya, 8th and 11th year in Saudi Arabia and 8th and 10th in Tunisia.
The most analytical discussions can be found in textbooks of Palestine and Lebanon, which is to be expected of the areas directly affected the most during the Crusades, though the perspective of modern politics also plays its part.
The schoolbooks usually describe the medieval Crusades after having discussed the history of the preceding centuries. In the case of Palestine and Tunisia, descriptions of Europe in the Middle Ages come before those of the Crusades, a fact that helps contextualize and introduce this foreign Western force. The narratives of the Crusades themselves as told by the Arabic textbooks concentrate on the events in Greater Syria and Egypt between 1096 and 1291 and stress the military elements. Only in a few countries such as Palestine, elements of administration and social structures within the Crusader states are described.
Overall, the negative evaluation of the invading forces can be seen in the term “purification”, with which the textbooks in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Libya refer to the final expulsion of the Crusaders. To understand this sentiment and why within the collective memory of modern Arab countries the Crusades are perceived in this way, one should take a closer look at the details of what is being taught.
First we will start with the presentation of the Crusaders. The Muslims, unlike the Christians, did not regard the individual Crusades as something separate and distinctive, nor did they – at least in the past – single out the Crusaders from the long series of infidel enemies whom they fought in those times.
The chroniclers report in detail the smallest skirmishes between Muslims and Frankish troops – but they have little to say about the internal affairs of the Frankish states in the Levant and even less about their countries of origin.
Generally, the Arabic point of view on the crusaders is that of a foreign entity, collectively referred to as the “Faranj” or “Farang”, ignoring the various ethnic differences between them. The term “Faranj” is a derivative of Frank, which was one of the main ethnic groups during the Crusades. (The insertion of a vowel between the first two letters of the word Frank, is indicative of the adaptation of foreign terms into Arabic, as in Arabic no word can start with a double consonant.)
This is indicative of the fact that at the time as well as today, the Crusaders were and are viewed as a collective enemy group, just one amongst the many foreign menaces that their region had to deal with in the late medieval period. Indeed, in the school systems of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Libya, the Crusades are usually treated alongside the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. In the case of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Libya, descriptions of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods follow thereafter.
The often implied link with the West’s later colonialism can also be seen on many levels. One of them is that in the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian textbooks, the Crusades and Mongol attacks are directly followed by Western assaults and the colonization of Arab countries in modern times.
This brings us to the timeline of the Crusades which focuses on the main themes as taught by history books in Arab countries.
The main force of the first Crusade arrived in Northern Syria in 1097 after successfully piercing through Asia Minor despite the resistance of the Seljuc sultan Kilij Arslan who controlled parts of the region. In June 1098, the Crusaders gained entry into the lower city of Antioch after an eight-month siege, massacring most inhabitants – including local Christians. In 1098, Kerbogha, the Atabeg of Mosul led the first coordinated attack against the Crusader army – at the time besieging Antioch – and would have possibly managed to end the first Crusade right then and there, had he not wasted time besieging Edessa, the easternmost city occupied by the Crusaders. Indeed, he arrived at Antioch on June 7th, only three days after the Crusaders under Bohemond had entered the outer walls and thus escaped direct attack on the open field.
After this attempt, no coordinated effort was undertaken to face the Crusades. Instead, each local government faced the invaders in turn and mostly on their own. This is seen as a major issue, and the textbooks of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya account to a general weakness or fragmentation of the Arab world in this period. They do not shy from making parallels to today’s political situation.
One reason for this fragmentation was that at the time, the control of the armies was assigned to Turkish generals while the Khalif of Baghdad was becoming more and more a cosmetic and symbolic figurehead. Real political and military power within the territories claimed by the caliph was exercised by the Turkish sultan. According to Muslim political theorists, the sultan was the executive servant and defender of the caliph. In practice, he ran the caliphate.
The sultan additionally delegated his power to various generals, each of whom was more interested in protecting his own dominion. (The situation was similar to the Late Roman Empire with the rise of Illyrian generals around the 300s, and especially the Germanic generals such as the vandal Stilicho who in the early 5th century ruled the Western Roman Empire in all but name. These were seen as foreign by the Empire’s inhabitants, who built their collective identity out of their tradition of Romance and Greek languages.)
In August 1099, after the fall of Jerusalem, al-Harawi, the chief Qadi of Damascus and famous scholar, went to Baghdad to put pressure on the Abbasid Kaliph al-Mustazhir-Billah to send an army to help the Muslims against the Crusaders. However, Baghdad was a long way from Jerusalem and, moreover, al-Mustazhir had no troops to speak of, as he did not hold actual power. Al-Harawi’s visit to Baghdad is memorable however, for the sermon he held in the Great Mosque in Baghdad: “Your brothers in Syria have no home other than the saddles of their camels or the entrails of vultures.” Al-Harawi was surrounded by a throng of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who wept as he spoke, and their weeping made others in turn weep.
This speech is often repeated in classrooms, and was and still is politisized within the discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. More recently, it has been used in reference to the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, where each faction uses it to target the other by accusing them of collaborating with Westerners.
The next milestone in the timeline is the events at Ma’arat en Nu’man in December 1098, where after a siege the crusaders not only massacred the inhabitants, but also partook in acts of cannibalism. As seen in letters written by Crusaders: “a terrible famine racked the army in Ma‘arra, and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens.”
The event is further documented by sources such as Fulcher of Chartres, a priest participating in the first Crusade who reports in horror: “I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.”
Among the European records of the incident was the French poem ‘The Leaguer of Antioch’, which contains an effort to justify this atrocity. The poem, contains the following lines uttered by the Hermit Peter, answering a group of hungry soldiers:
“But Peter answered, ‘Out, ye drones, a helpless pack that cry,
While all unburied round about the slaughtered Paynim (pagans) lie.
A dainty dish is Paynim flesh, with salt and roasting due.”
This is indicative of the main ideology of the Crusaders, which removed the guilt of massacring the local populace, namely that the assaulted were not Christians, and thus could be treated as subhumans.
The Eastern authors, unlike some Western ones, tend to view this event of cannibalism not as much as a necessity of hunger but rather that of religious fanaticism. It is therefore linked with the rest of the horrible acts caused by the Crusaders’ view of their enemies as beasts.
The development of this ideology is linked with 11th century papal reforms – such as the Gregorian reforms – that slowly promoted the idea of the Holy War when it has a justified reason, or “iustus finis”. This helped redefine the term milites Christi – which had previously applied to monks exclusively, with spiritual undertones – to concern laymen fighting with material weapons on behalf of the church’s interest.
This concluded a centuries-long evolution of ecclesiastical dogma which goes back to saint Augustin, thus bridging the gap between the pacifism of Early Christians and the Holy War of the Crusades. For the scope of this video, suffice it to say that the war was reframed, seen not only justifiable, but as an outright duty of Christian piety.
Pope Urban II’s desire to redirect Christian violence against foreign rather than domestic foes is evident in his address at the council of Clermont in 1095 that ignited the Crusades. He right-out stated that killing infidels was not immoral but rather encouraged, as the participation in the Holy War would serve as penance and remission of sins. The Crusaders were thus animated to “destroy that vile race from the holy lands [because] Christ commands it.”
Another example is the “Rule of the Templars” established in 1128/29 at the Council of Troyes, which stated their goal to “defend the land from the unbelieving pagans that are the enemies of [Christ]” and as such “may be killed[…] without sinning.”
This ideology is one of many instances where an enemy is portrayed as subhuman, which – as in similar cases throughout world history – encourages atrocities that should be seen from the perspective of fanaticism rather than just the inevitable effects of war.
Indeed, the Crusaders continued acting on this, as on July 15th 1099, Crusaders seized and sacked the city of Jerusalem and massacred Muslims, Eastern Christians, and Jews alike. The slaughter was shocking even for medieval standards.
Almost all school manuals in the Middle East emphasize this massacre, especially in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. An Egyptian book describes it as follows: “When the Crusaders captured the city, they committed many atrocities and permitted the killing of Muslims, Jews and Christians who held beliefs different from theirs, including men, women and children, who were there. These attackers were not frightened by the holiness of the Aqsa mosque and they violated its holiness and killed all Muslims who took refuge in it”.
As is to be expected, these events produced shockwaves then and still influence the view of the Crusades heavily today. They established the image of the ferocious and barbarian Faranj. The incident at Ma’arat al Nu’man in particular gave birth to the epithet “cannibal” that many modern authors use. Adding to the cynicism of it all, many Eastern Christians were killed alongside their Muslim neighbors. Maybe the Crusaders were too busy being swept up by blood rush to feel like asking the particular faith of the people at their mercy. In any case, at the time, the locals of all faiths suffered the same.
The next major milestone is the events during the reign of Salah-el-Din who captured Jerusalem in the aftermath of the battle of Hattin in 1187 and his subsequent clash with Richard the Lionheart during the 3rd Crusade, which marks the end of the strong crusader states.
In the Arabic textbooks, his reign is portrayed as a golden era. He is regarded as a role model, especially in regards to chivalry. The textbooks of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt emphasize that Saladin treated the inhabitants of Jerusalem well, in contrast to the Crusaders’ conduct during their conquest of the town. For example, the Jordanian textbooks say that ‘Saladin granted them safety and allowed those who wanted to leave the transport of their properties and possessions’.
By many sources used in teaching, the successes of Salahedin that caused the tables to turn are attributed to the unification of Greater Syria under the Zangids. The morale is the effectiveness Muslims (or Arabs depending on the author) can accomplish when united.
For the coming century, despite a number of new Crusades, their sphere of influence was mostly limited to coastal areas, despite brief successes such as the temporary recapture of Jerusalem in 1229 during the 6th crusade. Acre, the last stronghold of importance, was lost to the Egyptian Mameluks in 1291.
Indicative of the relative disregard of this period is that the 8th Crusade – which was directed against Tunis – is mentioned in Tunisian textbooks in just one sentence!
Moving on to modern times, as can be seen by now, in Arab countries, the Crusades are hardly perceived as a remote event of little consequence. In fact, they are treated as a precursor to the later Western expansion into the region, and often linked with scepticism towards the West in general, be it from a religious or political perspective. For example, it has been viewed as a direct parallel to the founding of the state of Israel, which is seen as a result of Western intervention in the region. The Saudi Arabian textbooks – in a not-so-subtle comparison – goes as far as directly asking the readers to compare the treatment of Saladin’s enemies with ‘the treatment of the Palestinian people by the Jews today’.
However, this is rather a modern trend, a fact that can be verified by looking at the historiography. Chroniclers of the medieval Middle East, having lived in a highly literate culture, of course documented the events of the Crusades, and their quotes often find their way into most school books in Arabic countries. But after the 15th century, there is hardly any relevant historiography on the subject.
The situation began to change in the 19th century, and especially in the 20th, where the issuance of books on the subject skyrocketed, initially linked with the formation of Arabic national perception, identifying the Crusader period as a kind of foundation myth regarding the joined Arab identity. This was not hindered by the fact that the most well-known commanders of the time -such as Imad al-Din Zengi, Toghtekin and even Salah-el-Din himself – weren’t ethnic Arabs. The union of parts of Greater Syria with that of Egypt under Salahedin was designated an example for the efforts to politically unite Syria and Egypt that led to the short lived United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961.
Additionally, the Crusade era acted as a cautionary tale, again with rather on-the-nose present-day parallels. This revisionism acted on two levels. The conflict tended to be viewed as an example of a major clash of cultures, treating modern conflicts in the region as a continuation of Crusader policies. Here, it served as proof of the “true barbaric nature of the west”. On the other hand, it warned against disunity among the Arab people.
These views are widespread in all extreme anti-west groups, such as Isis, where in their inflammatory rhetoric the word “Crusader” is always present when mentioning Western intervention. Ironically, this reference to Crusaders has been used when referring to countries such as Russia, which had nothing to do with the Crusades whatsoever. For example in 2015, Reuters reported on an audio message by the Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani who encouraged “Islamic youth everywhere, ignite jihad against the Russians and the Americans in their crusaders’ war against Muslims”.
But this is not an isolated incident. In fact, it seems to be a theme in the background of all instances of the past 100 years when Western powers opposed Middle Eastern ones.
An early example where the parallels to Crusades seems out of place relates to the Turkish victory in the 1920s against foreign powers, which resulted in the foundation of a secular Turkey but also in the 1922 expulsion of the Greek-speaking populace from within the borders of modern-day Turkey. This can sometimes – especially through the rise of political Islam in Turkey in recent years – be somehow paralleled with the expulsion of the Crusaders from Asia.
Historically speaking, this may seem at least misdirected, as the Greek presence in Asia Minor preceded the Turkish one by literally thousands of years. But it is indicative of how the rhetoric of Crusaders has been on the rise recently, and how it now seems to include any Western action or even criticism directed towards the dealings of the Turkish government. In 2017, the Turkish President Erdogan himself made such a comparison, when he denounced the West’s “crusader mentality” after Western politicians criticised a referendum after which he was allegedly bestowed with authoritarian powers.
But the main field where analogies with Crusaders are notably high are statements issued concerning Israel. Even before the foundation of Israel in 1948 for example, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea.” Similar statements, this time referring to the newly arrived Jewish settlers, have been attributed to the circle around the Egyptian leader Gamal abdel-Nasser in the 60s.
Indeed, Arab scholars, writers and politicians have repeatedly nurtured the Crusader myth when referring to Zionism and Israelism in order to prove that Israel is a Western-colonialist entity in the Eastern Meditereanean. Especially when the legitimacy of Israel is being questioned – by organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and even elements within Iran – the Crusader metaphor gets repeatedly trotted out even today.
Generally however, this equating of crusaders with modern Western countries is not limited to extremist groups but also to more moderate, peace-seeking ones that are sceptical of the West. This – at least in part – is linked with what they learned in schools regarding the period: The strong focus on the initial atrocities committed by the invading Western warriors, with less to negligible mentions of cultural exchange and other aspects that are part of the era’s history.
But in the end, the crusades are filled with many epic battles, feats of bravery and heroism on both sides that are of interest to all history geeks. Such as Baldwin III, who became King of Jerusalem at 13, when he refused to abandon his army – which was in peril – for the sake of safety, because he was king. Or chivalrous acts, like Salah-el-Din sending his doctor to Baldwin the IV, the leper King of Jerusalem. Or the fact that an Arab tribesman personally saved a Crusader commander, leading him through the Muslim army to safety while putting himself in danger’s way only because some years back Baldwin was merciful towards the tribesman’s captured pregnant wife.
Even a modus vivendi was reached, with tales of friendship between the locals and the Crusader settlers that lived there for a long time. But it is important to remember that the first Crusade in particular, and especially all new Crusaders that kept arriving through the whole period were indoctrinated with fanaticism and a black-and-white perceptions. As always the case when such fanaticism appears in history, it led to acts of blind violence. And it is mostly this aspect that remains vivid in the people of the Orient, and it is rhetoric devised from it that keeps fueling the Western-sceptic fractions in Arab, Iraninan and Turkish people with argumentation for the evil nature of the West.
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Runciman, S. A. 1951-4. History of the Crusades. Cambridge
Determann, Jörg. (2008). The Crusades in Arab School Textbooks. Islam and Christian-muslim Relations. 19(2). 199-214.
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