How did the Crusades start?

Alp Arslan humiliant Romain IV

Alp Arslan humiliates the Byzantine emperor Romanos

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II addressed a huge crowd at the town of Clermont in France and urged them to do something new and very exciting – to march east and fight the forces of Islam. Something terrible had happened – he said. It needed an immediate remedy – every fit and able man must go and defend the Christian holy places.

“Let those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!”

Since the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate, the Middle East had been divided between the Muslim realms covering north Africa and the Levant and the Christian Byzantine Empire (which viewed itself as the unbroken continuation of the eastern Roman empire).

The Byzantines had experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries but in the 10th and 11th centuries, the emperors of Constantinople had not only pushed back the Arab armies of the Caliph but aggressively expanded. However, a new force emerged that checked the Byzantines: the Seljuk Turks. These people had migrated from the Caspian and Aral seas and arrived in Persia before invading down into Syria.

By the year 1071, the Seljuks were looking like the new dominant power in the Levant. The Seljuks were probably more interested in crushing the Fatimids in Egypt but were provoked into battle with the Byzantines and beat them soundly at the Battle of Manzikert. The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan captured and humiliated the Byzantine emperor Romanos who was later blinded by his own side for bringing shame to Constantinople.

All of which left Asia Minor open to the Turks – which shook Christians in the west. Even though there was little love between the Latin rite Christians of the west and the Greek rite Christians of Constantinople – there was nevertheless a fear that the east would fall entirely to the forces of the caliph. Or as Pope Urban put it:

“For your brethren who live in the East are in urgent need of your help and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”

He was speaking twenty years after the defeat at Manzikert and there had previously been talk of a crusade – but now a begging letter from Constantinople propelled Rome into action. There was also another element often overlooked. 1094 – the year before Pope Urban’s sermon – has been described as the ‘year of the death of caliphs and commanders’. Both the Fatimid caliph and his vizier died. In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadi passed away as well. Two years earlier, the Seljuk vizier had been murdered by the Assassins, a fanatical sect, and the Sultan had died two months later in suspicious circumstances.

Did Pope Urban II know this? Were the crusaders exploiting a political vacuum in the Muslim east? We don’t know from any Christian writers. But there are chroniclers from Syria who condemned the lack of action by both Seljuks and the caliph in Baghdad when crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Clearly, internal divisions after the year of death were still lingering. And it’s only in 1144 that we see a clear fightback from the Seljuks under Zengi – taking Edessa back from the crusaders.

9 Comments on “How did the Crusades start?

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  3. It’s unfortunate how many hundreds died on their way to redemption. I think there is more to that statement β€œLet those who, for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights!” Not enough food or work….send them off with no food, clothes, horses or planning. No small wonder the pogroms ensued. How much of that was intentional as well? Thanks for the post….I have always found this time period fascinating.

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  5. I have an alternate theory. imagine you are the lord of a small remote manor, you live with your wife, your widowed sister, two unmarried daughters, two girls your wife is teaching needlework, and the laundry maid. suddenly, because they’re in close proximity, all their menstrual cycles line up and they all get pmt at the same time…

    …and no one has bothered to discover chocolate yet

    suddenly that six foot turk with a scimitar who ONLY want to lop your head off looks a bit friendlier than the missus πŸ˜‰

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