Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.
Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.
That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.
It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.
This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.
But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.
In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.
It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.
Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.
The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.
I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.
Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.
Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.
So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?
Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.
This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.
For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.
Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.
In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.
At Kerak castle, built by crusaders in the 12th century, there is a block of stone in the walls depicting a very muscular figure. For centuries, it was believed to be Saladin – scourge of the Templars and crusaders and the Muslim ruler who re-took Jerusalem. In fact, it definitely isn’t Saladin and is much, much older.
The figure is a Nabatean warrior – the civilisation that built the legendary tomb city of Petra. It dates back to the 2nd century AD and shows a cavalryman equipped for the afterlife. So what on earth is it doing in a crusader castle? Well, masonry from much older monuments (this would have been nearly a thousand years old when Kerak was built during the crusades) was often incorporated into new buildings. So this chap – whose name we shall never know – found himself immortalised in the wall of Kerak castle. Even if he was given an incorrect identity subsequently!
The site was being cleaned by a team of archaeologists as I entered and being in the middle of a vast, hot desert, I was very much on my own. What I saw was not what I expected. The remaining building of a once great palace was a bathhouse with Roman-style underfloor heating and rather racy paintings on the walls and ceilings. Dancing ladies and animals playing musical instruments. It seems the caliph liked the high life!
It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades and one to ponder if you get bored with your family’s company over the Christmas dinner – which I am sure you will not. But just in case!
The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.
When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Almaric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Almaric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.
Almaric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Almaric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Almaric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.
The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Almaric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Almaric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.
So when Almaric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Almaric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.
Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.
Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Almaric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.
Almaric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.
The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack. The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.
But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Almaric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Almaric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.
Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?
During the crusades, there were numerous plans to try and invade Mecca to dig up the Prophet Mohammed and despoil the holy places. The view of Templars and all crusaders was that Islam had been a terrible heresy, a theological aberration, that could be crushed by attacking its most revered site. If only the tomb of its founder could be destroyed, then the Muslim world would implode in on itself.
Most notoriously, Reynald de Chatillon (portrayed in the movie Kingdom of Heaven as something of a monster) menaced Mecca and Medina until the Saracens managed to get hold of him and end his life. It’s even said that he managed to capture Saladin’s sister (or some accounts say his aunt or mother) as she returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Over three hundred years later and Christians still dreamed of getting the Prophet’s body. The Portuguese adventurer and governor of Goa – Afonso de Albuquerque – set out in 1513 to secure the Red Sea for Portuguese ships on route to India. In the process, he hatched a plot to seize the corpse of Mohammed and wouldn’t return it until all Muslims had left the Holy Land. In the end, however, much like the crusaders before him – all his attempts to attack Mecca and Medina came to nothing.
And so – the original mosques built in the seventh century AD by Mohammed and his immediate followers survived. Until the last few years. Incredibly, the Saudi authorities have been busy demolishing buildings that the Prophet himself would have known. And their enthusiasm for the task goes beyond anything that Chatillon or Albuquerque could have possibly imagined.
The Wahhabi variant of Islam in Saudi Arabia is against any whiff of idol worship or veneration of sites not directly associated with the Prophet. As early as 1806, when the first Wahhabi state was formed in Arabia, gouged out of the Ottoman Empire, there was an attempt to destroy Mohammed’s tomb. This caused outrage across the Muslim world and was stopped. The Ottomans reasserted control but when the Saudis achieved full independence after the First World War, then the destruction began in earnest.
Ironically, as the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina has increased hugely in recent years – so has the pace of demolition. In effect, those going to Saudi Arabia are contributing to the leveling of the tombs and mosques dating back to the life of Mohammed.
In 1998, the grave of Mohammed’s mother was burnt down and his father’s tomb has also gone in recent years. The reason, apart from Wahhabi purity, is the massive expansion in modern religious complexes to house and channel all these pilgrims. New buildings are simply being slapped on top of seventh century structures. It would be rather like demolishing Westminster Abbey to make way for a hotel for worshipers – if that makes any sense.
And now in Medina, the biggest building in the world (the Masjid al-Nabawi) is about to shoot up sweeping away another three mosques from the century of the prophet. Unbelievably, these mosques contain the tombs – you guessed it – of the Prophet himself as well as Abu Bakr and Umar, his two closest associates. Reynald de Chatillon must be laughing in his grave.