Go East, Young Knight
By PETER FRANKOPAN
No sooner had the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks in 1099 than writers began to swoon over their achievements. Inspired by a rousing call by Pope Urban II at Clermont, France, four years earlier to rescue the Holy Land, these first historians wrote, the crusaders and their conquest of the eastern Mediterranean coast proved that God had smiled on western Europe and the worldly authority of Rome.
|Emperor Alexios I Komnenos blessed by Christ; 12th manuscript; Library Vaticana Rome, Italy.|
That story, and the papal authority it underlined, shaped the next 500 years of European history. Even today, the idea at the center of the crusades, that religion has long been at the heart of the East-West divide, drives foreign policy from Washington to Islamabad. But the real story is much more complicated, and much more earthly, than most people recognize.
The subject of the crusades, and in particular the first, has received enormous attention from scholars over the centuries, to the point that one leading historian wrote in a recent book review that there was nothing original left to say: the story is too well known, too secure.
Yet for all that work, distortions remain. The armchair historian could be forgiven for thinking, for example, that Jerusalem fell to the Muslims soon before the First Crusade set out to supposedly rescue it. In fact, Jerusalem fell some 450 years earlier.
Most striking, perhaps the central question behind the First Crusade has never really been asked: What happened at the end of the 11th century that made more than 60,000 men head east? If the pope was powerful enough to be able to unleash a huge force of knights, why had he never done so before?
The answer lies far from Western Europe, where the origins of the crusade are always set. In fact, the First Crusade was an eastern project, devised and inspired not by Pope Urban II but by Alexios I of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, which had survived the fall of Rome.
The Byzantine Empire came under territorial pressure in the second half of the 11th century, particularly at the hands of the Turks, who had swept across central Asia and made themselves masters of the Middle East. Moving like “wolves devouring their prey,” in the words of one contemporary commentator, the Turks supposedly brought chaos to the Byzantine heartland in Asia Minor.
But claims of Turkish penetration and control of the Byzantine east were much exaggerated. Material from long-forgotten and ignored Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and Hebrew sources shows that things were not as bad as some authors made out; if anything, relations between Christian Byzantines and Muslim Turks were surprisingly cordial and even collaborative.
|Pope Urban II|
That changed dramatically, however, at the start of the 1090s. A catastrophic chain of events brought the empire to its knees: emboldened by the death of the sultan of Baghdad, a cluster of local Turkish warlords seized control of some of Byzantium’s most precious and sensitive territories, putting the capital itself at risk. With pressure mounting, Alexios’ closest intimates turned on him. In a dramatic showdown, the emperor forced a gathering of his opponents; it was touch and go as to whether he would leave the meeting alive. Against the odds, he bought himself one last roll of the dice.
He issued pleas for help across western Europe, including one to Pope Urban II, which brought with it the offer to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches once and for all.
What followed was less a war to protect the Holy Land than a defense of the Byzantine Empire, taking back cities like Nicaea and Antioch, places whose Christian significance was, at best, tangential. And, rather than being under the command of the pope, the knights were controlled by Alexios, to whom they swore solemn oaths over precious Christian relics as they passed through Constantinople. They also promised to hand over all the cities, towns and territories they conquered.
But Alexios eventually lost control. The crusaders simply refused to give over what they had conquered, which by the end included much of the eastern Mediterranean region. The resulting crusader states, as they were called, lasted for another 200 years.
As a result, a new story was needed. Alexios and Byzantium were ripped from the heart of the narrative, while Pope Urban II was moved to center stage — even though the very earliest accounts of the First Crusade barely mention him.
In short, the western knights’ glorious deeds, recorded in such lavish style by medieval historians and celebrated ever since, provided a cover story that only now has been revealed. Their bravery, heroism and piety, fodder for countless medieval romances, really were too good to be true.