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The Medieval Christian Crusades: A Precursor to Middle Eastern Religious Conflict (Fall 2012)

            Crusade: a vigorous and dedicated action or movement in favor of a cause. In terms of history forces, the term “crusade” refers to the religious expeditions of the 11th – 13th centuries in which Christians persecuted other religious groups in an overall conquest to claim the Holy Land for their own religious faith. The Holy Land is the region occupied by present day Israel. This region holds religious significance to Christians, Muslims, and Jews and the city of Jerusalem is the most holy of cities and sought after of sites for religious occupation. The Crusades are a historic reflection of current day conflict over land and faith in the Middle East and the city of Jerusalem. Present day shows a lesser influence of Christianity in this religious struggle and conflict in the Middle East. These religious conquests serve as part of the personal identity, religion, and philosophical forces of history.

            The first Crusade was designed and initiated by Pope Urban II in 1095 at the Council of Clermont. The fact that this religious persecution was contrived and endorsed by the holy representative of the catholic faith, gave the movement great power through the passion and religious justification of violence imposed by the crusader armies. August of 1096 marked the beginning of the Christian crusader armies’ journey towards the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Land. In June of 1099 a small crusader army of about 15,000 knights women and children first marched on the holy city of Jerusalem. They were soon joined throughout late June and early July by a full army of crusaders, close to 100,000, who sieged Jerusalem and drove out the Muslim forces and occupants massacring them in their hasty retreat and sparing no one. The Crusaders also destroyed the monuments to Orthodox Christianity within the city and finally established a Christian foothold over the city.

            After the Muslim conquest of Edessa, a second much less successful crusade was called for. Most notably, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Kings Louis VII and Conrad III of France and Germany endorsed it. This continued violence and failure cultivated opportunity for a united Muslim army under Saladin to grow in power and return warfare on the crusaders. The response to the Muslim victories, including a siege of Jerusalem, marked the Third Crusade, formally issued by Pope Gregory VII. Pope Innocent III initiated the fourth crusade that was originally designed to culminate to a siege of Jerusalem by marching through Egypt, however, after the crusaders were excommunicated from the church for disobedience, they instead sacked the city of Constantinople, current day Istanbul. The fifth crusade was a dramatic lost for the Crusaders. Marked initially by the success the Crusaders taking the city of Damietta in Egypt, their subsequent attempt to invade Cairo was a great failure and left their armies weak and ill supplied. The end of this crusade was signified by the capture of the crusader army, and an eight-year peace agreement between Egypt and Europe. At this time, the Egypt had the overall control of Jerusalem. In a quick shift of power, Al Kamil, Egypt’s ruler, made a treaty with the then Roman Emperor Frederick II that divided the control over Jerusalem between religious groups and gave considerable power to the Christian church. Year’s later, Muslim groups, angry at the loss of Islamic control over the city, led a siege on Jerusalem to reestablish control. During the Seventh Crusade, King Louis IX led a French attach against Egypt. The French forces failed in their conquests and their King was even captured and held for high ransom. Just 16 years later King Louis IX attempted to campaign against the Arabs in Tunis. However, the troops mal preparation for an intensely hot summer in Northern Africa caused a huge number of crusaders including the King Louis himself to die of disease. The ninth and final Crusade was an attack on Baibars in 1271 by Edward I of England. This Crusade was also a failure and marked the final Middle Eastern crusade.

            Christian armies’ passionate crusaders still remained after this final campaign, most notably of which were the Knights Templar. Soldiers of Christianity and the Temple of Solomon, the knights Templar included soldiers of the crusades and supporters of the Christian right, but also included powerful religious and political figures of Eastern Europe including King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V. These Crusades and the individuals that drove them through their passion and zealousness for expanding Christian ideals and occupying the Holy Land in the Middle East show how religion and pride can cause conflict on a global scale that can last for centuries.

            The crusades cost millions of lives through warfare, but had continued lasting affects on Middle Eastern society as well. The power of the Catholic Church and the papacy was magnified and broadened by placing these Christian armies under their command and instilling the common ideal to look to the church as political, ideological and even military leaders. The crusades created a need for commerce between Western Europe and the Middle East that flourished long after the conflict. They undermined the ideals of a feudalist political system in Europe and sparked the transition to a system where the power was given more fully to the Kings and the people. Though the Crusades themselves were a time of great violence and war, and they changed the face of Western Europe and the Middle East in many ways forever, they still serve as a historical reflection of current Middle Eastern conflicts. 

            All historic conflict between the Christians, Muslims, and Jews over the Holy Land and Jerusalem stems from each group’s belief that their god has ordained them to occupy the Promised Land and the sacred city. Jerusalem has been the spiritual epicenter of Judaism for 20 centuries. For Christians, it is important for its role in the life and death of Jesus. The Islamic significance is the role it played in the journeys of their prophet Muhammad, most notably his journey where was carried to the holy city by a steed and was permitted to visit heaven. Today, Jerusalem remains a significant historical and religious figure in Christianity but Islamic and Israeli groups are carrying out the civil war over land and religious rights for the most part.

            For centuries following the Crusades, Arabs held the political and religious power in Israel. Tensions between this rule and the Jews still living in what was then renamed to Palestine, grew for centuries as they were persecuted for their beliefs to the point of being killed during conflict. The height of recent religious conflict in the middle east soared to its peak during the Six Day War, also known as the Third Arab- Israeli war. This took place between June 5 and June 10 of 1967 and proved to be a remarkable victory for the Jewish Israeli forces. Israeli forces led attacks on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. They led bombing raids on Egyptian air fields, mobilized troops to occupy the west bank which was then a territory of Jordan, and the stormed the city of Jerusalem and secured it for its re-establishment as the Israeli capital and the most holy site of Judaism. After the war, new Israel encompassed the West Bank, previously Jordanian, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, previously Egyptian, and the Golan Heights in the north that previously belonged to Syria. The UN soon passed what was called Resolution 242, which forced Israel to withdraw from the acquired territories. 6 years later Egypt and Syria campaign for 16 days against Israeli forces on the north and south fronts in the Golan Heights and Sinai, respectively. The UN also mitigated this attack, and the UN Security Council subsequently initiated peace talks. Israeli citizens and troops, though mandated by the UN to withdraw from their occupied territories, continued to grow settlements in Palestinian territory. 

            Cyclical conflict including attacks by invasion and individual terrorist plots, and changes in leaderships and political policy, have continued to this day. There is still high conflict between the religious and political groups that occurs, however, contrary to the warfare during the Crusades, the present day “watchdog” that is the UN, helps mitigate conflict and war, establish treaties, protect and help establish independent states, and instate political infrastructures and policies.

            Not only did the Crusades cause massive power shifts in high numbers during the 11th 12th and 13th centuries that influenced how the Middle East operates in the present day, that conflict over territory and power that was so strongly driven by the religious ideals of each group and is very similar to the conflict that continues today. Some of the differences are striking, however, as can be expected with 7 centuries of time passed. The Crusades were initiated by the Christian church and executed by Western European troops and defended by the Israeli and Arabic armies. Today, Europe and the US are part of the UN and act as mediators to the conflict that still exists between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The fight over Jerusalem is still very important to both sides. Being that it is so sacred to both religious groups; Jerusalem will be highly contested, and a continued source of violence. A last similarity is that for the parties involved, their political systems and religious beliefs are so closely intertwined, that differences of faith are creating tension and nurturing violence, and groups are acting out in warfare under the wills of their religious leaders. Fortunately, the world has a whole has made progress, bridged political and religious gaps, and continues to manifest peace and coexistence. From this, systems and organizations like the UN have been created to help decide and steer international conflict.

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