Crusade for the Kingdom of Heaven

The Crusades – 1000 > 1300


            What happens when the two largest religions in the world, the two religions that both preach the supremacy of their one God, the two religions that both claim dibs on the souls of all would-be converts…what happens when these two religions share the same holy land?  And what then happens if the world’s longest lasting religion also wants a piece of that prized property?

            What happens?  Perpetual conflict.  Ceaseless violence.  Regional instability.  Worldwide concern. Justification for jihad. The fear of another Crusade.

            Muslims believe Jerusalem was where Muhammad ascended into the heavens.  Christians believe Jerusalem was where Jesus Christ was crucified.  And Jews believe Jerusalem was promised to them by God. 

            Three religions.  Three claims.  All valid.  All worth fighting for.  All worth dying for.

            Although the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the Holy Land stems more from the fallout after the post-World War II creation of Israel, the true roots of violence span back a thousand years, to 1095, to the year that started two hundred years of conflict – an era that has come to be known as “The Crusades.”

            In 638, the Arab Muslims took over Jerusalem and held it relatively unchallenged for three centuries.  They opened the holy city to Jews and Christians, protecting all pilgrims and allowing them to worship their own personal God.  Now remember, the Muslims didn’t merely allow others to worship other deities because they were tolerant; they had a more pragmatic reason.  As non-believers in Islam, Jews and Christians paid taxes.  It behooved the first Arab conquerors to allow this freedom of religion.

            By the year 1000 however, the Arab empire had started to change.  Although initially united by language and faith, and continuing to accomplish artistic and scientific feats from the grand cities of Cordoba and Baghdad, the followers of Islam could never abandon their clan loyalties.  The Muslim world of 1000 was anything but a united empire, more a series of independent city-states, all competing to expand their influence.

            One rival Muslim clan, the Seljuk Turks, came in from the steppe (like the Huns before and the Mongols later) and overthrew the settled Muslim clans of the Levant.  These new warrior Muslims took over Jerusalem and then pushed up to the gates of Byzantium.  In 1095, threatened by this incursion and incensed by their own diminishing territorial claims, Emperor Alexius I of Constantinople sent out a distress call to his brother in faith – Pope Urban II in Rome.  He asked for 400 of Europe’s greatest knights to help fend off the Turk advance.

            Pope Urban II was more than willing to oblige.  He went to France, stood before tens of thousands of amped up adherents and waxed a bit hyperbolic, describing how the Turks had slaughtered innocent Christian pilgrims and unless an army of the faithful avenged this slight, these same ruthless infidels of Islam would one day challenge the very survival of the Church.  Within a few months, this impassioned plea led to the mobilization of tens of thousands of Crusaders (“crux” being Latin for “cross”) who headed southeast to reclaim the holy land.

            But why were these Christians so willing to answer the call?  Why now?  The Muslims had controlled Jerusalem for over four centuries, yet Christian Europe had never been bothered enough to send down “Cross”aders before 1095.  So why now?  Why were they so impassioned in 1095, so willing to leave behind the only world they had ever known for a deadly land thousands of miles away?  For some, it actually was the fervent belief that they fought on the side of unquestioned good versus the side of ultimate evil.  But like all other wars before and hence, the actual reasons for fighting were sometimes just a bit less altruistic.

Europe had never been...