The First Holy War

The truth about the epic clash between east and west.

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It was the fall of 1187, and an emissary from the besieged city of Jerusalem had come to beg the sultan of Egypt for mercy. After barely four days of assaults, the Christian defenders saw that the sultan, Saladin, had them hopelessly outmatched. Waiting in his tent outside the city walls, the Muslim ruler knew both sides had a lot riding on the outcome of this battle.

For the city's defenders, the prospect of Saladin's wrath loomed. The last time Jerusalem had been sacked by invaders its narrow streets ran red with blood. For Saladin, his honor depended on capturing Jerusalem. All summer his armies had battled their way through the Holy Land, sweeping through the Christian fiefs like an angry desert wind. Their only goal: recapturing the holy city that had been occupied by European invaders for 88 years.

Now the sultan stood on the hills north of Jerusalem. But the Christian emissary trudging toward him had no prize to offer, only surrender. For days, Saladin's men had bombarded the city from the north, finally breaching St. Stephen's Gate. The few defenders who remained knew that prolonging the fight would only worsen the consequences of defeat.

And so a triumphant Saladin entered Jerusalem on Oct. 2, 1187. For the sultan's army, it was a moment of both joy and sadness. The Christians had profaned some of Islam's holiest sites. The al-Aqsa mosque had been used as a stable for horses. Pieces of the rock from which Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven had been chipped away to sell in Constantinople.

But the victorious Saladin forbade acts of vengeance. There were no more deaths, no violence. A token ransom was arranged for the residents. Saladin and his brother paid for hundreds of the poorest themselves and arranged guards for the caravans of refugees.

If this account sounds less than familiar, it's because Saladin doesn't get much ink in western history books. They are more likely to feature Richard the Lion-Hearted, the leader of the European expedition to retake Jerusalem (most often remembered from Robin Hood tales). But most Muslims will focus on Saladin and his generosity in the face of Christian aggression and hatred. And they will be right.

The battle between Saladin and Richard marked the high point of the Crusades, the first major clash between Islam and western Christendom, which lasted more than three centuries. And though they left only a faint imprint on western minds, in the Muslim world the Crusades still loom large. When Osama bin Laden declared his own jihad in 1998, he accused America of "[spearheading] the crusade against the Islamic nation." He later promised the world would "see again Saladin carrying his sword, the blood of unbelievers dripping from it."

His words tapped into a reservoir of ill will. "The impact of the Crusades created a historical memory which is with us today," says Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University. Its legacy was profound. For Muslims, then probably the strongest and most vibrant civilization on the globe, the Crusader victories and the destruction that followed were a confidence-shaking blow. At the same time, the Crusades were a tipping point for Europe, pushing the continent out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world.

From their beginnings in 1095, the Crusades inspired more passion than anyone ever expected. The First Crusade was preceded by droughts and famine and heralded by meteor showers. The idea of an expedition to reclaim Jerusalem from the unbelievers seized the imagination of people from all social classes. Led by deeply religious knights, armies of European Christians marched through what is now Hungary to the city of Constantinople, the great center of Christianity in the East.

When the Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, they looked like one undifferentiated barbaric mob to their Muslim foes. But the Franks were tough. In 1099, they assaulted the heavily defended Jerusalem and finally broke through. Bloodthirsty after the long siege, they swarmed over the walls and set upon the city's inhabitants. In later accounts, they boasted of wading through the city's holy sites knee deep in blood. Their brutality horrified the Muslim world. Writes British historian Steven Runciman: "When later, wiser Latins in the East sought to find some basis on which Christian and Moslem could work together, the memory of the massacre stood always in the way."