The First Holy War

The truth about the epic clash between east and west.

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It took almost a century before a leader strong enough to unite the Muslim Middle East appeared. When Saladin finally retook Jerusalem, it was Christendom's turn to be shocked. Chroniclers say that when Pope Urban III learned of Saladin's victory, he died of grief. His successor, Gregory VIII, sent messengers to spread the word of a new crusade to wrest back the holy city. He spoke of "the fierceness of the barbarians who thirst for Christian blood." And he promised salvation through violence: He would "acquit before God all the sins of those who would bear the sign of the cross to go recover the Promised Land, provided they confessed and were truly penitent," wrote contemporary chronicler William of Tyre.

The pope's message of salvation and the opportunity for earthly glory drew the most powerful kings of Europe—like the young Richard the Lion-Hearted, who sailed east leading armies of knights and peasants. Expeditions like Richard's would be repeated for almost five centuries. Many scholars now believe that crusading eventually spanned the entire continent of Europe, as the church used it to fight "heretical" Christians and convert pagans at sword point.

The First Crusade, in which wide swaths of the Holy Land were seized by Latin Christians, is the only one that can be considered a European victory. Crusades thereafter were either catastrophes or barely successful attempts to preserve European strongholds in the Middle East. The Third Crusade is the best remembered, perhaps because of the personalities involved, like Richard the Lion-Hearted, the handsome and temperamental king of England. Though known today as a paragon of chivalry, Richard was a merciless adversary. He took a different view of war from Saladin's. After one battle, he had thousands of captured men beheaded within full view of their own armies. For 16 months, Saladin and Richard battled across the parched plains of the Holy Land. Finally, ill and leading an exhausted army, Richard negotiated a truce and headed home. He never returned.

In the early 20th century, western expansion into the Middle East was embittering Arabs. "For [Muslims], imperialism is a dirty word, and they turned the western memory of the Crusades on its head and demonized it," says Jonathan Riley-Smith, a historian at the University of Cambridge in Britain. Angry Muslim nationalists adopted the Crusades as a convenient metaphor. It still works. "Since the late 19th century, western imperialism and Zionism were portrayed as a modern crusade," says Hebrew University historian Benjamin Kedar. "This is why the topic is so timely in Arab political discourse."

Undoubtedly, George W. Bush had a different sense of the term in mind when he told the nation, after Sept. 11, 2001, that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while." Bush's statement resounded like thunder among Muslims. "It was precisely the worst word he could have used—it allowed bin Laden and others to conceptualize the nature of the struggle into resisting Christian and Jewish invaders and point out the hostility of the West to the Muslim world," Ahmed says. "Crusader lore is only part of this rage, but it's a significant part."

This rage is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning just over a century ago, when memories of the Crusades were revived as a historical analogy to colonialism. Before Europe's colonial expansion into the Middle East, Muslim chroniclers paid little attention to the Crusades. "In actual historical reality, the Crusades were far more important for the West than for the Muslim world," says John Voll, director of the Georgetown University Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

For decades, western historians held on to the idea that the Crusades were a colonial venture motivated by just about everything but the cross: greed, lack of opportunity in Europe, territorial expansion. Few gave credence to the idea that the Crusaders were motivated by genuine religious feeling. But recently Crusades scholarship has recognized that faith could move people to violence as easily as greed or land.