The First Holy War

The truth about the epic clash between east and west.


Many Crusaders chose not to return at all, especially second and third sons with no chance of inheriting. Those who stayed created a cultural, military, and mercantile outpost in the Holy Land. The fortresses they built after the First Crusade were usually transplanted reflections of the European feudal system, but over time the "Latin kingdoms" in the Holy Land also served as a powerful integrating force. Contact with the libraries of the Arab world opened up new worlds for the isolated scholars of Europe, who gradually gained access to a wealth of ancient Greek texts that had been preserved in Arabic since the beginning of the fall of Rome. "Violent interactions were paralleled by economic and conceptual exchanges," says Georgetown's Voll. "In some ways, the Crusades' positive intellectual dimensions outweigh the negative impact."

"The Crusades were an absolute failure, but they did integrate European travelers and traders into an ongoing world system," says Janet Abu-Lughod, author of Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Increased demand for Middle Eastern luxury items meant that Europeans had to come up with trade goods of their own, helping build industries like wool and textiles. "By stimulating an interest in the goods of the East, they had a double-back effect on the development of European economies." Even later failures may have hidden some positive benefits. The end of the Crusades and the Latin kingdoms meant the end of easy ac-cess to Asian trade goods but not to demand for them. Some historians have speculated that the closing of the Middle East to European merchants in the 15th century accelerated the voyages of discovery that led to the New World.

But even the Europeans' increasing sophistication did little to redeem them in the eyes of the Muslims whose land they occupied and controlled. To the Arabs, they were "illiterate barbarians, for whom physical force is a supreme virtue, their religion is a despised polytheism, their medicine a collection of superstitions," writes historian Joshua Prawer in The Crusaders' Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages. "Far from feeling inferior to the conqueror, the conquered regarded himself not only as his equal but by far his superior."

More than nine centuries after Urban II called the First Crusade, the legacy of misunderstanding and animosity is still with us. In the West, many of the most lasting misperceptions of Islam stem from that time. In the Arab and Muslim world, the Crusades have made an unfortunate rhetorical comeback. "Such analogies are really not very helpful to understand the Crusades or present-day realities—they obscure rather than clarify," says Kedar. "People get so obsessed with...the past that they don't react to the reality but to the reflection." With that reflection so distorted today by rhetoric and misunderstanding, a clearer vision of the past has never been more important.