The First Holy War
During the Crusades, East and West first met--on the battlefield
It was the fall of 1187, and an emissary from the besieged city of Jerusalem had come to beg Saladin, the sultan of Egypt, for mercy. After barely four days of assaults, the Christian defenders saw that Saladin had them hopelessly outmatched. Waiting in his tent outside the city's 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 was sacked by an invading army--a Christian one--its narrow streets ran red with blood. For Saladin, his honor depended on capturing Jerusalem. All summer his armies had battled their way north through the Holy Land, sweeping through the Christian fiefs like an angry desert wind, with only one 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 heights to 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 Mohammed 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 thousands of residents. Saladin and his brother paid for hundreds of the poorest themselves and arranged guards for the caravans of refugees.
Sound familiar? If not, don't feel bad. Saladin doesn't get much play in Western history books. You're more likely to read about Richard the Lion-Hearted, the leader of the European expedition to retake Jerusalem--and even he is most often remembered as a peripheral character in Robin Hood tales. But ask most Muslims, and they'll tell you all about Saladin and his generosity in the face of Christian aggression and hatred. And they'll 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 are only faint in the Western consciousness, in the Muslim world the Crusades still loom large in cultural memory. When Osama bin Laden declared his own jihad in 1998, he accused America of "[spearheading] the crusade against the Islamic nation." And in a tape released to his followers last year, he promised that 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--the memory of a long European onslaught," says Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C. 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 an isolated dark age and into the modern world.