Fewer moments in history are as misunderstood and revised as the Crusades. This series of violent clashes between Christian and Muslim cultures spanning three continents and nearly a millennium has been characterized as a futile war of aggression. In the telling of most modern historians, belligerent, greedy, and racist Christians in Western Europe were periodically guided by a bloodthirsty theocrat in Rome to channel their savage energies toward embattling a rival faith in the delusional belief that this would guarantee their admittance into Heaven, if not an earthly kingdom to rule over. What resulted was hardly more than pointless slaughter on both sides.
Nearly all of this is false. The Crusades were wars of defense, with Christians attempting to drive out foreign Muslim invaders in lands that were formerly Christian. Far from being unenlightened savages, the Crusaders were a highly organized force that pushed the boundaries of what was possible in warfare, government, and religious practice. The great personal sacrifice of the Crusaders, along with moral arguments against the use of violence, disprove the idea that they did this for personal gain.
By contrast, the Muslim invaders greatly profited from their conquests. They essentially took ownership of the preexisting wealth from their opponents. They subjected people of these areas to mass enslavement, regular persecution, and crippling taxes — all of which were sanctioned by their holy books and scriptures. And nearly all their victories against opposing forces were attributable to superior numbers and the domestic dysfunction of their opponents rather than superior strategy, logistics, or technology.
Unfortunately, few historians will risk professional ruin by challenging the prevailing narrative of the academy and telling the true history of the Crusades. However, to his great credit, Raymond Ibrahim dismisses such concerns and offers riveting profiles of eight great heroes of the Crusades in his newest book, Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam.
As an Arabic linguist and expert in Islamic history and theology, he is able to tap into primary sources from both sides of the conflict to give a more objective, unbiased account of the Crusades. More importantly, he makes a point of prioritizing the reader and telling a story. In his introduction, he fully agrees with Carlyle’s thesis that history is “but the biography of great men.” Whereas most modern historians tend to attribute developments in the past to impersonal forces (what is known as “historicism”), Ibrahim recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of heroic individuals and the effect they have on the world. By doing this, he shows that these men were not only important for their time, but can still serve as models for people today.
The War for the Holy Land
Although Ibrahim organizes his chapters chronologically, his biographies work better as a framework for three different regional conflicts: the war for the Holy Land and Byzantium, the Reconquista of the Spanish peninsula, and the Balkan defense against the Ottoman Turks. As Ibrahim relates, each war had its own share of successes and failures for the West, but so much of this depended on the leadership and how unified the Christian kingdoms were. When the leaders were strong and unity existed, they would have long-term victories (as in Spain); when the leaders were strong, but unity didn’t exist, they would have only short-term victories (as in the Holy Land and Balkans).
The war for the Holy Land and Byzantium presents the best overall view of the Crusades. While the first Crusaders recaptured many of the kingdoms along the Eastern Mediterranean, Crusaders in the following centuries devoted most of their resources to securing those kingdoms and establishing outposts to facilitate supply lines. Finally, these kingdoms and outposts were eventually lost, as Western leaders lost interest in crusading.
In the first group was Godfrey of Bullion, a noble who was “strong beyond compare, with solidly built limbs and stalwart chest,” according to William of Tyre. Moreover, he was extremely religious, often praying and fasting before battles. Both qualities proved necessary as Godfrey encountered a completely different kind of enemy, one that had few qualms about murdering and torturing innocents and using terror tactics to intimidate their opponents. Despite this, Godfrey and the other Crusaders managed to retake Antioch and other fortresses as they marched toward Jerusalem
At that point, they were exhausted, starving, and dying of thirst. Added to this was news of Muslim atrocities where Christian men were massacred and women and children were brutally ravished and sold into slavery. These tactics effectively prevented sympathizers from helping the Crusaders who were forced to depend on their feckless Byzantine allies and fragile supply lines stretching back many miles. Eventually, Godfrey ordered the construction of a siege tower and scaled the walls of Jerusalem. What resulted from the prolonged frustration and ongoing atrocities was the famously bloody massacre of everyone in the city: “the carnage was so horrific that, once the battle frenzy had subsided, ‘even the victors experienced sensations of horror and loathing.” Sadly, showing mercy just wasn’t a luxury for Crusaders if they hoped to be successful.
Nowhere was this lesson better demonstrated than in the two kings who tried to build on Godfrey’s first victories a century later, Richard the Lionheart of England and Louis IX of France. Displaying amazing toughness and intelligence, King Richard lived up to the moniker of Lionheart. In battle after battle, Richard recovered and reinforced the Crusader kingdoms along the coast and conquered Cyprus, which was then ruled by a Byzantine rebel, Isaac Comnenus.
Most of Richard’s success could be attributed to a realistic approach to warfare, understanding the dynamics of negotiation and leverage and outmaneuvering the famed (and exceptionally duplicitous) Saladin: “Richard … marched some twenty-six hundred Muslim captives outside in full view of Saladin and ordered their execution.” If actions like these weren’t taken, Richard would have quickly succumbed to enemy forces or retreated early like his old friend King Philip-Auguste of France.
In contrast to Richard’s accomplishments, King Louis IX (St. Louis) was a “tragic hero” of the Crusades, showing amazing promise and having the best intentions, only to experience continual setbacks during his campaign in North Africa. Unlike Richard, a giant of a man who commanded authority through example and shrewdness, Louis was more sickly and saintly. Although he enjoyed respect from his people and his peers, he struggled to hold them back at critical junctures of the fighting, which led to a number of ambushes inflicting heavy losses. There were also bouts of plague since the enemy poisoned wells and clogged the river with rotting corpses — he had the bad luck of fighting the Mamluk (“slave-soldier”) leader Baibars, an even more vicious and duplicitous ruler than Saladin.
Finally, Louis himself was taken captive, but he bravely endured taunts and torture before he was ransomed. In the end, Louis died of sickness in his second Crusade, and with him died the crusading movement. Meanwhile, Muslim invaders recaptured what was won by the Crusaders and inflicted egregious persecutions against the Christian population.
In the profiles of El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz) and King Ferdinand III, Ibrahim is able to tell a happier story about the Reconquista. Considering the incredible odds they faced after being forced into a literal corner of the Iberian peninsula, each of the Spanish Crusaders deserves a chapter for their contributions. From about 712 to 1492 A.D., the tiny Christian kingdom of Asturia, which held only a few hundred Christian refugees, would spread to retake all of Spain and eject the occupying Moors.
As Ibrahim demonstrates in his biographies of El Cid (1043-1099) and King Ferdinand III (1200-1252), there were a few factors that led to this. One was the superior leadership and prowess of the Christian leaders, exhibited in both El Cid and King Ferdinand (also a saint) who cut through the hordes of Moorish armies and orchestrated extensive sieges of enemy fortresses.
The second factor was that the Christian kings were usually unified in their mission while the Moors were often disorganized, complacent, and therefore vulnerable. And third, the Spaniards came to understand the futility of allowing an enemy religion to live among its people. While El Cid and many others would allow Muslim residents to practice their faith, Ferdinand forced them to leave because “no matter how lenient a Christian ruler was with his Moorish subjects, and no matter how docile the latter appeared, whenever the opportunity arose, the Muslims immediately revolted.” This helped Ferdinand solidify the victories of previous Spanish Crusaders by reconquering most of Spain and neutralizing possible insurgencies.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters of the book concern the Balkan Crusaders who held off the Ottoman Turks from the late 14th century to the late 15th century. In what amounted to a thankless task that earned them infamy both from their contemporaries and later historians, these heroes faced even more impossible odds than the earlier Crusaders.
Ibrahim begins with Hungarian King John Hunyadi who bucks the trend of paying tribute to the Ottoman Turks and instead launches a guerrilla campaign against the gargantuan armies of Sultan Murad. He was one of the first leaders to show the weakness of the Turks, who never really had to defend their territory: “Both Christians and Muslims were especially impressed that, instead of taking a defensive position, Hunyadi was actually taking the offensive — crossing rivers and mountains to confront the Turks in their own domains.”
Despite Hunyadi’s success, few other kings or nobles followed his lead. Rather, the rulers in Western Europe were preoccupied with other, more self-interested affairs. Only the Italian city-state of Venice was involved — and they helped the Ottoman Turks nearly as much as they fought them. The other exceptions to this general indifference were the two men Ibrahim writes about in the following two chapters: George Kastrioti (whom the Turks called “Skanderbeg,” or “Lord Alexander — after Alexander the Great of Macedon”) and Vlad Dracula III (whom rival nobles smeared as a vampire).
Because both men were captives of the Turks for a number of years, both had personal reasons for liberating their kingdoms and a deep understanding of how the Turks operated. Like Hunyadi, Skanderbeg and Dracula turned their small numbers into a strength by picking apart large, poorly organized Turkish armies. While Skanderbeg’s previous training as a janissary (elite troops of the Turks) helped him to lead his forces efficiently and effectively, Dracula made infamous use of impalement (hence the name, Vlad the Impaler) and night raids. Both men were able to turn the tables on their foes and successfully stymie the Turkish advance into Europe.
A Worse Alternative
For some readers, the greatest strength of Defenders of the West may feel like its greatest drawback, which is Ibrahim’s graphic descriptions and lack of sympathy for the Muslim civilizations. Even if most of these gruesome details come from the sources Ibrahim weaves in, it’s apparent that he wants to cast the Moors, the Turks, and various Arab dynasties in the least flattering light — and if the descriptions aren’t enough, he draws more than a few parallels with them and modern-day Muslim terrorists.
However, the violence and the harsh descriptions give important context that helps to explain the extreme measures taken by the Crusaders, particularly Dracula. This may be off-putting for readers preferring a more sanitized and equivocating approach to history, but this would be misleading and false.
In terms of what it meant for Western civilization, Ibrahim proves that the Crusades were not only necessary but ultimately moral and justified. As ugly as they often were, the alternative of surrender and submission would have been far uglier.