In a series of military campaigns called the Crusades, Christians from Europe fought Muslims for control of Jerusalem and other holy places. The word crusade comes from the Latin word crux, meaning “cross.” The Christian soldiers displayed the cross as a symbol of their religion. The age of the Crusades lasted from 1095 to 1291.
Jerusalem is one of the holiest cities in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religions. It had been under the control of Muslims for several centuries, but for many years Christians from all parts of Europe had been allowed to travel freely to the city to make pilgrimages to the holy sites. In 1071 a new Muslim group called the Seljuk Turks took control of the city. The Seljuks began to harass Christian pilgrims and to damage the sacred places. They also tried to extend their power by attacking the Byzantine Empire, which controlled a large part of the region. The Byzantine Empire was the center of the Eastern Christian church. The Seljuks won a great victory over the Byzantines in 1071 and went to capture more Byzantine territory in the following years.
The Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, feared that the Seljuks would attack Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), the Byzantine capital. He sent an appeal for help to Pope Urban II, the leader of the Western Christians, at Rome. In 1095 the pope had a council in the French town of Clermont. He urged Christians to take back Jerusalem and the holy places and to come to the aid of pilgrims. His speech had a strong effect on everyone who heard it-clergy, knights, and common people. “God wills it!” became their battle cry.
Some groups rushed off without organizing themselves properly or arranging for supplies. One such group was led by a monk called Peter the Hermit and another by a knight called Walter the Penniless. These two “people’s crusades” were doomed to failure. Most of the people were killed by the Turks, and others were sold into slavery.
The first true crusade began in August 1096. Armies of knights and princes marched and sailed by various routes toward Constantinople. From there the crusaders marched across Asia Minor to the city of Antioch, which had been taken by the Turks in 1085. After a long siege the crusaders captured the city. Six months later they moved on to Jerusalem. After several weeks of struggle, they captured Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. Then they engaged in a shameful massacre of the Turks. Most of the crusaders soon returned home, while those who stayed built castles and created special orders of knighthood to protect the Holy Land.
Second and Third Crusades
The crusaders started several stages in the Middle East. One of them, Edessa, was taken back by the Turks in 1144. German and French rulers launched the Second Crusade in response. This crusade failed, encouraging future Muslim resistance. The Muslim ruler Saladin, a great military leader, conquered Jerusalem in 1187. This event resulted in the Third Crusade. This Crusade was led by three kings- Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. Frederick drowned crossing Asia Minor in June 1190, after which most of his troops turned back. Richard and Philip were still able to capture the city of Acre in the Holy Land. But they could not recapture Jerusalem. Instead, Richard negotiated a truce with Saladin in 1192. It permitted pilgrims to visit the holy places.
The Fourth Crusade, which started in 1202, turned away from its original purpose. Egypt-a new Muslim power center-was supposed to have been the target. However, the way to Egypt passed through the port of Venice on the Mediterranean Sea. The Venetians were more concerned with profit than religion. Under their influence, the crusaders forgot about Egypt. Instead they captured the port of Zara (now Zadar, Croatia), a Christian city that competed with Venice for trade. Then the Venetians and the crusaders decided to impose their own rule on Constantinople. They took over the city in 1203 and looted it in 1204, against the wishes of the pope.
The spirit of the holy war affected children as well as adults. Two separate brands of children set out to free the Holy Land in 1212. The first was led by a French shepherd boy named Stephen. As many as 30,000 children followed him to the southern coast of France. Some were taken to Egypt by dishonest merchants and sold into slavery. Others died in shipwrecks. A German boy named Nicholas led another large band of children across the Alps into Italy. A few of them made it to Rome and were told by the pope to go home. Many others were taken by slave traders.
French and German crusaders reached Egypt in 1218 as part of the Fifth Crusade. In August of that year the crusaders captured an important tower at Damietta (Dumyat). In February 1219 the Muslims offered to give up Jerusalem if the crusaders would leave Egypt. However, by this time the expedition was led by a cardinal named Pelagius. He refused the terms, hoping to take even more territory through military force. He was not successful, and in 1221 he made a truce with the Muslims.
Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, set out in command of the Sixth Crusade in 1228. The Franks of the Holy Land were constantly quarreling among themselves. But the Muslims also were divided, and Frederick was able to negotiate-with no major fighting-a treaty with the sultan of Egypt. As a result, most of Jerusalem was once again in Christian hands.
Seventh and Eighth Crusades
The peace lasted only until 1244, when a Turkish army seized Jerusalem. This led to the Seventh Crusade in 1249. Louis IX, king of France, was the leader. He quickly took Damietta in Egypt, hoping to exchange it for Jerusalem. But it was not long before Louis’s army started to suffer losses. Louis was captured and forced to pay a ransom before he was released in May 1250. King Louis, who felt responsible for the collapse of his first effort, led the Eighth Crusade in 1270. Soon after his troops landed in North Africa, Louis died of the plague. The crusade failed, but Louis was made a saint. Europeans then lost their eagerness to fight holy wars, and the last of the crusader states in the Holy Land were retaken by the Muslims in 1291.
In Europe, the Crusades stimulated trade and travel. New foods and spices appeared on European tables, and new textiles appeared at markets (such as Persian rugs, Chinese silks, Indian cotton textiles). Europeans were introduced to other cultures from which they had much to learn, especially in the fields of architecture, medicine, science, and warfare (gained knowledge of Damascus sword). Their contact with the East eventually led to the period of discovery and exploration called the Renaissance.