Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

The violent incursion of the Norman princes and their fanatical allies into Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard in the closing years of the 11th century could be reasonably characterized as the last of the great barbarian invasions. Through a 200+ year ebb and flow of hostilities and alliances, the establishment of so-called “Frankish” states in the Middle East left deep scars upon the Muslim psyche which the intervening centuries have not effaced. The narrative of this misadventure is by turns thrilling and horrifying – with episodes of gracious chivalry exhibited between sworn enemies alternating with the most heinous atrocities.

The exploits of the combatants have passed into folklore. For generations, western children heard the tales of Richard Coeur de Lion, while the eminent and just Saladin, an ethnic Kurd, remains a strong symbol of Arab resistance. More recently, the well known chronicles have been supplemented with eyewitness accounts from the other side, most readily accessible in Francesco Gabrieli’s excellent anthology Arab Historians of the Crusades. The Lebanese journalist and novelist Amin Maalouf, using these writings as a starting point, has spun a compelling narrative history. As one might expect in a popular history, battles and personalities dominate. One gets a sense of the Western war machine, well disciplined in the beginning by the desire to “liberate” the holy city of Jerusalem. Upon first view, the Franks were terrifying – mounted giants with armor impenetrable to Asian arrows and an apparently inhuman bloodlust. We also see the weaknesses of the Muslim princes – rivalry and intrigues that undermined united resistance, a highly developed code of honor which often compelled them to release prisoners following victory (leaving them free to fight another day), the tragic inability to establish mechanisms for succession, leading to violent bloodbaths which weakened their ability to resist the invader.

We also see that, upon establishment of the Crusader states, the Franks were quite willing to “go native” to some degree. They learned Arabic, made use of the medicine and sciences which the Arabs inherited from the Greeks (the Muslims were shocked at the quality of medical care exhibited by the Franks in the early years) , and introduced a tolerant and well-organized variant of feudalism. On the defensive, the Muslim princes never ceased to have some measure of disdain for the Westerners and, understandably, learning the languages of the intruders was not a priority. It took time for the Arabs to develop coherent strategies to push back against the Westerners, most notably exhibited in the genius of emirs such as Zangi and Saladin.

Over the years (and with some exceptions), the presence of the Crusaders became a tolerated fact of life, and a certain balance was achieved. All this changed, however, in the late 13th century, with the Mongol invasion of Persia and Syria. Many prominent Mongols had sympathies with Nestorian Christianity, and were thus potential allies of the weakened Crusaders. At one point, this threat was so great that Islam might have been, with the loss of its heartlands, reduced to a marginal religion at best. Yet again fate and blind luck intervened. Fighting over Khanic succession and some lucky breaks for the fierce Mamluk military machine enabled the Tartar threat to be minimized and the last of the Crusader strongholds to be reduced and their knights expelled. The dream of Jerusalem faded as the Europeans returned home to fight their own interminable battles on native soil, and a new political entity under the Ottoman Turks gained ascendancy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Crusades were, ultimately, an exercise in futility.