The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
When we last visited this story, Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade in order to free the Christian lands from the conquering Seljuk Turks. His call met with great support. In July, 1099, Jerusalem fell to the knights of Europe. After a six-week siege, the city was taken. The conquering knights were primed to shed blood.
…Jerusalem was soon filled with dead bodies, corpses piled up “on mounds as big as houses outside of the city gates. No one has ever heard of such a slaughter.” “If you had been there,” wrote another author a few years later, “your feet would have been stained to the ankles with the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared.”
Those who marched were promised absolution; the journey was long and difficult; promises made to the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I were later broken – not all knights returned captured cities to the Emperor.
The Italian city-states knew a good opportunity had opened for them – trade with the conquered lands, now governed by Christians from Europe. In exchange for assistance, major concessions were offered to the businessmen from Italy. This would lead to battles between and among the rival city-states.
Trade was extended east; the Silk Roads. Growth in the Middle East was in part due to the relatively good relations that developed between the Christians and Muslims. For later-arriving Christians, such friendly relations were incomprehensible.
While Christians and Muslims could get along, the same could not be said regarding Christians and Christians. Eventually, relations between the Christians of Byzantium and the Christians of the Italian city-states soured:
In 1182, the inhabitants of Constantinople attacked the citizens of the Italian city-states who were living in the imperial capital. Many were killed, including the representative of the Latin church, whose head was dragged through the city’s streets behind a dog.
A few years later, a western force from southern Italy sacked Thessaloniki, one of the Byzantine Empire’s most important cities.
This offered an opening; Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyubī, better known as Saladin – a general with rising fame in Egypt – moved to conciliate the Byzantines. His hospitality was in stark contrast to the behavior of the Christian knights from Europe.
Saladin began moving against the recalcitrant knights; in 1187, the Crusader knights were caught at the Horns of Hattin. They were outmaneuvered and outfought; in the end, almost every western knight was dead or captured. Within two months, Jerusalem surrendered peacefully to the Muslims. The inhabitants were spared.
The news was not well received in Europe. Further Crusades were called, ultimately with no effect. In the meantime, Venice attacked other Christian cities in the east. A new opportunity opened itself; a claimant to the Byzantine throne offered a generous reward the Crusading army if it would assist him in taking power.
In March 1204, men moved into position. Weapons brought to attack Muslims were instead used against Christians – the largest Christian city in the world. Bishops reassured the westerners that their cause was righteous:
The Byzantines, the Crusaders were told, were worse than the Jews; “they are the enemies of God.”
The walls were breached; the attackers rampages through the city; churches were desecrated; jewels and other artifacts were stolen:
To one Byzantine eyewitness, the Crusaders were nothing other than the forerunners of the Antichrist.
With the tax registers of Constantinople in their hands, the westerners divided up the lands amongst themselves. With this, they turned their gaze to Egypt. On the horizon, there was hope for assistance: news of a large army coming from Asia, to help the western knights crush Egypt.
It was the noise preceding the arrival of something altogether different. What was heading towards the Crusaders – and towards Europe – was not the road to heaven, but a path that seemed to lead straight to hell. Galloping along it were the Mongols.
Genghis Khan was the inspiration behind the Mongol transformation. By 1206, he was the undisputed master of the Mongolian steppes. Then he moved west, into Central Asia; south into China. The savagery of some attacks was legendary; this was done strategically – to send a message to the next ruler that he should give up easily.
Subsequently, the Caucasus and southern Russia were plundered; eventually Kiev was sacked. By 1241, Poland and Hungary were the targets. Calls for European knights from further west went unheeded; these knights knew the cost if they went and lost.
Dignitaries were often in the Mongol court: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, China, Korea, and the steppes – all represented. Fear of the Mongols did what the Crusades could not – it brought the Christians of Europe together:
The Armenian church entered into discussions with the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in order to build an alliance and gain protection in the event of future attack. The Armenians also opened negotiations with Rome, signaling their willingness to declare that they were in agreement with the papacy’s interpretation of the procession of the Holy Spirit….
The Byzantines also approached Rome; the church was moving toward some form of unification. But by this time, the current Mongol ruler died, and a struggle for power began. The Armenians and Byzantines were assured that no attack was imminent.
Relative peace lasted for a time – in Europe; the Mongols turned their attention to cities from Baghdad to Beijing. Eventually they return to the west: Poland and France were in sight. What was happening in the Middle Ages of Europe was almost a side show when compared to the expanse of Mongol conquests.
Mamlūks from Egypt turned the tide against the Mongols; Christians then decided that the Mongols might not be so bad after all. There was hope for alliance, but this came to naught.
The Mamlūks captured the Christian Holy Lands; after an on-and-off period of two-hundred years since the First Crusade, these were gone for good.
As the poet William Blake put it in the early nineteenth century, it would be infinitely preferable to build Jerusalem in an easier and more convenient location – such as “in England’s green and pleasant land.”