The Middle East and the West: The Crusades

Saladin united the Arabs from Damascus to Cairo, leading Arab armies in a successful campaign against the European Crusaders in late 12th century. © Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Inset of map showing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin's empire in 1187. Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR
Richard the Lionheart in battle

Richard the Lionheart led the Crusaders to many victories along the eastern Mediterranean coast, but failed to conquer the holy city of Jerusalem. Instead he negotiated a peace with Saladin in 1192. © Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Manuscript illustration of the taking of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade.

Manuscript illustration of the taking of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis

When President Bush first declared the war on terrorism soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, he made the mistake of using the word "crusade" to describe it. That was much condemned in the Arab world, where the Crusades are often cited as emblematic of Western designs on the Middle East.

NPR's Mike Shuster begins a special six-part series on the long and turbulent history of Western involvement in the Middle East with a look at the Christian Crusades.

In the late 11th century, the Pope of Rome declared a crusade to take Jerusalem from the Arabs, who had held the city for centuries. In just a few years, European knights seized the city, slaughtering most of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.

Thus would begin two centuries of holy war, idealized by European troubadours and poets, reviled by Arabs as emblematic of Western designs on Arab lands. It would be a period, too, of extraordinary figures — Richard the Lionheart, the English king, and Saladin, emperor of the Arabs.

For many in the contemporary Arab world, the Crusades represent the constant threat of Western encroachment. But many scholars say that's an inaccurate view.

"The medieval Crusades were taken and then turned into something they never really were in the first place," says Thomas Madden, a historian of the Crusades at St. Louis University. "They were turned into a kind of proto-imperialism in an attempt to bring the fruits of European civilization to the Middle East. When in fact during the Middle Ages, the great power — the great sophisticated and wealthy power — was the Muslim world. Europe was the Third World."

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