The Middle East and the West: The Crusades The history of Western involvement in the Middle East began with the Crusades some 900 years ago. NPR's Mike Shuster begins a special six-part series on the troubled history.
NPR logo

The Middle East and the West: The Crusades

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Middle East and the West: The Crusades

The Middle East and the West: The Crusades

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

When President Bush declared war on terrorism soon after the 9/11 attacks, he called it a crusade. That characterization was condemned in the Arab world where the Crusades are often cited as emblematic of Western designs on the Middle East. And it highlights the great disconnect between the Arab world's understanding of its historical conflicts with the West and our own. Today we begin a six-part series on this troubled history. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

(Soundbite of call to prayer in foreign language)

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

In the heart of Old Jerusalem--the Muslim call to prayer floating out above the city from the Al Aqsa mosque, built in the late seventh century. The goal was always Jerusalem, the city where Jesus walked and was crucified, giving birth to Christianity; the city where Mohammed, the prophet, ascended to heaven from the spot where Al Aqsa was built, giving birth to Islam. By the end of the first millennium, once-Jewish Jerusalem had been under the control of the Arabs for centuries. But the Roman Catholic Pope Urban II wanted it back. In 1095 he called on the kings and knights of Europe to mount a crusade to reclaim the Christian Holy Land. This would be the first crusade, the first of six, lasting 200 years. Much blood would be shed on both sides. Each side would hold and then lose Jerusalem several times. After it all Jerusalem would remain firmly in Arab hands, leaving Christendom and the Islamic world eyeing each other warily across the centuries.

The first European crusaders seized the walled city of Jerusalem in July of 1099. What followed has echoed for centuries, in the view of James Reston Jr., author of "Warriors of God."

Mr. JAMES RESTON JR. (Author, "Warriors of God"): When the crusader armies first poured over the walls of Jerusalem in the first crusade, they slaughtered every Jew and Muslim within the walls of Jerusalem.

SHUSTER: The Europeans waged holy war under the banner of Christianity. Initially the Arabs did not see it was their religion that was under assault, according to Amin Maalouf, author of "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes."

Mr. AMIN MAALOUF (Author, "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes"): At first they thought that those people who were coming were mercenaries brought by the emperor of Byzantine, until maybe half a century or even more. They began to understand how it began and what were the real purposes of the Crusades. But this came very, very late.

SHUSTER: The invaders established the kingdom of Jerusalem, a feudal state much like their own in Europe. It lasted for nearly a century and encompassed all of present-day Israel and Lebanon and some of coastal Syria. Seventy years after the fall of Jerusalem, though, a leader of the Arabs appeared on the scene who would change the course of history. His name was Saladin.

Saladin united the Arabs from Damascus to Cairo. He is buried in the old city of Damascus. Here, outside the old city walls, there is a dramatic statue depicting Saladin in battle. Although he was a Kurd, he was the first and only leader to unite the Arabs and has been hailed as a hero by recent Arab leaders, including Saddam Hussein. The two share a birthplace, Tikrit, in Iraq.

Saladin's greatest victory came in 1187 on a plain north of Tiberias, now in Israel, explains Thomas Madden, a historian of the Crusades at St. Louis University. It was called the Battle of Hattin.

Mr. THOMAS MADDEN (St. Louis University): A really smashing, massive victory, where most of the Christians were either killed in battle or massacred afterwards. Some were kept prisoner and then later released. But it completely ended the military power of the Christians in the region.

SHUSTER: The European kingdom of Jerusalem was destroyed, stunning the invaders, according to Madden.

Mr. MADDEN: It shook people in a way that it's hard for us to imagine today because it seemed to be clear evidence that God was angry with them and that he had taken the holy city from them. The response was an enormous crusade, the third crusade, really, the Super Bowl of Crusades.

SHUSTER: The third crusade was to create another story that would live down through the ages, the story of the English King Richard the Lionheart. It started in 1191 at the coastal town of Acre, now Akko in Israel.

(Soundbite of water bubbling)

SHUSTER: Here, in a leafy courtyard in Akko, with a fountain bubbling in the center, are the remains of a crusader fortress built by the Knights of the Hospital, a sect of warring monks. A tour of the ruins provides a thumbnail history of how Acre figured prominently in those years.

Unidentified Man #1: The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the Muslims under Sultan Saladin in 1187. In 1191, when Akko was retaken by the crusaders, the Hospitallers transferred their activities there and built their own quarter with a large castle in the center, as well as a hospital, a cathedral, a bathhouse and more.

(Soundbite of foreign song)

SHUSTER: Medieval troubadours romanticized the Crusades. This ballad implores the Europeans to come to the land of Syria to exalt God's name and conquer his dwelling in Palestine. And so Richard the Lionheart led the crusaders to many victories along the eastern Mediterranean Coast. After a year of fighting, Richard turned inland, marching toward the ultimate goal. But as he neared the walls of Jerusalem, his commitment faltered. James Reston Jr. takes up the story.

Mr. RESTON: And then, in the most extraordinary moment of this entire story, arguably, Richard, two miles outside of the walls of Jerusalem, decides not to attack, not to storm and to reconsider his entire enterprise.

SHUSTER: Richard perceived the problem that all future invaders of the Arab world would face. If he took Jerusalem, he would have to occupy it, requiring thousands of soldiers to remain there indefinitely.

Mr. RESTON: He had basically mobilized his whole army, as had the other kings of Europe, simply to capture this holy site. And once they captured the holy city of Jerusalem, well, then they had accomplished what they had come there to do, and they wanted all to go home.

SHUSTER: In a rare display of restraint, the two leaders negotiated a peace. Richard left for Europe in 1192, leaving Saladin in control of Jerusalem. The great emperor of the Arabs died the next year in Damascus. According to Amin Maalouf, in a foreshadowing of contemporary times, the Arabs fell to squabbling over who was the rightful heir to Saladin.

Mr. MAALOUF: He was unable to establish a stable dynasty or any kind of stable rule of succession. This is a feature that one can observe throughout those times.

(Soundbite of foreign song)

SHUSTER: But the Crusades did not end there. They continued for another century, with this place figuring prominently in the fighting. This is the Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest of crusader fortresses on a hilltop in western Syria, just north of today's border with Lebanon. From here 2,000 soldiers and knights made war on the Arabs. The medieval walls are huge and the inner halls cavernous, the perfect place now for a young boy to practice his singing. Jerusalem fell into crusader hands again in 1229, then was retaken by the Arabs in 1244. Finally, again in Acre, in 1291, under the banner of jihad or Islamic holy war, the Arabs smashed the last of the European crusaders.

Unidentified Man #2: We are standing on a thick layer of dirt, the remains of a great fire that was set by the Egyptian Mamluk's soldiers, who captured Akko in May, 1291, thus bringing down the curtain on crusader Akko and the crusader presence in the country.

(Soundbite of bell)

SHUSTER: For many in the contemporary Arab world, the Crusades are viewed as having begun nearly a millennium of conflict with what would become the West. The Crusades are seen as representing the constant threat of Western encroachment. But many scholars say that is a more recent and inaccurate view of the Crusades. Again, Thomas Madden of St. Louis University.

Mr. MADDEN: The Medieval Crusades were taken and then turned into something that they never really were in the first place. They were turned into a kind of a proto-imperialism, an attempt to bring the fruits of European civilization to the Middle East, when, in fact, during the Middle Ages the great sophisticated and wealthy power was the Muslim world. Europe was the Third World.

SHUSTER: It would be another century and a half before Europe and the Middle East would clash again. But by that time another force would emerge to lead the Islamic world, the Ottoman Turks. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, in part two of our series: the rise of the Ottoman Empire. And there's more at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2004 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.