The Crusades lasted from 1096 to 1272 in various waves of war in the region of Palestine. In total, there are seven crusades. It showcases the strength of Europe to wage a foreign war, it gives cause to chivalry in the station of knight and “Christian soldier”, and it solidifies the faith of many, as the battle centralizes around flying a Christian flag over the land of Jesus. As we know today, the Crusades also carry a dark shadow of warmongering and hate for the people who adhere to Islam. We can certainly understand best the intent of the secular and Church leaders. It’s difficult, though, to establish the intent of the knight himself. Perhaps chivalry is his highest hope. Perhaps, it’s violence and bigotry. The long shadow of history does qualify these events for us, no matter individual intent, as the beginning of a massive divide between West and East, Christian and Muslim.


As you may know, Islam is a fairly young religion. Muhammad dies in 632, having adopted Christian and Jewish beliefs to formulate something new. More than likely, exchanges with Christians and Jews happened through the trading centers of Ethiopia and Mecca. Ethiopia was an early adopter of Judaism due to the relationship between Solomon and Cleopatra. No wonder the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 was reading the scroll of Isaiah and needed help deciphering it from Philip. One of the early strongholds of Christianity, then, was Africa, primarily Alexandria and Ethiopia, as they already had received the message of God through his relationship with the Israelites.

There’s no way around Muhammad’s use of violence to help bolster allegiance to this new religion in the Arabian Peninsula. When he dies, Islam is split into two factions that we still see today: Sunni and Shia. The Sunni believes that the mantel of leadership is with the leader who can will his way with the people. The Shia believes the mantel must be placed on someone who is a direct descendant of Muhammad. The Sunnis become the majority (70-90% today) and the Shias are the minority (10-20% today.) The dominance of the Sunnis from then until now is due to the success of the Sunni caliphates that built an empire that spread over Palestine, the northern part of Africa, and included at least half of Spain. Before its demise in 750, the Umayyad Caliphate ruled over some 34 million people. The Abbasid Caliphate followed and the Great Seljuk Empire,  the forerunner to the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) dominated much of Europe with Christianity as their worldview, exemplified with Pope Leo III crowning the Frankish king Charlemagne as the first formal, Holy Roman Emperor on Dec. 25, 800. Though the Byzantine Empire’s hold on power would ebb and flow, its defeat is not formal until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire, the inheritors of Islamic power sacked Constantinople in its increasing threat to Europe, a threat only assuaged after World War I when the Allied Powers chopped up the Middle East into many of the countries we know today.

The First Crusade (1095-1099)

The hope, the glory, and the redemption of capturing the Holy Land for Christianity is verbalized by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095. It’s an idea that the emperor in the East shares with the pope and asks his support to create the cause necessary to make it happen. And the cause was a real threat that the Islamic caliphate might take down the Eastern Empire. So, Urban II sends a letter to, “all the faithful, both princes and subjects, waiting in Flanders.” Here’s an excerpt of that correspondence:

Your brotherhood, we believe, has long since learned from many accounts that a barbaric fury has deplorably afflicted and laid waste the churches of God in the regions of the Orient. More than this, blasphemous to say, it has even grasped in intolerable servitude its churches and the Holy City of Christ, glorified be His passion and resurrection.

He then names Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, as the leader of the “expedition,” and says that if the princes can summons support, stating that, “If, moreover, there are any of your people whom God has inspired to this vow [to this crusade], let them know that he will set out with the aid of God on the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary, and that they can then attach themselves to his following.”

The organized effort starts off badly, as Peter, the Hermit brings peasants together to slaughter Jews and Muslims in Europe before being stopped. The official crusaders march out toward Constantinople in 1096 and then on to Jerusalem, where they capture the city in 1099 and establish the Latin Rite crusader states of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Many Muslims and Jews were massacred in the military expansion.

The Second Crusade (1147–1149) 

Pope Eugene III announces the call to a second crusade because of the defeat of Edessa, in Turkey and one of the Crusader states established during the First Crusade. The kings of France and Germany took up the call and marched independently to Anatolia on their way to Jerusalem. Both armies are defeated by the Seljuks. Though there were minor victories, the Second Crusade did not yield much for the crusaders, and it became the impetus for the fall of Jerusalem in 1187.

The Third Crusade (1189–1192)

In 1187, Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, takes back control of the Holy Land after 88 years of Crusader rule. This invites the third crusade. King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England will be its leader, accompanied by King Phillip II of France and the less successful Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who drowns in a river before reaching the Holy Land. By 1192, only England remains in the Holy Land, and on September 2, Richard and the sultan, Saladin, reach an agreement. They sign a treaty which grants control of Jerusalem to him but allows Christian pilgrims and tradesmen to visit the city. After some time, and in spite of the success in keeping some of the Crusader states intact, the flame is fanned for a fourth crusade from Richard’s inability to recapture Jerusalem.

The Fourth Crusade (1202–04)

The Fourth Crusade is a debacle. The intent is to lead an army to Jerusalem, but because of political tension to correct the power structure in Constantinople, they change course. The result is a tangled mess where the crusaders along with the trade-included Venetians (of Venice, Italy) sack Constantinople in 1204 and set up a new “Latin Empire.” An account of the sack is far from Christian and it accents how deep the divide between Western and Eastern Christianity had become (since the Great Schism of 1054). Historian Speros Vryonis says,

The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.

The Fifth Crusade (1213–1221)

The goal remains Jerusalem. That is not the result of the Fifth Crusade. Rather, in 1221, the crusaders are defeated and the result is an eight-year treaty of peace and utter humiliation for the West, as part of the deal was an exchange for captured crusaders.

The Sixth Crusade (1228)

Once again, Jerusalem becomes the objective of the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II. Through some political steps, he is able to get some control over the city. By political, I mean he marries Isabella of Jerusalem who has some stake in the strange crown of the kingdom of Jerusalem that doesn’t really exist, a carryover as much as anything else, from the famed crusader years. Also to his advantage is the sidetracking of the Egyptian sultan who controlled the area but was preoccupied with suppressing a rebellion in Syria. For that reason, Fredrick is ceded Jerusalem along with a narrow corridor to the coast. It’s by no means a glorious battle and the Muslims have the negotiation power, keeping the Temple Mount and various castles. If it’s seen as successful, it’s only temporary.

The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) and others

Led by Louis IX of France, the hope was to regain Jerusalem from the Mongols who had taken it as they took over much of the world in the largest kingdom ever formed. Though their allegiances were not religious in nature, the Mongols ally with many Muslim kings, one of whom, began his control of Jerusalem in a provincial role for the Mongols. The allure of taking Jerusalem did not attract the same war cry as in previous crusading eras. When Louis did embark on the journey, he is captured and released only after paying a hefty ransom. For our purposes, we’ll just mention that there were relatively minor crusades, the eighth and ninth, that follow. There is little success in either attempt to spread east. The ninth crusade saw the last of the crusader strongholds in the region fall.

Conclusion and Application

As you can see, this crusading business peters out as it gets extended over many years. Though the crusaders accomplish dominance for 88 years in Jerusalem, the legacy of the Crusades is far from holy, righteous, or biblical. That said, the intent to secure the areas where Jesus walked, where he died and was resurrected, still strike a chord of goodwill in me. I can’t imagine not being able to visit Israel like I did last March and like I’ll do again this coming February. Many of the same Zionistic revelries that some of us feel toward Israel (and many felt during the 1948 undertaking) are not far off from the crusading ideals. In that, I don’t mean a disdain toward Muslims, but rather the very true and good witness that the Holy Land provides for those who can and choose to pilgrim there. I am grateful that we have that privilege today and I’m conscious that many of the people who went on a very different journey from 1096-1272 had some common feeling of excitement to see and experience where God put on flesh and dwelt among us.

About The Author

Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects, including films and educational resources.

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