by Julie Baretz
Julie Baretz is a licensed tour guide who lives with her family in Jerusalem.
Although the fascinating historical chapter of the Crusaders in the Holy Land covers a relatively short period of just over two hundred years, their indelible mark is evident over the entire Near East region.
The background to their story begins with the eastern rise of Christianity in the early fourth century. At this time, the Byzantine emperor Constantine, ruler over the eastern remains of the Roman Empire, converted to Christianity. From the capitol of his empire (later to be known as Constantinople, and then Istanbul) Constantine legalized the outlawed Christian faith and declared it the state religion. Multitudes of his subjects followed the emperor’s example and for the first time, three hundred years after the death of Jesus, the holy places of the New Testament were identified and marked, often with impressive churches. These holy sights drew a steady steam of Christian pilgrims from across Europe who wished to visit the churches and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
The Byzantines were finally forced out of the Holy Land by the Moslems in 638 CE (AD) and although the country was no longer in Christian hands, pilgrims were welcomed by the Moslem rulers and continued to enjoy access to many of their holy sites. In fact, Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land reached the peak of its popularity in the tenth century thanks to active encouragement by the Church.
However, towards the end of the eleventh century the delicate political balance in the Near East began to change. Warring regional factions created upheavals and by 1080 it became impossible for pilgrims to cross Asia Minor in order to reach the Holy Land. In addition, local tensions between the Turks and the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty in Palestine made the country unsafe for visitors. By 1095 Christian pilgrim traffic to the Holy Land was at a virtual halt.
In 1095 Pope Urban II stood up before crowds of worshippers on a platform in an open field. He made a famous speech calling for all Christians of the west to rise up and march to the rescue of their brothers in the east. He urged rich and poor alike to unite in order to rescue the holy places from the hands of the infidels and do the work of God.
Caught up in the fervor of the cause, the First Crusade arrived in the Holy Land in the spring of 1099, rapidly passed over the coastal plain and ascended up to take Jerusalem, where they reclaimed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Small groups of knights proceeded to capture the interior regions and it wasn’t long before they consolidated their efforts and controlled the entire country, thanks to divisions and disorganization amongst the Moslem forces. However, after the kingdom had been secured most of the knights returned to their homes in Europe, feeling they had fulfilled their obligation to the cause. Only a small number remained to maintain control over their territory and to plan ahead for the unavoidable confrontations with the Moslems as they regrouped.
Baldwin I is credited with solidifying the Crusader kingdom at this time; he strengthened their position in Jerusalem and took over the maritime towns, which included Acre, Caesarea and Ascalon (Ashkelon), all cities which boast extensive Crusader remains today. Baldwin also created a feudal system, which allowed him to crystallize the frontiers and encourage trade. At this time the most important element of the Crusader defense system was a chain of fortresses built along the eastern border of the kingdom in the Syrian-African rift valley, from Lebanon and the Jordan Valley all the way down to the Arava. Belvoir, north of Beit Shean, is the best preserved of all the frontier fortresses.
A period of stability ensued, thanks to a treaty signed between the Crusaders (also known as the Franks) and the Moslem rulers in Damascus. In 1144, Moslem forces hostile to the Frankish kingdom captured the region of Edessa, northeast of Antioch, this event set the Second Crusade in motion. Unfortunately, only a handful of the many knights who set out from Europe actually reached the Holy Land. They pursued a badly advised strategy and attacked Damascus, thereby destroying the fragile alliance that had kept the region relatively peaceful. This strategy, lead to a downward spiral, which culminated in the crushing defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in Galilee in 1187. Jerusalem fell a few months later and it wasn’t long before the entire Frankish kingdom was in Moslem hands.
The fall of Jerusalem prompted the Third Crusade, led by the great kings of Europe and thousands of knights and simple people. Richard Lion-Heart commanded the small remnant of a group that reached the Holy Land to take the coastal plain in 1191, but Jerusalem remained in the hands of the Moslems. Failing to take areas in the inner part of the country, the port city of Acre effectively became the capitol of the Frankish kingdom from this time on. The well-preserved remains of the Knights’ Halls belonging to the St John’s Hospitallers Order is one of the highlights of an Old City tour of Acre.
The Fourth Crusade set out after Saladin’s death in the early thirteenth century but never reached the Holy Land. They got as far as Constantinople in 1204 and established themselves there for sixty years.
The Fifth Crusade consisted of an ongoing trickle of knights who succeeded in capturing additional coastal towns but never attempted to take Jerusalem. In 1218 they attacked Egypt, the reflection of a new strategy, which determined that they could only control Palestine by taking Egypt first. They were ultimately defeated and forced to retreat.
In 1220 a treaty was signed between the Franks and the Moslems, allowing them control over Jerusalem (except the Temple Mount), lower Galilee, Nazareth and the corridor between Jerusalem and Jaffa. Unfortunately, these areas remained in their hands for just sixteen years, thanks to internal disagreements amongst the Crusaders.
In the early 1240s the Mongols, who captured Jerusalem and pushed the Franks back to the northern coastal plain, attacked the kingdom. The Mamelukes, a Turkish slave class in Egypt, defeated the Mongols in 1260. The Sultan Baybars and his heirs took over all of the Crusader cities by 1291 and ended the reign of Frankish rule in Palestine.