A Look Back at the Crusades


crusades.001_bef7616c17264e9dc5252deb9cf667feAt the National Prayer Breakfast, Barack Obama, our post-Christian President, took a swipe at Christians. We must “remember”, he preached, that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” This slanderous anecdote was part of a broader comparison the President was making. The terrible deeds of the Crusades, he wanted his audience to believe, were of a piece with the terrible deeds today of ISIS.

First, let’s call this what it is: pure anti-Christian propaganda. There’s no question about the anti-Christian part. According to Obama, like ISIS, faithful followers of Christ are likely to engage in violence as a result of their faith. This is in keeping with Obama’s long anti-Christian stance, exemplified by his hateful remark in 2008 concerning unenlightened small-town Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

It’s also clearly propaganda, inasmuch as it simplifies a long and complex political, cultural and religious movement in order to subordinate it to a present rhetorical purpose aimed at fostering and furthering a cherished leftist ideological stereotype. Specifically, that being that Christians are prone to violence as a part of their religion.

Considering just the Crusades, is it right to equate them with today’s ISIS barbarity? In fact, the truth is rather the reverse. The Crusaders of the past were motivated to respond to the equivalent of today’s ISIS in defense of their fellow Christians who were being pillaged and slaughtered. Then, as now, terrorist warriors using Islam as a basis for their murderous work were invading the lands of the Middle East, putting to rout the Christians who then lived there, and rampaging right up to the very borders of Christian Europe. The Crusades were initiated as a defensive war, intended to send aid to those Christians being besieged.

The great writer Hilaire Belloc described the background and origin of the Moslem invasion of the Christian lands of the Middle East. He wrote:

…the Mongol hordes, from their first wave onward, had fitted in at once with the social structure and creed of Islam…. They became not only Mohammedan, but fanatically Mohammedan, and through their military power what had already begun to be the decline of Mohammedanism recovered.

The best general name for them is the name “Turk.” They had no conscious unity; they came in bands fighting for immediate gain. They were possessed, as the original Arabian horsemen out of the desert had not been possessed, of a fierce lust for cruelty and mere destruction, and the letting in of that spirit and all its armed agents was the great and almost mortal would delivered indirectly by Islam to the civilization of Europe. They burnt and unroofed and massacred everywhere in their campaigns…. Their function was the function of the Destroyer…. (1)

The “Mongol hordes” referenced by Belloc were, in this case, the Seljuq Turks. Having embraced Islam and moving westward, their power was supreme through much of the heart of the Middle East. In his History of the Byzantine Empire, historian A.A. Vasiliev recounts:

After their conquest of Persia in the middle of the eleventh century, the Seljuqs penetrated into Mesopotamia and entered Bagdad. From now on the caliph of Bagdad was under the protection of the Seljucids, whose sultans did not reside at Bagdad, but exercised their authority in this important city through a general. Shortly after this, when the strength of the Seljuq Turks increased still more because of the arrival of new Turkish tribes, they conquered all of western Asia, from Afghanistan to the borders of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor, and the Egyptian caliphate of the Fatimids.

Thereafter, the Seljuq power began to threaten the heart of Christianity in the East. Vasiliev writes: “…the second of the Seljuq sultans, Alp Arslan, conquered Armenia and devastated part of Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia. In Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, the Turks pillaged the main sanctuary of the city, the Church of Basil the Great, where the relics of the Saint were kept.”

One Byzantine source, cited by Vasiliev, described the outcome of these invasions. According to that source, “…almost the whole world, on land and sea, occupied by the impious barbarians, has been destroyed and has become empty of population, for all the Christians have been slain by them and all houses and settlements with their churches have been devastated by them in the whole East, completely crushed and reduced to nothing.”

A fatal blow was struck against the Byzantines by Alp Arslan at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine army was numerically superior, but made up of a large contingent of mercenaries. Some of these went over to the Turks, and at the moment of crisis, internal dissent spread rumors that the Byzantine army was defeated. Rumor proved prescient and the Byzantine army was “annihilated by the forces of Alp Arslan on 19 August 1071,” according to historian George Ostrogorsky in his History of the Byzantine State.

This was a catastrophe which threatened all of Christendom, and not just the East. Hilaire Belloc provides perspective:

What one can certainly say of Manzikert is that the remaining Greek and Christian civilization received a mortal wound. The Mongols overran, devastated, and destroyed all that land of hither Asia which had been the solid foundation of the Byzantine power; the reservoir of Byzantine landed wealth, the nursery of our religion. The victorious Turks pillaged and killed wholesale. they overthrew permanent buildings wherever they went. They so cut at the roots of all civilization that it withered before them. Within much less than a lifetime the whole vast district of interior Asia Minor was ruined.

Manzikert was indeed a fateful outcome, and it set the stage for the military intervention of Western Christendom in the East. Steven Runciman in his History of the Crusades writes of the catastrophe:

The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again their historians refer to that dreadful day. To the latter Crusaders it seemed that the Byzantines had forfeited on the battlefield their title as protectors of Christendom. Manzikert justified the intervention of the West.

With the situation rapidly deteriorating, and in need of support from the West, in 1073 the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII decided to reach out to Rome and the new Pope Gregory VII. According to Runciman, Michael “sent the new Pope a letter of congratulations, hinting at his wish for a closer connection. Pleased, Gregory sent Dominicus, Patriarch of Venice, as legate to Constantinople to report on conditions there.”

As a result of this diplomacy came Gegory’s call for a Crusade in 1074:

Gregory, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to all who are willing to defend the Christian faith, greeting and apostolic benediction.

We hereby inform you that the bearer of this letter, on his recent return from across the sea [from Palestine], came to Rome to visit us. He repeated what we had heard from many others, that a pagan race had overcome the Christians and with horrible cruelty had devastated everything almost to the walls of Constantinople, and were now governing the conquered lands with tyrannical violence, and that they had slain many thousands of Christians as if they were but sheep. If we love God and wish to be recognized as Christians, we should be filled with grief at the misfortune of this great empire [the Greek] and the murder of so many Christians. But simply to grieve is not our whole duty. The example of our Redeemer and the bond of fraternal love demand that we should lay down our lives to liberate them. “Because he has laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren,” [1 John 3:16]. Know, therefore, that we are trusting in the mercy of God and in the power of his might and that we are striving in all possible ways and making preparations to render aid to the Christian empire [the Greek] as quickly as possible. Therefore we beseech you by the faith in which you are united through Christ in the adoption of the sons of God, and by the authority of St. Peter, prince of apostles, we admonish you that you be moved to proper compassion by the wounds and blood of your brethren and the danger of the aforesaid empire and that, for the sake of Christ, you undertake the difficult task of bearing aid to your brethren [the Greeks]. Send messengers to us at once inform us of what God may inspire you to do in this matter.

Twenty years would pass, however, before the call of Gregory was renewed by his successor, Urban II. In his speech at the Council of Clermont, Urban issued the call for Crusade that finally moved Western Christendom to send its military strength to the East. According to Fulcher of Chartres, Urban plead with his audience:

Although, O sons of God, you have promised more firmly than ever to keep the peace among yourselves and to preserve the rights of the church, there remains still an important work for you to do. Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.

This set in motion the long train of events known as the Crusades. To the modern secular, progressive mind, and to the post-Christian mind, this period of history is one which exemplifies the greedy rapaciousness of Christianity. To such as these, the “crime” of the Crusades is the result of the inherent evil of religion, and especially the inherent evil of Christianity.

This progressive and post-Christian dogma is, however, far from the truth, and it dodges both history and theology with equal vigor. It is clear that Christendom was not the aggressor during the age of the Crusades. Rather, Christians found themselves on the defensive against an implacable foe and, at length, were forced into a vigorous defense.

The comparison of the Christian Crusades with the current ISIS barbarities is, as with so much that issues from today’s post-Christian progressives, exactly the reverse of reality. Where they aver that the Crusades were in character similar to ISIS campaigns, the truth is that they were caused in reaction to the attacks perpetrated by the medieval forefathers of ISIS.

Just as Christians today are under attack everywhere through the Middle East, the Christians of 1,000 years ago faced similar attacks. Then, not always successfully, other Christians attempted to come to their aid.

And that raises the question: who will aid today’s Christian martyrs?


Belloc, Hilaire. The Crusades. Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc.; 1937, 1992.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: Volume I, The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. London, The Folio Society, 1994.

Vasiliev, A.A. The History of the Byzantine Empire, Volume One. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

behreandtSelf-Educated American Associate Editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Publisher and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald. Mr. Behreandt has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.

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