Life in the Crusades

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The Holy Land refers to the area that lay in between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel and the Palestinian territories form a large majority of the Holy Land. This expanse of ground is religiously significant to both the Muslims and the Christians, and in the heat of the conflict lays Jerusalem. To the Christians it was the site of Jesus’s temple and his crucifixion. To Islam it was the “Farthest Temple” where Muhammad traveled on his “Night Journey”. Each party had deeply rooted religious reasons for wanting to control the Holy Land.

The Muslims put particular emphasis on Jerusalem, because of two important sites. The al-Aqsa Mosque is where Mohammad was supposed to have been transported during Isra and Mi’raj, the Night Journey. It is also home of the Dome of the Rock, a shrine from where Mohammad rose to the heaven.

The Christians believe that the Holy Land was placed there for God’s “chosen ones”. It was the site of Jesus’s temple, where he performed his miracles, and where he was crucified. The path Christ took to his crucifixion, The Via Dolorosa, “the Painful Path”, is a religious pilgrimage for Christians even into the present day.

The Crusades began in 1095 under the order of Pope Urban II to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. There was a series of Crusades that followed this first successful crusade. The war campaigns ranged from great triumphs to miserable defeats with the range of power shifting between the Muslims and the Christians.

The Christians faced many hardships throughout the battles and no matter the outcome of each campaign the life of a crusader was the same. The days were long and grueling. Hunger, fear, and pain were well known to the warriors. Faith held them strong in the face of adversity.

After the crusades began, prophets and preachers alike began to campaign for men to raise up against the Muslims, who were being presented as a savage people, alien to God. They pushed for men to join the Crusades, for men to take up arms for their God and to become one of the “Soldiers for Christ”. The goal was to free the Holy Land from the ravaging hands of the Muslims.

The Crusaders had no accepted leader, and were unsure of the Churchmen who had gone with them into battle. They had no formal agreement with the Byzantine Empire and were uncertain if they were allies or enemies. The unclear battle conditions led to mistrust and a division of the Crusaders into factions that sometimes fought amongst themselves.

Different leaders led their soldiers along different routes to meet together in Constantinople. Some went by sea, while others took the land route around the Adriatic Sea. As the Crusaders marched east they were joined by thousands of men, ranging from peasants to knights.

Few knew what to expect as they left the safety and comfort of their home and families. They were unprepared for the difficulties of the long and dangerous march from Constantinople across the inhospitable landscape of what is now called Turkey. Many lost their lives due to hunger, fatigue and exhaustion in the long march.

Hygiene, lack of food and disease were major factors in the health of the warriors. They hunted along the route to the Holy Land, but food was in high demand amongst the tens of thousands of soldiers and many resorted to stealing food and supplies. This led to increased divisions and factionalism. Despite these challenges they took Jerusalem in a bloody victory where many inhabitants died alongside the soldiers from both sides.

Many men were prepared to go home after the victory at Jerusalem, but others recognized the riches of the Holy Land. They sought to set up a permanent Christian presence as well as transplant Christian military culture. They believed that a permanent establishment of power could carve out their fortunes.

Once the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the three other Crusader states, the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa, were founded the crusades intensified. The men trying to hold control of Jerusalem were dependent on soldiers and resources from the west. Unfortunately, most help was only forthcoming in times of open conflict, but the constant warfare wore at the men.

Rivalries at home added to the strife as they translated into factional quarrels among the men. The frictions, added with European jealousies and tensions, further divided the Crusader Stated and limited common policy among the states.

The lack of supplies and stress of constant warfare began to cause fissures in the states. They were unprepared to deal with the realities of war, such as the need to recruit and maintain loyal soldiers. The death toll rose dramatically and spirits began to fall. Some of the men had been away from family and home for many months, and some for years. It was difficult for the soldiers to uphold the same level of intensity that they had brought with them when coming to the Holy Land.

The Muslims believed that military effort was imperative to regaining power of Jerusalem. Turning to the offensive they recaptured Edessa in 1144. This loss marked the beginning of the end of the Christian militaries hold on the Holy Land.

When news of Edessa’s fall reached Europe Pope Eugenius III called for another crusade. The majority of men were destroyed before every reaching the Holy Land. Those that reached the city failed to take it. After the failure of this second crusade the crusaders had difficulty imagining where the future would lead them.

The crusaders barely held onto control of Jerusalem, but were able to maintain control of the city until 1187 when the Muslim prince Saladin defeated the army and took control of Jerusalem. The fight became more political and bargains were made to allow Christians access to Jerusalem. Diplomacy only went so far and the need for power and control won out.

In 1199 there came the call for a crusade to recapture Jerusalem, but all gains were political. A battle with the Muslims never sprouted and the crusade never threatened the Muslim’s power. All subsequent crusades were not mass venture. Small erratic efforts did little to regain control of Jerusalem. Several smaller wars were attempted, but without the political and military support needed to achieve big results the crusades were short lived.

Hard feelings and strife still exist between the Muslims and the Christians and the Holy Land still holds significant religious meaning to both parties.