Reimagining the Crusades

GOD WILLS IT,” cried the crowd gathered on November 18, 1095, in the northern French city of Clermont in direct response to Pope Urban II’s entreaty that they come to the aid of their Christian brethren in the east. The Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus, threatened by the growing power of the Seljuk Turks—who had already captured the important Christian cities of Antioch and Nicaea—had requested the pope’s help to defend his territory and keep the Turks from his capital at Constantinople. What began with a request for military assistance turned into a campaign to defend Christendom and reinstate Christian control over Jerusalem, which had been ruled by Muslims for more than three centuries.

Tens of thousands of people—from armored knights on horseback wearing tunics emblazoned with red crosses to ragtag bands of poor peasants, some of whom branded their flesh with the sign of the cross—set off the following year on the arduous trek of nearly 2,000 miles to the Holy Land. Only a century later did they become known as Crusaders, from the French term for “way of the cross,” and this first wave of Europeans was dubbed the First Crusade. After winning back Antioch and Nicaea, the Crusaders eventually seized Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, massacring all of its Jewish and Muslim residents—30,000 by one account—and leaving the city, holy to all three faiths, awash in blood.

The famously intolerant invaders established control over an area roughly the size of today’s Israel and West Bank, which they called the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In their wake, an array of Europeans—nobles, mercenaries, criminals, and pilgrims, among others—primarily from France andEast. For the next nearly 200 years, their power waxed and waned.

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