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The First Crusade began in 1095 when pope Urban II called for a military expedition to the Byzantine Empire to help it fight the Seljuk (Turk) assailants and to take control of the Holy Land, which at that time was under the rule of the Fatimids of Egypt. This inaugurated a period of two centuries in which Christians and Muslims often fought one another – and sometimes their own co-religionists – all over the region from Anatolia and Palestine to Egypt. At times, they did however also work together.
The first troubles arose in 1097 when the Norman Bohemond took the city of Antioch, one of the patriarchal sees of Christianity, from the Seljuk Turks. The crusaders had promised to hand back the territories they conquered to the Byzantine emperor, but Bohemond did not comply. Shortly after his conquest, however, an army led by Kerbogha of Mosul retook the city. Eventually, the crusaders managed to re-conquer Antioch, but internal strife broke out. Some stayed; some went on to conquer the Holy Land.
Godfrey of Bouillon’s army went south. In the beginning, the Fatimids did not seem overtly distressed by the crusaders passing through their territory and even considered helping them against the Seljuks. This changed, however, when the Europeans approached Palestine – and Egypt. In 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon conquered Jerusalem. However, the Lebanese and Syrian territories proved more difficult to conquer – and even less easy to hold on to. There were shifting alliances, with former enemies fighting alongside or transforming into opponents.
Emir Nur al-Din (1116-1174), whose origins lie in Aleppo, conquered Damascus and united the Syrian Arabs in the name of the jihad. He was a legendary ruler, but his successor Saladin became even more famous. Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 1138-1193), a Kurd born in Tikrit and raised in Aleppo, Baalbek, and Damascus, was the nephew of Nur al-Din’s confident Asad al-Din Shirkuh, who conquered Egypt, taking his nephew with him. When Shirkuh died, Nur al-Din appointed Saladin both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier. Saladin proclaimed the end of the (Shiite) Fatimid rule, which he replaced with his own Ayyubid dynasty. Subsequently, he won famous battles such as the Battle of Hattin in 1187 which led to the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the occupation of that region by the Franks.
Saladin was famed not only for his strategic acumen but also for his courageous and chivalrous feats as a warrior. In this respect, his reputation was similar to that of his adversary Richard Lionheart; there are reports that both men respected one another.
Consequences of the Crusades
However, neither the Christians nor the Muslims always closed ranks. The emirates in the region remained divided in their allegiance. Eventually, in 1292, it was the Mamluks, a new Egyptian dynasty – of Turkish origin – who brought the final blow to the crusaders. By then, the eastern part of their territory had been invaded by the Mongols, who took Baghdad (in 1258) and Damascus before eventually being defeated by the Mamluks in the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260.
The Crusades (eight in total) cost many lives and brought a lot of destruction, disease, and disorder. Most of the time, the local inhabitants were allowed to remain true to their faith – except for slaves and prisoners of war. They also retained their local authorities and justice system. In many ways, the eastern and western cultures influenced one another. Trade thrived, especially in the coastal regions. Traders – Muslims, Christians, or Jews – enjoyed special protection when crossing borders, even when they had to enter ‘enemy’ territory. Caravans crossed the whole region, ships went from Egypt via Tyre to Constantinople and further. After the last of the crusaders left the Levantine coast, many Christian traders also left and settled in Cyprus.