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The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Book Review)

02/18/2015 05:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Volumes have been written about the Crusades, the series of wars in which European Christians sought to take, by any means, the holy places under Muslim control between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. If we seek peace, it is particularly interesting to understand the views of the different parties to the conflict. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, written by Amin Maalouf, focuses on how Muslims viewed the series of battles that lasted almost two hundred years.

By the second half of the 11th century, the Turks, who had previously converted to Islam, occupied land near Constantinople, now Istanbul, as well as regions of the Middle East, including Jerusalem. Alexios, the Byzantine emperor, was concerned, as he viewed the Muslim advance as a threat to Christianity, and called on Pope Urban II for support in repelling the invaders. The Pope appealed to thousands of followers to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims, with the promise of saving their souls. Thus, in 1096 the Crusades began.

The book describes how after some setbacks, the first organized invasion was a military success for the Franj as the Arabs called the Crusades, since they reached Jerusalem and seized the city in 1099.

En route to the Holy Land and taking advantage of divisions among the Muslims, the Franj besieged Antioch. After a difficult siege, the Muslim sentinel in charge of defending the towers protecting the city, who had quarreled with Yaghi Siyan, the Muslim ruler of the city, allowed the Crusaders to enter, opening up windows so that they could climb in with ropes. The invaders slaughtered men, women, and children, while Yaghi Siyan managed to flee on horseback.

They then laid siege to Maarath, a city that resisted for two weeks despite not having a professional army. Inhabitants bravely faced the invaders, even throwing beehives on them from the walls. The Franj finally agreed to spare the lives of the residents if they abandoned their defense. However, once inside the Crusaders massacred families and committed terrible acts of cannibalism.

Gripped by fear, many Arabs allowed the Crusaders to pass through their territory rather than face bloody battles. The Franj, however, still encountered strong resistance in Jerusalem and once inside, committed acts of genocide against Muslims, pillaging the city. Meanwhile, the Jews gathered inside a temple, and the Crusaders locked the doors and set it on fire.

The Europeans were considered barbarians by most of the inhabitants of the region, which at the time had achieved significant breakthroughs in important fields of knowledge. Acts of great cruelty were also committed on the Muslim side, which was also plagued by continuous disorganization and treachery among its own factions.

For decades, new Crusades reached the area, while others returned to Europe. There were also counter-offensives that failed to substantially alter the relationship of forces. This lasted until the arrival of figures such as Zangi, Nur al-Din and subsequently Saladin, important Muslim leaders who were instrumental in the recovery of the territories occupied by the Crusades.

Of these leaders, the one who most attracts my attention is Saladin, who managed to unite the Muslims to expel the invaders and take Jerusalem in 1187. He was an intelligent military strategist who, with determination and an overall vision, achieved his goals. In addition he was a well-rounded, austere individual, who led by example, and was generous and very sensitive to human pain.

Saladin took the Holy City from a position of strength, but with a conciliatory tone that allowed ransom to be paid by its inhabitants so as to avoid bloodshed. The poor were freed from such payment and goods were even distributed to Franj widows and orphans before they left Jerusalem. Saladin respected Christian temples and offered their followers the possibility of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land whenever they wished.

New Crusades continued, with less significant outcomes, until the last of the Franj were expelled from Muslim lands in 1291.

The Crusades ended seven centuries ago, but the battles are still present in the minds and actions of millions of Muslims. They have an important influence on Muslim culture and the social and political development of their countries. We just have to watch a newscast or read any newspaper to realize that the consequences of this ancestral hatred live on to this day.

The revealing opinions of the book are key to understanding the relationship of the Muslim peoples with the rest of the world.

It is essential to know the history of societies in order to understand the current ways of thinking, feeling, and acting of their inhabitants. It is impossible to resolve conflict and achieve peace without putting yourself in others' shoes.