Sunday, March 9

The End of the Christian East

The first Crusade to liberate the once Christian lands of the Near East from the tyranny of Islamic conquerors was a great success. An army of about 50,000 Europeans, supported by the imperial treasury of Byzantium, drove south through Syria and Palestine, finally retaking Jerusalem in 1099. During the next few years, the Crusaders carved up their conquests into several small kingdoms, realms that they dubbed "Outremer." They built castles, churches, and markets. They constructed fortified walls, dug fresh wells, and cultivated the fields. They restored the ancient holy places. They reopened the trade routes. And they rebuilt the roadways.

Many of the men committed their lives to making the region a flourishing Christian culture once again. The feudal order that they instituted there brought dramatic changes to the lives and the fortunes of the citizenry. Under their ambitious building program, cities like Acre, Edessa, and even Jerusalem itself, blossomed into architectural marvels. Out of the rubble of war they brought forth peace and prosperity.

But restoring the lands to their former glory was no easy task. Provisions had to be shipped across long distances. Communications with the West were difficult at best. Petty jealousies between competing clans, commanders, chiefs, and would-be-czars weakened their solidarity, stalled their progress, and diverted their attentions. But, regardless of all that, in the end there simply were not enough of them to hold their tiny strip of territory against the persistent onslaught of Moslem assassins and warlords.

On this day in 1144, the Saracen Muslims reorganized their armies and swept through Syria. Edessa fell. A renewed Crusade led by the kings of France and Germany failed to recover it. All of Europe was stunned. And the worst was yet to come. In 1150, Saladin united the Islamic world under his leadership and began to chip away at the remaining Christian holdings. In 1187, he defeated the Crusaders at the decisive Battle of Hattin. He then captured Jerusalem and overran virtually all the Latin territories except Acre.

Another series of Crusades were launched by such notables as King Richard I of England, Emperor Frederick II of Germany, and King Louis IX of France. Under their leadership the Western armies valiantly won back a few swatches of the lost lands between Joppa and Acre. But the flagging campaigns were generally ineffectual. Jerusalem was lost again in 1244. Acre fell in 1291. And the Christian Near East has been held in the terrifying grips of Islam ever since.

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