The Crusades were military campaigns led by popes and Christian Western powers. They aimed to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control and protect those territories. There were eight main official crusades from 1095 to 1291, and numerous unofficial ones also took place.
During the Middle Ages, the Islamic world extended from India to Spain, encompassing Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Jerusalem held deep religious significance for both Christians and Muslims and remained a cherished pilgrimage destination. Christians believed it to be where Jesus died and was buried, while Muslims revered it as the site where Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
In the 11th century, the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos found a chance to seek military aid from the West. His goal was to defeat the Muslim Seljuks, who posed a threat to his empire in Asia Minor. The Seljuks’ capture of Jerusalem in 1087 (even though from their fellow Muslims and not the Christians who had lost the city centuries earlier) triggered Western Christians into action.
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.
Motivated by a desire to strengthen the Papacy and unite Christian countries in Europe, Pope Urban II responded to the call for help. He issued a Papal Legate and initiated a preaching campaign across Europe. The message urged Western nobles and knights to prepare their weapons, put on their armor, and journey to the Holy Land. Their mission was to safeguard the most sacred sites of Christianity and protect any endangered Christians in the region.
The warriors who took the oath to crusade, known as “taking the cross,” had various reasons. Defending Christians and the faith promised remission of sins and a fast track to Heaven, as assured by the Pope. Peer and family pressure and the chance for material wealth, land, and titles also influenced their decision. Additionally, the desire to travel and experience holy sites fueled their determination, attracting numerous recruits in subsequent campaigns.
Map illustrating the routes of the First through Fourth Crusades, sourced from the Atlas of the Middle East (Central Intelligence Agency, 1993)
In 1095, the First Crusade began with 30,000 Crusaders from France, Germany, and Italy, led by nobles and knights, setting off on a lengthy journey to the Holy Land. They gained control of the cities of Edessa and Antioch, and after a prolonged siege, successfully captured Jerusalem. The Crusaders’ skill in heavy cavalry, shining armor, siege technology, and military tactics caught the Muslims off guard. Sadly, despite their promise of protection, the victorious Crusaders tragically slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children as they entered Jerusalem.
To safeguard the newly won territory, four Crusader States were established: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the County of Tripoli, and the Principality of Antioch. Together, these lands were known as the Latin East or Outremer.
The Crusader States in 1135
Almost 50 years later, the Muslim Seljuks captured the city of Edessa, leading to the death and enslavement of many Christians. This event triggered the Second Crusade to reclaim the city. After assembling in Jerusalem, 50,000 Crusaders launched an assault on Damascus. However, the Muslim forces triumphed, concluding the Second Crusade. The following year, the Muslim Seljuks captured Antioch, and Edessa’s county fell shortly after.
At the battle of Hattin in 1187, Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, destroyed the Christian army, reclaiming Jerusalem and a large amount of Crusaders’ territory. These defeats sparked outrage and inspired the Third Crusade, led by the King Richard I of England, known as Richard the Lionheart.
In 1191, after recapturing the city of Jaffa, Richard restored Christian control over parts of the region and approached Jerusalem, yet he chose not to lay siege to the city. A year later, Richard and Saladin signed a peace treaty that reestablished the Kingdom of Jerusalem, excluding the city of Jerusalem itself, thus ending the Third Crusade.
Richard the Lionheart on his way to Jerusalem, by James William Glass, c. 1850
The Fourth Crusade unexpectedly targeted Constantinople, known as the greatest Christian city in the world. Papal ambitions, the financial greed of the Venetians, and a history of mistrust between the East and West of the former Roman Empire led to an aggressive storm that resulted in the sacking of the Byzantine Empire’s capital in 1204. The Empire’s riches and relics were taken back to Europe, while Venice and its allies divided the conquered territory.
In the following years of the 13th century, various Crusades were launched, not solely to defeat Muslim forces in the Holy Land but to confront any groups seen as threats to the Christian faith. By 1291, the Muslims captured Acre, one of the few remaining Crusader cities. This defeat is widely believed to have marked the end of both the Crusader States and the Crusades themselves.
The Crusades had significant political and social impacts. The Byzantine Empire came to an end, and the popes emerged as de facto leaders of the Christian Church. Italian maritime states gained control over the Mediterranean’s East-West trade, the Balkans underwent Christianization, and Muslims were pushed back to North Africa from the Iberian peninsula.
The costly nature of the crusades resulted in the rise of power for the royal houses of Europe, while the influence of barons and nobles declined. Moreover, a growing interest in travel and learning spread across Europe, potentially laying the groundwork for the Renaissance.
Words of wisdom
“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” —Plato
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” —Voltaire
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” —Abraham Lincoln