The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

Another nonfiction book translated from the French that is actually a good read. Really helped solidify my understanding of the Crusades. It covers a two-hundred-year period, so it’s hard to keep all the characters straight. I’m going to have to go back in and write down all the names, what religion and nationality they were, who their parents were (if known), what kingdom or fiefdom or sultanate or stronghold they’re associated with, etc., and then make notes on one of the big maps of Asia Minor and the States of the Crusades that I recently acquired. Then I’ll have a nice aid to memory.

The “holy land” in 1096, when the first Crusade was launched, was a bit of a mess. There is supposed to be one caliph just as there is supposed to be one pope, but at this time there was a Sunni (Abassid) caliph in Baghdad and a Shi’a (Fatimid) caliph in Cairo. The caliph in Baghdad was under the thumb of a Turkish sultan, and the caliph in Cairo was a puppet to his own vizier. There were kings and princes and emirs and sultans and atabegs all over the place.

Suprisingly to me, it was less than fifteen years after the initial invasion before an army of Muslims allied with Crusaders faced off against another army of Muslims allied with Crusaders. You almost get the idea that the religion wasn’t the driving force at all, but took a far back seat to struggles for power and territory.

I was especially surprised to learn that the assassins sect was willing to convert to Christianity for the sake of a favorable alliance with the Crusaders against the Sunnis in the region. There were a few instances of whole kingdoms or armies offering to convert to one religion or the other. Strange stuff.

Here’s a passage that made me giggle:

Crossing the Sinai peninsula along its Mediterranean coast, Amalric laid siege to the town of Bilbays, situated on a branch of the Nile that would run dry in centuries to come. The defenders of the city were both dumbfounded and amused when the Franj began erecting siege machinery around the walls, for it was September, and the river was beginning to swell. The authorities had only to breach a few dikes, and the warriors of the Occident soon found themselves surrounded by water. They barely had time to flee back to Palestine.

That was around 1162. They were not quick to learn the ways of water, because in 1221, this happened:

In July the Frankish army left Damietta, heading resolutely for Cairo […] As for al-Kamil himself, he was anxiously watching, with barely concealed joy, the gradual swelling of the waters of the Nile, for the level of the river had begun rising without the Occidentals’ taking any notice. In mid-August the land became so muddy and slippery that the knights had first to halt their advance and then to withdraw their entire army.
Barely had the retreat begun when a group of Egyptian soldiers moved to demolish the dikes. It was the twenty-sixth of August 1221. Within a few hours, as the Muslim troops cut off the exit routes, the entire Frankish army found itself mired in a sea of mud.

The Muslims were better off than the crusaders in several ways: they had hospitals and trained doctors, courts of law where evidence was viewed and testimony was heard, and an efficient system for conveying news quickly.

Fulk had just enough time to send a message to Jerusalem appealing for reinforcements when, as Ibn al-Athir relates, Zangi cut off all communications, allowing no news to filter through; the besieged no longer knew what was happening in their country, so strict was the control of the routes.
Such a blockade would have had no effect whatever on the Arabs. For centuries they had used carrier-pigeons to convey messages from town to town. Every army on the march carried pigeons that had been raised in various Muslim cities and strongholds. They had been trained always to return to their nests of origin.

There was a lot of plunder and beheading all around, of course. But Saladin was famous for sparing conquered people:

So it was that on Friday 2 October 1187, or 27 Rajab 583 by the Muslim calendar, the very day on which Muslims celebrate the Prophet’s nocturnal journey to Jerusalem, Saladin solemnly entered the holy city. His emirs and soldiers had strict orders: no Christian, whether Frankish or Oriental, was to be touched. And indeed, there was neither massacre nor plunder. Some fanatics demanded that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be destroyed in retaliation for the excesses committed by the Franj, but Saladin silenced them.

Richard III, the Lionhearted, on the other hand:

Determined to take advantage of his success to launch a sweeping offensive, he had no intention of bothering about captives, any more than had the sultan four years earlier, when the Frankish cities were falling into his hands one after another. The only difference was that when Saladin wanted to avoid being burdened with prisoners, he released them, whereas Richard preferred to have them killed. Two thousand and seven hundred soldiers of the Acre garrison were assembled before the city walls, along with nearly three hundred women and children of their families. Roped together so they formed one enormous mass of flesh, they were delivered to the Frankish fighters, who fell upon them viciously with their sabers, their lances, and even with stones, until all the wails had been stilled.

So the book covered two hundred years of history inless than three hundred pages. It moves fast. I recommend it. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it again and again as I read and learn more.

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6 Comments

Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, books, religious conflict

6 responses to “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

  1. Pingback: Arabists Anonymous, Racists T-Shirts and a Cute Parrot « Mantiq al-Tayr

  2. Rachel

    Hi, I am reading this book for a class and I am having trouble understanding alot of the terms and concepts in the book. I came across this article. I was wondering if you knew of any sites or resources that give like an overview of the book, kind of like SparkNotes (it’s not on that website) to help me better grasp it. What I have read so far I find extremely interesting and I’m glad that we have to read a different point of view than the standard western civilization side, I just do not have any previous knowledge of most Muslim terms.

  3. Hi Rachel. I don’t know of any sites giving an overview of the book, but there is a History Channel show you can rent that covers much of the same material. It’s called The Crusades–Crescent and The Cross.
    For general Islamic questions, you can try Islam Online. Islamonline.net.
    Or you can try asking me. I might know.

  4. Great blog about the crusades movement. But if you could put some websites for useful books please http://thecrusades.wordpress.com

  5. Hey. I stumbled across your blog while searching for people’s opinion about this book.
    I noticed a minor problem in your article.
    Richard I was the ‘Lionheart’ of the crusade.
    Richard III is that famous cunning hunchback king during the war of the Roses.

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