Some 800 years after the fact, the Crusades—the historical setting for the new movie “Kingdom of Heaven”–remain a sore spot in interfaith relations.
In his 2002 book, When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball noted that most Christians growing up in the West regard the Crusades as ancient history. In the Middle East, however, many Jews, Muslims and Christians speak of them as though they occurred recently.
Their legacy, Kimball said–with images of Crusaders returning to camp carrying the heads of Muslims on their spears–merge with more recent experiences of domination by colonialism and post-World War II superpowers.
In 2001 James Carroll devoted a section in Constantine’s Sword to how the Crusades also resulted in hostility against Jews, taking the form of desecration of synagogues, forced conversions and other atrocities fueled by an interpretation of Jesus’ Passion that viewed them as “Christ killers.”
Islamic terrorists including Osama bin Laden are fond of portraying their cause as a “jihad” or holy war opposing an American “crusade” against Islam.
President Bush at one point described his war on Islamic terrorism as “this crusade” in an extemporaneous remark but has since insisted the struggle is against terrorists and not Muslims in general.
Evangelist Billy Graham for a time referred to his outreach as a “mission,” partly in deference to Muslim sensibilities, but later returned to the more familiar term, “crusade.”
The Crusades were a series of expeditions by European Christians between the 11th and 14th centuries to deliver the Holy Land from Islam.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the origin of the word may be traced to the cross made of cloth and worn as a badge by those taking part. The Latin word for cross is “crux.”
Later the term came to be used to describe any war involving a holy vow and directed against “infidels.”
The political concept behind the Crusades was a unified Christendom under authority of the pope.
While scholars differ on how many Crusades there were, the number customarily used is eight.
While Jerusalem came under Muslim control in the 7th century, Christians were allowed to make pilgrimages.
Early in the 11th century, however, the Fatimid caliph Hakim pressured non-Muslims, and especially Christians, to convert. He destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 1010.
Pope Urban II in 1095 exhorted Christendom to go to war for the Sepulcher, promising the journey would count as full penance. This First Crusade ended with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, along with the massacre of Muslims and Jews.
The other Crusades achieved less, and were for the most part expeditions to assist Europeans already in the Holy Land.
One of the saddest chapters was the so-called “Children’s Crusade” of 1212. Two boys–one French and the other German–gathered thousands of children with hopes of succeeding where their parents’ generation had failed. Straggling in Italy, many were sold into slavery in Egypt. Others died from hunger and disease.
“The Kingdom of Heaven” is set is between the Second and Third Crusades. A central figure of the era is Saladin, a Sunni Muslim warrior of Kurdish background, who captured Jerusalem in 1187.
Stunned by Saladin’s success, Pope Gregory VIII ordered a Third Crusade to regain the Holy City. Its leaders, King Richard I of England (also called Richard the Lionheart), German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and King Phillip II of France, were three of the most powerful men in Europe, a testimony to how seriously the situation was viewed.
The Third Crusade lasted from 1189 to 1192, ending with a treaty leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control but allowing Christian pilgrims to visit the city.
Much of the interest in “The Kingdom of Heaven” focuses on director Ridley Scott’s portrayal of Saladin.
According to Reuters, Muslims who feel they have been victims of aggression in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq will be particularly sensitive. “The general feeling here is that we are being targeted for destruction,” said Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Others say Scott was too sympathetic to Saladin and demonized the Christian Knights Templar by portraying their leader, Guy de Lusignan, as a villain. Before the film was finished, one Cambridge professor called it “Osama bin Laden’s version of history.”
Another historian quoted by Reuters didn’t go that far, but called Saladin’s portrayal simplistic. A bigger problem for Jonathan Phillips, lecturer in Crusading History at Royal Holloway University in London, was its hero Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, who doubts the existence of God.
“The idea in the middle of the film is unhistorical and deeply inaccurate,” Phillips said. “Bloom succeeds by rejecting God, but it just wouldn’t work. If he stood up and drew those conclusions he would have been burned as an agent of the devil.
“This is a nice modern 21st century idea; that if you remove religion you remove extremism … but in the 12th century it’s not a runner.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.