Monday, 23 March 2015

cowboys and indians: sacerdotal or the fifth crusade

I spoke ridiculously too soon when I claimed that the horrors of the misrouted Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople, ravaging the beautiful city, depleting its treasures and resulting in the very brief reign of a resented Latin emperor called Romania but failed to reunite the lands or the Church, had put Europe—or at least the guilty Church—off of crusading permanently. Far from it—in fact before the same Pope Innocent III rallied the European noble houses to again descend on the Holy Land—in keeping with his original vision of the campaign with a thrust through Egypt, there was a coordinated massacre of the Cathar gnostics at home, inspired in part by the papacy’s equivocal attitude when the Crusaders were attacking fellow Christians in Byzantium. Mainstream Christians had regarded this dualistic sect that believed in the transmigration of the soul and equality of the sexes with suspicion for some time and called them devil-worshippers and pagans for the tenet that God had a good and an evil aspect and were glad to have the excuse to be rid of them and take their lands in southern France.  The Reconquista heated up to drive the Moors from Spain and Portugal.
Separately, two charismatic shepherd boys in Seine-Saint-Denis and Köln gathered thousands of children, the poor and disposed to march on the Holy Land and convert the Muslims—both promising that the Mediterranean at Marseilles or over the Alps and in Brindisi would part before them, like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Once the horde made its way to the shore, the Mediterranean did not comply and those who did not try to start their young lives anew at these endpoints or try their fortune at going home were caught by Saracen pirates and sold into slavery. It’s hard to say if the adult population of Europe felt obliged to complete the mission their children were willing to undertake unquestioningly or not (some question the accounts or if such travesties even happened at all), but in any case, Pope Innocent was able to marshal the support of armies that might be able to fulfill the task of recapturing the Holy Land without too much variance. This time, however, the leaders of the Crusader States would rather that Europe didn’t try to help out again. The past few years had ushered in a time of relative peace and great prosperity and Christian and Muslims coexisted due to a constellation of conditions, including the death of Saladin and crises of succession among his heirs, lack of Crusader aggression and very lucrative and mutually beneficial trading arrangements.
The last thing that the County of Acre, then the dominant Crusader State, wanted was to have a bunch of uncouth holy warriors despoiling the calm but they were not in a situation to disinvite the coming armada of ships. A sizable Crusader fighting force landed at Acre and King John of the realm tried his best to occupy the restless men, who were additionally an onerous task to quarter, and as more forces from Hungary, Germany, France and Flanders arrived, King John was helpless to prevent the march on Egypt. The Crusaders sought control of the city of Damietta (Dumyāt) at the mouth of the Nile, which protected the waterway to the capital of Cairo, some two hundred kilometers downstream. Maneuvers were indecisive and guarded, the force strong enough to besiege the fortification but not strong enough to take the city outright and the months before the Crusaders decamped, they found that they had starved the population into submission. Once Damietta had fallen, the way-forward remained unclear as they were awaiting the arrival of relief-forces from the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II that would give them an unstoppable numerical advantage and could thus safely proceed. The armies of Sultan al-Adil, Saladin’s brother, were watching events unfold in a similarly vacillating manner, as internal strife prevented them from a certain counter-attack.
While at this impasse, the sultan ordered the destruction of the defensive fortifications that protected the city of Jerusalem, preemptively entertaining the idea that the Holy City might become an important bargaining token in the near future and if it was to fall to the Crusaders, the Muslims wanted them to have a city not easily defended, just as Saladin had directed for the town of Ascalon to be demolished to stop the earlier Crusaders’ advance from Jaffa to the Holy City, then resolved to negotiate with the Crusaders in order to end this stalemate and attend to its own affairs. The offer that the sultan’s ambassadors brought to the table was unbelievably favourable—concession of Jerusalem and return of the True Cross in exchange for leaving Egypt in peace, but what was even more unbelievable was how the Crusaders rejected the terms. Maybe they were sly to the dismantling of Jerusalem and did not want to take it just to see it lost again, but I think the only plausible logic behind their stance—which was not universal among the ranks, was that they were sure that they were going to triumph, with the wealthy and powerful Egypt and not just out of the way Jerusalem as the prize.
The papal legate, nominally in charge of military operations, was flattered with a prophesy that he fancied to be a sure sign that he’d personally led the Crusaders to victory—and besides, Egypt was apparently being attacked on its eastern border by the long awaited cavalry from the land of Prester John and so there was no way that absolute triumph could be denied them. Except that the papal legate had misinterpreted the augurs and having waited so long in Damietta, the Nile had again flooded and was no longer navigable and the fighting-force was bogged down once again. Frustrated, the separate divisions splintered and sailed back to Acre and then back home to Europe. One last exception was that Egypt was not under siege from a magnanimous Oriental Christian Magi, but rather these skirmishes with an unknown and fierce tribe marked the first encounter that the Western world had with Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hoard, but all that is for another story-line.