Monday, 9 March 2015

cowboys and indians: siege perilous or high turn-over rate

The siege of Damascus, ill-chosen to begin with, by the Crusaders was not a plummeting defeat but rather a weary retreat that marked the end of the second adventure. It had simply fizzled out and for a second time, disappointment visited Byzantium and the now dissolved County of Edessa and all parties concluded that it was not pragmatic to rely on a saving cavalry-charge from Europe to extricate the Crusaders in the Holy Land from their diminishing lot.

Rather than focusing on strengthening the position of the remaining lands or forging a mutual alliance, the Crusaders provoked more strife, internal and external. The nearly four decade long lull in active campaigning was not a time of peace and civility but rather beset by transitions and political intrigues—which certainly could have had different outcomes, studied or no, among all the regional powers. The Byzantine Empire, already having found the armies of Latin Christendom to be ineffectual if not a liability, regularly breaking truce negotiate between the Empire and powers that antagonized the Seljuk Turks, raiding Greek villages and appropriating for their own Crusader States the few lands that had been taken back from the Islamic forces, plus threatening the balance of trade between the Middle East and Europe, which the Byzantines had controlled for centuries.
The Empire’s subjects were already fatigued with John II Comnenos westward-lending sympathies, they found much of the same tendencies in his son, Manuel—which they endured for decades more. Emperor Manuel’s rather sudden death saw his infant son, Alexios II, elevated to the purple, with his widow, Impress Mary, a European princess, ruling in his stead. When the Roman Catholic Mary suggested that Constantinople be rejoined with the metropolitan West, a shadow of its former glory and authority in the Holy and Roman Empire of the Germans (an idea that Manuel had already tried to champion and failed to bring about), they had had enough and sought to depose these pretenders. The people entreated a veteran hero and cousin of the deceased emperor Andronicus Comnenos out of retirement, who took the capital and began a purge not seen since the last days of the Roman Empire.
 Comnenos began well but that old spectre of great power’s price of great paranoia emerged, and sensing vulnerability the Italo-Normans of Sicily marched towards Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire certainly had the resources to raise a formidable, even invincible army at a moment’s notice, but fearing vesting too much power in one general who might incite a military coup against the popular emperor, Comnenos split his fighting-force into five armies, powerless divided against the Sicilians, and the empire’s second city, the great port of Thessaloníki was captured and picked clean. Though the Italo-Norman march on Constantinople was eventually rebuffed, Byzantium never recovered from the loss of Thessaloníki and began its long decline and capitulation to the Turks. Political purges were standard operating procedure for Fatimid Egypt, a bastion for the Shia confession independent of the Sunni caliphate based in Baghdad, once a vizier fell out of favour with the hereditary caliph, and often Egypt found itself wanting for a government with administrative experience to hold it all together. With the unexpected but welcome military exploits against the Crusaders, however, of a brilliant strategist of Sunni Kurdish extraction, known to history as Saladin (introduced to battle rather relunctantly by his uncle Shirkuh, who had nearly taken Antioch) that saw this foreigner elevated to vizier and the death of a frail, teenaged caliph, against all odds Saladin was able to remain in office and eventually stitch together a kingdom as sultan that stretched from Syria to Palestine.
A determined campaign to retake Crusader lands followed and saw many of the occupiers graciously allowed to return with their lives and whatever treasure they could carry with safe passage either back to Europe or as refugees to the few remaining strongholds in the County of Trans-Jordan, Tripoli or in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The vestiges of the Crusader conquests were also suffering from that plague of child rulers with the untimely death of King Amalric of Jerusalem, who departed without an adequate succession-plan. Amalric had an heir, but his mother and sister were to act as regent until he came of age—burdened with ambitions and intrigues of their own that made cooperation and coordination impossible and there were also plenty of examples of sabotage among factions. The nobility did not have very Christian tolerance for the young king, who was struck down with leprosy, and were blunderous in their choices, which saw the inevitable but orderly and humane fall of Jerusalem. This loss prompted the European powers to in earnest launch the Third Crusade.