The word crusade has coursed through American political debate from the beginning, with all manner of leaders—Thomas Jefferson to William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown to Wendell Willkie and FDR, Dwight Eisenhower to John McCain—adopting it as a de facto slogan. And it seems that each time a political figure characterizes a new reform as a crusade, the word’s meaning grows more tepid, more distorted, and more palatable, suggesting only an intense campaign rooted in moral righteousness. Perhaps this common usage is what sparked George W. Bush’s terrible gaffe on September 16, 2001, only five days after 9/11, when he proclaimed that the struggle against jihadist terror was also a crusade.
Bush’s simple utterance that day had a devastating effect on the next ten years. It was Bush’s greatest gift to Osama bin Laden—for, to many in the Arab world, the C-word changed their perception of 9/11 from an instance of mass murder to a worldwide, historical struggle between Western Crusade and Eastern Jihad. In the Arab world, after all, the crusading spirit of the West has been a familiar source of pain and self-loathing, a humiliation that had lasted for nine hundred years.
It all began with the First Crusade (1096–99), the first “holy war,” and in the mind of many from the Eastern Mediterranean, the touchstone for the next nine centuries of killing and exploitation of the “Saracens” of the Middle East. Bin Laden had clearly intended from the start to cast himself as the avatar of Jihad, the defender of the faith against Western aggression.
Jay Rubenstein’s Armies of Heaven is a beautifully researched, well written, and highly accessible account of the first Holy Crusade, recounting it through the lens of eschatologoical theory. “On a fundamental level,” Rubenstein writes in his introduction, “the First Crusade was a holy war, a style of combat that was, in the 1090s, altogether new: a war fought on behalf of God and in fulfillment of His plan.” This elevated spiritual vision of earthly combat not only provided “soldiers with a new path to salvation,” the author argues, “it also enabled them to fight in battles longer and bloodier than any they had ever imagined.”
These destructive longings for “apocalypse” began with the sermon of Pope Urban II to the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. While Urban II’s actual words are lost, Rubenstein, a medieval historian at the University of Tennessee, makes it clear that the pope’s motivation was as much political as religious. In the late eleventh century, Europe was tormented by endless internecine warfare among knights from petty provinces across the breadth of the Continent. What better way to stop this pointless bloodletting than to harness the fighting spirit of the European aristocracy to one glorious, moral campaign to recapture the Holy Land—to wrest Palestine from four hundred years of Muslim control? Moreover, the pope was locked in a struggle with a secular rival, Henry IV of Germany, who had proclaimed an apocalyptic fantasy of his own, threatening to conquer first Rome, then Constantinople, and finally Jerusalem.
As Urban II was addressing the bellicose proclivities of the aristocracy, a fiery monk named Peter the Hermit was stirring up the passions of the peasantry—condemning and exaggerating the supposed atrocities of Muslim heathens against the Christian holy sites of Jerusalem. Both knights and peasants, therefore, would be pilgrims of vengeance. They were hastening the Last Days, when Christ would return gloriously to dispatch the heathens, and the world would unite under one banner and one faith. The soldiers saw the omens of the coming apocalypse everywhere—including, as Rubenstein notes, in the tall tale that the teeth of horses were becoming enormous.
In unflinching detail, Armies of Heaven walks us step by step through the process of “taking the cross”: the preliminary pogroms against Jews, the mobilization of the armies, and their ever more violent and uncontrolled adventure to Constantinople and beyond. With the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, Alexius, the crusaders made an uncertain accommodation for safe passage, before the fighting against the Turks began in earnest at Nicea.
The same insatiable will to conquest colored the rhetoric surrounding the First Crusade. Rubenstein reminds his readers that the term Saracen was a figment of Western imagination, lumping all Muslims of the Middle East together into a collection of demonic degenerates akin to the minions of the Antichrist. This made the dispatch of a heathen into a noble act—the more violent, the better, for God had willed it. After the capture of Nicea, “the crusade was entering a new, purely anti-Islamic phase,” Rubenstein writes, “and the Franks would now have to confront an enemy they barely understood.” During the eight-month-long siege at Antioch, the campaign deteriorated further into cannibalism, enthusiastic decapitations, and even roastings of the enemy dead.
But it was during the battle for Jerusalem itself in July 1099 that the First Crusade disintegrated completely into sheer butchery. Once the walls were breached, the blood of the Saracens was said to run ankle deep, as the Christian soldiers rampaged over the Temple Mount and through the narrow cobblestone streets. The crusaders would then fall on their knees in prayer and thanksgiving as weeping penitents once their bloodlust was spent.
Even in the midst of their slaughter, the First Crusaders perceived biblical and divine sanction: They were the angels of the Lord who were running the blood of heathens through “the wine press of God’s wrath,” as had been prophesized in Revelation 14:20. And if that were not enough, the pious soldiers lifted their eyes from their carnage and saw in the distance the figure of a beautiful person sitting in witness atop a white horse—clearly Christ as the first rider of the apocalypse.
Instead of focusing so intently on the prophecies of Revelation, the First Crusaders might have been better served by the chastening words of Jacob in the book of Genesis: “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. . . . How dreadful is this place!”
James Reston Jr. has written about crusades in four books, including Warriors of God (Faber & Faber, 2001) about the Third Crusade of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. His forthcoming book is a novel about 9/11 titled The Nineteenth Hijacker.