Crusades, Schmusades

By July 15, 2006 No Comments

One of the more irritating features of ideologues is their highly selective sense of history, in that they remember a few carefully chosen tidbits extremely well and have no clue about the context of almost everything else. The same is also true of many Muslims, even those of benign intent as well as the supporters and sympathizers of the Jihad movement.

The one point that arrives again and again concerns the Crusades mounted by the Europeans into the Holy Land during the Medieval era. There usually isn’t much profit in comparing historical grievances (God knows, everyone has a few if they want to make a fuss about something or other). However, having become tired of hearing of sundry massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders – and there were several – maybe it is time to look at the other side of the ledger of Christian vs. Muslim grievances.

The following only records major campaigns; the usual rounds of frontier warfare and piracy have continued unabated between Christians and Muslims until… well, come to think on it, it has never come to a complete stop.

A cautionary note: Slave-taking, rape and looting were normal in warfare for both sides, although European armies mostly got out of these habits during the 19th Century. Judging by the behaviors of Jihadi guerrillas in Afghanistan and Algeria, and Saddam’s legions in Kuwait, the tradition still runs strong in the Muslim world. Events of particular atrocity are mentioned when the behavior of Muslims proved outrageous even by contemporary standards (just as the outrageous behavior of the First Crusade when they stormed Jerusalem in 1099 is still remembered in the Arab World). However, in the interests of ‘equality’ and ‘fair play’ in swapping historical grievances, some of the especially egregious Muslim episodes will be mentioned here.

It should also be remembered that many of the initial Muslim successes in the 7th Century were not so much a mark of their military prowess, as it was the complete exhaustion of Byzantium and Persia after decades of bitter warfare, on top of the major famines and epidemics of the 6th Century. Muslims might prefer to believe this was Allah’s will, others might prefer to see this as a lucky break or a historical fluke.

First Islamic Aggression: 622 to 800.

In 629, Mohammed’s followers were repulsed on their first foray into Palestine – which was then, like much of North Africa and the Middle East, largely inhabited by Jews and Christians.

In the decade after Mohammed’s death in 632, Muslims had conquered what is now Palestine and Syria, and most of Iraq. They had also overrun Egypt and reached Libya. They started an invasion of Persia too, but this is a list of ‘Christian’ grievances about Islamic aggression, so the near total eradication of Zoroastrianism doesn’t count; nor will the extinction of Buddhism in Central Asia and the deaths of tens of millions of Hindus over the centuries.

By 657, a quarter century after Mohammed’s death, Christian Tunisia was overrun and a short-lived occupation of Cyprus had begun while the first Muslim raiders pillaged Sicily and Rhodes.

Between 668 and 679 Muslims invaded Anatolia, and besieged Constantinople for four years before they sued for peace and left. The peace was short lived as Muslims ravaged across Asia Minor in 690-92, and were back before the walls of Byzantium again in 710-718. There were four additional wars on the frontiers of Anatolia by 800 – three of them initiated by Muslims.

There had been a pause of several decades in the conquest of North Africa, but in 697-698 Muslims conquered much of modern Tunisia (once the home of Christianity’s greatest philosopher) and then took Algeria in 703. Arab chroniclers describe marching for days in Algeria in the shade of orchards and vineyards, this verdant land turned into a desert under their care (as did Palestine).

The Christian Visigoths of Spain were next on the list; Musar Ibn Nusair’s 710 raid revealed how weak the kingdom had become and a full scale invasion followed the next year. By 712, most of Spain was conquered – although the holdouts in the mountainous north were to endure centuries of war until the re-conquest of all Spain was accomplished with the fall of Grenada to Aragon and Castile in 1492.

In 717-19, there were Muslim raids into Southern France and the Muslim governor of Spain was killed during his siege of Toulouse in 721. By 725-726, much of Southern France was conquered by Muslims, who then raided far up the Rhone. Fortunately, in 732, 50,000 Muslims advancing up to the Loire in central France were hammered by Charles Martel at Tours; although 25 years of frequent warfare followed before the Muslims were completely driven from France.

During this period, the Christian kingdoms of the upper Nile and Ethiopia were also beaten into retreating into the Ethiopian highlands. Wherever Muslims conquered, Christians and Jews became Dhimmi but were sometimes only offered the choice of conversion, slavery or death that Mohammed prescribed for those who followed different faiths from those of “the Book”.

Dhimmi status is an exercise in slow cultural genocide – as can be seen from the virtual absence of Christianity and Judaism in many areas that Islam conquered. Dhimmi often have to wear special clothing (the Yellow Star for Jews of such infamous memory began this way); may not build their houses higher than those of a Muslim; and must step out of a Muslim’s path. Dhimmi are normally forbidden to bear arms but must pay a special tax (the Jizya) for the privilege of being defended by Muslims. They may not build new churches or synagogues, and their testimony only has half the worth of that of a Muslim in court. Of course, Dhimmi may not marry Muslim women but Muslims are free to marry theirs – and thus convert them to Islam. Dhimmitude, by the way, is the fate that many of today’s Jihadis ache to inflict on all Westerners.

From 801-1095

From 890 to 975, sundry Muslim raiders kept trying to establish a permanent presence in Provence; providing a constant vexation to the Frankish rulers of Burgundy. In 903, Muslims also conquered the Balearic Islands.

The Byzantine Empire was hard put to defend its possessions from aggressive Muslims and lost Crete and Sicily in the early 9th Century. They barely kept Muslims out of southern Italy and fended off two major invasions. Among other things, Islamic raiders twice sacked the suburbs of Rome (in 846 and 849) and sacked the Abbey at Monte Cassino in 884. It wasn’t until 916 when the Italians – with Byzantine and German help finally cleared the Muslims out of Italy. Later in the 10th Century, there was a Byzantine revival that temporarily restored much of Syria to their control.

This revival ended with the arrival of the Islamic Turks after 1048 – and 23 years of back and forth warfare commenced, culminating in the disastrous Byzantine defeat at Mazinkert and the permanent loss of much of Asia Minor. The arrival of the Turks and the resulting interruption of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land then triggered the First Crusade in 1095.


This period is marked by the total eclipse of the Byzantine Empire (although their co-religionists from Western Europe certainly bear much of the blame for their defeat too – the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 permanently crippled the Empire). The Byzantines did defeat another Islamic invasion in Western Asia Minor in the early 12th Century, but were almost powerless to stop further incursions.

In the aftermath of the Black Death, the Turks gained a lodgment in Europe proper in 1354 and the Balkans knew little peace thereafter. The remaining Byzantine possessions in Asia Minor soon fell, Bulgaria was conquered by 1370 and the Serbs still remember their defeat in Kosovo in 1389 with sorrowful pride. In 1391 to 1399, Constantinople was under Muslim siege again, and was ultimately delivered with French help. Among the many other grievances that Christians now held against the Muslims was the creation of the Janissary Corps – conscripted Christian boys who were then raised as fanatic Moslems and used as shock troops by the Turks for several centuries.

In Central Asia during this time, some of the old Mongol confederacy had been converted to Islam and subsequently became known as the Tartars – the Russians and Ukrainians soon were natural targets for Tamerlane in 1395, and for centuries of frontier warfare. The residual Christian kingdoms of Nubia, particularly Maqurrah, fell to Islamic conquest by 1350.

The Western presence in the Holy Land also ended at this time, and if the behavior of the First Crusade in the capture of Jerusalem had been atrocious in 1099, the Mameluke warlord Beibars more than equaled it in his recapture of Antioch in 1268 – massacring some 40,000 people and turning one of the World’s oldest continually inhabited cities into a wasteland.

After 1400, the continued Islamic aggression against the remaining elements of the Byzantine empire in the Agean also brought them into a series of wars of conquest against Venice (Venice was also scavenging from the scraps of Byzantium). This conflict intensified after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Despite — or perhaps because of — the courage of the last Emperor Constantine XI who died in the breach of his city’s walls, the behavior of the Turks in the city was savage even by the standards of the time – and certainly exceeds the behavior of the Crusaders who stormed Jerusalem.

The people who assembled in the Haiga Sophia when the walls were stormed had no refuge and the usual raping and butchering of nuns, decapitation of infants, etc. promptly occurred. Later, at the victory feast, Mohammed II publicly raped a 14 year old Greek aristocrat and then tortured the boy’s relatives to death in front of him; with such leadership the conduct of the rest of the Muslim Army can well be imagined.


With the fall of Islam’s most ancient enemy, there were new opportunities for expansion. After some housekeeping (gobbling up the last couple of Byzantine cities – Trebizon and Morea in the 1460s and beating Venice in a naval war), the main effort turned north. The Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (which possessed much of the Ukraine at the time) was savaged in 1487-1491 by the remains of the Golden Horde. They reached as far as Lublin in Central Poland before being decisively beaten.

The declaration of real Russian independence from the Tartars by Muscovy in 1480 wasn’t well received either, and Muslim steppe peoples remained Russia’s most implacable foe for centuries. It is worth remembering that Moscow was empty when Napoleon marched in, and Hitler never reached it – but Muslim Tartars did fire and sack all of the city except the Kremlin in 1571, carrying 100,000 women and children off into slavery. They nearly did so again in 1591.

In 1450 to 1500, the Christian kingdom of ‘Alwah in the Sudan was shattered by a series of invasions from the northern Sudan. The surviving Christian kingdom in Ethiopia still held out against the Muslims – sometimes helped by the Portuguese after 1520. The Portuguese were also drawn into the fighting in India as Muslim warlords intensified their efforts in the region.

The fall of Byzantium led to decades of warfare in Southeastern Europe – although the Hungarians under John Hunyadi kept the Turks in check – almost. The second battle of Kosovo in 1448 was a Pyrrhic Muslim victory (a common feature of battle in the next couple of centuries when huge numbers of Turks took on Westerners). But the Serbs lost their independence to the Turks in 1459, while Bosnia fell in 1463, Herzegovina in 1483 and Montenegro in 1499.

In 1480, the Turks seized Otranto in Italy (massacring the inhabitants) and placed Rhodes — held by the valiant Knights of St. John — under an unsuccessful siege in that same year. In 1499, the Turks won the first battle of Lepanto, wresting more possessions from Venice in the Aegean and Ionian Seas. As the Hungarian kingdom weakened in the early 16th Century, the Turks lunged north capturing Belgrade in 1521 and ending effective Hungarian resistance at the 1526 Battle of Mohacs. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans glutted the slave markets of the Islamic world in the following years.

Three years later, Turkish guns were knocking on the gates of Vienna; fortunately the Muslim siege failed and Suleiman the Magnificent soon found his attention drawn elsewhere. This, however, didn’t prevent the occupation of the rump of Hungary in the 1540s and failed invasions of Austria in 1543 and 1566. One charming feature of the Turkish retreat from Vienna was the impalement of 30,000 captives as the withdrawing army didn’t want to be encumbered with them.

The 16th Century Mediterranean saw much Islamic aggression: The Second Battle of Lepanto in 1500 led to further conquests in the Aegean and Adriatic, the ferocious defence of Rhodes in 1522 still led to the conquest of the Island, but the Knights of St. John were allowed to sail away – a decision the Turks were to bitterly regret later. The rise of Algerian and Tunisian piracy in this century was to plague the Christian littoral of the Mediterranean and Atlantic, with Muslim pirates even making raids as far away as Ireland. Islamic piracy out of North Africa continued until 1830 (when the French occupied Algeria) and to this day in parts of Italy, crying children are told to be quiet – lest the ‘Turks’ find them.

In 1565, the Muslims attempted to capture Malta – the strategic centre of the Mediterranean– from the Knights of St. John. The epic siege failed. The renewed naval war continued in the Eastern Mediterranean, and included the conquest of Cyprus in 1570-71 (where the defenders of Famagusta were treacherously massacred after accepting terms of surrender after an 11 month siege). This war continued, but the Third Battle of Lepanto in 1571 destroyed Turkish naval strength and turned the tide in the Mediterranean.

Western technology had proven superior to that of Islam on a number of occasions – The Turks lost tens of thousands of men against Western fortifications, and often only won land battles (such as the Second Battle of Kosovo) as a result of arriving at the battlefield with three or four times as many troops as their opponents had. However, by the late 16th Century, the technological imbalance was growing markedly. In the decades following the siege of Malta and the battle of Lepanto, major wars of Islamic aggression against the European West stopped, although frontier warfare and piracy continued.

Other (mostly non-Western) Christian populations are still not free of Islamic aggression; just ask some of the survivors from attacks in the last couple of years in Nigeria, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Even the 1975 Indonesian occupation of East Timor could be seen in context of Islamic aggressiveness – certainly many Jihadists were livid when the largely Catholic Timorese were freed from the rule of an Islamic majority society.

Frontier warfare between the Cossacks of the Ukraine and the Turks sparked the last major Islamic invasion of Christian territories, as the Turks – stung by Polish and Russian refusal to rein in the Cossacks – lunged north (a precedent that might be remembered today as the Israelis cope with Hizbollah in southern Lebanon). Turks, Tartars and their Cossack allies (opportunists whenever loot beckoned) reached as far as Lvov and Lublin on several occasions in 1571-1577, but the vastly outnumbered Poles under Jan Sobieski checked the invaders on several occasions.

In 1683, after failed wars against Russia and the Poles, the Turks marched on Vienna once more and placed the city under siege for the second time. About half of the city’s 15,000 defenders had died and a Turkish Army of 150,000 was preparing to storm the defences when Sobieski and a Polish-Austrian army charged in and destroyed the better part of the Muslim army.

After 1683, it has been the Islamic World that has continued to lose its possessions: The Turkish conquests in Europe were rolled back; the Russians built their empire by heading south and east into Islamic realms; and the Europeans embarked on their period of colonial/imperial expansion.

The liberated peoples of the Balkans (with recent memories of forced conversion and their existence as Dhimmi under Turkish rule) have often turned on the descendants of Muslim converts – as was most recently evinced by Serbian treatment of Bosnian Muslims. The Russians had a policy of ‘Russification’, but never seriously attempted the forced conversion of Muslims in their empire (except during the suppression of all religions during the early Soviet years).

For the Western Europeans, forced conversion of Muslims was never attempted in 19th and 20th Century Africa or Asia (but was in 16th Century Spain where Muslims and Jews were offered the choice of conversion or expulsion after 1492). It might also be politic to point out that the Latin Kingdoms of the Crusades in the Middle East never seriously attempted the same either. The coercive mechanisms of Dhimmi status and other Islamic mechanisms that eradicated so many Christian and Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East were not copied by the West.

It might be too much to hope that today’s Jihadists could remember that the survival of Islam owes something to Western restraint. However, judging by today’s rapid exodus of the remaining Christian Copts from Egypt, the ancient Christians in Iraq, the reduced size of the Christian communities in Lebanon, and the virtual elimination of the ancient Jewish enclaves in the Middle East; this would seem unlikely.

Again, ‘Historical Grievances’ is an ugly and often pointless game to play; but for those who tire of hearing bitching about the Crusades, it might be useful to remember the vast quantity of complaints that could be mustered in response.