Jerusalem and the Crusades

Following the death of Muhammad, Islam spread quickly through the Middle East and North Africa and into southern Europe. It wasn’t long before Jerusalem came under Islamic control through armies led by Omar. Omar was one of Muhammad’s converts and closest friends. As the leader of the Muslims he had the title of Commander of the Believers.

Over the next 350 years, Jerusalem continued under Muslim rule, though that rule changed hands frequently. This was because Jerusalem lay between 2 great Islamic powers – Cairo and Baghdad.

Generally speaking, during this time, a relative pace and tolerance was found in the city (with notable, bloody exceptions). The Muslim rulers tolerated Jewish and Christian worship at their holy sites. There were not many Jews in Jerusalem and they were generally very poor. The Christians were much greater in number and were a successful community. The monotheism of the three religions helped them to get along.

The Qur’an refers to ‘the people of the Book’ (ahl al-Kitab), that is, Jews and Christians. They are called this because they have a history of revelations from God in their books, the Torah (Tawrat), the Psalms (Zabur) and the Gospels (Injil). In Muslim countries, such as in Jerusalem at this time, these people were given the status of dhimma, a protected person.  A dhimmi (a person with this status) was free to practise their religion. However they did not have all the rights of a Muslim citizen.

The orange area shows the Levant region.

During this time of tolerance, Jerusalem became ever more important as a sacred site for each of the three religions. In fact, the occasional disturbances in this tolerance when communities were persecuted and sacred buildings destroyed seemed only to increase the status of Jerusalem. However, the political power of Makkah and Medina grew and that of Jerusalem dwindled. Life in Jerusalem became more unpredictable and dangerous as regional powers fought over its control.

On 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II called the Christians of Europe to a Crusade to the Levant. This was for the armed conquest of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is built on the site of the tomb of Jesus. Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead here. For the Muslim population, this Crusade was difficult to understand. Christians already had access to the holy sites of Jerusalem. It was also true that their status of dhimma meant that they were in no danger from their Islamic rulers.

The Pope promised redemption for sins for those who signed up for this Crusade. Not longer after an assortment of armies and other pilgrim groups totalling 80,000 people set off for Jerusalem. These Crusaders (from the Latin for cross, ‘crux’) had a cloth cross sown onto their clothes as the set off for the Holy Land to defeat the infidels.

These armies massacred thousands of Jews on their way. By the summer of 1099, they found themselves laying siege to Jerusalem. Both Jews and Muslims defended the city against the Crusaders, but Jerusalem was conquered. Many inhabitants fled, thousands were killed, but the Crusade had achieved its objective.

In 1187, under the leadership of Saladin (Salah ad-Din) as Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Jerusalem was retaken by the Muslim armies. This prompted the Third Crusade to leave Europe, led by Richard I of England (‘the Lionheart’). Several battles between the armies of Saladin and Richard meant that both were weakened. The two men negotiated with each other and in 1192 agreed the Treaty of Ramla. This meant that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control but that the city would be open to Christian pilgrimages.

There were several further Crusades attempting to take Jerusalem. None of which really succeeded, with the last Crusade returning home defeated in 1299.

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