Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Last night my history book club met to discuss The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. The book covers two centuries of complex events in a less than 300 pages. Maalouf, who was once the editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique (a very good magazine) is well translated by Jon Rothschild. Some of the members of our club were bothered by the difficulty of keeping track of all the players in this complex history. Most of us liked the book very much.

Maalouf draws on Arab sources, usually writing somewhat after the events they describe. The view he presents is very different from that in the view of European, Roman-Catholic sources. I would point out that the Arab view presented is probably not the view from Cordoba, nor the Persian view, the Turkish view, the Kurdish view, etc. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Islam had spread over much of Asia, all of North Africa, into the Iberian peninsula, and down the east coast of Africa; the crusades were focused in the Levant to northern Egypt, and there was probably not a unified Islamic view of the events at the time.

The book describes a region dominated by waring city states under the influence of stronger regional powers centered in Baghdad, Cairo, Constantinople and Mosul. The Franj (European Roman Catholics) arrived with forces that came to dominate some cities but who were eventually removed. Recall that the Greek Catholics did not get along all that well with the Roman Catholics and that at one point the Franj successfully invaded Constantinople itself, and that there were other Christians such as the Armenians and the Egyptian Copts in the region. So too, the Muslims were divided at the time not only ethnically, but by the division between the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad and the Shiite Caliphate in Cairo. Maalouf describes a situation in which coalitions crossing ethnic and religious lines fought each other in a complex and constantly changing pattern. This was also a time in which the Turks were expanding their power toward the creation of the Ottoman empire and the Mongols were raging out of the east to dominate the northern silk roads to the Caspian. The Mamluks eventually came to dominate Egypt and Syria at the end of the period.

This was the time of the Assassins, a time in which brothers fought and killed each other for power in the Islamic emirates, and in which the leading Franj often were as willing to fight each other as to fight the Muslims. The Franj may have been called to the East on religious grounds, but that did not keep them from cannibalism in the first crusade nor from looting and demanding tribute from other Christians. There were calls for Jihad among the Muslims, often ignored by emirs in pursuit of more mundane objectives.

We in the book club discussed the fact that at the time the vast majority of people were farmers, living at or just above the subsistence level, although there were thin aristocratic, warrior and religious elites that could command the resources to build impressive structures, to arm significant forces, and to consume luxury goods. We also noted that that some regions such as the Nile valley and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates were more productive than others, and could support more important city states. So too, some cities straddled important trade routes, while others had important ports and commanded squadrons of ships important both economically and militarily.

Recognizing that myths of the past affect people's thinking about the future, it is tempting to make inferences about modern times on the basis of this book. Recalling that the Arabs succeeded in driving the Franj out of Jerusalem after a couple of centuries of strife with many setbacks,  and indeed out of the eastern Mediterranean altogether, might that not explain the belief of some modern Arabs that the Israelis can similarly be forced into a second diaspora? So too, the behavior of the European Christians in the 12th and 13th century crusades may be seen by some Arabs and Muslims as predictive of the behavior of their descendants in the 21st century.

Clearly the Islamic world was more cultured and richer than Western Europe which was only emerging from the Middle Ages. Maalouf asks what were the reasons that that hegemony did not continue. The question is interesting, but of course the Islamic world was still rich, cultured and powerful for centuries after the time of the Crusades, with the Ottomans driving into Europe and great Islamic cities existing in what is now Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and India. I suspect, as do others in the club, that while there may be roots in the modern institutional weakness of Islamic nations that existed during the Crusades, it is beyond our ability to discern those roots and to understand their development into modern time and their impact on modern society.

All in all, I recommend this book to readers coming from western culture who want to better understand the history of the Middle East from another point of view!

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