As one who loves the romance and heroism (on both sides) of the Crusades, I've sat glumly through the previews for Ridley Scott's new flick Kingdom of Heaven.

The Crusades always get a bum rap.

I realize that my love for the Crusades has not been shared by the majority since the Enlightenment; an ill-named period of history, if ever there was one. Recently, there have been signs that scholars are ready to reevaluate the Crusades. Jonathan Riley-Smith's "What Were the Crusades?" is one of the most notable revisionist books.

No doubt, it was a rough age and many terrible things happened. But the Crusades were not genocide. They did not set out to kill or eradicate people because of ethnicity but because of the way Christians and Christian holy sites in the Middle East were being treated. I think this quote posted on a Medieval Church website is pretty good (you'll note it is far from uncritical):

"The conquest of Jerusalem by the Mohammedans [Medieval Church notes that this is an obsolete and now-offensive term], and the insults offered to the most sacred memories of the Christian world, roused such a feeling of shame and indignation throughout Christendom, but especially in Western Europe, that a series of wars, called crusades, from the cross which was worn by all participants as a badge, was undertaken for the purpose of reconquering Palestine. The chief motive power in this movement was at first pure religious enthusiasm, helped on, it may be, by the ample ecclesiastical indulgences and great social exemptions which were granted to all who took the cross; and the idea which precipitated whole nations like a rushing stream towards the Holy Land, no doubt continued to be the principal impulse in many a noble heart. But gradually the restless and adventurous spirit of the age, which, in this fight for the glory of God, found satisfaction for its coarsest cravings without any disturbance of its gross superstition, transformed the religious contest about the Holy Land into a romantic tournament between the Christian knight and the Moslem warrior; and finally political ambition and commercial greed degraded the whole undertaking into a mere means of intrigue, speculation, and fraud."

There was much of the good and much of the bad in the Crusades, as the above quote makes abundantly clear. Here is another bit from an excellent Christian history site (it makes reference to "Kingdom of Heaven"):

"I would guess, though, that most Christians walking out of the theater in May won't be scheming how to burn down their neighborhood mosque. Rather, they'll be asking, How could Christians do this? How could we wage war on people in Christ's name, even if they were warring against us? Historian Bruce Shelley took a good stab at that question, when he pointed out that many Europeans knights went on crusade to defend Christians suffering under Islamic rule (it wasn't so tolerant as it's sometimes made out to be). And many knights wanted to practice their vocation in "honorable combat" (as opposed to squandering it in petty quarrels). [Director Ridley] Scott captures that sentiment well in his quote from Godfrey of Ibelin: 'Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright. Speak the truth. Safeguard the helpless. That is your oath.'"

The author of this piece goes on to lament the legacy of Christian-Muslim hatred from the Crusades. Actually, I think most Christians have pretty much forgotten this beautiful but flawed epoch.

A marvelously fact-filled piece on the Ridley-Scott flick suggests that Muslims weren't always touchy on the subject. Guess when it changed...

"'One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders," [Jonathan Riley-Smith] wrote. "Nothing could be further from the truth." "What actually happened, according to Crusades historians -- Riley-Smith's analysis draws in part on the work of Carole Hillenbrand of the University of Edinburgh, whose book 'The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives' is the preeminent work examining the Muslim point of view -- is that after Muslims expelled the Crusaders, they mostly put this unpleasant episode behind them. If they did look back, it was with what Riley-Smith describes as 'indifference and complacency.' After all, they'd won -- big time. From their point of view, also, they'd faced far greater challenges, among them a frightful onslaught by the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan.

"In Europe, meanwhile, the Crusades stayed high-profile. They were romanticized by medieval chroniclers as the height of chivalry, derided by Enlightenment thinkers as gross religious intolerance, rehabilitated by 19th-century historians as glorious antecedents of nationalism and portrayed -- first with approval, then disapproval -- as the precursors of European colonialism. Through all this, the figure of Saladin became rooted in the European imagination as the worthiest and most chivalrous Crusader opponent, just as he is in 'Kingdom of Heaven.' In Damascus, by contrast, his tomb was allowed to decay.

"Riley-Smith's mention of Nov. 8, 1898, refers to a remarkable manifestation of this contrast. On that day, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany 'laid a satin flag and a wreath, with an inscription dedicated to 'the Hero Sultan Saladin'' on Saladin's grave, which he'd apparently had some trouble locating. He then paid to restore the tomb and included 'another wreath, this time bronze gilt, and inscribed 'From one great emperor to another.'

"But the Muslim world's take on the Crusades was about to change. It began to look at these ancient wars through the European lens, and what it saw was: colonial oppression.

"The head of the Ottoman Empire, which was rapidly losing territory to Europeans, responded by asserting that his foes were engaged in a new Crusade. World War I and its aftermath brought a renewed British and French presence in the old Crusader territories of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria - 'Behold, Saladin, we have returned,' one French military governor proclaimed. The Crusade metaphor was picked up by Arab nationalists. Saladin was revived as an inspirational figure. Later in the century, he would be embraced by the likes of Syria's Hafez Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein."

A story in the Telegraph says that Ridley Scott has gone farther than usual, distorting history to make Christians look worse and Arabs look better:

"[London University lecturer and author Jonathan] Philips said that by venerating Saladin, who was largely ignored by Arab history until he was reinvented by romantic historians in the 19th century, Sir Ridley was following both Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, the former Syrian dictator. Both leaders commissioned huge portraits and statues of Saladin, who was actually a Kurd, to bolster Arab Muslim pride.

"Prof Riley-Smith added that Sir Ridley's efforts were misguided and pandered to Islamic fundamentalism. 'It's Osama bin Laden's version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.'

"Amin Maalouf, the French historian and author of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, said: 'It does not do any good to distort history, even if you believe you are distorting it in a good way. Cruelty was not on one side but on all.'"

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