[Marxism] Crusades

eg577 at columbia.edu eg577 at columbia.edu
Sat May 7 13:12:42 MDT 2005

Here's how the Scott film appeared to my irreligious eyes.

Like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, this is a blockbuster which creates the 
placebo "political criticism outside the mainstream" effect, similar to the 
"decaf coffee" effect Zizek talked about before 
(<http://www.inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=632_0_4_0_C>). Doesn't the 
whole anti-religious fanaticism stance of the movie boil down to the 
anachronic introduction of the Reformation? "The kingdom of God is in your 
brain and heart."

The blurb at the end of the film was also imbecilic: Crusades continued, 
there was an uneasy peace between Richard and Saladin, after 1000 years no 
permanent peace in the Kingdom of Heaven, blah blah. Of course: history is 
written through religious wars. Yeah well: civilizations clash over 
Jerusalem today. Surely: Palestinians have huge armies and F-16s.

The orientalist portrayal of the Ayyubi coalition was blinding. Scott 
seemed to be saying, "Hey look, I have dirty evil wretched Anglo-Saxons 
here, and beautiful well-dressed trimmed-bearded civilized Muslim men with 
make-up around their eyes there." Eccentric Middle Eastern music, praying 
scenes washed in aesthetics, accentless Arabic... Of course, the historical 
episode was a smart strategic choice: Egpyt and Mesopotomia were far better 
places to live back then, compared to Europe. The unstable Ayyubi coalition 
was militarily more than a match, and in terms of multi-religious politics, 
Selahaddin (as well his mentor, Nuraddin) was far to the "left" of the 

Another orientalizing effect: We observe the complex politics of the 
Kingdom of Jerusalem (and despite the bastardized fiction, the lines of 
contention are accurate), but the Muslims look politically simple, with 
clear objectives. The only tension shown is between a fanatical Jihadist 
faction (which mezhep/order, which ethnic group, unclear) and Selahaddin, 
which is another bastardizing of the contentious politics inside the Ayyubi 

It may be useful to remind what is historically fucked up in the movie, to 
my knowledge:

1. Crusaders

Balian of Ibelin (Balian ibn Barzan) was a noble. Along with some other 
native Christian houses, he truly disliked the fanatic factions, but for 
pragmatist reasons, rather than humanitarian ones: Selahaddin was looking 
for an excuse to declare Jihad, which would help him strengthen his hand 
against the rival Zangid dynasty (more on this later) and bring in the cash 
he needed for his forces.

Allied with Raymond of Tripoli (doesn't appear in the movie, but Jeremy 
Irons plays a similar figure, Tiberias) and King Baldwin IV, he wanted 
stability in Jerusalem. Good for business. And he had no relationship with 
Queen Sibyl, Balian had a wife, Maria, and children. Sibyl, on the other 
hand, is no angel: After Baldwin the Leper dies, her little son, Baldwin V 
is throned, but she conspires with Guy to usurp power. For reasons I do not 
know, the child king dies soon, and Sibyl thrones her husband, greatly 
enjoying the royal act.

When Selahaddin grabs the Jihad opportunity after the massacres by 
Templars, Balian fights in the infamous Hattin War (where King Guy is 
captured). He barely escapes death, and flees to the city of Tyre. His 
lands are also occupied by this time. He wants to take his family out of 
Jerusalem and approaches Selahaddin for safe passage. The Kurdish leader 
makes a deal with him: Balian promises that he'll not mobilize his men 
during the siege of Jerusalem, and that he will work to arrange a bloodless 
surrender of the city. When Balian reaches Jerusalem, it's the Patriarch 
Heraclius who persuades Balian to organize the defense. Heraclius even 
performs a ceremony to clear Balian of his oath.

When the city is surrendered by Balian in 1187, two small details: (1) 
Selahaddin demands and takes a ransom for each head safely leaving the city 
(to Tripoli). This amounts to 30,000 dinars, which should be a lot, because 
the Muslim leader's commanders inform him that the churches are moving out 
of the city treasure worth 20,000 dinars. Selahaddin argues against taking 
more money out of the Latins, though. (2) About 15,000 Syrian and Greek 
Christians, who prefer Selahaddin to the fanatics, along with most of the 
the Jews, remain in the city. Balian remains in Tripoli and first conspires 
with Guy against Conrad for the throne. Then with his wife Maria, he 
conspires against Guy, has Maria's sister Isabella marry Conrad, who 
becomes the next King of Jerusalem. After Conrad's assassination by the 
Ismailiyya tarikat, he becomes advisor to King Henry, etc. etc.

2. Ayyubis

Selahaddin is a figure whose legacy is still up for grabs among Kurdish and 
Turkish nationalists in Turkey. The historical record, to my knowledge, 
established that Selahaddin was a wild card: He was from a Kurdish tribe, 
like most Kurds, he belonged to the Shafii Sunni order. He rose in the 
ranks of the Syrian army, a rare occurrence for a Kurd, even back then, 
Kurds were despised and distrusted by Turkish and Arabic tribesmen. Before 
his emergence to power, the Muslim leadership of the region was in the 
hands of the Zangid dynasty (Hanafi Sunnis, descendants of the Seljuk 
Turks), led by Nuraddin. Even during Selahaddin's consolidation of his 
position within the Abbasid Khalifate through his military actions in 
Egpyt, Nuraddin did not trust him. Meanwhile, Selahaddin successfully 
crushed the rebel Shiite tribes in Egypt by 1171, and officially 
"Sunnified" the region. Nuraddin wanted to exert his own influence over 
Selahaddin's newly found autonomy, bu he died in 1174. Selahaddin used this 
opportunity and occupied by October 1174 and declared himself the true 
successor of Nuraddin. This move permanently pissed off the Turkish Zangids.

The mythical, glorified "Saladin" known in the Christian West is largely 
derived from the Arab and Kurdish propagandists of his court, but there is 
also a substantial body of scholarship from the Zangid circles and from 
third-party Muslim observers. Selahaddin fought viciously against Muslim 
tribes either to counter the attacks by the Zangids, or to force the terms 
of unification and of Jihad on non-aligned ones. These struggles take up 
more than 12 years of his leadership after 1174, while his head-on clash 
with the Crusaders comprise only 5 years, 1187-1192. Before he could bring 
together an uneasy Ayyubi coalition of Arab, Turkish and Kurdish tribes by 
mid-1180, his army shed a lot of Muslim blood (oftentimes sanctioned by the 
Khalif in Baghdad), and he twice escaped attempts on his life by Rashiddin 
Sinan's Ismailiyya Assassins.

The theologico-politics of Jihad after late-1170s is too complex, I am only 
an amateurish quick reader and cannot say I understand the whole thing. But 
it is obvious that his court favored the Shafii debates on how to deal with 
the Latin forces in the Middle East, rather than the interpretations of the 
Hanafi scholars. I suspect, again, only through my quick reading, that this 
politics is overdetermined by the financial crisis in Egypt: The huge 
military expenditure for the forced unification of the Muslim tribes was 
financed dominantly by the Egyptian gold mines, operated by Fatimi, Mamlouk 
and other African slaves. By early-1170s, these mines were exhausted and a 
crisis of the dinar, the dominant Fatimi currency, commences. (see A. 
Ehrenkreutz, "The crisis of the dinar in the Egypt of Saladin", Journal of 
American Oriental Society, 76 [1956], 178-84.) Yemen was conquered in 1173 
by Selahaddin's brother, but the land's resources did not bring in the 
needed goodies. Ayyubis depend on Syria for some time, then are pressed for 
conquering more land, first in Mesopotamia, then in Christian-controlled 

The Kurdish leader's decentralized bureaucracy, ruled through patronage, 
did not help the situation. By the time Jerusalem was taken, his forces 
appear to be over-extended (too many inland Christian fortresses needed to 
be occupied). He could not secure the port-city of Tyre, and Conrad's 
forces, later Richard's forces, arrived through there soon after Jerusalem 
surrendered. From what I understand, the more the military expenses 
accumulate after mid-1180s, the more intense Jihadist propaganda gets. The 
Encyclopedia of Islam entry on Saladin mentions that the relations between 
the Khalifate in Baghdad and Selahaddin were tense. Selahaddin was, by the 
time the Jihad officially began, more of a pragmatist interested in 
mobilizing troops controlled by allied warlords through the religious 
rhetoric. Baghdad was not happy about that.



- Basic facts: Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 8, "Saladin", pp. 910-914.
- Life of Saladin, 1973, by H. A. R. Gibb.
- Saladin : the politics of the holy war, 1982, by Malcolm Cameron Lyons 
and D. E. P. Jackson.
- Emphasizing Kurdish roots of Saladin's court: Issue on Saladin, 
International Journal of Kurdish Studies, vol. 13, no. i, 1999.
- A myth-busting article: "Saladin and his admirers: a biographical 
reassessment", by P. Holt, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African 
Studies, 46 (2), 1983.
- On the recovery of Jerusalem: 

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