[Marxism] History Channel on the Crusades

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 8 12:15:29 MST 2005

Generally I avoid the History Channel, which this week includes such fare 
as "Shootout: Hunt for Bin Laden" or "UFO Files The Day after Roswell." 
When the programs involve more serious matters, such as the origins of 
WWII, etc., the tendency is place Great Men in the foreground so that 
Hitler's wickedness rather than capitalist crisis is the determining factor.

Last night they showed part two of a program on the Crusades that I watched 
out of curiosity since the Crusades had been discussed on Marxmail a while 
back after Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" had premiered. The emphasis 
once again was on Great Men, Saladin especially, but also on Richard the 
Lionheart. The show benefited from commentary by Tariq Ali as well as some 
academics but unfortunately there was zero analysis of any underlying 
socio-economic factors such as the need to secure trade routes to the East, 
etc. Everything revolved around the need to impose one's religious system 
on the Middle East and the military tactics employed to achieve that goal. 
That being said, the show was still useful in providing some background on 
the conflict. I plan to catch the first part, which I did not see, and urge 
others to check out the show which will be repeated like most cable TV fare 
often is.

You can read background information on the show at:


Last night's installment focused on the attempt of Moslem warriors to wrest 
control of the Crusader kingdoms that had been established along the 
Mediterranean, including Acre, Tyre and Jerusalem.

The three key figures are Zengi, his son Nur al-Din and one of Nur al-Din's 
top officers Sal al-Din (or Saladin). Zengi is depicted as a totally 
bloodthirsty warlord with little redeeming qualities. Nur al-Din and 
Saladin come off somewhat better. Their sole purpose is to wage jihad 
against the infidels. If it takes ruthlessness to achieve their goals, so 
be it. In other words, the Moslem resistance to the Crusaders appears as an 
early version of al Qaeda.

Zengi was a Seljuk Turk from Mosul who made Syria his base of operations. 
When he overran Edessa in 1144, it sent shock waves through Christian 
Europe. Sounds like things haven't changed that much.

Using Edessa as a base, his son Nur al-Din expanded Moslem control which 
would include the strategic city-state of Damascus.

But it was up to Saladin to really defeat the Christians decisively. A 
great statesman as well as a general, he decided that the Christians could 
be defeated if Egypt was brought into the struggle. However, this would be 
a challenge since Egypt was Shi'ite and Syria was Sunni! Saladin was a Kurd 
born in Tikrit, the birthplace of another famous Iraqi.

His cause was helped by a typically bloody and treacherous Christian attack 
on a peaceful Moslem caravan that supposedly was protected by a treaty 
enacted during the First Crusade.

After the Moslem world found out about the massacre, they rallied around 
Saladin. In 1191 Saladin laid siege to the city of Acre that was surrounded 
by huge stone walls. He came up with the brilliant strategy of attacking 
the city from beneath the ground. His men tunneled underneath the city and 
set fire to the wooden foundations that it rested on. In 1453 a similar 
strategy was employed by the Ottomans who were laying siege to 
Constantinople. Tunnels were dug under the city to weaken the 
fortifications and provide a breach which Turkish soldiers could then enter.

With the fall of Constantinople, Christian rule came to an end in Turkey. 
The city was renamed Istanbul. Saladin accomplished something similar in 
1187 when Jerusalem was conquered. A cross was removed from the Al-Aqsa 
Mosque and replaced by an Islamic Crescent. The same thing happened in 
Istanbul. Hagia Sofia, which had been built as a Catholic Church, was 
turned into a Mosque.

Despite the presence of Tariq Ali, there is nothing in the History Channel 
episode that reveals Saladin's strengths as a ruler. Although all military 
leaders in that period had to be utterly ruthless to succeed, Saladin was 
relatively benign compared to his opponents. Tariq Ali, who has written a 
novel based on the life of Saladin (I am no fan of his fiction--I find it 
stilted), had this to say about the Moslem leader in an LRB article from 
February 2002:

"Saladin's long march ended in victory: Jerusalem was taken in 1187 and 
once again made an open city. The Jews were provided with subsidies to 
rebuild their synagogues; the churches were left untouched. No revenge 
killings were permitted. Like Caliph Umar five hundred years before him, 
Saladin proclaimed the freedom of the city for worshippers of all faiths. 
But his failure to take Tyre was to prove costly. Pope Urban despatched the 
Third Crusade to take back the Holy City, and Tyre became the base of its 
operations. Its leader, Richard Plantagenet, reoccupied Acre, executing 
prisoners and slaughtering its inhabitants. Jerusalem, however, could not 
be retaken. For the next seven hundred years, with the exception of one 
short-lived and inconsequential Crusader occupation, the city remained 
under Muslim rule, and no blood was spilled."


After Saladin's victory, a new Crusade was launched this time under the 
leadership of Richard the First, the King of England and an experienced 
military leader. Richard was able to recapture all the Christian 
city-states but left Jerusalem in Moslem hands since he lacked the forces 
to control it.

Despite the fawning version of Richard the Lionheart in the Robin Hood 
movies, he was quite a disgusting individual. When he retook the city of 
Acre, he wound up with 2700 of Saladin's soldiers as prisoners. When he 
couldn't come to terms with Saladin over ransom payments, he had the men 
executed. To this day, Moslems talk about this slaughter in horror. In 
fact, much of Crusade history is part of the culture of today's Arab world. 
The show depicts a story-teller at a Syrian hookah shop regaling the 
smokers with tales of Saladin's exploits.

At the very least, the show helps to put this monumental struggle into some 
kind of context. If I find the time down the road, I might do some further 
reading on the topic, especially material that hones in on the material 
economic conflicts between Christian and Moslem.

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