[Marxism] History Channel on the Crusades
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
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
"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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