This video is part of a series of 12 animated maps.

View series: Crusades

Series: Crusades
An example of an animated map

A complex conflict rather than a clash of civilisations

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of Crusades.

At the time of the Crusaders’ arrival, the political landscape of the Middle East was extremely complex. The region was divided into emirates, often limited to a city and its territory, such as the principalities of Damascus, Antioch, Tripoli and Aleppo. Officially, the emirs recognised the authority of a caliph, either in Baghdad or Cairo, but in effect, they governed independently.

Political divisions were coupled with ethnic divisions: as well as Arab emirs, there were Turkish emirs who had arrived in the mid-11th century and were recent converts to Islam. The Arab and Turk leaders sometimes violently clashed. Another divide existed between Turks and Kurds: the latter, including Saladin, were Islamicised and Arabised but were not Arab.

The divisions were also religious.

Among Muslims, relations between Sunnis and Shias were marked by conflict; the Abbasids in Baghdad and almost all the Turkish emirs were Sunnis, while the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo was Shia.

At the time, Christians were still in the majority in the Middle East, with diverse groups such as Copts, Melkites, Jacobites, Maronites, Nestorians and Armenians.

There were many Jewish communities in cities such as Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Acre. These communities were economically and culturally dynamic, thanks in part to their links with Jewish communities in the Maghreb and the West.

The crusaders were all Latin Christians, but this did not mean that they formed a united bloc. During the first crusade, the Provençals and Normans clashed on several occasions. In the early years of the 12th century, Normans and Germans disputed the crown of Jerusalem. Italians from merchant cities such as Pisa, Genoa or Venice were frequently accused of putting their commercial interests first.

Before long, the crusaders who remained in the East shed the radicalism of the crusade preached in Europe and established alliances or agreements with the Muslims.

-In 1109, for example, Tancred, regent of Antioch, allied with Prince Ridwân of Aleppo to fight against Prince Djawali of Mosul; Djawali then sought the aid of Baldwin of Edessa. In each camp, therefore, Frankish knights fought alongside Muslims.

-Before the Second Crusade, the Emir of Damascus made an alliance with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to counter the threat from the Muslims of Aleppo.

-During the Third Crusade, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, while seeking a peace agreement, considered marrying Saladin’s brother to Richard’s sister, although the plan quickly fell through.

Later, this ability to reach agreement with the adversary was illustrated by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who negotiated the return of Jerusalem to the Christian fold in 1229 without the need to fight. Far from being acclaimed for recovering the Holy City, he was heavily criticised in the West, as it was considered unacceptable not to wage holy war.

On an individual level, many sources, such as the interesting autobiography of the Syrian prince Usama ibn Munqidh, contain stories of friendship, love and mutual respect between Latins, Turks, Arabs and Armenians. In a decidedly diverse East, the constant wars did not prevent the crossing of religious and political boundaries.