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The Mediterranean on the eve of the First Crusade

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

On the eve of the first crusade, the Mediterranean basin was divided amongst several powers.   

In the East, the powerful Fatimid Caliphate, led by a Shia dynasty, ruled Egypt, though it had faced numerous revolts over the previous half-century and had lost control of the Maghreb and part of Syria. Its wealth and large fleet made it one of the  principal actors of the period.

From their capital in Baghdad, the Sunni Abbasid caliphs theoretically controlled the whole of the Near East. In reality, this region had come under the domination of the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia. On the eve of the First Crusade, the Seljuks had seized the city of Jerusalem from the Fatimids and gradually settled in Anatolia following their victory at Manzikert over the Byzantine Empire.

Syria at the time was a mosaic of peoples and religions. It was divided into several emirates and sultanates, such as those of Antioch, Aleppo, Damascus and Tripoli. Often controlled by Turkish lords newly converted to Islam, these emirates and sultanates were, in practice, independent and regularly at war with each other.

The Byzantine Empire was still powerful, but seemed to be under threat since its defeat at Mantzikert. Its appeals for help to the Pope in Rome played a part in the emergence of the idea of mounting a crusade from the West.

The empire was all the more vulnerable for having to fight on several fronts. Since the 1030s, Norman knights had been building up their domination over southern Italy at the expense of the Byzantines.

The Normans subsequently conquered Islamic Sicily and built a powerful feudal kingdom, at the crossroads of Greek, Latin and Islamic cultures.

Also in Italy, several independent city-states, such as Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa and Venice, played a growing role in Mediterranean trade, particularly with the ports of the Near East.

In the Iberian Peninsula, the demise of the Caliphate of Cordoba and its break-up into several independent emirates, the ‘Taifas’, allowed the Christian kingdoms to advance southwards. In 1085, for instance, King Alfonso VI of Castile seized Toledo.

On the eve of the First Crusade, however, the arrival of Almoravid troops from the Maghreb temporarily checked the Christian advance.

Despite conflicts over territories, islands and straits, the Mediterranean remained a hub of exchange. Merchants, soldiers, pilgrims and intellectuals constantly crisscrossed the region. With them, goods, literature and ideas passed from one society to another, enabling rich cultural transfers.