Caliphs and Crusaders

Nor is it the first time that people have tried to do good in the Near East. At the end of the eleventh century, Europeans decided to bring the blessings of Christian governance to the desert tribes. The Crusades of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries were doomed from the beginning. The Crusaders had the will and the weapons to kick Arab butts; what they lacked was a real reason for doing so, for Christianity was already firmly rooted in the Holy Lands, as it had been for more than 1,000 years, even though Jerusalem had fallen to the caliph Umar Ibn al‐Khattab in February of 638.

Amin Maalouf, in a delightful little book, The Crusades from the Arab Point of View, tells us how it happened:

Umar had entered Jerusalem astride his famous white camel, and the Greek patriarch of the holy city came forward to meet him. The caliph first assured him that the lives and property of the city's inhabitants would be respected, and then asked the patriarch to take him to visit the Christian holy places. The time of Muslim prayer arrived while they were in the church of Qiyama, the Holy Sepulchre, and Umar asked his host if he could unroll his prayer mat. The patriarch invited Umar to do so right where he stood but the caliph answered: “If I do, the Muslims will want to appropriate this site, saying ‘Umar prayed here.’ ” Then, carrying his prayer mat, he went and knelt outside.

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Jerusalem was taken again, in July 1099, by the Crusaders. This time Christians ...

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