The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
Published in 1983
John Rothschild Translation
Genre: Nonfiction, history
“Baghdad, August, 1099
Wearing no turban, his head shaved as a sign of mourning, the venerable qadi Abu Saad al-Harawi burst with a loud cry into the spacious diwan of the caliph al-Mustazhir Billah, a throng of companions, young and old, trailing in his wake.”
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf, tells the story of the crusades through an Arabic perspective in a narrative format. Running the gamut of the initial invasions by Western crusaders, through the riposte of Saladin’s reign, the book covers all of the intrigue, civil wars, and truces that happened in over two centuries of conflict. The book explores not only the events, but the histories of some of the most interesting people of the age, their motivations, and the way in which people can come together despite differences.
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes starts with the passage above, but then goes back in time to the first invasion of the Christian Crusaders. In the beginning, the Arabs used tactics of successive waves of cavalry archers; in this way, they took control of the better part of the Middle East. However, Western knights in heavy armor would easily deflect the arrows and could form defensive positions. This, combined with infighting between Arab rulers, led to the Western Christians gaining a significant foothold.
Though both sides committed atrocities in the names of their religions, the Western Christians truly stood out, especially during the initial invasion. There are stories of Europeans eating their dead adversaries and firing the decapitated heads of the vanquished over the walls of their enemies as preludes to a siege. There were also reports of Christian crusaders trapping people in synagogues before setting them alight.
The Arabs were so disjointed because of the selfish desires of their individual rulers that they couldn’t form a united front to repel the invaders. There were even points where Arab rulers teamed up with the Crusaders in order to fight other, similar alliances. More often than not, when a ruler died or was supplanted, a civil war of succession would follow.
The general population eventually grew tired of the incessant squabbling of their selfish leaders, and began to take control in appointing those they could sway toward action. Regardless of religion, the common people were usually able to avoid the violence while coming to agreements with those who were different than them in order to coexist, especially when it came to religious worship in Jerusalem. It was the leaders, especially Christians, who would not allow other religious practice in the holy city while they were in control of it.
In addition to the overall struggles between the Muslims and Christians, the book covers the creation of the Assassins. This elite sect followed marks, learned their habits, and then struck their adversaries down in public in order to ensure that people saw what had happened. Most did not live past their task, and this group would fight for its own ends rather than uniting with one single side.
Maalouf does a wonderful job of foreshadowing events and famous figures (such as Saladin and Richard the Lionheart) in order to keep the reader interested and put context to the more well-known periods of the Crusades. There are some terms necessary to look up, but most are explained well or can be understood within the context of the sentences. The book is filled with long, block paragraphs, but this doesn’t detract from the overall reading experience. A vast majority of the book is comprised of summary with intermittent passages from contemporary sources. The book also contains an epilogue that questions the implications that this time in history had on Islam and the Middle East in the 20th century. There are some interesting questions put forth by Maalouf, and this serves to put the Crusades into context within the more modern sociopolitical arena.
I had a vague understanding of the Crusades from the general study during my years in school and some historical background gained from popular culture’s adaptation of events, but had never really looked into the actual history of it. Thus, when I saw this book reviewed by a fellow blogger some years ago, I decided to pick it up in order to gain more knowledge about this period, and I am very glad that I did. The book, though rather short, is packed with information spanning two centuries of conflict while putting it into the context of the lives of those involved. It was never a struggle to continue reading, though some of the names did become a bit muddled, but I definitely enjoyed reading about this fascinating part of history. I think that we are obliged to learn about perspectives and experiences other than our own, so for my fellow Westerners looking for a bit more expansive study of the Crusades, this is a must read.
Verdict: 3 Arabian civil wars out of 5
Recommended for: Those who no longer wish to remain ignorant, fans of history texts, those looking to learn about a misunderstood period of time, and people dissatisfied with the historical inaccuracy of Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
Not recommended for: Fans of Kingdom of Heaven (2005), those who want to remain ignorant about the Crusades, people who don’t want to learn about the real life Assassins rather than those in the Assassin’s Creed games, or the Islamophobic.