Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Under Siege

These past few I have been on the Syrian coast not doing much. It would be convenient to say that I've been lounging on the beach (though not likely as it is rocky and not particularly inviting); or kicking back amid the olive groves that deck the mountains that rise straight out of the sea; or even that I've been taking advantage of the more liberal attitudes of the area (there are large Christian and Alawi minorities here) to get down and party. But, alas, the reason is far more prosaic: it has been pissing it down almost non-stop. As far as I can ascertain the Arabic for rain is shitty, and as far as I'm concerned they're absolutely right. Not only does it cause transport difficulties with flooded carriageways, but prancing about castle ruins becomes altogether less appetising when it means you will get cold and wet. Nonetheless some prancing has accomplished (in between long bouts of standing under eaves waiting for gaps in the unrelenting rain). And I am glad because the castles round this neck of the woods are amongst the finest in the world. And I do not say that lightly coming, as I do, from castle country. The fascinating thing about these castles is that they date from a famous episode in history: these are crusader castles.

Although in the West the Crusades are known to most people, the details, more often than not, are hazy. Many people picture gallant knights, feats of heroism and chivalry in the face of barbarian hordes. The Arabs, however, view the Crusaders as a bunch of hooligans who were spoiling for a fight. Personally I think the Arab point of view might be closer to the truth. At the time the Arab civilisation was more advanced than the European and they were altogether more tolerant of Christians. For almost 200 years the Crusaders battled to obtain, and hold, a thin strip of littoral stretching from Sinai to Antioch and including the holy city of Jerusalem. Initially they were quite successful, setting up several kingdoms and principalities and building a score of formidable fortresses to defend their positions. The ingenuity and skill with which these monuments to military engineering were built are perhaps the greatest testament of the crusading knights, surpassing anything I have seen in Europe. This is seen most notably with the castles of Krak des Chevalliers and Saone (now called Qal'at Salah El-Din). Indeed, even T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) felt compelled to call Krak "the most wholly admirable castle in the world." (To see some pictures have a look at the following site, as I'm having problems attaching pictures to my posts.) But finally, due in large part to their lack of numbers, the Crusaders were driven out by the Islamic forces of Saladin and the Mameluks. During their time in control the Crusaders didn't do a very good job at winning the hearts and minds of the locals. Muslim towns were regularly put to the sword and even Christians weren't spared as on one famous occasion the 4th Crusade swung past Constantinople en route to the Levant and did a bit of looting there too. One of the lowest points in Crusader history occurred at the town of Al Ma'ara where, after the usual siege and subsequent massacre of locals, the knights, disappointed at not finding any food, proceeded to eat the bodies of the dead Muslims. So bad was the conduct of the knights that the biggest hero to emerge from the Crusades, even for Christians of the time, was Saladin.

It is due to images like these that Western politicians (by which I mean American politicians) should be more circumspect when using the term crusade, for in the Arab world the term is far from positive. And, if I may make an observation, in today's political world it seems to me that the history of the Crusades is repeating itself. But this time it is the jihadist fundamentalist Muslims (al Qaeda et al.) that are doing the crusading. Their holy lands are occupied by infidels; perhaps not militarily, but certainly politically and economically. Their worldview is blinkered and archaic whereas the West is generally more accepting of differences among people. And the way they are waging their war they do not seem to care about innocent casualties, even amongst people who they claim to be fighting for. OK, that same reproach can be levelled at the West, but still, two out of three. Though this comparison might seem strange at first sight at least, if history really does repeat itself, it is optimistic. Because in the end the Crusaders were comprehensively beaten. But not only that, the Crusades ushered in an age of increased contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds from which the Christian world benefited greatly: we would have had no Renaissance (and the subsequent advances in science and technology) without the Arabs. Once can only hope that this current period of turmoil between the cultures will end as well (though I could do without it taking 200 years!).

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