Let’s Revisit the Crusades_God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

I remember watching Hollywood’s epic production of the Kingdom of Heaven and wondering just how much was factual especially when it came to the much noted chivalry of Saladin. Was he really the very picture of the western knight in eastern garb and were the Templar’s as bad as the movie made them out to be?

If you saw the movie you might remember that Saladin, impressed with the bravery of Balian in his defense of Jerusalem allows the Christians to evacuate the city peaceably. This scene is supposed to be in contrast to the First Crusade when the crusaders massacred the Muslim inhabitants of the city (and they did). The message was and is the crusaders barbarous and the Muslims civilized.

The below scene is from the Director’s Cut of the movie and it features an apparition in the garb of a Knight Hospitaller who warns Bailian that a reckoning is coming because “the Muslims will never forget” an allusion to the above First Crusade and the massacre of the Muslims.

So what really happened? Was Saladin the chivalrous Muslim or was he little different from other men of his age, both east and west?

Historically Saladin destroyed a large crusader army at Hattin in 1187. Thousands of crusaders died in the battle. All the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller who were captured were beheaded and all other captives enslaved. In the aftermath of the battle most of the crusader cities and fortresses were over run and Saladin headed to Jerusalem. This is how Rodney Stark author of God’s Battalion’s-The Case for the Crusades records what happened next:

Jerusalem was crowded with refugees from other cities already fallen to the Muslims: “for every man there were fifty women and children. There were only two knights in Jerusalem. So, arms were distributed to every able-bodied man-although most knew little or nothing how to use them. In late September, Saladin’s army arrived and surrounded the city. After several days of preparation the Muslims attacked the walls and met furious resistance from the tiny band of untrained defenders. Some of the Christian fighters wanted to charge out through the breach and fight to the death. But cooler heads prevailed, noting that only by surrender could they prevent all the women and children from becoming slaves. So they asked Saladin for surrender terms. He demanded a ransom of ten gold pieces for each man to be spared (with two women or ten children counted as one man). As for the poor, Saladin agreed to free seven thousand of them in return for thirty thousand bezants. That left thousands without hope. If, in the end, there was no massacre about half of the city’s Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets. pp. 197-98 God’s Battalion’s, Rodney Stark

Not exactly the picture one would get from the movie. After the Battle of Hattin all Templars and Hospitallers were beheaded and the other soldiers and knights sold as slaves. After the siege of Jerusalem at least half the city’s Latin Christians are sold into slavery because they were too poor to pay ransom. Chivalry?

In the movie Saladin is portrayed as he almost always has been in the west, the perfect example of chivalry while the crusaders have been portrayed as barbarous and one of the primary reasons the Muslims in general hate the west to this very day.

Now if Saladin is held up as the virtuous ideal that he clearly falls short of what are we make of Baibars the First?

Who was Baibars? It’s not surprising you have not heard of Baibars? If Saladin has been enshrined as the chivalrous Muslim then Baibars would win the award for being the most barbarous if western historians were the slightest bit honest and fair in the their reporting on the Crusades (which lasted for about 200 years!)

Saladin’s Egyptian dynasty died out around 1254 when the last sultan of Egypt was murdered by his own Mamluk slaves. One of the Mamluks who had helped defeat Louis of France and Fifth Crusade was Baibars. A Mamluk was not the name of an Arab or Turkish tribe. It was a designation that meant “to be owned.”

Mamluk slave soldier. They were still around in Napoleon's time and a number of them served in his personal Guard.

Mamluk slave soldier. They were still around in Napoleon’s time and a number of them served in his personal Guard.

Mamluks were enslaved or purchased as children by Egyptian rulers from their homeland in the Caucasus and raised to be soldiers, a skill they excelled at. Because their area of origin was the Caucasus it was common for a Mamluk to look more like a westerner than a Turk or Arab.  Baibars apparently was a decent general and became the new sultan after his fellow Mamluks murdered the last sultan from Saladin’s line. After consolidating his power Baibars embarked on a campaign to retake all the Christian cities and fortresses remaining in the Holy Land including the last big one, the City of Antioch.

The first town to fall was the small port of Arsuf that was defended by 270 Knights Hospitallers who fought with their usual tenacity and courage. Baibars was rebuffed  in his attacks so he proposed a surrender promising the surviving Hospitallers they would go free. The Hospitallers accepted the offer and were promptly enslaved.

Knight Hospitaller, knight of the hospital

Knight Hospitaller, knight of the hospital

Next on Baibars list was the Knights Templar stronghold at Safed, Rather than accept the large amount of casualties it took to take a castle defended by Templars (or Hospitallers) Baibars offered the Templars the chance to surrender and go in peace to the City of Acre. The Templars accepted and when they marched out they were captured and beheaded. Baibars then turned on the Christian village of Qara killing all the adults and enslaving the children.

Knight Templar or knight of the temple

Knight Templar or knight of the temple

[It should be pointed out that the military convention of the time for both sides was that if a city or fortress surrendered there would be no rape or murder and people would be allowed to leave unmolested. This was done to encourage surrender because the casualty rate among the attackers could be and often was substantial. If an army was forced to storm a city or fortress then no such mercy could be expected. This explains the somewhat lenient terms Saladin gave Jerusalem and it explains the crusader’s massacre of Jerusalem since the defenders did not surrender for terms. Baibars therefore was outside the norm promising what was military convention and then breaking his word. As a point aside, this same Baibars became cozy with the Mongol Golden Horde many of whom converted to Islam. When it came to barbarity the Mongols had few equals.)

Next, Baibars attacked Acre but found it too strong. Instead he contented himself by killing every Christian outside the city he could find and surrounding Acre with their decapitated bodies. Acre did not surrender. Hardly a surprise given Baibar’s growing reputation.

Acre would fall to a successor of Baibars in 1291 A.D.

Acre would fall to a successor of Baibars in 1291 A.D.

After Baibars moved on to slaughter the inhabitants of Jaffa he proceeded on to Antioch, a city and fortress. The Christians did not have enough men to effectively man the walls and negotiations with Baibars went no where because the defenders knew he could not be trusted to keep his word should they surrender.

The Muslims broke through the defenses and what followed was the single greatest massacre of the crusading era, a massacre that even shocked Muslim chroniclers for its brutality. Baibars wrote a letter to Count Bohemend VI the ruler of Antioch who had been away when Baibars attacked. In the letter Baibars bragged of his brutality. It is true the city resisted but on the other hand given Baibars track record what option did they have other than fight?

Stark in his book God’s Battalions tells us why no one has ever heard of Baibars. Western histories of the Crusades give it scant attention. Steven Runciman (whom I’ve read) gave it eight lines. Hans Eberhard Mayer gave it one and Christopher Tyerman who gave pages and pages to the massacre of Muslims in Jerusalem in the First Crusade devoted 12 words to Baibars atrocity. Karen Armstrong, an apologist for Islam if ever there was one blamed the crusaders since they presented such a dire threat to Islam. She also noted that Baibars was a patron of the arts as if that somehow shows him more civilized than his enemies. pp.231-232, Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions

I’ve always been a little amazed by how the west, as a whole, seems to buy the notion that the Muslims during the time of the Crusades were innocent victims of the imperialist west and the Crusades were nothing more than a land grab for adventurous knights and royalty. During the two Iraq Wars hostile Muslims made much use of the term “crusaders” and the Iranians continue to do so as if they have been the victims of western aggression since the Crusades. I’ll say this, they make more effective use of propaganda than we do and they do with the assistance of an ignorant media and historians who should know better than to give one lop-sided side of the story.


Stark in God’s Battalions dispels much of the misinformation in 250 or so pages of well-researched facts. My example of Saladin and Baibars are two and at least in the case of Saladin someone who many people could at least identify.

My purpose in bringing this to my blog is not to defend crusader atrocities or justify them. It is to hint at the fact there was more to the Crusades than popularly believed and that both sides tended to behave as the products of the age they lived in. The example of besieged cities is a good case in point. If a city surrendered they could expect some level of mercy, if not, they could expect massacre and atrocity. This was true in the west and the east. It had little to do with chivalry and much to do with pragmatism. There was no Geneva Convention in 1100 A.D.

I recommend God’s Battalions-The Case for the Crusades, Harper Collins, 2009


3 comments on “Let’s Revisit the Crusades_God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

  1. Reblogged this on Church, State, Faith and Culture and commented:

    A reblog from my history blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: