Damien Sullivan (mindstalk) wrote,
Damien Sullivan

crusades through Arab Eyes

By Amin Maalouf. I finished this book last night. It's been highly recommended, and I liked it. Not too long, and fairly simple in structure: chronological, with Crusades arriving, getting fought, and finally kicked out. I found it an engaging read. Some surprises or sociological points:

* messenger pigeons. Arabs had them, Europeans didn't. This led me to reading about pigeon use; medieval Europe seems a lacuna of use in Eurasia. Now I'm looking at fantasy plots to see how they'd change if people used pigeons. E.g. in LotR, Theoden or Pelargir could have told Minas Tirith that help was on the weay.

* Why psychohistory is a dumb idea: the Shayzar emirate was destroyed by earthquake: nearly the entire elite was in a building that collapsed on them.

* Richard I sounds lame.

* The caliphate seems to have been something like the Japanese emperor: a former secular-religious ruler who became a religious figurehead while other people (such as the Seljuk Turk sultans) held military and secular power.

* The arriving Crusaders were massacre-level violent, perfidious, smelly, and had poor judicial practices, like trial by ordeal or by combat. Arab observers were shocked and disgusted.

* There are strong allegations of cannibalism by some of the Crusaders, not just as a desperation move but to deliberately terrify the Muslims.

* OTOH they seemed better at observing property rights of anyone they didn't kill in the initial conquest; a late Arab observer worried that Arab peasants would go over to the Franj because of better treatment. Maalouf puts it that Arab trials were better but there was nothing to inhibit the arbitrary power of the prince.

* Likewise the Franj were better at forming state institutions, such as governing councils, and having peaceful succession (usually to a daughter or son-in-law), while the death of an Arab ruler almost guaranteed civil war.

(Just from dipping in Wikipedia, plus past inquiry of English history, I know that European succession could be pretty complicated too, but maybe 50% chance of civil war beats 100%...)

(Lots of women took or were conduits to power in the Crusader states. I think Wikipedia credited sons getting killed in warfare; Maalouf credits a high child mortality rate, which differentially favors girls because they're tougher.)

(Also I think Maalouf mentioned one Muslim woman, Shajar al-Durr, who took power for a while and became sultana of Egypt after her husband's death.)

* Maalouf says that although they drove out the Crusaders, the Arab world became inward looking and reactionary, carrying a grudge for the next seven centuries.

* Neither side was particularly unified in religious politics; Crusaders were happy to get Muslim allies against other Crusaders or the Byzantines, and ditto for Muslim rulers. One Muslim ruler even handed Jerusalem to Frederick II (who is an interesting person to read about himself.)

* Europeans kept trying to ally with Mongols (not even monotheist at the time!) for a pincer assault on the Middle-East, but it never quite worked out. Though the Mongols did plenty of damage without that.

* Antioch never recovered from being destroyed by Baybars, a Mamluk chief; neither did the Armenian kingdom. Hulegu Khan took the Assassin fortress and destroyed their library, contributing to their subsequent obscurity. Cypurs never fully recovered from being sacked by the Crusader Reynald, and it was Byzantine! *And* he got pardoned by the emperor for that!

Quotes (with quotation marks for when *he* quotes someone else):

The Franj succeeded in creating genuine state structures as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. In Jerusalem rulers generally succeeded one another without serious clashes; a council of the kingdom exercised effective control over the policy of the monarch, and the clergy had a recognized role in the workings of power. Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war.

"All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lot to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity."

In the Arab East, the judicial procedures were more rational, but the arbitrary power of the prince was unbounded. The development of merchant towns, like the evolution of ideas, could only be retarded as a result.

He believed that the equity and sound administration of the Franj constituted a mortal danger to the Muslims. Indeed, might not the latter turn their backs on their own coreligionists—and on their religion—if they discovered well-being in Frankish society? However understandable it may be, the attitude of the renowned traveller is none the less symptomatic of a malady from which his congeners suffered: throughout the Crusades, the Arabs refused to open their own society to ideas from the West. And this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims.

Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile.

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Tags: book reviews, books, crusades, history
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