In preparation for my upcoming Powell History course, the Islamist Entanglement (coming February 2008!), I’ve decided to create a blog series on relations between the West and the Middle East, entitled “Milestones.” It will be a weekly feature on PHR, providing historical insight into the modern-day situation in which America now finds itself entangled.
The first of the Milestones I’d like to present extends back to 1204 and the Crusades. Although one could easily go as far back as c.500 BC to find relevant material on the subject of East-West relations (that date marks the beginning of the Ionian Revolt which brought Greece into conflict with the Persian Empire), I’ll confine myself to the more modern period, in which European civilization began to assert itself with a new level of confidence and large segments of its population first ventured from that continent.
The Crusades are a famous example of the violent conflict that characterizes the interface between Western civilization and the Middle East throughout history. In that series of religious wars stretching from 1095 to 1291, the powers of Western and Central Europe, then the most progressive elements in Western civilization, attempted to claim the Holy Land for Christianity. This is, of course, the basic storyline that most people are familiar with.
An episode from the Crusades from 1204 that I suspect most people don’t know about, however, demonstrates another long-running, trend in East-West relations, namely “West-West” backstabbing. Too often in the history of Western civilization, its own leading representatives have demonstrated a disturbing and tragic failure to grasp the unique virtues of their own Civilization, to see the fundamental values they share, and defend them. Instead they have acted to secure short-range benefits, usually at each other’s expense.
In 1204, this is exactly what happened. The Venetians, upon whom the Crusaders were relying for passage to the Holy Land, refused transport to the Western army because the Crusaders could not meet their price. Then, finding a convenient excuse in a contested succession at Constantinople, they convinced the knights to take the city on behalf on one the claimants, and by this means derive their desired profit.
The result was the sack of Constantinople, not by the Muslims, but by the Christians. The astounding outcome is related by historian Speros Vryonis:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable…The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.
Of course, no American army has sacked, say, Paris on the way to Baghdad in the modern era, and yet the same kind of antagonism between Western powers that was prevalent during the Crusades continues to handicap the West in its relations with the Middle East. France, for instance, is a notorious provider of technology–including weapons and nuclear technology–to the Middle East. All the European powers provide moral sanction to America’s enemies through diplomatic channels. And, in perhaps the most telling parallel, the United States has attacked Iraq instead of Iran, its most heinous enemy. The big picture, it seems, continues to elude Westerners.
Looking back on the Fourth Crusade, one can, however, find one bright light. It is the individual effort of a western scholar named Willem van Moerbeke who later made his way to the Latin Kingdom at Constantinople, and undertook the translation of the works of Aristotle from Greek to Latin on behalf of Thomas Aquinas. (It’s amazing and heartening to see how in every dark phase of history, one can always spot a flame!)
Interested in the Crusades? Powell History offers a 20-lecture introductory program on the “History of Europe” (now available!).
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