Extract from the author’s Master dissertation in Middle Eastern Studies “Geopolitics of the Ancient and Medieval Middle East: From the Fall of Rome to that of Constantinople”

The ‘Crusade’ is a founding element of the Medieval International relations. It represents the meeting point between the Early and Late Middle Age, distinguishing two phases in the Christian, post-Roman, Europe, and the Islamic, post-Caliphal, Middle East. In the “Geopolitics of the ancient and medieval Middle East”, the “Crusade”, as a kind of war sui generis, and the “crusades”, as a series of conflicts played in the Middle East and beyond, find space due to their influence over the political, power and geographical balances of the region.

Hence, the crusading era is paramount to make an assessment of the long-term geopolitical history of the Middle East. The disintegration of the Pars Occidentalis had determined the rise of several kingdoms in the West, eventually leading to Europe’s conceptual birth, originated by the synthesis of the Roman and the Germanic socio-cultural systems.

In the development of the Medieval West, the Christian Church of Rome ultimately covered a role of major importance since its emancipation and detachment from Constantinople, following the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III, in 800 AD. Together with the Pars Orientalis, the foundation of the Sacred Roman Empire laid the basis for the reconstitution of the Roman ecumene in the name of Christianity, institutionalizing the Res Publica Christianorum, represented by the set of Medieval Christian powers, the Congregatio Fidelium, and their spiritual leader, the Pope of Rome.

It shall be stressed that the historical period preceding the first crusade outbreak is mostly marked by the decline of the major power of Christianity to that time, Constantinople. The seventh-century sanctioned the definitive resizing of the Eastern Roman Empire, deprived of all territories outside the Balkans and the Anatolian Peninsula, and reduced to little more than a regional power.

Once the Muslim invaders had entered the Middle Eastern scenario, the eighth century would be marked by the definitive expansion of the Caliphate from Spain to the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, the rise of the Islamic Caliphate went side-by-side with the decline of the Christian world, prompting the latter to elaborate on new ways to guarantee its collective security.

The confrontation between Christianity and Islam acquired a geopolitical raison d’etre as soon as the Caliphate’s expansion determined the end of the Roman and Christian unity in the Mediterranean, transforming the latter’s geography of power forever. The rise of the Islamic Caliphate as the major power in the former Mare Nostrum resulted in expanding the frontiers between Islam and Christianity, bringing the Muslim threat in direct contact with the Christian Kingdoms in the West.

Since the Arabs had destroyed the Visigoth power in 711, and had reached Autun, in 725, and Tours, in 732, the Frankish Kingdom assumed the responsibility to shield the Western Christianity against Islam, as much as Constantinople had contained the Arabs in the East.

If the seventh century had sanctioned the beginning of the hostilities between Christianity and Islam in the Middle East, the eighth, ninth, and tenth century had seen the conflict moving towards the Western Mediterranean, in the Byzantine, Lombard and Papal Italy. Once the first waves of expansion had come to an end (VIII century), the outbreak of large-scale wars between the Christian powers and the Islamic Caliphate drastically diminished, inaugurating an epoch of attrition along permanent borders.

Therefore, the Islamic threat was the primary marker of the Medieval Christian political thought, contributing to the appearance of a Christian mentalitè collective concerning Islam, motivated by matters of security and channelled through the just milieu of religious hostility. As Andrew Latham writes

“The “crusades”—a series of wars launched by the Latin Church between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries— pose a significant unresolved puzzle for International Relations (IR) Theory. Realists have sought to explain these wars in terms of the structural logic of anarchy, arguing that the Church-sponsored military campaigns against its various enemies were little more than a particular instance of the timeless pursuit of power by self-interested actors seeking power and wealth.

Similarly, historical materialists have sought the roots of these ecclesiastical wars in the “land-hunger” generated by new forms of property relations ushered in as a consequence of the “Feudal Revolution” of the late-tenth and early eleventh centuries. Finally, constructivists have attempted to account for the crusades by specifying the pervading (religious) mentalite’s that made them both possible and meaningful.”

Rather than making an in-depth analysis of the crusades, the present case study aims to make a strategic and geopolitical assessment of their development. Moreover, some conflicts that are usually not comprised in the crusades’ periodization will be included for reasons of historical continuity until the XVI century. As many have argued, following the beginning of the crusading movement and the First Crusade, the history of the Christian expeditions in the Holy land can be divided not different stages. We may define that of the First Crusade as “crusading in infancy”.

During this phase, Constantinople asks support from the Western Kingdoms against the Seljuk Turks, which had invaded the Byzantine heartland, Anatolia. Fearing that the Christian bastion in the East could fall into infidels’ hands, Urban II called for a common European intervention against Islam and the Turks. The events’ geopolitical character is evident in the earlier crusading period, given the necessity to secure the Western near abroad in the Byzantine Empire and implement an advanced defence strategy. As stated in the previous pages, the early Holy War’s ultimate goal was to free Anatolia and the Levant from the Muslim rule, restoring the power assets preceding the Manzikert crisis. As Andrew Latham writes

“The success of the First Crusade, it will be recalled, was largely a function of disunity and internecine conflict in the Islamic world. This was also true of the period in which the Crusader States were established – disunity among the contiguous Muslim polities (Rum, Aleppo and Mosul, Damascus, Egypt, Seijar, Hama, Homs) meant that the Christian princes could play them off against one another to great strategic effect.”

The second phase comprehends the period 1102-1187, which Riley Smith described as “crusading in adolescence” . This stage is marked by an increased unity in the Islamic world under the Zangid dynasty’s banner, in the first place, and the Ayyubid Sultanate inaugurated by Saladin, later on. In this phase, the crusader armies and the Christian powers were forced onto the defensive by the Muslim forces, devoted to Jerusalem’s reconquest and eradicating the Christian strongholds in the Middle East.

Once the Christian armies had captured the city of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusader leadership realized the necessity to “make space” between the Holy City and the surrounding lands, controlled by several Muslim Kingdoms. In other words, if the Holy Land were to be made secure, the Christian powers had to create a buffer zone around Jerusalem and its immediate hinterland.

Such objective was accomplished by creating the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia, securing the strip of land stretching from southern Anatolia to the Sinai Peninsula. Andrew Latham provides further analysis of the Christian geostrategic asset around the newly conquered lands, writing that

“In addition to an “inner ring” formed by the principalities founded during the first crusade, it would also require an “outer ring”, comprising the key strategic towns of Ascalon, Aleppo, Damascus and the Mediterranean ports, all of which could provide staging areas for any future Muslim counter-offensive against the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”

Yet, the stability of the “Crusader security belt” around Jerusalem was to be challenged by a number of actors during most of the twelfth century. The 1120s sanctioned the beginning of the reunification of the Muslim world under the newborn Zangid power centred in Syria (Aleppo) and Mosul (Iraq). The County of Edessa, first crusader state and keystone of Jerusalem’s defence, fell to Nur al-Din forces on Christmas 1144. The fall of Edessa compromised the buffer-zone strategy to protect the Holy City, reinvigorating the Muslim hopes to break through the Christian lines.

However, the main consequence of Edessa’s fall was the call for a second crusade by Pope Eugenius III, so to protect the remaining Christian territories in the Middle East. At this point, once Rome had issued the encyclicals “Quantum praedecessores” and “Divini dispensatione”, the Frankish Kingdom and the Sacred Roman Empire mobilized their armies and moved towards Anatolia. The relevance of the geopolitical drivers behind the expedition of Conrad III and Louis VII yet, did not translate into positive results.

Instead, as explained in the previous section, both armies were crushed by the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia. The failure of the Second Crusade marks a turning point in the periodization of the crusading era in the Middle East and determines a decisive change in the Christian-Muslim power balance in the region. The third stage of the crusades stretches between Jerusalem’s subsequent fall to Saladin in 1187 and its return to Latin Christianity in 1229.

“Above all else, this phase was characterized by a profound change in geopolitical purposes: during this period, the crusades were no longer prosecuted in defence of Jerusalem, but for its recovery. After the failure of the Second Crusade, the jihad against the Christian principalities provided both a common goal and a unifying religious focal point for the Muslim polities of the region. Building on this, Zengi’s son and successor, Nur al-Din, first created a unified Syrian emirate and then entered into an alliance with Egypt for the purpose of putting pressure on the Christians.”

The lands of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, previously regarded as the success of the First Crusade, had, by the half of the twelfth century, turned into the geopolitical cage of the Christian Outremer states. Once Saladin had subjugated the Zangid Sultanate itself, he entered the Middle Eastern chessboard by catching the propitious momentum. Such were the premises for the devastating defeat of the Christian armies at the Battle of Hattin, in 1187.

By the end of the same year, Jerusalem fell to Saladin and became the Muslim bridgehead in the Christian heartland, from which advance towards the remaining Latin territories. On 29 October 1187, Pope Gregory VIII responded to Jerusalem’s fall by issuing the encyclical “Audita Tremendi” and calling upon all Western Christendom for further military intervention in the Middle East. The Pope mobilized the entire Res Publica Christiana relying on both a common religious duty and common security concerns, given the rise of a new great power in the Middle East, Saladin’s Ayyubid Sultanate.

The Pope’s request was welcomed throughout the entire Christian world and resulted in the organization of the largest military expedition ever planned in the Middle Age. The King of England, Richard Lionheart, the King of France, Philip II, and the Sacred Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa led their vast armies in a common joint military expedition in the Holy Land. The Third Crusade is probably the clearest example, along with the First, of the “Crusade” as an element of the Medieval International relations, mediated by the Papacy and channelled through religious and security concerns.

The little potential economic utility of a successful crusade furtherly proves the geopolitical concerns and religious devotion as the main drivers in the crusading era. Despite the brilliant premises, the Middle East’s joint European expedition had little effect on the region’s balance of power. The unfortunate death en route of Frederick I marked the beginning of the events. The Middle Eastern venture could turn into no results if it were not for Richard Lionheart, who managed to contain Saladin’s ambitions in the Levant and secure the remaining Latin dominions. Yet, a major change was to occur a few years later, between the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III issued another encyclical, launching the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). The declared purpose of the military expedition was to attack Egypt to advance towards the Holy Land, liberating Jerusalem. Yet, the direction of the crusade was soon diverted against the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire itself, Constantinople. The Byzantine capital was sacked, plundered, and humiliated for three days.

The Frankish-Venetian expedition against Constantinople had some realist reasons as well, largely due to the tactical calculation that a Constantinople in Western hands might be viewed as much of an advantage for the liberation of Jerusalem as the occupation of Alexandria. The aggression of Constantinople culminated with the subjugation of the whole Empire, divided among the Crusader Lords and renamed as the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople. The coup staged by the Crusaders in Constantinople prompted the Byzantine Empire, known as the Shield of Christianity, towards a path of deep and fast decline, from which it would never recover.

In the Middle Eastern power balance’s general economy, the Fourth Crusade triggered the weakening of the primary Christian power in the region, inaugurating an epoch of big geopolitical change. The Fifth Crusade (1217-1222) did not turn out to be successful either.

Planning again Egypt’s occupation – meant to be used as a bridgehead towards Jerusalem – the expedition miserably failed when the Christian armies found themselves surrounded by Muslim forces near El Mansura and were forced to retreat. On the other hand, the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) proved much more efficient than the initial attempts. The expedition began in 1228 when the Sacred Roman Emperor Frederick II embarked towards the Holy Land. However, the success of the German Emperor was far from being achieved via usual means.

Instead, it was much more a demonstration of skilled diplomacy than an example of martial prowess. Frederick II managed to bring the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Kamil, to the negotiating table, obtaining the Christian sovereignty over Jerusalem. The agreement also determined a ten-year truce and the neutrality of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in any future war between the Sultanate and the Crusader states. Frederick’s result was a clear success in geopolitical terms: The Holy City was restored to Christendom, and the surrounding area turned again into the buffer zone needed to protect its integrity. On the other hand, we might regard the expiration of the ten-year truce between the Egyptian Sultanate and the Christian powers to be the marking point of the beginning of the so-called fourth phase in the crusading era.

Defined as “the age of maturity”, this stage began with the loss of Jerusalem, occupied by the Muslim Emir of Kerak, in 1239, and that of Acre, in 1291. Nevertheless, the Christian powers were once again able to reconquer Jerusalem in the next years, securing its territories by improving its regional system. However, the regional balance of power shifted once again when the Muslims captured Jerusalem in 1244, slaughtering its Christian population. At that time, the never-ending expeditions to either secure or recover the Holy Land set the premises for the last attempts to take over the Levantine territories.

The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) and the Eighth Crusade (1270) saw the last Frankish efforts to secure the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. The last act of the conventional periodization of the crusades took place between 1271-1272, when Prince Edward of England led a military intervention in the Holy Land to defend the Kingdom of Tripoli. As Andrew Latham writes

“The Crusades to the Holy Land were a powerful expression of the historical structure of war of later medieval Latin Christendom: they reflected the distinctive war-making capacity of the Church (the crusader army and the military religious orders); they expressed the socially constructed interest of the reform papacy (the liberation and defense of Jerusalem); and they were made possible by the institution of the Crusade (constituting the Church as a legitimate war-making unit and the “crusader” as a recognizable form of actor with a defined portfolio or religious interests). […] They were a distinctive form of organized violence – one that would quickly find expression in other parts of Christendom.”

Yet, the conclusion of the conventional crusading times did not mean the end of the mentalitè collective that had shaped the European political thought to that time. On the contrary, the Christian common security concerns – that had worked as a unifying force among the plurality of Western powers – were to continue echoing in the next centuries’ political discourse.

Most importantly, the “Crusader spirit” of Europe was to be reinvigorated by another rising power at the doorstep of Christianity: The Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans had emerged from the confusion that prevailed in Asia Minor after the Seljuk rule’s collapse, taking advantage of the geopolitical fragmentation that followed the Crusader military interventions.

The Mongol victory over the Seljuks in 1243 had further increased the Turkish world’s division, split into several principalities in thirteenth and fourteenth century Anatolia. In any way, the passing of time proved the initial Western acquiescence towards the Turkish polities to be a great strategic miscalculation. From the first decades of the fourteenth century, the Ottomans promoted continuous warfare along the borders of Central Anatolia, eventually occupying most of the Byzantine heartland as the Seljuks had done in the aftermath of Manzikert. Once the Turkish managed to pass through the Dardanelles, the Balkans’ subsequent penetration (1320s) prompted Western Christianity to consider the Muslim invaders as a real threat.

In other words, the early Ottoman expansion’s age renewed the East-West geopolitical cleavage that had slackened in the earlier decades, reviving the mentalitè collective in the wake of Europe’s security concerns. The casus belli for the first joint military intervention against the Ottomans came in 1389, in the aftermath of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, sanctioning the Balkans’ complete subjugation by the Turks. Usually referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis, Pope Boniface IX blessed the expedition in 1394. Once again, the intervention’s raison d’etre was far from being religious.

On the contrary, it was centred on political and economic concerns, linked to each other by the Central-Western European powers’ strategic priorities. In the Bulgarians’ eyes, the expedition was the only way to reverse the Turkish occupation in the Balkans, resisting the Islamic rule. Besides, the recent Ottoman expansion had brought Hungary at the center of the Great Game to control the Central-Eastern European landmass, turning Buda into a no men’s land, devasted by the continuous Turkish raids and military campaigns.

On the other side, the Republic of Venice feared that the fall of the Balkans into Islamic hands would lead to a parallel decline of its influence over the Aegean, Adriatic, and Ionian seas, crucial for the Venetian trade routes. Last, the Republic of Genoa was afraid of the possible consequences of an Ottoman monopoly over the Danube, the Bosphorus, and the Dardanelles, where the Genoese controlled Sinop’s settlements, Caffa, Amasra, and Galata, nearby Constantinople’s Golden Horn. The expedition turned out to be a disaster when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I intercepted the Frankish-Hungarian army along the Danube, inflicting a devastating defeat on September 25, 1396 .

The news of the defeat at Nicopolis echoed in all Christian world as a nightmare, troubling the dark night of Europe’s decline. Almost fifty years had to pass for the West to recover from the debacle of Nicopolis. In 1443, Pope Eugene IV called the Christian kingdoms’ attention to the perils of a possible Hungary in Turkish hands again. At that time, Buda’s resistance had managed to slow down the Turkish advance, inflicting a series of defeats on the army of Murad I, eventually forced to sign a 10-year truce with the Christian world.

Loaded with geopolitical meaning was the Pope’s response to the news of peace, who asked the King of Hungary to break the agreement and repel the Turks out of the Balkans. Pope Eugene IV had also made accords with the Eastern Roman Emperor, John VIII Palaeologus, promising the European support against the Ottomans in favor of Constantinople.

The Byzantine Basileus had – among other things – conceded the reunification of the two Churches on the bargaining table with Eugene IV. Though, it was the Western Christendom that paid the highest price for the new crusade. In 1444 the Crusader military expedition was made up of Hungarian, Polish, Bohemian, and Wallachian forces, with Czechs, Papal knights, Teutonic Knights, Bosnians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians set out.

On November 10, 1444, Murad II met the Christian armies nearby Lake Varna and crushed them in a devastating defeat . The Polish King and the Papal legate fell on the battlefield as well. On the ground of geopolitical change, Varna’s first consequence was the Ottoman advance into Central and Eastern Europe, with many Christian territories falling into Turkish hands.

Four years later, the Ottoman superiority on the battlefield turned into another fundamental victory against the Hungarians in 1448, at Kosovo Polje. As nothing could stop the Muslim advance anymore, the Turkish recomposed the territorial continuity of their newborn Empire in 1453, when on May 29, the Queen of the Cities, Constantinople, fell to Ottoman control.

The picture of the fifteenth-century geopolitics is exceptionally clear: on one side we have a rising power in the age of its expansion, stretching from the Anatolian Peninsula to Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire; on the other side we have a fragmented set of Western Christian powers, divided and unprepared to resist the Turkish assault, Europe. It was only by October 7, 1571, however, that the epoch of the Crusades came to an end. Working as the hub of Medieval International relations, the Papacy of Pius IV managed to assemble a coalition of Christian powers, devoted to the defence of Europe.

Called “Holy League”, the alliance comprised the Spanish Empire, the Republics of Venice and Genoa, the Order of Malta, the Duchy of Savoia and, finally the Papal States. All members of the League considered the Ottoman Empire as a great threat to their maritime security in the Mediterranean, where Turkish and Berber fleets hindered both Italian and Spanish political ambitions. The Naval Battle of Lepanto sanctioned the end of the Turkish thalassocracy, as well as the fall of the Sultan’s hopes to conquer the Red Apple, Rome, the heart of Western Christianity. As Davis writes

“More than a military victory, Lepanto was a moral one. For decades, the Ottoman Turks had terrified Europe, and the victories of Suleiman the Magnificent caused Christian Europe serious concern. The defeat at Lepanto further exemplified the rapid deterioration of Ottoman might under Selim II, and Christians rejoiced at this setback for the Ottomans. The mystique of Ottoman power was tarnished significantly by this battle, and Christian Europe was heartened.[…] “This Turkish defeat stopped Ottomans’ expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten.”

Despite occasional changes, the geographical frontiers between the Western Christendom and the newborn Islamic Empire were to be largely maintained for the centuries to come. Among other things, Lepanto is to be considered the last of the large-scale wars between Christianity and Islam worth to be considered part of the broader number of Medieval\Early Modern crusades. The impressive Italo-Spanish victory at Lepanto forced the Ottoman Empire onto the defensive for the first time, releasing the European powers’ pressure, which could take back control of the Western Mediterranean.

On the other side, Christian success did not change the general equilibrium between the two sides, which remained in favor of Istanbul until the seventeenth century. With Lepanto, the Crusading age comes to an end, and a new phase of geopolitical coexistence between the European powers and the Ottoman Empire begins.

Samuele Vasapollo


L’autore: Samuele Vasapollo, vicepresidente di Renovatio Imperii, si occupa della direzione dell’associazione, dell’organizzazione di eventi, conferenze, e della stesura di articoli, con un focus sull’età tardo imperiale, bizantina, islamico-califfale e ottomana. Caporedattore della rubrica “Geopolitica Imperii”, lavora in ambito accademico e professionale come analista di relazioni internazionali. Si dedica specialmente allo studio dell’area MENA (Medioriente e Nord Africa) e dello spazio  post-sovietico. Al momento, è analista geopolitico presso lo IARI (Istituto Analisi Relazioni Internazionali) e ISG (Italia Strategic Governance).


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