The Crusades: Crescent & The Cross

We tend to see history through the lens of the present. Instead of trying to understand past events as they happened, we look at them as they relate to us now, and draw parallels that distort both situations. And so it is predictable that the History Channel’s new two-part documentary, The Crusades: Crescent & the Cross, opens with the following ominous note:

For thousands of years, the Holy Lands of the Middle East have run with blood… The deepest wound was made by a war between Christian and Muslim begun at the close of the 11th century and fought for 200 years. At stake, just a tiny strip of land just a few hundred miles long, but with the greatest: Jerusalem… This was the collision of two great faiths, the clash between the Crescent and the Cross. This was the Crusades!

While the narration never makes a direct link between the Crusades and Iraq, Al Qaeda, or Israel, its intention seems clear: the Crusades were the opening battle in an unending struggle between Christianity and Islam. The rest of the documentary is more nuanced than this hook suggests, but the Crusades were no more a part of “a collision of two great faiths” than the Titanic’s sinking was a referendum on an aristocratic class system.

The Crusades encompassed battles fought between Christian kingdoms and sides that at times included both Christian and Islamic fighters (even the phrase “fought for 200 years” is misleading, as it was not a continuous war). The narration frequently uses other troubling phrases, like “the forces of Islam” and “the Christian army,” when what bound these armies together was not always religion, particularly with the fractured and tenuous political entities of both sides. In truth, the Crusades’ legacy is more the much-used political shorthand for divine mission than continuous struggle between two geographical ideologies.

The title is also misleading because the documentary only covers — in incredibly minute detail — the first three Crusades, when a Crusading army took over Jerusalem, then lost it, and Saladin and Richard the Lionheart reached a stalemate that, after the Third Crusade, led to the gradual disassembling of the remaining Crusading kingdoms.

Part One, examining the First Crusade, is largely told from the point of view of the European invaders. This is not purely due to West-centrism. The fact is that, in the Middle East during that era, battles fought by the Crusaders were minor compared to the larger power struggle among the Turks, Shia, and Sunnis. It was this struggle that allowed the ad hoc Crusader armies to invade the Holy Lands of Jerusalem and Syria and not get the snot beaten out of them. It was not until the 19th century, when Western Europeans intellectuals started echoing Crusading imagery as a “just cause” for colonial conquests in the regions, did Arab scholars largely and aggressively address and rebut the West’s romantic version of history (foremost being that the Crusading armies brutally slaughtered whole villages and ultimately lost the Crusades.

It starts with a thinly fleshed out depiction of the Crusades’ origins in 11th-century Europe. The documentary initially focuses on the intense Catholicism of the period and so corrects a major misconception of the Crusaders as largely capitalist colonists. At the beginning, the Crusaders were largely devoted to the idea of freeing the Holy Lands and having their sins absolved in the process. However, a few minutes later, when addressing the financial motivations of some knights and rulers, the documentary neglects the disparity between the monetary and religious motivations. A few minutes after that, the narration notes the enormous cost of organizing a Crusade (kings and noblemen had to use pretty much all available funds); this seems the perfect opportunity to link the two together. These costs both attest to the Crusaders’ sincerity in “freeing” the Holy Lands and provide impetus for looting and sacking castles and cities en route.

Also left unexplored is the oxymoronic concept of a “holy war.” The documentary portrays Western, particularly Frankish and Germanic, Europe as extremely violent and the Crusades as a way of “resolving” the tension between that brutality and the strict orthodoxy of medieval Catholicism. But how did the Vatican justify this new violence? How did Pope Urban II’s radical conception of “taking the Cross,” to receive penance, shape the idea of a Crusade? The program doesn’t speculate.

Once the First Crusade armies of Godfrey of Bouillon, Count Baldwin, and Bohemond set off to serve Constantinople (but ultimately seize the lands for their own ends), Crescent & the Cross is more lucid and compelling. The History Channel excels at fetishizing war. Its documentaries lovingly describe the tactics of a cavalry charge or the end games of commanders with the precision Martha Stewart brings to taffeta and Thanksgiving centerpieces. When a battle reaches its peak, this documentary’s melange of visual and aural resources — scholarly commentary, digital animation-assisted recreations, maps, and a commentator illustrating the movements at present ruins — reaches a fever pitch. The siege towers, Greek fire, passenger pigeons, and archers on horseback are thrillingly articulated.

Where Part One is devoted entirely to the First Crusade, ending with the taking of Jerusalem, Part Two takes the perspective of the Middle Eastern armies who tried to take it back. In doing so the producers make what I think is a crucial error in portraying the following century as one long war where the focus and ultimate intentions of Middle Eastern rulers was on regaining the lost lands along the Mediterranean. The program presents Saladin’s conquering and uniting much of the Middle East as part of a plan to surround and retake the Holy Lands. It is more likely that, in attempting to conquer the Middle East, taking the Holy Lands were one of the last priorities on Saladin’s agenda, not the impetus.

Once again, however, the military stratagems and contentious but admiring relationship between Saladin and Richard I are vividly described. The second part opens with a fascinating portrait of the cultural history of Jerusalem society under the Crusading rulers, which includes the rise of pilgrimage tourism and the formation of St. John Hospitaliers and the Knights of Templar.

But, after describing the first three Crusades in remarkable detail over four hours, Crescent & the Cross ends abruptly. It shrugs off the following Crusades, basically saying, “Some other stuff happened, but it didn’t really matter.” What about the fantastic, if bloody, story of the Fourth Crusade, which consisted of a disastrous and pointless sacking of Constantinople? And why doesn’t the program acknowledge that Crusades also occurred in Europe, protecting the Papal strongholds in Italy, driving the Moors out of Spain, and “converting” the pagans in the Baltic regions?

This limited focus on “the crescent” and “the cross” seems almost coy. The documentary takes pains to be even-handed and correct some misconceptions, pointing out differences between a jihad and a crusade and not skirting the brutalities of both sides. But it might also underline the point that, while it’s tempting to draw comparisons between the Crusades and present day conflicts, it’s also inappropriate. The Crusades occurred hundreds of years ago in entirely different cultural climates.