The most arresting and immediate images conjured by the memory of the medieval crusades are dominated by war and violence: the First Crusaders wading ankle-deep in Muslim blood on 15 July 1099, after the barbaric slaughter that recovered Jerusalem for Christendom; the ‘crusader’ army of Jerusalem cowering 88 years later on the parched battlefield of Hattin, on the brink of a crushing defeat at the hands of Islam’s great hero, Saladin; and Baybars, merciless sultan of Mamluk Egypt, barring the gates of ‘crusader’ Antioch on 19 May 1268, before butchering thousands within.


Against this backdrop one could easily conceive of this as an age of ‘total war’ between Islam and the west, an era of embittered conflict, fuelled by ingrained hatred and cycles of reciprocal violence. This certainly is the vision of the crusades used to promote the notion of an inevitable clash of civilisations between Europe and the Muslim world. But does this conception of the crusading era hold true under scrutiny?

The prophet Mohammad’s death in AD 632 was followed by a furious wave of Islamic expansion, as hordes of highly mobile, mounted Arab tribesmen poured out of the Arabian peninsula and overran Palestine (including Jerusalem), Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt with mercurial speed. Over the next century, the breakneck pace of this expansion slowed somewhat, but inexorable gains continued, such that in the mid-eighth century the Muslim world stretched from the Indus river and the borders of China in the east, across north Africa to Spain and southern France in the west.

By the year 1,000 Muslims were living in established communities on the borders of western Europe, most notably in Iberia and Sicily. Those wishing to find evidence of constructive, rather than singularly destructive, contact during Islam’s medieval encounters with the Christian west usually turn to these two frontier zones. There they uncover abundant evidence of cross-cultural interchange, intellectual transmission and artistic fusion. By contrast, the story of the crusades often is assumed to be one-dimensional, being driven solely by Christian holy war and Islamic jihad. In fact, such a view grossly underestimates the complexity and colour of the war for the Holy Land that began with the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 and ended with the collapse of the crusader states in 1291.

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The land beyond the sea

In the wake of the First Crusade, four Levantine 'crusader states' were established – isolated Latin (Catholic) Christian outposts that endured for close to two centuries and came to be known as Outremer (the land beyond the sea). The fascinating history of these fragile settlements certainly reveals an ongoing struggle for survival against the Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean. But Outremer's story also throws up numerous examples of non-violent Latin-Muslim interaction, belying the notion that this was simply a world of perpetual strife.

The crusader states were assimilated into the fractious patchwork of Levantine politics with startling rapidity, with all sides showing a pragmatic willingness to deal, or even ally, with their supposed enemies when necessity demanded. Thus in 1108, less than a decade after the crusaders’ brutal sack of Jerusalem, the Latins of Antioch fought alongside Muslim troops from the neighbouring city of Aleppo against a mutual enemy: in this instance, a second improbable coalition, made up of Christian forces from the rival crusader state of Edessa and Iraqis from Mosul.

Some contacts were forged at an even more personal level. The Antiochene nobleman Robert fitz-Fulk the Leper, for one, established a close friendship with the Turkish warlord Tughtegin of Damascus in the early 12th century. This probably helped to cement a short-lived alliance between their two cities in 1115. But by 1119 the pair had become estranged. When Robert was taken prisoner in that year and brought to Damascus, he might have hoped for clemency. In fact, when he refused to renounce his Christian faith, Tughtegin apparently flew into a rage and beheaded Robert “by a stroke of his sword”. Rumour later had it that Tughtegin had his former friend’s skull fashioned into a gaudy, gold-plated, jewel-encrusted goblet.

Through the remainder of the twelfth century and beyond, Muslims and western Christians often proved willing to negotiate temporary, mutually beneficial truces. Even Saladin, who seized power in Syria in 1174 on the promise of waging jihad and who repeatedly denounced other Muslims for dealing with the Latins, secretly agreed terms with the ‘crusader’ count of Tripoli in 1176. The sultan continued to demonstrate this same flexible approach to diplomatic contact for the remainder of his career.

Considerable care must be exercised when evaluating the significance of these instances of negotiation, truce and even alliance. By and large they do not represent attempts at forging a lasting peace between Islam and the west. Instead they were exercises in expediency. In the Middle Ages, diplomacy usually was a tool of conflict, employed to achieve advantage or, at most, a temporary pause in which to recover strength before renewing hostilities. Nonetheless, it is striking that, even in the context of a religiously charged struggle for dominion of the Holy Land, sustaining a ‘total war’ proved impossible, perhaps even undesirable.

The call of commerce

Through the first half of the 13th century, Saladin’s successors (known to history as the Ayyubids) were even more willing to find accommodations with the crusader states. Their aim seems to have been the maintenance of a delicate balance of power in the Levant so that commercial dealings between east and west could flourish. In fact, far from suffocating trade between avowed enemies, the age of the crusades witnessed an almost exponential growth in the scale and scope of commercial contact between Islam and Latin Europe.

Italian merchants from Venice, Pisa and Genoa played leading roles in this process, establishing enclaves in Outremer’s great ports and coastal cities, and creating a complex network of trans-Mediterranean trade routes­­­­­­­ These pulsing arteries of commerce, linking the near east with the west, enabled Levantine products (such as sugar cane and olive oil) and precious goods from the Middle East and Asia to reach the markets of Europe.

The passage of goods from the Muslim world to the Mediterranean ports of the Latin Levant was crucial not only to the Christians. It also became one of the linchpins of the wider near eastern economy: vital for the livelihoods of Muslim merchants plying the caravan routes to the east; critical to the incomes of Islam’s great cities, Aleppo and Damascus. These shared interests produced interdependency and promoted carefully regulated contact, even at times of heightened political and military conflict. In the end – even in the midst of holy war – trade was too important to be disrupted.

The Iberian Muslim traveller and pilgrim Ibn Jubayr bore startling witness to this phenomenon. During a grand journey in the early 1180s that took in north Africa, Arabia, Iraq and Syria, Ibn Jubayr passed through the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem with a caravan of Muslim merchants from Damascus, visiting Acre and Tyre before taking a ship to Sicily. He described the highly structured systems that ensured the free flow of commercial traffic: strictly enforced rules of safe conduct; efficient customs-houses, including one at Acre employing Arabic-speaking clerks as record-keepers; and two-storey warehouses in Acre for the lodging of merchandise. Business between the Christians and Muslims was apparently carried out “with civility and respect and without harshness and unfairness”.

Shipped to the west

By the 13th century, with Ayyubid encouragement, Acre had become the Mediterranean’s most important entrepôt – the warehouse of the Levant, to which goods drawn from across Outremer, the near east and beyond were brought before being shipped to the west. Traffic also began heading from west to east. It became increasingly common for Latin merchants to travel into Muslim territory, trading woollen goods (especially those from Flanders) and saffron (the only western spice to find a market in the Orient) to the likes of Damascus, before returning to Acre with a new cargo of silks and precious and semi-precious stones.

Not everyone was impressed by the frenetic pace of life in the teeming port. One Latin bishop likened it to “a second Babylon”, condemning Acre as a “horrible city… full of countless disgraceful acts and evil deeds,” crammed with a population that was “utterly devoted to the pleasures of flesh” – prostitution was supposedly so rife that even clerics rented their rooms out to whores. The damning tone of these comments was at least in part a response to Acre’s status as a cultural ‘melting pot’; a meeting place between Islam and the west, in which Latins might be exposed to Levantine mores and customs.

The extent to which Outremer’s Latin settlers embraced the lifestyles and practices of the eastern Mediterranean is still open to debate. One veteran of the First Crusade certainly suggested that an element of adaptation was under way when he wrote, in the 1120s, that “God has transformed the Occident (west) into the Orient. For we who were occidentals have become orientals.” However, reliable evidence of actual assimilation is relatively sparse.

Perhaps the most fascinating source of information in this regard is Usama ibn Munqidh's Book of Contemplation, a collection of edifying, illuminating, sometimes jocular, tales and anecdotes. Born in 1095 – the very year in which the crusades began – Usama was an Arab Syrian nobleman who enjoyed an extraordinarily long and varied career as a warrior, diplomat and counsellor. As such, he was uniquely well placed to witness the age of the crusades.

Entertaining Muslims

On the question of orientalised Latins, Usama wrote: “There are some westerners who have become acclimatised and frequent the company of Muslims. These are better than those who have just arrived from their homelands, but they are the exception, and cannot be taken as typical.” He then related the story of an old Latin knight, retired in Antioch, who had taken to eating only Levantine cuisine, employed “Egyptian cooking-women” and happily entertained Muslim guests. This attitude to near-eastern food is corroborated by the widespread popularity among the Latins of various local delicacies – from citrus fruits and pomegranates to rice, chickpeas and lentils.

Elsewhere, Usama ibn Munqidh described how he visited a hammam (bath-house) in Tyre open to Latins and Muslims alike and also had heard of another Muslim-run hammam in Marrat. This latter bath-house was operated by a certain Salim, who told Usama a tale (which he obviously found deliciously scandalous) about a boorish Frankish knight who visited his establishment. The knight decided, like Salim, to have all his pubic hair shaved off and supposedly was so pleased with the result that he had his wife brought in: "She lay down on her back and the knight said, 'Do her like you did me!' So I shaved her hair there as her husband stood watching me. He then thanked me and paid me my due for the service." Usama reflected upon the "great contradiction" revealed by this anecdote; that the westerners "have no sense of propriety or honour, yet they have immense courage".

Usama’s interest was almost always in the bizarre and unusual, so the material he recorded has to be used with care. Nonetheless, his work offers tantalising glimpses of daily life in Outremer and suggests that ‘crusader’ settlers did not live in a hermetically sealed culture, but rather engaged in a degree of adaptation and assimilation.

In the course of the war for the Holy Land, pragmatic reality and political, military and commercial expediency meant that ‘crusader’ settlers were brought into frequent contact with the native peoples of the Levant, including Muslims. As such, the crusades created one of the frontier environments in which Europeans were able to interact with and absorb ‘eastern’ culture.

Even shaded as they were by a religious struggle for sacred territory, the crusades were not waged as ‘total wars’, and resulted in encounters between Christians and Muslims not dissimilar to those witnessed in Sicily and Iberia. This was no cosy era of harmonious concord, but given the prevailing realities of the wider world, this should be no surprise. The medieval west itself was wracked by inter- Christian rivalry and interminable martial strife; endemic social and religious intolerance were also on the rise. By these standards, the uneasy mixture of contact and simmering conflict visible in the ‘crusader’ Levant was not that remarkable. On balance, the history of the crusades does not suggest that Islam and the west were predestined by some elemental rancour for a ‘clash of civilisations’.

Thomas Asbridge is the director of the new MA in Islam and the west and reader in medieval history at Queen Mary University of London. He is also author of The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Key sites in the story of medieval east-west relations


This former Visigothic capital was reconquered from Muslim forces by King Alfonso VI of León-Castile in 1085, pushing the southern frontier of Christian Iberia south to the river Tagus. Soon after, Toledo became a major centre of cultural transmission, with many of the greatest works of ancient learning translated into western languages from Arabic, including Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle.


On 27 November 1095 Pope Urban II delivered a historic sermon proclaiming the First Crusade in a field outside Clermont. Some 100,000 people from across the west answered his call to avenge atrocities supposedly committed by Muslims in the east. They set out to recover the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christendom, ushering in the age of the crusades.


This great Syrian metropolis, once the third city of the Roman empire, was conquered during the First Crusade in 1098. It was here, in the 1120s, that the scholar Stephen of Pisa translated al-Majusi's Royal Book. This seminal Arabic medical treatise offered advice on an extraordinary array of conditions, some of it practical even by modern standards – although its suggestion that an infestation of lice be resolved by rubbing the body down with a mercury poultice should probably be ignored.


This Spanish port was ruled as an independent principality at the end of the 11th century by Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid. Far from being champion of the Iberian reconquista, Diaz actually made his fortune as a mercenary commander, happily serving both Christian and Muslim patrons.


After more than a century of Arab rule, the island was invaded by the Normans in 1060. By 1130 a new Christian kingdom of Sicily had been proclaimed – a realm whose populace included many Muslims, and whose laws and customs were influenced by Islamic practice.


Through much of the Middle Ages this ancient Egyptian port served as the vital hub of trade between east and west, and was only eclipsed by Acre in the 13th century. The Pisans were granted a protected commercial enclave in Alexandria in 1173 by Saladin, Islam’s supposed jihadi ‘champion’, because he hoped to promote profitable trade and to secure ready supplies of shipbuilding timber.


After a scouring siege that saw Acre bombarded by colossal trebuchet stones, the great bastion of Outremer fell to the Mamluks of Egypt on 18 May 1291. Within months the few remaining vestiges of the mainland crusader states collapsed and the war for the Holy Land ended in Muslim triumph.


This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine