Egypt: The Crusades in Egypt

The Crusades in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

For historians, the provocations that lead to wars are always intriguing affairs, much more complex than a single event such as Pearl Harbor, the assassination of a politician or a declaration of independence. Inevitably, there are social, religious and other factors leading up to these conflicts that, given the hindsight of historians, might very well be corrected therefore avoiding the loss of life and humanity itself that accompanies war. In fact, it is probably safe to say that war most often results from a lack of understanding between one are more cultures, or at times, even indifference to understanding due to greed (as in the colonial period). These underlying problems form a backdrop of stress and tension, much like a dry forest, that given a single spark, sets off a massive fire.

Crusader Island Near Taba, Sinai

Crusader Island Near Taba, Sinai

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the major Muslim powers were fighting amongst themselves. The Sunni Muslims led by the Seljuq sultan attention was directed towards the Fatimid Muslims. However, small factions of unruly adventurers and war bands controlled by neither major Islamic power lived on the edge of the Byzantine empire. It was their raids and trouble making that provoked the Byzantine emperor Romanus Diogenes to raise a large army and advance against the Seljuq led Sunni Muslims. For his part, Seljuq had been planning an offensive against the Fatimids in Syria and had not encouraged these boarder tribes to attack the Byzantine lands. Nevertheless, the ensuing battle would set the stage for the First Crusade, with many years of violence to follow. Yet worse still would come millenniums of mistrust between east and west, as well as Christians and Muslims.

These wars may certainly have been provoked by religious fervor and misunderstanding, but most historians will also point out that greed finally played no small part.

During the first part of the Crusades, Egypt was under the control of Fatamid rulers. At first, the Crusaders paid little attention to Egypt, but they soon began to consider the country a prize, as did the Sunni Muslims.

Perhaps the Egyptians might have accepted either power over their brutal Fatamid rulers, but interestingly, the Fatamids themselves preferred the Crusaders. They made a deal to buy off the Christian King Amaury of Jerusalem, for two hundred thousand gold pieces, to protect them from the Sunni Muslims. But this first attempt to capture Egypt ended in a stalemate between Amaury and the Sunni Muslims and in fact both parties agreed to withdraw.

When Amaury later returned he showed his intentions to the Egyptians by massacring every man, woman and child in the Delta city of Bilbeis on November 3rd, 1168. This united the Egyptians against the Crusaders, and would ultimately change the face of Cairo forever.

At that time, this great city consisted principally of the old Fustat district and the new, walled district of al Kahira. The Egyptians knew that Fustat could not be defended as well as Qahira, and that left to the Crusaders, Fustat would provide them with a base to lay siege to Qahira. So the decision was made to not only move the populace into Kahira, but also to burn Fustat. This district, still certainly evident in today's Cairo, was so significant even at that time that it burned for a period of fifty-four days.

Now the rulers of Egypt sought the help of the Sunni Muslims under the control of Nur Ed Din, ruler of Damascus. Damascus agreed, and sent his general Shirkuh to Egypt, but he died before much could be done and his nephew, he Ayyubid Saladin was became visor of Egypt March 2, 1169. Upon the death of Nur al-Din in 1174, Saladin gained control of Damascus as well, becoming one of the most powerful rulers in the Muslim world.

Considered the most charismatic of the medieval sultans, Saladin was even admired by his Frankish enemies. It is said that he taught the European nights the code of chivalry. Other histories may also point to his bloody and expensive efforts.

Saladin set about building the famous citadel in Cairo soon after taking power, though it would not be finished until after his death in 1207. This fortification remains a major Cairo landmark. However, Saladin would not stay long in Cairo, for he had work elsewhere that called to him.

The Citadel, Cairo

The Citadel, Cairo

During the First Crusade, Jerusalem had been taken from the Muslims by the Christians, and it was Saladin who took it back in 1187. It should be noted that upon the fall of Jerusalem, the Christians expected the same harsh treatment they themselves had given to the Jews and Muslims when the Crusaders had conquered the city. However, they were allowed to ransom their lives, and the penniless were allowed to go free as well.

Upon Saladin's death, his brother ruled for a short period of time, but it would be his nephew, El Kamil, who would become the next major ruler of Egypt. It was he who finished the Saladin's Citadel. An interesting story is told that Kamil was actually knighted by Richard Coeur de Lion in what Hitti calls "the romantic excesses of the time". Yet he was an able defender of Egypt, and it was he who finally drove the Crusaders from the country

The Crusaders came back in 1218 with a force mostly made up of Germans who briefly took the port at Damietta. They held the city for three years, but failed to resist the attack of Kamil and were forced to retreat. However, it was here that St. Francis of Assisi, seeing that the attack was going badly, courageously crossed the enemy lines to confront Kamil. His intentions were to convert the Muslim ruler to Christianity, apparently unaware that Kamil was surrounded with Coptic advisers and fully familiar with the Christian faith. St. Francis offered to enter a fiery furnace on the condition that should he come out alive, Kamil and his people would embrace Christianity. The sultan replied to the saint with a lesson in humanity and common sense, saying that gambling with one's life was not a valid proof of one's god, and then saw St. Francis on his way with courtesy and lavish gifts.

In order to unite Western Christendom with the isolated churches of Nubia and Abyssinia, the crusaders attempted to advance down the Nile. This French crusade against Egypt in 1249 ended in disaster for the West, but for a brief time they again held Damietta.

The Crusades did not really end until 1291 when the last Crusader ports were captured, and the wars did change the face of both the Christian and Muslim world to some extent. But many historians believe that the Crusades never threatened either the Muslim or Christian empires. Yet they caused grave wounds to the Muslim and Christian worlds that have endured into the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.