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Fighting over Jerusalem

Who have had the greatest rights to the Holy Land?

It was welcome relief from Byzantine rule as Jews were now allowed back into Jerusalem and, in general, Jewish communities throughout the land were allowed to prosper, particularly in Tiberias in Galilee. Under Muslim rule, Jews were considered as one of the 'peoples of the Book' and were given a 'protected' status, a much better deal than state Christianity ever gave them! The Muslims used the coastal cities of Tyre, Acre and Caesarea pretty much as their Christian predecessors did, as important centres of commerce with the outside world. Later on in their rule they even populated these towns with Muslims from other parts of their Empire, such as Persia, in order to strengthen their hold. These tended to be soldiers, to fight off constant attack from Byzantine ships from the West. The Negev, of earlier interest for Christian pilgrims, was now a place of interest for Muslim pilgrims, as it was an important route to Islamic holy places.

At this time, Jerusalem had little importance in the Muslim world. The first description of the town under Muslim rule comes from the visiting Bishop Arculf, a Gallic pilgrim, in 680 AD, who reported seeing 'an oblong house of prayer, which they [the Muslims] pieced together with upright plans and large beams over some ruined remains.' At no time had Jerusalem ever been a capital city in the Muslim world. In fact, the only time Jerusalem has ever been clothed with importance and significance in the Muslim World is as a response to external events, such as the Crusades and the Jewish regathering (both to be discussed later).

From 750 AD Jerusalem fell into near-obscurity. For the next three and a half centuries, Muslim books praising this city lost favour, no more glorious buildings were built and city walls collapsed. The city declined to the point of becoming a shambles. 'Learned men are few, and the Christians numerous,' cried a 10th Century Muslim native of Jerusalem. The great historian S. D. Goitein concludes that, in its first six centuries of Muslim rule, 'Jerusalem mostly lived the life of an out-of-the-way provincial town, delivered to the exactions of rapacious officials and notables, often also to tribulations at the hands of seditious fellahin [peasants] or nomads ... Jerusalem certainly could not boast of excellence in the sciences of Islam or any other fields.'

Muslim rule in the land had its first major test at the hand of the Crusaders, described as 'one of the most romantic, chaotic, cruel, passionate, bizarre and dramatic episodes in history.' This was the 11th Century AD and various ill-advised armies of 'Christians' from Europe were led by soldiers and priests to the Holy Land, under the Pope's instruction.

They came to reclaim 'Christian land' from the 'infidel Muslim', which was a quite ridiculous idea as there is no such thing as "Christian Land". Of course, Scripture states most clearly that The Holy Land is God's land, with Jews as the rightful tenants according to the covenant with Abraham. But nowhere is it ever called 'Christian land'. This mob of 'pilgrims', inflamed by disease, hunger and religious fanaticism, killed all in their path, including other Christians in the lands to the east, whom they mistook for 'infidels'.

The initial Muslim response to the First Crusade was minimal, but it all changed when Jerusalem was threatened and, in order to drum up support among the Muslim World, the status of this neglected outpost was drastically heightened. Through books, poems and sacred literature, propaganda was produced, stressing the sanctity of Jerusalem and the urgency of its return to Muslim rule. Suddenly Jerusalem became ever-more critical to the Islamic faith, a situation unheard of just a few years earlier!

The First Crusade (1096-1099 AD) was the most successful Crusade and here are the sequence of events leading to this infamous episode.

About 50 years earlier, Turks had invaded the region, converted to Islam and subdued the reigning Arab power. These new invaders were even more aggressive to the Christians than their predecessors, meaning that pilgrimage routes, long protected by the Byzantines and friendly Arab rulers, were closed down and Christians could no longer walk where Jesus had walked.

The Byzantine emperor appealed to the West for help and, in 1095 AD, Pope Urban II responded, in a speech delivered at Clermont, in central France. He called for a crusade to save the Christian East from Islam. The Turks, Urban reportedly said, 'were disemboweling Christians and dumping the bloody viscera on church altars and baptismal fonts. Those who joined this Crusade would have their sins absolved, for God himself desired that Christianity recover Jerusalem'.

On July 15, 1099 AD, after a two-week siege of Jerusalem, the Crusaders broke through. The city's Muslim rulers surrendered without a fight and, in the three days of celebrations, the conquerors slaughtered nearly every Muslim in the city and burned down a synagogue in which Jews had sought refuge. Contemporary accounts spoke of the blood that flooded the city to the height of the horses' knees. Having conquered the city, the Crusader leaders started casting greedy eyes over the entire land. Over the next few years they had secured the coastal cities of Caesarea, Haifa and Acre. Baldwin was proclaimed the first King of the 'Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem' and his successors built a series of fortresses from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba and also captured Ashkelon from the Egyptian Fatimids, who were using the city's port to conduct raids against the Crusader kingdom.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation )

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