Saturday, February 4, 2012

Warriors of God

The Crusades have long fascinated me. I'm not sure, but I think the first time I ever heard mention of them was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and in various interpretations of Robin Hood. Granted, the Crusades in those movies were never at the forefront so much as they were character or expository background. In a few history classes, I learned the general outline of what occurred during the Crusades and what they meant to both Europe and the Middle East, but I never really invested much time or effort in exploring that period of history.

Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr. is a duel biography of two of the most prominent and remembered leaders of the Crusades: King Richard I of England and Salah ad-Din, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. As asserted by Reston, the Third Crusade, launched by the Europeans to retake the Holy Land after Saladin had successfully re-taken Jerusalem for Islam in 1187, is in many ways the most compelling of the Crusades. It marked a turning point for those series of conflicts after the Christians' early successes, eventually leading the dissolution of the Latin Kingdom and the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Middle East, and it was the campaign in which Richard and Saladin carved their reputations: Richard as a bold, dynamic warrior King, the epitome of chivalry, and Saladin as a unifier of Muslims and defender of the faith, beneath only Allah and Muhammad in terms of reverence.

Reston goes beyond the romantic views of these important leaders, painting more complex images. Richard is depicted as something of a war junkie, constantly seeking glory and in the process alienating his allies. Saladin makes a number of costly mistakes that threaten to tear apart all he's won. Both men oversee a number of atrocities and killings, although Saladin is presented as the more cultured and moderate leader, negotiating the safe passage of Christians after taking Jerusalem.

Alternating chapters between Saladin and Richard, Reston depicts how they came to power in their realms, chronicles their early successes - Richard rebelling against and fighting for his father King Henry II and Saladin's victories after unifying Syria and Egypt - their battles with each other, the back-and-forth diplomacy and bantering, the uneasy truce they reached, and their fates after the Third Crusade ends. Ironically, despite being the main figures of this conflict and the numerous clashes between their armies, Saladin and Richard never met face-to-face, preferring to communicate with messengers when the need arose.

Along the way, we learn about other fascinating figures from the period: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard's mother (whose own story is certainly worth a book); Phillip II Augustus, King of France and Richard's political rival, fellow Crusader, and, Reston asserts, homosexual lover; Rashid al-Din Sinan, leader of the Assassins; Karakush, who began as Saladin's slave and eventually became governor of Acre after Saladin captured it; Alais, Phillip's sister and Richard's betrothed; and more. There are so many little stories and dramas along the way.

One of my biggest errors in thinking about the Crusades was thinking of them as one big, sustained military campaign, and what Reston does remarkably well is illustrate how there was so much more than that. There was politicking, diplomacy, personal rivalries and alliances, economic aspirations, cultural immersion and clashing, and religious zealotry. It's a much larger picture than the battles, although Reston gets across their bloody costs and importance in the greater scheme of things.

For Richard's story, I appreciated how Reston explained not just the actual military campaign in the Middle East but also the journey to the Holy Land, which itself contained conflict at Sicily and Crete, which Crusaders traditionally used as staging points. We also follow Richard on his journey back to Europe and his imprisonment in the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany) and the political maneuvering and posturing of several monarchs and Church officials that accompanied that situation. In a hindsight, it's easy to see why the Crusades failed: the Europeans were divided among themselves, driven apart by petty issues and in some cases more concerned for military glory and conquest than they were in carrying out the task they took an oath for.

If you're like me and wanted to learn more about the Crusades, Warriors of God is a good starting point. The book a balanced look at two of the Crusades' most dynamic and influential leaders from both sides of the fighting, and it's rife with conflict, drama, and history. It's a stellar look at how individuals shape history.

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