Massacre at Jerusalem -- Do The Crusades Still Matter?

On July 15, 1099, a few thousand European soldiers broke through the walls of Jerusalem and massacred its garrison. At the time, everyone involved saw this moment in apocalyptic terms, and the memory won't go away. Nine centuries later, for example, former President Clinton recalled the massacre as a way to contextualize 9/11. The crusade story, he said in November 2001, "is still being told today in the Middle East, and we are still paying for it."

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of President Clinton's argument, without 9/11 we probably wouldn't care about 1099. Barely anyone remembered it, for example, on July 15, 1999, the 900th anniversary of the battle for Jerusalem, when there were almost no commemorations, favorable or otherwise, of the First Crusade. (The major exception was the Christian "Reconciliation Walk," from Cologne to Jerusalem, organized as an apology for the crusade.)

For better or worse, we remember the First Crusade now. But how should we do so? What did the battle of Jerusalem mean in 1099, and why should we care today?

Let's begin with the actual battle. By the time the crusaders reached Jerusalem, they were primed for a bloodletting. Most of them had been marching for almost three years, having endured unimaginable suffering and unspeakable horrors. Their very survival seemed miraculous, proof that God had endorsed their cause.

When they captured the city on July 15, they killed so many Muslims, according to eyewitnesses, that the streets ran ankle deep with blood -- perhaps a mass hallucination, but not the only one that day. Many crusaders swore that their dead companions had accompanied them into the city, joining in the battle. Other eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a rider on a white horse, as foretold in the book of Revelation, galloping from the Mount of Olives. One observer even said that the blood flowed as high as the horses' bridles.

The carnage was prodigious, but the crusaders did not in fact kill all of Jerusalem's defenders. One large contingent of Muslims took refuge in the city's main citadel, conventionally called the Tower of David, and negotiated a ransom. They left the city, apparently without incident.

Another group of Muslims had sought refuge atop al-Aqsa mosque and were likewise negotiating their release with a crusader prince. Before payment could be made, however, a contingent of Christians discovered the prisoners on July 16 and killed them all to a man, woman and child.

This second massacre led to a crisis. One Christian prince had collected his ransom; another had lost his. Still other crusaders were holding more prisoners who had also escaped July 15. What to do with them? After one more day of consideration, the leadership decided to kill every surviving Muslim.

Thus began a general slaughter whose brutality traumatized even some of the executioners. In the words of one contemporary, who otherwise celebrated the crusade, "The Christians gave over their whole hearts to the slaughter, so that not a sucking little male child or female, not even an infant of one year would escape alive the hand of the murderer."

We don't know how many people died during this three-day butchery. One 12th century Arab historian put the figure at 70,000, an obvious exaggeration. The lowest estimate (coming from another Muslim observer) is 3,000, which would make the death toll roughly equal to 9/11. The actual figure is probably between these two numbers, and toward the lower end of the spectrum -- perhaps around 10,000.

And the smell of death lingered, literally. On Christmas 1099, a Christian pilgrim reported that he had to cover his nose upon reaching Jerusalem. The stench of unburied corpses turned his stomach.

One can debate the military necessity of these actions. One can even debate their morality, since they followed something like the medieval rules of war. Attackers were expected to spare a city only if it surrendered during a siege, not if it was captured due to military action. In practice, though, this rule usually led to mass ransoms and property forfeitures, not mass slaughter.

What one cannot debate is that these events lay totally outside the experience of European warriors. In the largely rural countryside of their homeland, most soldiers would have had precious little experience of urban life. None of them had ever gone into a city and killed every living inhabitant -- at least not until they joined the crusade.

It is an ugly story, making it easy to understand why the Reconciliation Walkers felt a need to apologize.

But 900 years later, is an apology really constructive? Despite the fantasies of jihadists and apocalyptic evangelicals, the crusades are not part of current events. None of the actors responsible is left to apologize (except, perhaps, for the papacy, still smarting over the whole Galileo business), and both Christian and Muslim societies have moved on. For starters, the crusaders did lose -- driven out of Jerusalem in 1187 and out of the Holy Land in 1291.

No apologies necessary, but that doesn't mean we -- not in the sense of Westerners or Christians, but in the sense of everyone -- are obligated to remember our history, and as good historians do, to search it for lessons. They are not hard to find.

As a tale of a western society that chose all-out war against a dimly understood Muslim adversary, leading to nearly two centuries of an unwinnable occupation, you can't help but wish that American policymakers had read this story ten years ago.

As a tale about the horrors of religious warfare, of what ordinary believers are capable of doing once they become convinced God is directing their cause, of what happens when militants believe themselves to be literal and not just figurative martyrs for a cause, you can't help but wish that everyone -- Christian and Muslim, Eastern and Western -- would listen to this story and learn in the telling of it not to apologize but simply to understand and reject its ideals.