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Europe?s Oriental Heritage

To a God-centered medieval Europe, which for two centuries flung successive waves of crusaders against the Muslim powers of the East with ever-diminishing effect, the final expulsion of the Christians from the Holy Land in 1291 was proof that the Lord does not automatically look with favor upon every enterprise undertaken in His name. Great armies, bulging treasuries and the faith of nations had been consumed with nothing to show for it but a trail of whitening bones of brave men winding through the Balkan forests across Asia Minor to Jerusalem.

Or so it seemed then. In the perspective of history the end of the Crusades signaled a new era in European civilization, many of whose elements can be traced directly to the restless energies liberated by that collision between two faiths with but a single God. The West had sent armies to capture and hold Jerusalem; instead they themselves fell victim to a host of new ideas and subtle influences which left their mark on the development of European literature, chivalry, warfare, sanitation, commerce, political institutions, medicine, even the papacy itself. They had sown the wind, and reaped a whirlwind?of social revolution.

Nowhere is the influence of the Arab East more obvious and incontrovertible than in the speech of Europe today. Some of it, of course, is attributable to Muslim Spain, but the impact of the Crusades was still important. Many of the fruits and plants introduced into Europe in crusader times, for instance, brought with them their original Arabic names, often little modified through the ages: sesame, carob, rice, lemon, ginger, scallion, myrrh, apricot, carraway, basil, sumac, saffron and orange are the better known. More numerous are words relating to the refinements of raiment, cuisine and household furnishing unknown in the West until the crusaders adopted them: mohair, gauze, sash, sofa, attar, carafe, alcove, amulet, jar, syrup, marzipan, elixir, sherbet, candy, julep, masquerade, gypsum, mattress, ottoman, talisman, and damask, baldachin, cotton, muslin and satin fabrics dyed aniline, lilac, carmine, crimson or azure.

Perhaps the majority of these words entered European languages through commercial traffic originating in Pisan, Genoan and Venetian ports of the Eastern Mediterranean, which with the Crusades began to dominate the carrying trade between Europe and the Orient. The Italian merchants figured their risks on the basis of tares and other shipping factors such as tariffs, and while waiting for the ships to come home to port conceivably filled idle hours with checkers or chess, whose final move checkmate is derived from Arabic shah maat ?"the king is dead."

Another product of the East coveted in�Europe was the fighting prowess of such military orders as The Hospitalers who in 1310 captured Rhodes from the Muslims and became first the Knights of Rhodes, later the Knights of Malta; and the Templars, who took their riches to France, became money-lenders and in consequence of their wealth eventually threatened the monarchy and led Philip the Fair to exterminate them. Only the Order of Teutonic Knights maintained their warlike disposition. After pausing temporarily in Venice and Hungary, they joined a Polish duke fighting pagan Prussians who threatened his land. The Teutonic Knights quickly swallowed Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and East Prussia as well as the estates of the luckless duke, and established the militaristic traditions for the junker caste which was to lead Germany in future wars.

The dispersion of the militant priestly orders through Europe merely added impetus to the social innovations brought back by the veterans of the long wars, who found much to imitate in Middle Eastern manners. It was the European custom of the time for men to go unshaven, but the crusader influence affected by contact with the Arabs revived the habit, forgotten since Roman times, of periodically shaving the face.

As the shock of having lost the Holy Land irrevocably to Islam wore off, the harsh tones of violent death and man's suffering were gradually softened and romanticized, and the Crusades became a durable subject for song and literature. Basic sources like the anonymous Gesta Francorum and Fulcher of Chartres' Historia Hierosolymitana chronicled the battles and intrigues of the period, and William, Archbishop of Tyre, carried forward the theme with his 23-volume History of Things Done in the Parts Overseas.

Analysts of literary movements have also traced Arabic themes in, among other works, Aucassin et Nicolette (the name Aucassin probably comes from the Arabic al-Qasim), Count Robert of Paris, Chaucer's The Squire's Tale and some of the stories of Boccaccio's Decameron, itself a landmark in Italian vernacular literature. The book often described as the world's first novel, Cervantes' 17th-century Don Quixote, was written to ridicule the literary rubbish of preceding centuries which had carried crusader themes to outrageous extremes.

Closely allied with the romantic tradition is the institution of chivalry, which blended warfare, noble manners and sentiments and selfless devotion to a lady (never one's wife, since this love was pure), an improbable mixture which at least established the concept of sacrifice and a higher loyalty among individualistic barons, who would in time transfer that loyalty to regional leaders as the first faltering steps of European nationalism. To the crusaders is owed the refinement of the tournament, long practiced in Syria and imported into Europe along with the Syrian custom of identification by armorial bearings and heraldic devices. The two-headed eagle of Germany is a direct descendant of a similar device in pre-Christian Sumeria, and is thought to have been used by Saladin himself. The fleur-de-lis, symbol of la belle France, is likewise a borrowing from Arabs. The blazoning of shields, banners, coat-of-arms with heraldic designs was a Mameluke custom avidly adopted by the crusaders, whose countrymen with pretensions of nobility immediately copied it.

Other effects of the Crusades on Europe were less visible but more lasting. Pope Urban's inspiring call to the Crusades was a masterstroke of imagination by which he hoped to strengthen the papacy; it did so in a subtle but effective manner, for support of the Crusades by the nobility of Europe was tacit admission that the Pope was their de facto leader. The success of the First Crusade enhanced Rome's position immeasurably. But the failure of the crusaders to hold the Holy Land despite repeated calls by the incumbent pope to war against the Muslims slowly eroded the papacy's reputation as an instrument of the Holy Will. By the time the Crusades collapsed in the late 13th century an undercurrent of skepticism and distrust in Church policy had penetrated the halls of the European mighty, and because the papacy had injected its will into the affairs of man and war, no longer was it immune to criticism as a purely religious institution. The clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the profane was smudged, and pretensions of the Church to being above the battle could no longer be maintained.

From the Crusades, too, arose a feeling of kinship among Europeans that had been sorely missing since Roman times, although Charlemagne had achieved an evanescent unity some centuries earlier. Though the individual states continued to quarrel bitterly among themselves, and feudal barons made warfare against their nominal suzerains, the kings, a way of life, a truly European identity gradually began to take form. It was basically a Christian identity, and it was to this Christian element, common to all, that appeals for common action against the infidel?the Turk, the Mongol, the Cuman?were directed.

With the decline of Byzantium, Europe had, moreover, assumed the mantle of protector of the True Faith, with the French who had fought the major battles achieving eminence not only in the East as warriors, but in Europe as the most cosmopolitan, most courtly, most Catholic of men. It is no accident that down to the present day the French have closely identified themselves with the affairs of the Middle East, which they have conceived to be a special sphere of influence. Their concern has been shown in the foundation of Jesuit schools in the Holy Land, the protection of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, the mandate over Syria following World War I, and, more recently, in the provision of aircraft to Libya.

Before the Crusades Europe was so ignorant of the world outside that when the First Crusade reached Asia Minor, it wandered for weeks in the Anatolian wilderness searching for the best route south to Antioch, at one point actually heading due north. That Crusade opened Europe's eyes to the size of the world, and a quickening interest spawned pilgrims' guides, maps, ethnographic descriptions and military reconnaissance reports. These were seized upon by traders eager to expand their horizons and their fortunes. Marco Polo was in the court of Kublai Khan before the Crusades had quite expired, and in the same era a Genoese company explored the dark waters of the Caspian Sea and a Venetian consul was installed in Tabriz to regulate his countrymen's commercial relations. Soon the conversion to Islam of the Mongols, who then ruled most of northern Asia, would close the land routes to the inquisitive, acquisitive Italians, but by then the travel bacillus had infected them and spread its exciting contagion to the rest of Europe.

If the land routes to the East were interdicted, they reasoned, and the air was for the birds, then that left them only the sea, and they set out to conquer it with the same zeal they had so conspicuously wasted on the Muslims. The insularity of Europe quickly succumbed as first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, Dutch, French and British embarked in their frail ships and sailed into the un charted waters to build empires for God and country. To their countrymen, history's longest, least necessary and most futile war had been the end of a dream; now, brave captains would demonstrate that it was really the beginning
of bright, liberating reality

This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the May/June 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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