What Effect Did the Crusades Have on the Middle East?

Muslim battalions routed by the Duke of Lorraine Godfrey of Bouillon in the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097), First Crusade
De Agostini/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

Between 1095 and 1291, Christians from western Europe launched a series of eight major invasions against the Middle East. These attacks, called the Crusades, were aimed at "liberating" the Holy Land and Jerusalem from Muslim rule.

The Crusades were sparked by religious fervor in Europe, by exhortations from various Popes, and by the need to rid Europe of excess warriors left over from regional wars. What effect did these attacks, which came from out of the blue from the perspective of Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land, have on the Middle East?

Short-Term Effects

In an immediate sense, the Crusades had a terrible effect on some of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East. During the First Crusade, for example, adherents of the two religions joined together to defend the cities of Antioch (1097 CE) and Jerusalem (1099) from European Crusaders who laid siege to them. In both cases, the Christians sacked the cities and massacred the Muslim and Jewish defenders alike.

It must have been horrifying to see armed bands of religious zealots approaching to attack a city or castle. However, as bloody as the battles could be, on the whole, the people of the Middle East considered the Crusades more of an irritant than an existential threat.

A Global Trade Power

During the Middle Ages, the Islamic world was a global center of trade, culture, and learning. Arab Muslim traders dominated the rich trade in spices, silk, porcelain, and jewels that flowed between China, the area that is now Indonesia, India,​ and points west. Muslim scholars had preserved and translated the great works of science and medicine from classical Greece and Rome, combined that with insights from the ancient thinkers of India and China, and went on to invent or improve subjects like algebra and astronomy, and medical innovations such as the hypodermic needle.

Europe, on the other hand, was a war-torn region of small, feuding principalities, mired in superstition and illiteracy. One of the primary reasons that Pope Urban II initiated the First Crusade (1096–1099), in fact, was to distract the Christian rulers and nobles of Europe from fighting one another by creating a common enemy for them—the Muslims who controlled the Holy Land.

Europe's Christians would launch seven additional crusades over the next two hundred years, but none was as successful as the First Crusade. One effect of the Crusades was the creation of a new hero for the Islamic world: Saladin, the Kurdish sultan of Syria and Egypt, who in 1187 freed Jerusalem from the Christians but refused to massacre them as they had done to the city's Muslim and Jewish citizens ninety years previously.

On the whole, the Crusades had little immediate effect on the Middle East, in terms of territorial losses or psychological impact. By the 1200s, people in the region were much more concerned about a new threat: the quickly-expanding Mongol Empire, which would bring down the Umayyad Caliphate, sack Baghdad, and push toward Egypt. Had the Mamluks not defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260), the entire Muslim world might have fallen.

Effects on Europe

In the centuries that followed, it was actually Europe that was most changed by the Crusades. The Crusaders brought back exotic new spices and fabrics, fueling European demand for products from Asia. They also brought back new ideas—medical knowledge, scientific ideas, and more enlightened attitudes about people of other religious backgrounds. These changes among the nobility and soldiers of the Christian world helped to spark the Renaissance and eventually set Europe, the backwater of the Old World, on a course toward global conquest.

Long-Term Effects of the Crusades on the Middle East

Eventually, it was Europe's rebirth and expansion that finally created a Crusader effect in the Middle East. As Europe asserted itself during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, it forced the Islamic world into a secondary position, sparking envy and reactionary conservatism in some sectors of the formerly more progressive Middle East.

Today, the Crusades constitute a major grievance for some people in the Middle East, when they consider relations with Europe and "the West." That attitude is not unreasonable—after all, European Christians launched two hundred years-worth of unprovoked attacks on the Middle East out of religious zealotry and blood-lust.

21st Century Crusade

In 2001, United States President George W. Bush reopened the almost thousand-year-old wound in the days following the 9/11 Attacks. On Sunday, September 16, 2001, President Bush said, "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while." The reaction in the Middle East and, interestingly, also in Europe was sharp and immediate: Commentators in both regions decried Bush's use of that term and vowed that the terrorist attacks and the US's reaction could not turn into a new clash of civilizations like the medieval Crusades.

In an odd way, however, the American reaction to 9/11 did echo the Crusades. The Bush administration decided to launch the Iraq War, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Just as the first several crusades had done, this unprovoked attack killed thousands of innocents in the Middle East and perpetuated the cycle of mistrust that had developed between the Muslim and Christian worlds since Pope Urban urged the European knights to "liberate the Holy Land" from the Saracens.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Claster, Jill N. "Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East, 1095-1396." Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
  • Köhler, Michael. "Alliances and Treaties between Frankish and Muslim Rulers in the Middle East: Cross-Cultural Diplomacy in the Period of the Crusades." Trans. Holt, Peter M. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 
  • Holt, Peter M. "The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517." London: Routledge, 2014.