The improbable success of the First Crusade fueled a sense of inevitability on the part of the Crusaders. While neighboring Muslims were far too numerous to ignore, Crusaders felt that divine favor and proven European tactics would ensure the success of the Crusader States, even after the reversals of the middle 12th century. For the better part of that century, this assumption seemed to be right to all but the most astute; this faith was not to be truly shaken until the Battle of the Horns of Hattin.
Many factors influenced the success of the early Crusaders, from its own high level of motivation to the disunity of its opponents. It is one thing to carve out kingdoms in a hostile land, however, and quite another to maintain and expand them. Even the early efforts to branch out from the original Crusader States – the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Edessa – proved disastrous, but what mattered most to the Westerners was the fact that the core of Christianity’s holy sites had been secured under Christian control. Many felt that God would grant them victory once they had shown themselves to be worthy enough. The more practical looked for ways to put down lasting roots in the area and create a growing, sustainable population, but here success eluded them.
The first sign of real trouble was the loss of Edessa in 1144. The County of Edessa had constituted a massive salient projecting deeply into Muslim territory, and had lacked the manpower and resources to hold out against a large and determined enemy. This defeat had sparked a resurgence of European interest in the Crusader States, leading to an ineffectual Second Crusade. When this crusade faltered outside the walls of Damascus, a new equilibrium arose that would reign for about four decades. On the Christian side, the Crusader States tried to flourish on the Levantine coastline, while the Muslim world tried to sort out its own doctrinal disputes, above all that between Sunni and Shi’ite. The Second Crusade had taught the Muslims that they would have to deal with the Crusader States eventually, but having pushed the “Franks” back to the coast, they felt that they could afford to wait until they were strong enough to finish the job.
They found a leader capable of undertaking such a task in Sallah al-Din ibn Ayyub, better known to the West as Saladin. Saladin, a Kurd who had already taken Fatimid Egypt under the Syrian banner, arose to preeminence in 1174. During the next 13 years, Christian and Muslim forces alternated between active warfare and carefully-brokered armistice. In a sense, both sides were making a show of force rather than engaging in serious warfare: for example, there was an understanding that the arrival of a major European noble would cancel an existing truce until his eventual departure without constituting a breach of the arrangement. This was not a matter of halfhearted intentions, however; both sides suffered from internal disputes and a lack of strategic depth in men and material. The attempt to mount a serious campaign generally miscarried, and this even proved true for Saladin in 1177.
Ten years later, Saladin had amassed enough support that he felt ready to undertake a major offensive. His original plan for a march on Galilee in 1187 was intended to take advantage of the political rifts in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In this he failed, but failure proved more satisfactory than success. Christian forces rallied for a united response to the Muslim threat, but carried out their intended counterattack with far more enthusiasm than forethought.
Saladin, in contrast, took much greater care with logistics, and so the Muslim forces were well-supplied with water when battle was joined at the Horns of Hattin on July 4, while the Christians were parched in the sweltering heat. Although some of the Christian knights made a valiant effort of the battle, including a credible push to strike at Saladin’s own position, their prospects were bleak. The Christian army was effectively wiped out. The King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, and most of his knights were captured; for the knights of the military orders, this meant a swift death. The turcopoles, local Christians serving with the Crusaders, met the same fate, while the rest would later have the chance to convert to Islam, or to pay a ransom for release. Those who would do neither were usually sold into slavery.
In a single blow, Saladin had shattered the mobile strength of the Christian forces. He was therefore free to embark upon a systematic conquest of Crusader strongholds, and Saladin wisely captured most of the coastal cities before turning his attention to the greatest prize, Jerusalem. After making a tenacious defense, Jerusalem surrendered on the 2nd of October. Local Christians were free to stay, but all westerners were required to leave. Thus, within three months of Hattin, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was entirely in Muslim hands, save for the city of Tyre.
The news horrified Europe. The shock of the loss of Jerusalem may, or may not, have played a role in the death of Pope Urban III less than three weeks later, but it certainly galvanized European powers to a renewed Crusading effort. The result was the Third Crusade, an effort in which the Holy Roman Emperor and the Kings of England and France took part personally. The Emperor’s death en route had the effect of marginalizing the Germans, but the English and French vied for greater glory on the battlefield as they struggled to reestablish the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The English king, Richard the Lionhearted, seems to have gotten the better of this rivalry, not least because of his eventual willingness to negotiate with Saladin; even in his own eyes, however, his record was blighted by the savagery he showed after the capture of Acre, when he ordered the mass execution of captives.
The Third Crusade had given the Kingdom of Jerusalem a renewed existence, but it failed to secure Jerusalem itself for the Kingdom. Jerusalem would not return to Christian hands until the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II obtained it by diplomacy in 1229. In an important sense, however, the Crusader States were weaker than ever before. Where they had once had a difficult time in maintaining and expanding their native resources, after Saladin they really had no native resources at all. All of their strength came from European participation, which waxed and waned as the years progressed. Even when European involvement was strong, it was often misdirected: the Fourth Crusade led only to the conquest of Christian Constantinople, while the Fifth Crusade posed a credible, but ultimately futile, threat to Egypt.
By 1291, the Crusader States had been reduced to the single city of Acre, which succumbed to siege during that year. In all, Western Christendom had maintained itself in the Levant for less than 200 years. During the first half of that period, a series of states had been created in an astonishing flurry of activity, and then spent almost a century in trying to secure a lasting legacy. When the core of that presence was smashed in 1187, so too were its long-term prospects. Christian efforts after 1187 made some real gains for a time, even showing the occasional flash of brilliance, but in the best of circumstances they were dependent upon the support of distant lands, while their foes were all too near.
Europe did not yet have the logistical power to maintain an overseas empire. For the crusader kingdoms to have survived, they would have needed to cultivate the local strength that had still eluded them by 1187. Whether they might have done so, given time, is a matter of conjecture. The grave defeat at the Horns of Hattin effectively robbed them of that chance, and so it must be seen as the fulcrum of the Crusades.
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