The Crusades: the thrill of a priceless manuscript

Tuesday 24 January 2012, 10:35

Thomas Asbridge Thomas Asbridge Presenter

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I first fell in love with crusading history as a schoolboy and continue to be fascinated by these medieval holy wars. In many ways, they have become my life's work.

For me, the Crusades, the wars fought between Christians and Muslims for possession of the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291, have it all - the power to thrill and shock through tales of epic adventure, appalling brutality and intense human drama; and the capacity to ignite and sustain curiosity in the way they impact upon 'big history' themes like the clash of civilisations and the causes of religious violence.

Statue of Sultan Saladin in Kerak, Jordan

The statue of Sultan Saladin in Kerak, Jordan

After the publication of my recent general history of the Crusades, I was approached by an independent production company with a view to developing a television series based on my work.

The Crusades, a three-part series was then commissioned by BBC Two, and I embarked upon an intense filming schedule that took me through Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, France, Italy and the UK over three months, writing and presenting the programme, and working with a brilliant production team.

It's been an extraordinary experience - from the grand spectacle of sailing down the Nile to the intimacy of handling tiny copper coins minted by crusaders - and an immense privilege.

One of the undoubted highlights was gaining access to the Aqsa Mosque archive in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, to view a priceless, 800-year-old manuscript written by one of the closest advisors to the mighty Muslim Sultan Saladin, the man who re-conquered Jerusalem for Islam.

As far as I know, we were the first Western film crew allowed inside this library just yards from one of Islam's most revered holy sites, and it took months of delicate negotiation to secure permission. The manuscript didn't disappoint.

Its text lays bare Saladin's agony in July 1192, during the Third Crusade, when he decided to abandon Jerusalem to the Christians.

After years of campaigning, both he and his troops were shattered by exhaustion and Muslim morale was faltering.

Under these conditions, and with the crusaders camped just 12 miles away, Saladin judged that he had no hope of holding the Holy City once an attack began. That day he was said to have shed tears of grief as he led his people in prayer.

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Richard the Lionheart and Saladin

The manuscript also shows Richard the Lionheart - leader of the Third Crusade - to have been no brutish hothead, but a canny and agile negotiator.

During a flurry of diplomatic exchanges, King Richard proposed an extraordinary marriage alliance between his sister Joan and Saladin's brother al-Adil.

This union would form the basis of a peace agreement in which 'the sultan should give to al-Adil all the coastal lands that he held and make him king of Palestine', with Jerusalem to serve 'as the seat of the royal couple's realm'.

With a flourish of seeming magnanimity, the Lionheart proclaimed that the acceptance of this deal would bring the crusade to an immediate end and prompt his return to the West.

Richard probably had little or no intention of ever following through with this deal. Instead, his aim seems to have been to sow seeds of doubt and distrust within the Muslim camp by playing upon Saladin's fear that his brother al-Adil might seek to usurp power for himself.

I was primed for these revelations, having spent years poring over printed versions of this account.

What I didn't realise was that this manuscript had had something of a secret life. Up until the early 20th Century, the Aqsa archive actually had served as a public lending library.

Amazing as it now sounds, from the later Middle Ages onwards, citizens of Jerusalem had been taking this Life Of Saladin home to read; and over the years some had even left their mark on its pages, inscribing comments ranging from 'Praise be to Allah' to 'It's raining today'.

For me, the experience of actually holding a manuscript written by a man who knew the great Sultan Saladin, who witnessed the Third Crusade first-hand, was simply electrifying.

I couldn't help wondering what all those other readers across the centuries had felt and thought as they held this same work.

Dr Thomas Asbridge is the presenter of The Crusades.

The Crusades continues on BBC Two and BBC HD on Wednesdays at 9.30pm. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Mmnnn, very odd this subject matter. It seem's that were all still at it so many year's later. Maybe if Mohammed and Jesus returned we could all have bet's to see who would come out on top.

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    Comment number 2.

    Clearly this programme is biased and is in favour of the Christians. He refers to muslims as 'wicked enemies' and calls Saladin 'ruthless' while constantly praising Richard. Richard was the one who ruthlessly killed 3000 muslims who were prisoners and there isn't one reference that proves Saladin as being 'ruthless'. Muslims clearly won the crusades and the narrator of this programme is manipulate things to make it as the christians won.

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    Comment number 3.

    Good to see your on the TV now Dr Asbridge! Was great to study under you in QMUL.

    Bri - If they both came back then Muslim's would not be taking sides - they revere Jesus as a Prophet of God. Still, whatever takes your fancy.

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    Comment number 4.

    Episode 2: Saladin's writer said that the man told Jerusalem that if he captures the city he will butcher them all.....that was the anchor point of the whole episode to diminish Saladin's reputation. If you see what he did later in Jerusalem or Tyre you wouldn't be counting on this.
    You should be thankful Richard didn't conquer Jerusalem, or we all know what he would have unleashed over the place. All you are worried about is "this was a chance for us to have ruled 800 years before we actually did." Preposterous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I like this series, however, I do not think you present the real reasone behind this war. You describe crusaders as victims who just fellow their faith, but this far way from the fact they were invaders and Muslims had to defend their land.

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    Comment number 6.

    This program is absolutely unkind to Salah Aldin and to the people of the middle east of whom they were forced to fight and defend their land from a foreign aggressors. The Europeans have abused religion in order to take land and kill others in the name of god. This is not about the crusade in the middle east but look to what happen to the Australian Aborigines, Indigenous people of the Americas, New Zealand and the list goes on! Your actions make the victims hate you and it is only a matter of time they get their revenge and history teach us!!! May god bless Palestine and the middle east!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Nah, some commentators have a different view of what was said.. Neither Salah el Din, nor Richard won anything. Certainly not Jerusalem.. As someone who has spent much of his adult life in the Middle East (Ethiopia Saudi, Somalia, Egypt and Yemen) I would say this is a fair, accurate narrative of a fascinating period in our history. Enjoy it, I am...

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    Comment number 8.

    I've long been fascinated by this extraordinary period in history and enjoyed the first 2 episodes, which were generally excellent. But I find myself agreeing somewhat with Moodhi, bluestreak and Adam above, in the sense that (to my surprise) the programme is unfair to Saladin, - specifically & most of all when it compares him to Richard. Richard behaved like a savage when he butchered helpless prisoners after Acre, who were expected to be released once the negotiations were concluded. In superb contrast Saladin merely threatened to storm and destroy the Christian defenders of Jerusalem. He did not do it. Even the threat itself was prompted (as the programme makes clear) by the desire to appear a determined Jihadist. Yet when the time came, Saladin showed great mercy and tolerance. So it's entirely unfair- and more than a little unfortunate- to draw any "two great men" comparisons between a butcher like Richard (who also bled his country dry in taxes) and an honorable, compassionate warrior like Saladin. It's not a contrast we christian europeans can ever be proud of, I'm afraid. Dr Asbridge hints at the disparity, but never makes explicit the amazing moral contrast between Saladin and Richard. (perhaps a little nervous of attacking one of the great icons of British & royal history?) Apart from that I loved the series. ESpecially wonderful to see all these amazing places (makes me want to go to the Middle-east even more) and to see the amazing medieval illuminated and simple written manuscripts. Incredible the Aqsa Mosque manuscript was part of a general lending library collection... unbelievable ! And wonderful it has survived so intact.

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    Comment number 9.

    I was looking forward to this series but the presenter is so biased, it has made it very unwatchable, which is very unfortunate. Salah-Ud-Din was continuously referred to as a jihadi and Richard as the Lionheart. I believe both were great leaders. Throughout the programmes so far, the presenter has found excuses for the brutality of the crusaders and and brushed over them. Whereas he has commented in detail about the killing the Muslims did. I expect better from the BBC. The most appalling and despicable person that has been shown on the series so far has been Pope Urban but again the presenter went into detail to try and justify and excuse his dispekable behavior. The pope basically told a bunch of lies to get the Crhstian world into a religious frenzy so safeguard his papacy. One example of the presenters shameful bias is when he fleetingly mentions the massacre of Jews in Europe by the crusaders on the way to the Holy Lands, where he did not find it necessary to explain what actually happened. The only negative thing he could find about Salahuddin was a mention of the surrender terms in Imad-uddin's diary. Again this is unjustifiably magnified because the exact same thing could have been said about the Crusaders who threatened to destroy Islamic shrines and kill thousands of people within the city borders. What is the difference in what Salahuddin said and what the Crusaders threatened to do in return. and the shadow of this one statement by Imad-ud-Din is used throughout the programme to cast doubt on Salah-ud din's reputation. The presenter does not go into or talk about what kind of ruler he was throughout his rule of Palestine. At the end of the episode King Richard was idolised being laid to rest at the feet of his father. The last thing the presenter has to say about Salah-ud-Dinn is that he sows doubts in viewers minds about the motives of Salah-ud-Din's reasons for fighting the crusaders and re-capturing the Holy Lands. The presenter himself said when Salah-ud-Din was contemplating leaving the Holy Land during his final prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque tears were streaming down his face does that not show his feeling towards the Holy Lands. Also in the first episode the when the Crusaders march into Jerusalem the presenter declares the Holy Lands have been Liberated, can I ask him what and who have been liberated. Also a point to mention is all the Muslim accounts and chronicles of the Crusades, the Crusaders were always referred to as the Franks, as Europeans and never as Christians. The Muslims saw these invaders as Europeans and not through religious eyes. I hope the final episode is more balanced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Looked forward to watching the series as Dr Asbridge was my tutor on the Crusades in my first year at St Andrews. I remember his enthusiasm for the subject and it certainly rubbed off on us who took the course. Ive thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes and looking forward to the third. I disagree with some of the previous comments about the commentary being anti-Muslim, i think Dr Asbridge has looked at it from both sides of the conflict and of the surviving primary sources

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I struggled through the inaccuracies of Episode 1 (tell us all again what Urban said) and tuned in to Episode 2 with some trepidation. The massacre of Acre got one line but how many muslims could a trebuchet kill? Why no mention of Barbarosa? Philip of France worth a few words? Templars, Hospitalers? No? Let's just mindlessly attribute thoughts and words to Richard and Salah-al-din shall we? This isn't history; this is one man's fantasy. Beautifully filmed but abject nonsense from start to finish. I won't waste my time with Episode 3. It's a genuine shame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    what kind of history have you been teaching I wonder now

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Historians endeavour to depict the conflict between Islam and the Christian world as beginning with the First Crusade, but this is like using the Normandy landings as the start of the Second World War, without considering the Blitzkrieg, or the occupation of Europe. From the inception of their religion Muslims had used the sword to subjugate nonbelievers, as mandated in their Qu’ran; the first time in history men had fought for an ideology. We are used to hearing the term ‘Muslim countries’, but they hadn’t always been so. For hundreds of years before the time of Islam the territories that were fought over in the Crusades were the heart of the Christian world, and many Christians still lived there. The Jihad that had conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Spain and parts of Southern France and parts of Italy would never have been halted without military force from the Christians who lived there. The successful expeditions into Spain and Sicily by Frankish and Norman knights should be highlighted in this context. To understand the speech by Pope Urban as the main origin of the Crusades is only partial history. Although ultimately a failure, the crusades for the holy land can be seen as delaying the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and thus the Muslim advance into Europe. As late as 1683 a Muslim army was defeated at the gates of Vienna. The Crusades were over but the perpetual Jihad was not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Neither spilt blood or settled dust gives right to ownership, for we are all but tenants in the eyes of God. The truth men seek lays deep in the Shires given safe passage of Caerleon, navigating the Great Severn north to a 12th Century Monastery!

    HighGlory - Thy Will Be Done

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I appreciate this is a populist summary of the crusades and I have to say Dr Ashbridge is an excellent guide. I also appreciate that it all had to be shoehorned into 3 episodes but this leaves Dr Ashbridge with an insurmountable problem of time.

    Episode 1 did a great job of the first crusade but episode 2 managed to make no mention of the military orders or the second crusade. Surely the latter omission is going to confuse the casual viewer when he talks about "The lionheart" (could he not call him King Richard?) on the third crusade having never mentioned the second one? It also means that Frederick Barbarossa never gets a mention either and his death on the way to the third crusade is an important turning point.

    Also by the looks of things the final episode is going to skip the 4th crusade. However I reserve judgement until it airs. What is really disappointing is the series needed a bit more time and a bit more money. While Dr Ashbridge does an excellent job of making the events seem urgent and real but could they have not spent a little money on some stock footage of a few knights and Turkish horse archers? A couple of animated maps? It was all looking a little threadbare when the battle of Dorylaem was visually interpreted as 2 guys on horses and a history lecturer walking through a corn field- excuse me!

    As for time, why not make it a longer series and do it justice? The evolution of the crusader concept is an important one- the Albigensian crusade, the Northern Crusades with Teutonic knights and the "Reconquista" (I appreciate it was no such thing). The crusades were neither exclusive to the middle east nor did they end with the fall of Acre.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    This documentary clearly shows how people can manipulate information to serve their own agenda. In one hand the presenter portraits Saladin as a ruthless man even though there was no evidence to verify that, whereas he portraits Richard, with a clear evidence of his brutality as a hero. The truth is Europeans ( not christens) were invaders and people in the middle east were fighting to protect their land

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I find the critical comments on here quite comical. This is an attempt to paint, in broad brush strokes, what happened over a certain period in history. If an individual wishes to look deeper into the subject and develop their own view of what happened, they can.

    For me it is informative and brilliantly presented and I thank Dr Asbridge and the production team for an excellent and enjoyable piece of programming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Amazing footage's and some interesting insights, however for those who like many have studied or watched other documentaries about these magnificent characters will feel a bit of let down and i can see why some feel its a bit one sided (to richard lionheart). Im pretty sure BBC has done this before with live action and balance account and there is always Hollywood take on this for those who are more interested in Richard side of the story , but this does make a good alternative to wish you was here programs.

    did not know about that manuscript that was open to the public for many years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    These days the documentaries are becoming more and more of background music, visual effectsless, rhetoric and less about actual sciences. That reflects how intelligent the audience is. I bet these documentaries will be ranked substandard if you take away the magic of studio software from it...hardly any art left on TV in the UK. Seeing that it was broadcast at prime time, it's understandable the program is entertainment rather than factual. It was better if they had disclosed this key to viewers to avoid confusion...;)

    I think we are left with the good old option of going to libraries and meeting scholars ourselves if any substance is to be found. After all history is a science, and all sciences are boring to the mind of this century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I would like to congratulate Dr Asbridge on an excellent series so far. Obviously it has been necessary to simplify things for a general audience, and to make omissions while focussing on selected specific issues. However I don't detect any bias in favour of the Christians, nor an attempt to blacken Saladin's reputation. In fact one of the omissions was mention of the mass-beheading, on Saladin's orders, of 300 or so Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after the battle of Hattin...


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