Events and Impacts of the Medieval Crusades


The Saracens besiege a Christian city, detail from The Song of Saint Mary, 1221-84

Christians mounted violent campaigns against Jews and heretics in addition to the wars in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.


Introduction

The Crusades were launched by European Christians to reclaim Jerusalem and other holy sites in the Middle East from Muslims.

Christians mounted these religious wars between 1096 and 1291. A major purpose was to gain control of Palestine. This area is the ancient homeland of Jews and the place where Jesus lived. The spiritual heart of Palestine was the city of Jerusalem. As you will learn, the city was, and is, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

In the 11th century, Palestine came under the rule of a rising Muslim power, the Seljuk Turks. They were building a huge empire and treating Christians badly. The advances of the Seljuk Turks into Byzantine territory, and their ill treatment of Christians, alarmed the Byzantine emperor. In 1076, the Seljuks took Jerusalem. In 1095, the emperor asked Pope Urban II for help. The pope called on Christians to go on a religious war to turn back the Seljuks and win control of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The next year, the first armies set out from Europe.

Muslims were not the only targets of these religious wars. Europeans also mounted violent campaigns against Jews and Christian heretics. Religious wars were waged in Europe and North Africa, as well as the Middle East.

Christians and the Crusades

For Crusaders, the religious wars were a costly ordeal, although they promised rewards in the afterlife. But European Christians also reaped many benefits from the Crusades.

Impact on Christians as a Group

The Return of the Crusader / Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn, Wikimedia Commons

Crusaders suffered all the terrible effects of war. Many were wounded or killed in battle. Others died from disease and the hardships of travel.

The impact of the Crusades reached far beyond those who fought, however. The Crusades brought many economic changes to Europe. Crusaders needed a way to pay for supplies. Their need increased the use of money in Europe. Some knights began performing banking functions, such as making loans or investments. Monarchs started tax systems to raise funds for Crusades.

The Crusades changed society, as well. Monarchs grew more powerful, as nobles and knights left home to fight in the Middle East. The increasing power of monarchs weakened feudalism.

Contact with Middle Eastern cultures had a major impact on Christians’ way of life. In the Holy Land, Christians learned about new foods and other goods. They dressed in clothing made of muslin, a cotton fabric from Persia. They developed a taste for melons, apricots, sesame seeds, and carob beans. They used spices, such as pepper. After Crusaders returned home with these goods, European merchants earned enormous profits by trading in them.

The Experiences of Individuals

Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana manuscripts of Anna Comnena / Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons

You have already learned how Richard I of England led the Third Crusade. Richard was devoted to the Christian cause and to knightly ideals of courage and honor. To pay for his armies, he taxed his people heavily. Both ruthless and brave, Richard spent most of his reign fighting in the Crusades.

Anna Comnena, the daughter of a Byzantine emperor, wrote about her experiences during the First Crusade. She expressed mixed feelings about the Crusaders. She respected them as Christians, but she also realized that many were dangerous. She questioned whether all of the Crusaders were truly fighting for God. She thought that some sought wealth, land, or glory in battle. Her suspicions proved to be justified. During the Fourth Crusade, a force of Crusaders invaded and looted Constantinople, then under Christian control.

Jews and the Reconquista

During the Reconquista, Christian rulers retook the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims. The Reconquista also had a major impact on the Jews of Iberia, as you’ll learn in this essay.

Iberian Jews under Muslim Rule

Al-Andalus and Christian kingdoms c. 1000 AD, at the apogee of Almanzor / Wikimedia Commons

Jews had lived in Iberia since ancient times. Beginning in 711 c.e., Muslims gained control of much of the peninsula. The Muslims were largely tolerant of both Christians and Jews. Under their rule, Jewish culture thrived. Cities like Cordoba, Granada, and Toledo had large and prosperous Jewish communities.

The Jews of Iberia were famed for their learning and wealth. Some were philosophers, mathematicians, and doctors. Others were skilled jewelers, mapmakers, and makers of fine scientific instruments. Still others worked as traders. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars worked together to advance the cause of knowledge. Jewish scholars helped translate ancient Greek and Roman texts into Arabic and into modern European languages.

Jews Come under Christian Rule

Although Muslims ruled most of Iberia, Christian kingdoms remained in the north. By the 11th century, these states were sending armies south into central Iberia in an attempt to reclaim the peninsula from Muslims. In 1085, the important city of Toledo in central Iberia fell to a Christian army.

Jews were caught in the middle of the struggle. In central Iberia, more and more Jews came under Christian rule. In the south, new Muslim rulers from North Africa changed the old policy of tolerance toward Jews. They forced some Jews to become Muslims and to wear distinctive clothing. Jews were also forbidden to trade, except on a small scale. Some Jews fled north into Christian territory.

Gradually, Christian armies won back most of Iberia. In 1139, Portugal became an independent Christian kingdom. By 1248, only the southern kingdom of Granada remained in Muslim hands.

For a time, Jews continued to thrive in areas that were now ruled by Christians. During the 1300s, however, prejudice against Jews grew. Some Catholic monks stirred up hatred by preaching against Jews. In 1348, a terrible outbreak of the Black Death (plague) hit Iberia. Many people blamed Jews for the plague, whose true causes were unknown.

By the late 1300s, there were anti-Jewish riots in major cities as well as attacks on Jewish communities. To escape being killed, some Jews agreed to be baptized as Catholics. Some freely accepted baptism. Others held fast to their Jewish faith.

Jews who converted to Catholicism were called conversos and “New Christians.” Being baptized did not win the acceptance of their Christian neighbors. Many conversos were resented for their wealth and success. Conversos were also suspected, sometimes rightly, of practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

By the mid 1400s, anti-converso riots were breaking out. Many conversos lost their homes and property. Some lost their lives.

The Spanish Inquisition

A torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition with with suspected heretics having their feet burned or being suspended with a rope from a pulley while scribes note down confessions. Engraving by B. Picart, 1722. / Wellcome Library, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1400s, Spain was not yet a single country. In 1479, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella brought the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under their joint rule. The two monarchs were devout Catholics. They were also eager to strengthen their rule and to unify Spain as a Catholic country.

Ferdinand and Isabella worried about the loyalty of anyone who was not a sincere Catholic. Like other Catholic rulers in Europe, they claimed to be ruling in God’s name. They feared that Jews, Muslims, and “insincere” converts might not accept their “divine right” to rule. In addition, many people urged them to take action against the conversos.

The monarchs responded by setting up an Inquisition, a type of church court. Judges, called inquisitors, were told to expose and punish converts who were not sincere Catholics. Those found guilty could be burned at the stake.

Both Jewish and Muslim converts were hauled before the Inquisition. Many had, in fact, continued to practice their old faith. But whether or not converts were sincere Catholics, they were often helpless to defend themselves. They could not confront their accusers, whose names were kept secret. Worse, the inquisitors used torture to force people to confess.

During its first 12 years, the Inquisition killed perhaps 13,000 people accused of being “secret Jews.” Even the protests of popes in Rome failed to stop the violence.

Jews Are Forced to Leave Iberia

The Capitulation of Granada / Senate of Spain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella’s armies captured Granada. The Reconquista was complete.

The conquest of Granada brought thousands more Jews under Spanish rule. At this point, Ferdinand and Isabella took a decisive step. They ordered all Jews to accept baptism or leave Spain.

Many Jews became converts, but more than 170,000 chose to leave their homes forever. Tens of thousands crossed the border to Portugal. This move brought only temporary relief. In 1497, Portugal, too, told Jews to become Catholics or to leave the country.

Once again, Jews had to find new homes. Many resettled in other parts of Europe. Others found refuge in Muslim lands in North Africa and the Middle East.

Thousands of Jews accepted baptism and remained in Portugal. As in Spain, however, New Christians faced prejudice, suspicion, and violence. By the mid 1500s, Portugal had established its own Inquisition. Once again, Jewish converts who were judged to be unfaithful Catholics were burned at the stake.

The Reconquista and its aftermath brought an end to some of the most successful and highly cultured Jewish communities in the world. The expulsion of the Jews also deprived Spain and Portugal of some of their most talented citizens.

But the history of the Iberian Jews was not over. The Jewish exiles, and their descendants, are known as Sephardic Jews. In their new homes, they kept alive the faith and practices of centuries past. Today, Sephardic Jews in many lands still preserve the ancient language and traditions of the Jews of Iberia.

Events Leading Up to the Crusades

Mahmud II Seljuk Gold Dinar / Photo by M.samei, Wikimedia Commons

Why did European Christians begin the religious wars, or Crusades, at the end of the 11th century? To answer this question, we need to look at what was happening in Muslim lands at the time.

During the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks established a new Muslim dynasty. The Turks were a Central Asian people who had been migrating into Muslim lands for centuries. The Seljuks were named for a Turkish chieftain who converted to Islam in the mid-11th century. In 1055, his descendants took control of the Abbasid dynasty’s capital of Baghdad in what was then Persia. A Seljuk sultan now ruled the old Abbasid Empire.

The Seljuks were eager to expand their territory. Moving westward, they took Syria and Palestine from the Fatimid dynasty. They also overran much of Anatolia (also called Asia Minor), which was part of the Byzantine Empire. In 1071, the Seljuks defeated a large Byzantine army at Manzikert in present-day Turkey.

The Seljuk advance alarmed Christians in Europe. They feared for the safety and property of Christians living to the east. The Seljuks’ growing power seemed to threaten the Byzantine Empire itself. Christians also worried about the fate of the Holy Land, especially the city of Jerusalem, where the Seljuks treated Christians and their holy sites with intolerance.

As it is today, Jerusalem was a sacred city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was the spiritual capital of the Jews, where their great Temple had once stood. It had also been their political capital in ancient times. For Christians, it was the city where Jesus was crucified and arose from the dead. For Muslims, it was where Muhammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey.

Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine first came under Muslim rule during the Arab conquests of the 7th century. Muslims built a shrine in Jerusalem, called the Dome of the Rock, to mark the spot where they believed that the Night Journey had occurred. Under Muslim rule, Jews, Christians, and Muslims usually lived together peacefully. People of all three faiths made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and built houses of worship there. Depending on the policies of various Muslim rulers, however, non-Muslims’ rights and freedoms varied from time to time. Some Muslim rulers allowed the destruction of important Christian churches.

After the Seljuks took control of Palestine, political turmoil made travel unsafe. Tales began reaching Europe of highway robbers attacking and even killing Christian pilgrims. Christians feared they would no longer be able to visit Jerusalem and other sacred sites in the Holy Land. Together, with concern over the Seljuk threat to Christian lands in Europe, this fear helped pave the way for the Crusades.

Jews and the Crusades

Violence and intolerance during the Crusades made targets, not only of Christians who did not strictly follow Church teachings, but especially of non-Christians. In this climate, Jews suffered enormously. Some Church leaders spoke out strongly against ill treatment of Jews and warned Christians that the only aim of the Crusades was to reclaim the Holy Land. However, some Crusaders in the Holy Land killed Jews as well as Muslims. The Crusades also dramatically worsened the lives of Jews in Europe.

Impact on Jews as a Group

A Jew and a Muslim playing chess in 13th century al-Andalus. Libro de los juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile, 13th century. / Wikimedia Commons

During the First Crusade, European Jews suffered a series of violent persecutions. As Crusaders crossed northern France and Germany, some of them murdered whole communities of Jews. They destroyed synagogues and holy books. They looted homes and businesses. Some Crusaders tortured Jews to make them accept Christianity.

In Europe, anti-Semitism, or hostility to or discrimination against Jews, spread among non-Crusaders, as well. Religious prejudice was mixed with resentment of Jews who were wealthy bankers and traders. Riots and massacres broke out in a number of cities.

By the end of the Crusades, the Jews’ place in European society had deteriorated. Jews could not hold public office. Christians took over trading businesses that had been run by Jews. In 1290, England expelled all Jews. France did the same in 1394. Many Jews relocated to Eastern Europe.

The segregation of Jews spread throughout Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Jews were forced to live in crowded neighborhoods called ghettos. Typically, walls and gates separated the ghettos from the rest of the town or city.

The Experiences of Individuals

Depiction of Eleazar ben Judah / Wikimedia Commons

A German Jew named Eliezer ben Nathan lived during the First Crusade. He wrote about the violent destruction of his community by Christians. Eliezer told of Jews who killed their families and themselves rather than give up their religion. He admired their intense devotion, but wondered how God could let so many Jews die. He also expressed his hatred for the Crusaders.

Eleazar ben Judah, a Jewish scholar, also lived in Germany. During the Second Crusade, he and other Jews were forced to flee their town. They had to leave behind their belongings, including their holy books.

Several years later, two Crusaders attacked Eleazar’s home and killed his wife and children. This horrible event led him to wonder if his people would be able to survive in Europe. As a Jewish leader in the city of Worms, he continued to preach love for all humanity, despite his suffering.

Muslims and the Crusades

Overview

The Crusades brought fewer benefits to Muslims than they did to Christians. Muslims succeeded in driving the Crusaders from the Middle East, but they lost their lands on the Iberian Peninsula. In addition, the contact between cultures benefited Muslims less than Christians. At the time, Muslim societies were among the most advanced in the world, so Muslims had less to gain.

Impact on Muslims as a Group

The Crusades were a terrible ordeal for many Muslims. An unknown number lost their lives in battles and the conquests of Middle Eastern cities. Crusaders also destroyed Muslim property in Jerusalem and other communities.

Muslims did gain exposure to some new weapons and military ideas during the Crusades. Like Europeans, they began to adopt standing, or permanent, armies. Muslim merchants, especially in Syria and Egypt, earned riches from trade with Europe. This money helped to fund building projects, such as new mosques and religious schools. The Crusades also brought political changes, as Muslims united to fight their common foe. The Ayyubid dynasty founded by Salah al-Din ruled Egypt and parts of Syria and Arabia until 1250.

The Experiences of Individuals

A possible portrait of Saladin by Cristofano dell’Altissimo / Uffizi Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Salah al-Din was the greatest Muslim leader during the Crusades. His experiences taught him many valuable lessons. As a boy in Damascus during the Second Crusade, he saw that Muslims needed to defend themselves and Islam. As a soldier, he realized that Muslims had to be organized and to cooperate with one another. He unified Muslim groups under his strong leadership. Along with his military skills, Salah al-Din also was famed for his courtesy.

Usamah ibn-Munqidh also grew up during the time of the Crusades. Believing it was the will of God, Usamah fought against the Crusaders. At the same time, he respected both Christians and Jews because of their faith in one God. Usamah wrote a valuable account of the Crusades from a Muslim viewpoint. He told how Muslims and Christians observed and sometimes admired one another. He also described how the Muslims were willing to give their lives to protect their families, lands, and property from the Crusaders.

New Muslim Empires and the Expansion of Islam

New empires arose in Muslim lands after the decline of the Mongols’ power. Islam also continued its spread to new lands.

The Ottoman Empire

Ottoman miniature (1563) depicting Osman I, located at Topkapı Palace / Badisches Landesmuseum, Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1300s, a Turk named Osman I started the Ottoman dynasty in northern Anatolia. The Ottomans quickly conquered new lands in Anatolia and southeastern Europe.

The Ottomans’ advance to the east was stopped for a time by a new enemy—Timur (TEE-moor) Lang, known to Europeans as Tamerlane. Timur came from a Mongol tribe in central Asia. He claimed descent from Genghis Khan.

Timur began building his own empire in the late 1300s. His armies overran much of central Asia, including present-day Iraq. They then invaded India, Syria, and Anatolia. In 1402, Timur defeated an Ottoman army at Ankara in Anatolia. Ottoman rule was on the brink of collapse. But after Timur’s death in 1405, the Ottomans regained control of their lands.

Turning back toward Europe, the Ottomans set out to expand their empire. In 1453, they captured Constantinople, bringing an end to the once powerful Byzantine Empire. The city was renamed Istanbul. It became the Ottoman capital.

In the 1500s, the Ottomans destroyed the Mamluk Empire. They conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Arabia. At its height, the Ottoman Empire also took in parts of southeastern Europe, North Africa, and Persia, as well as Turkey.

The Ottomans allowed their subjects considerable freedom. Jews, Christians, and Muslims had their own local communities, called millets. Millets were allowed to govern themselves. A ruling class collected taxes and protected the sultan and the empire. In the empire’s European provinces, some young Christian men were drafted and then raised in the sultan’s palace. After most of them converted to Islam, they joined an elite corps of soldiers and government officials known as Janissaries.

The Ottoman Empire slowly declined after about 1700. It finally came to an official end, after World War I, in 1922.

The Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire under Shah Abbas the Great / Wikimedia Commons

Later Ottoman expansion to the east was stopped by another Muslim power. In 1501, Muslims in Persia founded the Safavid dynasty. Their shahs, or rulers, soon controlled the heartlands of ancient Persia. This included modern-day Iran and parts of Iraq. Unlike the Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims, the Safavids were Shi’ah. The two groups fought a number of wars.

The Safavids became a great power. They promoted trade, the arts, and learning. Their dynasty lasted until the mid 1700s.

The Mughal Empire

A third Muslim empire was founded by Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur Lang. In 1526, Babur invaded India and founded the powerful Mughal [MOOG-uhl] Empire. The word Mughal is Arabic for “Mongol.” Mughal emperors ruled most of India until sometime after 1700. Muslims make up a significant minority of India’s population today.

The Further Spread of Islam

Muslim dynasties grew up in other places, as well. Muslims in North Africa carried Islam into the region of West Africa. Pilgrims and merchants also spread Islam among peoples living around the Sahara.

Traders brought Islam across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia. By the late 1200s, there were Muslim kingdoms on the islands of Indonesia. Today, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world.

The Mongol Invasion

Expansion of the Mongol Empire 1206–1294 superimposed on a modern political map of Eurasia
Expansion of the Mongol Empire 1206–1294 superimposed on a modern political map of Eurasia / Wikimedia Commons

As you have learned, Muslims succeeded in driving the Crusaders from the Holy Land. Even as the Crusades were taking place, other changes were happening in Muslim lands. By the mid-1200s, Muslims were facing a greater threat than the European Crusaders—the Mongols.

The Mongols were a nomadic people whose homeland was north of China. In the 13th century, Mongols began wars of conquest under their leader, Genghis Khan (JENG-giss KAHN). After attacking northern China, Genghis Khan turned his sights westward. The Mongols swept across central Asia, destroying cities and farmland. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed. Many were carried off to Mongolia as slaves.

Under Genghis Khan’s successors, the Mongols built an empire that stretched across much of Asia. They defeated the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia and seized parts of Persia. In 1258, they destroyed Baghdad and killed the sultan.

Farther west, Muslims were able to stop the Mongol advance. The Mamluks, Turks whose capital was at Cairo, Egypt, led the resistance. In the mid-1200s, they had overthrown the dynasty begun by Salah al-Din. In 1260, they defeated the Mongols in an important battle in Palestine. The Mamluks continued to rule Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and parts of Anatolia until 1517.

The Mongols still ruled a huge empire in Asia, including China. Toward the end of the 1200s, in some places they began converting to Islam. The adoption of Islam helped bring unity to their empire. The Mongols made Persian the language of government. They rebuilt the cities they had destroyed and encouraged learning, the arts, and trade.

The Mongol empire was one of the largest the world had ever seen. It suffered, however, from in-fighting among rivals. Local rulers controlled different regions. By the mid-1300s, the empire was badly weakened. In the next section, you will learn about new empires that arose in Muslim lands during the next few centuries.

The Story of the Crusades

Overview

The Crusades began as a response to the threat posed by the Seljuks. By 1095, the Seljuks had advanced to within 100 miles of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The emperor appealed to Pope Urban II for help.

The pope invited nobles and Church leaders to attend a council in Clermont, France. There, he called for a crusade to drive out the Muslims and reclaim Jerusalem. He promised entry to heaven to all who joined the fight.

French-speaking nobles quickly organized armies to fight in the Holy Land. In addition to trained knights, thousands of townspeople, craftsmen, and peasants joined the crusade.

Throughout the Crusades, the Christian faith inspired many to put on the red cross, worn by Crusaders as a symbol of their mission, and join the fight. But people joined the Crusades for other reasons as well. Merchants saw the chance to earn money through trade. Younger sons of nobles hoped to gain estates in the Holy Land. A person who had fought in the Holy Land also gained respect and prestige at home.

The First Crusade (1096–1099)

Miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the People’s Crusade (Egerton 1500, Avignon, 14th century) / Wikimedia Commons

Four European nobles led the First Crusade. Close to 30,000 Crusaders fought their way through Anatolia, and headed south toward Palestine. In June of 1098, the Crusaders laid siege to the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was protected by a ring of walls. After nine months, the Crusaders found a way over the walls. Antioch fell to the Christians.

In 1099, the Crusaders surrounded Jerusalem and scaled the city walls. After a month of fighting, the city surrendered. The victorious Crusaders killed most of the people who had fought against them. They sold the survivors into slavery. With Jerusalem taken, most of the Crusaders went home. Some, however, stayed behind. They established four Crusader kingdoms in Palestine, Syria, and modern-day Lebanon and Turkey.

The Second Crusade (1146–1148)

Passage Outremer by Jean Colombe and Sébastien Momerot depicting of the Battle of Inab / Wikimedia Commons

The Crusaders owed their early victories, in part, to a lack of unity among Muslim groups. When the Crusades began, the Seljuk empire was already crumbling into a number of smaller states. Muslims had trouble joining together to fight the invaders.

When Muslims started to band together, they were able to fight back more effectively. In 1144, they captured Edessa, the capital of the northernmost crusader kingdom. Christians answered by mounting the Second Crusade.

That Crusade ended in failure. An army from Germany was badly defeated in Anatolia. A second army, led by the king of France, arrived in Jerusalem in 1148. About 50,000 Crusaders marched on the city of Damascus, which was on the way to Edessa. Muslims from Edessa came to the city’s aid and beat back the Crusaders. Soon after this defeat, the French army went home, ending the Second Crusade.

The Third Crusade (1189–1192)

Siege of Acre, Biblotheque Municipale de Lyon, Ms 828 f33r / Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few decades, Muslims in the Middle East increasingly came under common leadership. By the 1180s, the great sultan Salah al-Din (SAL-eh ahl-DEEN), called Saladin by Europeans, had formed the largest Muslim empire since the Seljuks. Salah al-Din united Egypt, Syria, and other lands to the east. He led a renewed fight against the Crusaders in the Holy Land. Salah al-Din quickly took back most of Palestine. In 1187, his armies captured Jerusalem.

The loss of Jerusalem shocked Europeans and sparked the Third Crusade. King Richard I of England, known as “the Lionheart,” led the European fight against Salah al-Din.

In 1191, Richard’s army forced the surrender of the Palestinian town of Acre (AH-kreh). Afterward, arrangements were made between the two sides to exchange prisoners. When Richard lost patience waiting for Salah al-Din to complete the exchange, Richard ordered the deaths of all 2,700 of his Muslim prisoners.

Richard then fought his way toward Jerusalem, but his army was not strong enough to attack the city. Salah al-Din’s forces had also grown weaker. In September 1192, the two leaders signed a peace treaty. The Crusaders kept a chain of cities along the coast of Palestine. Muslims agreed to let Christian pilgrims enter Jerusalem.

Later Crusades

The Crusades continued for another 100 years. Some Crusades were popular movements of poor people, rather than organized military campaigns. In 1212, for example, thousands of peasant children from France and Germany marched in a Children’s Crusade. Few, if any, ever reached the Holy Land. Some made it to European port cities, only to be sold into slavery by merchants. Some returned home. Many disappeared without a trace.

None of the later Crusades succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem. Muslims, meanwhile, were gaining back the land they had lost. In 1291, they took Acre, the last Crusader city. This victory ended some two hundred years of Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land.

The Reconquista

Crusaders fought against Muslims in Europe and North Africa, as well as in the Middle East. One important series of wars was called the Reconquista (ree-con-KEE-stah), which means “reconquest” in Spanish. Christians launched these wars to retake the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims. The Iberian Peninsula is a region in southwestern Europe that contains Spain and Portugal.

The Umayyads had established a Muslim dynasty in Spain in the 8th century, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace. However, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax.

Over time, Christian rulers in northern Iberia chipped away at Muslim lands. The pace of reconquest quickened after the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba broke up into rival kingdoms in 1002. In 1085, Christians gained a key victory by capturing Toledo, in central Spain.

Muslims gradually gave up more and more territory, and new Muslim dynasties were intolerant of Jews and Christians. In 1039, Portugal became an independent Christian kingdom. By 1248, only the kingdom of Granada, in southern Spain, remained in Muslim hands.

Many Jews and Muslims remained in areas ruled by Christians. In the late 1400s, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand wanted to unite Spain as a Catholic country. They used the Inquisition, a Roman Catholic court, against Muslims and Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition was extremely harsh. Judges, called inquisitors, sometimes used torture to find out whether supposed converts were practicing their old religion. Thousands of people were burned at the stake.

In 1492, Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, ending Muslim rule in Spain. In the same year, Jews were ordered to become Catholics or leave the country. More than 170,000 Jews left their homes forever. Many found refuge in Muslim lands, including in Constantinople, now called Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Muslims remained in Spain, but many were forced to become Catholics. Spain expelled remaining Muslims beginning in 1609. This expulsion ended centuries of cooperation among these groups and Christians in Spain.


Originally published by Flores World History, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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