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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

History Channel takes grand look at pivotal Crusades

The Crusades lasted close to 200 years and constituted one of the pivotal events in world history. To most Americans, they might as well be a fable like "The Lord of the Rings," but not nearly as well known.

No surprise here. Muslims pinched off the last pitiful vestige of Crusader occupation in 1291, two centuries before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The Crusades mean nothing to American history, whatever they may mean to the American future.

The Crusades lasted close to 200 years and constituted one of the pivotal events in world history.

But the Crusades are discussed in Middle East cafes as if they happened last week, says historian/novelist Tariq Ali, one of many scholars and historians who describe events in The History Channel documentary "The Crusades: Crescent & the Cross."

"Crusades" is a two-part, four-hour program. Part I ends in July 1099 with the Catholic capture of Jerusalem, only three years after some 60,000 French, German and Italian crusaders set out to capture the cradle of Christendom. But the first crusade affected events for the next two centuries.

It began in duplicity, yet always had a streak of idealism. Each side believed ardently that it was serving God and that absolutely anything it did to the enemy worked to his glory. In 1095, Pope Urban II devised a "Wag the Dog" scheme to consolidate long-dissipated church power, unite Europe's scores of tiny warring kingdoms and send the most bellicose knights on a mission that could use their reflexive fury.

Urban's immediate excuse for the Crusades was a plea for help from Alexius, emperor of Constantinople who feared that his weakening kingdom might fall to the ever-strengthening Muslims, who had occupied Jerusalem for 400 years. But Alexius had asked for only a battalion of elite knights, not four divisions of infantry and cavalry. Jerusalem made holy war possible. Jesus and Mohammed had died there.

Urban was a charismatic leader who used his peculiar powers to promulgate one of the most bracing recruiting programs ever uttered. As pope, he guaranteed salvation to all participants. They could not be damned, no matter what dreadful things they would do to infidels. And they were encouraged to enrich themselves as thoroughly as possible.

Urban defined an infidel as any non-Catholic, which caused the Crusades to start before anyone left town. Surprised European Jews were slaughtered by the thousands and their properties looted.

The concentration of "Crusades" on the first five years emphasizes the Europeans' only real success in 200 years, the capture of Jerusalem. In the process they slaughtered some 30,000 inhabitants -- men, women, children, Muslim, Jew and Christian. That event, among many other atrocities, gave the word "crusade" the same implication to Muslims then and now that the word "Holocaust" now has.

Fate played an elaborate joke on the crusaders. The first crusade seemed to be God's gift to the Catholics. Along with some skilled leaders, they got some incredibly lucky breaks, even though only some 13,000 survived to take Jerusalem. European luck began to run out, but gradually over an often cruel occupation. Not until 1187 did Muslims recapture Jerusalem, inspiring the last two ill-fated crusades.

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