City Minutes: Crusader States

For the Christian armies of the First Crusade, 
taking the city of Jerusalem in 1099 was the   easy part — for their next trick, they’d rebuild 
most of the city from scratch and then hope to   God they could actually hold the place. With 
the assembled crusading armies mostly heading   back West, the new King of Jerusalem relied on 
monastic military orders like the Hospitaller   and Templar Knights to defend the Holy Land and 
protect the traveling Christians who brought   the four Crusader States so much money. 
Sugarcane and silk were all well and good,   but the Pilgrimage business was a machine, 
as visitors flocked to sites like the newly   rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre — 
reconstructed by the crusaders in gorgeous   Romanesque style around Jesus’ burial tomb and 
the hill of Golgotha where he was crucified. Of course, the Holy Land was sacred to 
Jews and Muslims as well as Christians,   and the Crusader settlers were scant in 
comparison to the existing population,   with the exception of Jerusalem itself: 
where all could visit but only Christians   could live — no dice for the thousands of 
Jews and Muslims who got displaced. This   was strategically unideal, as inter-faith 
cooperation (while possible) was uneasy,   and the states of what’s known as “Outremer” 
were heavily reliant on distant European   manpower and money. By contrast, the threat 
of Muslim reconquest was never far away. While the Franks could congratulate 
themselves for a Job-Well-Crusaded,   holding a thin strip of land thousands of 
kilometers from European backup wasn’t a   viable long-term strategy, so after Jerusalem 
was captured by Sultan Saladin in 1187,   the capital of a vastly-diminished Kingdom 
shifted to the fortified port city of Acre.   For the past century it had served 
as the Franks’ main entry-point and   became the biggest trading hub in the eastern 
Mediterranean. So when the Third Crusade was   called to retake the Kingdom from Saladin, Acre 
was the ideal choice for where to hold the fort. And Acre absolutely was a fortress, with 
gigantic tower-guarded walls and an enclosed   harbor defending an impressively-robust medley of 
militaries: including all three Monastic Knightly   Orders and the combined navies of Venice, Genoa, 
and Pisa. And this kind of city was familiar to   those Italian Merchant Republics, as Acre 
functioned like another island-outpost in   their overseas empires, rather than the capital 
of a full Crusader State. And it soon began   to feel like there really wasn’t much of a Kingdom 
left outside of Acre and a few other cities, as   Six subsequent crusades over the 1200s failed to 
secure their holdings, culminating in the Mamluk   capture of Acre in 1291, whereupon the Crusaders 
were kicked out of the Holy Land for good. With Levantine terrafirma now quite firmly 
closed, the Crusaders pulled back a step and   resettled on the island of Cyprus. It had been 
Byzantine on-and-off for centuries, but around   the Third Crusade it quickly changed hands several 
times, ending up as the Crusader Kingdom of Cyprus   in 1192. And once it no longer had to bother 
ferrying hopeless knights over to the front,   Cyprus in the 1300s was free to become the 
mercantile hub for trade with the Muslim world,   and the producer of enough 
sugar to sweeten all of Europe. With cashflow like that, the capital of 
Nicosia and the main port of Famagusta   could go absolutely wild on grand 
cathedrals in the new gothic style,   inspired by the trends back in France but 
unique in their simplicity and clarity. And   Cyprus was the rare place where you could see an 
Orthodox Gothic church, as the island was home to   a majority Greek population, with Catholic French 
and Italians focused in the cities. And of course,   those Italians knew a useful island when 
they saw one, so Genoa and Venice competed   for influence over the French Lusignan dynasty 
throughout the 1400s. This familiar struggle   left the Kingdom of Cyprus weak enough 
for Venice to simply snap it up in 1489,   enjoying one of the most prosperous islands in the 
Mediterranean for one last century of Latin rule. As the centuries dragged on and the Holy Land 
was lost, some Crusaders were happy to settle   for plain old Land. After taking some notes 
on maritime statecraft from the Italians,   the Hospitaller Knights took the island of Rhodes 
as their base in 1310 and pestered the Ottoman   Empire enough to get chased out in 1520, soon to 
settle into their new home on the island of Malta.   Just like old times, Step One was Not Dying: as 
the Ottomans furiously besieged the island in 1565   but surprisingly failed to defeat those sturdy 
Knights. And true to their Crusading roots, the   swashbuckling Knights of Malta continued badgering 
Ottoman ships and tussling with their pirates. After so confidently placing their little island 
right in the thick of Mediterranean conflict,   the Knights sought to avoid a repeat of the Great 
Siege, so they set about fortifying their shiny   new capital city of La Valletta: building coastal 
watchtowers, an aqueduct to bring in fresh water,   and, of course, buttloads of churches. 
Starting with a Cathedral to the Knights’   patron Saint John, a combination of big 
privateering revenue and close contact   with southern Europe kicked off a golden 
age of Maltese Baroque Art and Architecture.   And so Malta remained Christendom’s 
unsinkable citadel of limestone. Just as soon as the Crusaders stepped 
into Jerusalem in 1099, they were already   on the back-foot, struggling not only to 
hold all these distant kingdoms but also   figuring out what on earth to do with them. But 
as much as I myself have taken pot-shots at the   abundant pointlessness of the whole endeavor, 
each of these cities were at one point on that   fascinating threshold between the Abrahamic 
faiths — first in the Holy Land and later,   as they got pushed back, on the islands — always 
building on old foundations but still creating   something unique and new. Over time, the Crusader 
states understood their purpose very differently,   and, I think, slowly came to realize 
that Holy Land was a flexible concept. Thank you so much for watching! I don’t want to 
get back on my old Crusade Tirade but I DO feel   it necessary to acknowledge the tens of thousands 
of Jewish and Muslim (and Orthodox) civilians who   were killed or forcibly displaced in the wake of 
the Crusades. That doesn’t really fit into my cute   little narrative about cities and architecture but 
oh boy did it happen. It’s easy to get Crusading   tunnel-vision and focus on grand strategy, 
but in this case, it’s important to remember   that was happening right outside the proverbial 
Frame of Action. Alright, I’ll see you next time.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43VBf0YFnXM

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