The crusades are one of the most significant events in the history of Europe and the Middle East. They were a series of religious wars carried out by Christian crusaders from Europe during the timeframe of the Middle Ages. Beginning in 1095 CE, the crusades saw European knights and noblemen travel to the Middle East in an attempt to capture the Holy Land away from Muslim people that had controlled the region for the previous centuries. The term crusade means ‘cross’. Therefore, the Europeans that became crusaders viewed themselves as ‘taking up the cross’. In fact, many of the crusaders wore crosses on their clothing and armor as they made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The First Crusade was a major military expedition of European crusaders to the Muslim-held lands in the Middle East from 1096 CE to 1099 CE.
On November 27th 1095 CE, Pope Urban II called for a crusade to the Holy Land as part of a sermon at the Council of Clermont. In the speech, Pope Urban II argued for many different things, but one particular passage called for Europeans to assist the Byzantine Empire in the battle against Muslim civilizations to the east. Historians consider this speech to be the event that sparked the first crusade and began the movement of European Christians into the Middle East. For instance, it inspired Christians across Europe to 'take up the cross' and fight to secure Christianity in the east.
“Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends."
The Byzantine Empire was the eastern portion of the former Roman Empire in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and its capital was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). While the former western sections of the Roman Empire were now the Holy Roman Empire. As such, the Byzantine Empire was culturally connected to the lands of the Holy Roman Empire in western Europe. For instance, both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire followed Christianity, with the Holy Roman Empire practicing Roman Catholicism and the Byzantine Empire practicing Greek Orthodox. Therefore, Pope Urban II (and many other European Christians at the time) viewed the First Crusade as an opportunity to protect the lands of the Byzantine Empire, which contained many important Christian sites. More specifically, when Pope Urban II made his declaration for a military expedition to the east in 1095 CE, the Byzantine Empire had recently lost Anatolia (modern-day Turkey and Syria) to the Seljuq Turks, which were the primary targets of the First Crusade. The Seljuk Turks controlled lands to the east of the Byzantine Empire which were referred to as the Seljuk Empire. Also, after conquering Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk Turks established the Sultanate of Rum in its place.
In reality, there were many different crusades. Historians disagree on the exact number but in general, there were nine main crusades and many other smaller ones which occurred over a period of two centuries. The First Crusade began in 1096 CE following the Council of Clermont speech by Pope Urban II in 1095 CE, which was discussed previously. During the first crusade, which took place from 1096 to 1099 CE, thousands of Europeans migrated from Europe to the kingdoms of the Middle East.
The first example of this is referred to as the 'People’s Crusade' and took place from April to October of 1096. During this event, European peasants attacked and killed populations of Jewish people in Europe before finally travelling to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) where they faced off against the Muslim Seljuk Turks. They were eventually defeated by the Turks at the Battle of Civetot in October of 1096 CE, but set the stage for the crusaders that followed.
For example, the first official crusade (meaning it was supported and led by the Catholic Church) began soon after in 1096. This first official crusade saw European nobles, knights, and peasants travel by land and sea to the Middle East in an attempt to free the Holy Land from Muslim control. More specifically, most of the Europeans of the First Crusade were primarily French nobles, although there were also others from German territories and Southern Italy. More specifically, two of the most prominent leaders of the First Crusade were two powerful figures from Southern France. First was Adhemar of Le Puy, who was a bishop from France and was specifically chosen by Pope Urban II to help lead the expedition. Second was Raymond IV the Count of Toulouse. He was a power noble in Southern France and helped lead the First Crusade as well as establish the Crusader States in the conquered areas of the Holy Land. Also known as the 'Prince's Crusade', the First Crusade was much more successful than the earlier 'People's Crusade'. For example, it was much more organized and carried out as a true military operation. In fact, historians have argued that the First Crusade consisted of four main armies that totaled approximately 35,000 crusaders and 5,000 cavalry. These numbers included nobility, knights and commoners. As well, the crusaders were generally enthusiastic about participating in the First Crusade for a variety of reasons. The Prince's Crusade saw the western European crusaders leave their homes in the summer of 1096 CE and travel east towards the Byzantine Empire. For instance, the crusaders supposedly arrived at the Byzantine capital (Constantinople) in late 1096 CE and early 1097 CE. During their travels, the crusaders followed a path through eastern Europe that thousands of others would follow in the decades and centuries that followed. The main armies of the First Crusade regrouped and resupplied in Constantinople before finally attacking into the societies of the Middle East and the Holy Land.
On route to Jerusalem from Constantinople, the crusaders captured several key territories which they later turned into ‘Crusader States’. These states were controlled by the crusaders for their benefit and used as a way of carrying out further attacks in the Middle East. The main crusader states established at the time were: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli. All of these states are in the area of the Eastern Mediterranean and were vital routes towards the Holy Land for European crusaders. The fighting of the First Crusade continued until 1099 and saw the European crusaders face off against the Muslim fighters in a series of brutal battles. Eventually, the crusaders captured Jerusalem in July of 1099 during the Siege of Jerusalem and immediately slaughtered many of the Muslims and Jewish people living in the city. This victory served as inspiration for the crusades that followed, but in reality, Jerusalem and the Holy Land changed sides many times throughout the two centuries in which the crusades took place. As stated previously, several other later crusades took place in the decades and centuries after the First Crusade and continued until 1291 when the crusades finally concluded.