As tragedy visits the Levant once again
Presently, this ‘paradise’ is under attack for some time, now. The attackers have devastated the bustling cities and suburbs into haunted ruins, killing tens of thousands of innocents and compelling an even a greater number to flee in exile
In a way, history is repeating itself in Syria. It was a beautiful country under the Assads happily marching towards modernisation. So did it flourish in Saladin’s time! So green was the greenery of the capital Damascus that it was compared to ‘a halo round the moon’ while the whole city looked ‘like a pearl in the emerald girdle of its gardens.’ Attached to beauty was the element of holiness as there is a cave in Mount Qasiyoun where Prophet Abraham was born and so were sacred its waters for there is a reference in the Bible which states that when Prophet Elisha directed Naaman to bathe in Jordan to heal his leprosy, he replied, “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” Qasiyoun is the same mountain from where it is said that the Prophets used to make their ascent to heaven. To the historian ibn Jubayr, “By Allah if Paradise is on earth, then Damascus without a doubt is in it.”
Presently, this ‘paradise’ is under attack for some time, now. The attackers have devastated the bustling cities and suburbs into haunted ruins, killing tens of thousands of innocents and compelling an even a greater number to flee in exile. Several centuries ago, Syria faced a somewhat similar bloody assault. Then, the attackers were Crusaders; today, they are extremist Muslims. The Crusaders were Europeans whereas the attackers on Assad are a complex brew of ‘blue-eyed’ ‘jehadi Johns and Janes’ from Europe as well as the Muslim militants from Arabia and south Asia. Historian John Man has given a vivid description of the actions and intentions of the Crusaders in his latest research on Saladin.
The Crusaders were a mix of Normans, Provencals, Angevins, Flemings, Italians and Hungarians; overall most of them were French, hence, the label ‘Franj’ by the Muslims. Their stated aims were to take the Holy Land, seize Jerusalem and convert the heathen but did not know what to do afterwards. Deep down some were romantics thirsting for adventure, others were in search of an opportunity to grab territory, some others were ruffians ready for loot while most were peasants eager to escape a harsh life in Europe nonetheless all displayed the Cross to show their high-mindedness. They displayed the Cross because the Crusades had the sanction of the Popes. Pope Urban’s speech which was summarised in the catchphrase “God wills it!” on the eve of the first Crusade is termed as “the most effective speech in all history” by the noted Western historian Philip Hitti. Subsequent Popes such as Eugenius III promised not only pardon to the sins of Crusaders but also martyrdom for even those who would die campaigning for the Crusaders. His friend Saint Bernard of Clairvaux urged the Crusaders to “hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the infidels. Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood,” to which the frensied audience responded with the cries of “To Jerusalem! To Jerusalem!”
The land of Syria was far away from Europe but if the Europeans kept swarming it in wave after wave, it is because the priestly class kept adding fuel of hatred to the dying flames of conflict, not even shying from manufacturing lies to further their vested interests. After the Crusaders lost Jerusalem to Saladin, Joscius, the archbishop of Tyre, carried to the monarchs and the high clergy of Europe the “propaganda drawings of the horses of Saladin’s army stabled and urinating in the Church of Holy Sepulchre.” So effective was his propaganda that the Sicilian King William II wore penitential sackcloth and Pope Gregory VIII urged all European rulers and their subjects “to repent, take up the Cross, fast, abstain and hand over all their worldly goods to Rome for protection.” In response to Gregory’s urging, the German Emperor Frederick I known as Barbarossa (Red Beard) convened a congress of princes to chalk out a new Crusade and to finance this ‘holy adventure,’ the English King Henry imposed the ‘Saladin Tithe’—a tax of ten percent on revenues and movable properties—with imprisonment for those who objected to it and exemption to those who volunteered to fight the Crusade. Not all the Crusaders were ‘lucky’ to give battle to Saladin. For example, Emperor Barbarossa was drowned on the way and though his retrieved body was first preserved in a barrel of vinegar, later on, his rotting flesh was boiled from bones and given a hasty burial. Those who survived the long hazardous journeys had to suffer harsh weather and famine. The famine of 1190 AD compelled the French Crusaders to eat grass, bare bones and their own horses. The situation was worse for the Crusaders a century earlier. One chronicler has recorded that due to the shortage of food supplies, the Crusaders “boiled pagan adults in cooking pots, they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.” Another historian confirmed that the Crusaders not only ate dead Turks and Saracens but also dogs. These horrifying details are not exaggerations of some Arab writers but the accounts of two French historians named Ralph of Caen and Albert of Aix.
Christian chroniclers have given the impression as if the Crusaders were wholly masculine adventurers, which is not true because there were several women who fought alongside men and these women were other than the washerwomen and the wives accompanying their aristocratic husbands. Another revealing aspect penned down by John Man was the presence of prostitutes in the Crusading armies about which all Christian writers of Crusades are silent. Imad al-Deen, the Secretary of Saladin, has recorded that “There arrived by ship three hundred lovely Frankish women…They were all licentious harlots, who took and gave, foul-fleshed and sinful, singers and coquettes…ardent and inflamed, tainted and painted…selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, ink-faced and unblushing.”
Assad’s challenge is bigger than Saladin’s because he is facing the combined assault from the East and the West. The tragedy of the ongoing conflict is that the secular governments of the West are opposing the secular regime of Assad
The situation is not much different in today’s Syria. Extremists with militant bent of mind have swarmed Syria. They are ready to kill and be killed. To them the secular government of Bashar is un-Islamic and therefore deserves to be overthrown by violent means. Assad’s challenge is bigger than Saladin’s because he is facing the combined assault from the East and the West. The tragedy of the ongoing conflict is that the secular governments of the West are opposing the secular regime of Assad and supporting the very religious militants which they are expected to crush. While Saladin was successful in defeating the attackers; Bashar’s fate hangs in the balance.