The History Channel Presents The Crusades
The Crusades have fascinated young and old for over a thousand years with the tales that range from everything that exemplifies heroism and faith to the lowest and most putrid atrocities the medieval world had ever seen. On Sunday, November 6, the History Channel premiered its latest concoction dealing with the vast topic. The program gives a very accurate depiction of the events that took place from 1095 to 1197, but there is always room for criticism.
The primary sources motioned in The Crusades are four. The first chronicler is William of Tyre who was an archbishop in the twelfth century as well as one of the most knowledgeable men of the period. William is presented in his priestly attire in dimly lit edifices while telling the story to clerks. The impassioned oration of the Archbishop, accompanied by the typically associated medieval music as backdrop serves to emphasize the gravity of the events. The most prominent perhaps is when the sermon of Pope Urban II, given in November 1095 is retold. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I, seeing his kingdom threatened by the Turks asked Urban II for help. The Pope saw in this the opportunity to wage a war and thus place Rome back on the center of the world and to reclaim Christendom’s holiest places. Second, the memoirs of an anonymous Christian Knight fighting in the First Crusade are related by and actor usually sitting by a pyre. This shows a far more emotional side of the story and perhaps more convincing tale by virtue of being a primary source based on an eyewitness account. He tells of the conquest of Marrat, which turned out to be the most gruesome atrocity of the First Crusade in which the whole city was massacred and the Christians, for the sake of terrorizing their opponents resorted to impaling men, women and children and devouring their flesh.
The Christian accounts are vivid and overshadow the latter two Muslim sources used by the History Channel, which should have been given just as much importance. Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad is the writer whose work is utilized to give insight into the life of the Muslim leader Saladin. The downside to this account is that it serves to glorify the man for whom it was written and it is hard to sunder what is fiction and what is reality. Last, but not least is the twelfth century Arab chronicler Ibn Al-Athir, whom in spite of being rather secondary is far more historically reliable than Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad. Ibn Al-Athir spent his life collecting information about the Muslim leaders who fought in the Crusades against the Christians.
To produce such a large scale program that encompasses such an important period in Western history, more contemporary sources should have been included. The Christain sources of William of Tyre and the anonymous knight are extensive while those of Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad and Ibn Al-Athir are not given enough importance.
The History Channel attempts to make the distinctions between Muslims and Christians clear though visual aides that go unnoticed most of the time. While the idea of a generic Romanesque cathedral is utilized to house William of Tyre while he tells of the Crusades, Hagia Sophia, in modern day Istanbul, is used to exemplify the former wealth of imperial Constantinople while being used at the same time as the thirty-foot tall wall that surrounded the city. The dramatized scenes in Europe are displayed with a blue, green, and overall cool palette of colors, while the events in the Middle East are represented in glowing and often sight-tiring yellows reminiscent of the solar glare particular to that part of the globe.
The most spectacular part of the program is the accuracy of the props and attire. Often in previous documentaries, the Crusaders are envisioned wearing full plate armor, which did not come to be in use until well into the thirteenth century. The Europeans are shown carrying accurate mail of large linkage often covered by a rough tunic on top, fastened to the waist with a leather belt. The Turks are shown wearing light and layered attire while carrying scimitars of the slashing kind so popular for mounted attacks.
Some of the big names of historical figures in The Crusades are brought to life by vivid retelling of the events. Among them are Emperor Alexius I of Byzantine, the righteous Godfrey, Zengi the Muslim warrior, the charismatic Nur al-Dir, who unified the Muslim world, and the French monarch Louis VII who led the Crusaders into the fiasco at the battle for the city of Damascus. Not enough attention is given to the key role that Eleanor of Aquitaine played in the decisions of her husband Louis VII during the Second Crusade, but one can’t have everything.
The History Channel did a brilliant job at gathering competent interviewees for the production of The Crusades. Among them was Dr. Jonathan Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the Royal Holloway University of London. Dr. Phillips is THE current leading authority on Crusading history in the world and has published many books, among them The Second Crusade Expanding the Borders of Christianity due to come out in 2006. Talk about not being able to wait. Dr. Taef El-Azhari from Helwan University in Saudi Arabia also contributed to the production. He is one of the first historians to teach “The Muslim Perspective of the Crusades.”
The Crusades was definitely a thrill to watch and if the show happens to be on air again, it would be a worthy idea to watch it and join us folks that have been enchanted by the history from 1095 to 1197 in whish the world changed drastically.