When the Muslim diplomat Usama ibn Munqidh visited Jerusalem in the early 12th century, recent history hardly portended a peaceful stay. A few decades prior, the Christian capture of the city in the First Crusade was accompanied by a massacre of Muslim and Jewish residents. Yet ibn Munqidh was cordially welcomed by one of the powerful military orders now present in the city — the Knights Templar, who allowed him to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
It’s true that a faux pas marred his visit: A recently arrived Christian saw ibn Munqidh praying southward towards Mecca and tried to reorient him eastward, which was common in contemporaneous Christian worship. This gaffe incensed ibn Munqidh — as well as his Templar hosts, who apologized to him after ejecting their coreligionist from the premises.
This story of tolerance, which ibn Munqidh relates in his memoirs, seems incongruous with medieval Jerusalem. After all, during the Middle Ages the city passed from one conqueror to another, often in bloody religious warfare that pitted Muslims against Christians, notably in the Crusades. Yet more often than not, the legacy of each conquest tended to be conciliation, not oppression. That’s the premise of a thought-provoking new book, “Jerusalem Falls: Seven Centuries of War and Peace,” by John Hosler.
“In the wake of those conflicts, I started to see things differently,” Hosler told The Times of Israel.
The author is a professor of military history at the Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The idea for the book arose through several years of classroom discussions around one of his courses, “The Deep Roots of Conflict in the Middle East,” an elective centering on Jerusalem from its first conquest by Islam in the seventh century to the Ottoman era that ended over a millennium later, accompanied by yet another conquest of Jerusalem, this time by British Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby in 1917 during World War I.
Hosler’s students are field-grade officers, and in the Jerusalem class they were not only interested in the warfare part of the narrative, but in what happened once the fighting stopped — a lens that suggested a different perspective.
“A Muslim ruler would take control of the city and not bar non-Muslims from the city,” Hosler said. “The Christians eventually, even after the First Crusade, started to let other people back in.”
That included ibn Munqidh’s visit.
“It’s so extraordinary,” Hosler said of the Templars’ reception. “None of it was hatred of Islam, suspicion of Islam, suspicion or hatred of a local Muslim walking around. It all had to do with proper behavior — be respectful to a gentleman, give this man a place to pray, don’t bother him. If it’s true — and historians tend to be skeptical of what they read in medieval sources, for all kinds of reasons about them — by itself, it runs counter to received wisdom of medieval Jerusalem.”
Hosler has written multiple books about the military history of the Middle Ages, including an award-winning study of the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. A Roman Catholic, he notes the importance of religion in his field of specialization. He’s seen this firsthand when he’s visited Jerusalem in the past. Although COVID-19 policies prevented Hosler from return trips during the pandemic, he’s enjoyed previous visits to the city’s many religious sites. Some of these sites also have military significance, such as the Crusader graffiti carved into the basement walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“In Jerusalem, it’s all military and it’s all religious,” Hosler said. “You got to see both no matter where you went.”
For his latest title, the author studied attacks on Jerusalem from the 7th-century showdowns between Byzantium, the Persian empire and Islam to the later Crusades of the 13th century. Conquerors used virtually every means at their disposal, from catapults to tunnels to blockades.
“I counted so many attacks on the city in the Middle Ages,” Hosler marveled. “I counted 19 for the book. As soon as the book got published, I found another one.”
Ironically, Jerusalem held dubious strategic value. Far from the Mediterranean coast, it was off the trade routes and ringed by difficult-to-cross mountains. Food and water were hard to come by, a frequent challenge for invaders and occupiers.
What made the city so desired was its importance for Jews, Christians and Muslims, manifested by its religious sites, from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Temple Mount. Christian cartographers placed Jerusalem at the center of the world. The city also figured prominently in apocalyptic beliefs surrounding all three Abrahamic faiths, including an envisioned building of the Third Temple in Judaism and the Second Coming in Christianity.
A pluralistic precedent was established in one of the earliest conquests — the Islamic caliph Umar’s capture of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire in 637, the first time in history that the city passed to Muslim control. Umar proved a tolerant ruler. He did not expel the city’s Christians and allowed them to continue worshiping there.
“It kind of sets the standard for every time there is a conquest and the city changes hands,” Hosler said. “Today, when we see the so-called status quo agreement in Jerusalem, that’s the baseline for it.”
The clearest violation of this baseline occurred almost 400 years later, in the First Crusade. Hosler called the bloody capture of Jerusalem in 1099 a glaring exception to historical precedent. Yet, he added, once the crusaders had established themselves in the city, they began to relax restrictions on non-Christians, allowing Muslims and Jews to return.
In later decades, the precedent of tolerance reestablished itself more directly. When the Ayyubid sultan Saladin reconquered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187, he opted not to take revenge for the massacre nearly a century before. Saladin spared the lives of the city’s Christian population, a deed that won admiration, even among the Europeans who launched the Third Crusade after Jerusalem fell.
“Saladin takes the city hundreds of years after Umar,” Hosler said. “He does the same thing — ‘OK, Christians can worship at the Holy Sepulchre, as they like to do. For Muslims, OK, we’ve got the Temple Mount.’” And, he added, “We don’t know the exact date, but Saladin welcomed Jews back in.”
Hosler indicated that respect for preexisting agreements could be found to some extent in contemporaneous Islamic law. Such respect even covered agreements made hundreds of years before, allowing for modifications on an as-needed basis.
Another example of tolerance was set by a Christian ruler in 1229, during the Sixth Crusade. Holy Roman emperor Frederick II reclaimed the city for Christendom, not through warfare, but rather through successful negotiations with the new Ayyubid sultan, al-Kamil. Frederick permitted Muslim worship on the Temple Mount and was accused by contemporary Christians of insufficient allegiance to his own religion, an accusation furthered by the fact that the emperor was excommunicated while on crusade.
The policy of tolerance had its limits. Hosler notes that while Saladin spared the lives of Jerusalem’s Christians, the sultan did not spare them in other ways, as recounted in a hard-to-read chapter of the narrative. The respect for pluralism shown by Jerusalem’s conquerors did not extend to other locations in the Levant. Far more common were bloody reprisals in places such as Caesarea, Tyre and Acre. The latter city is where the Crusades came to an end, in 1291, when the victorious Muslims decimated the surviving Christian population. Hosler muses on Jerusalem’s fate over the centuries had it not held its ecumenical importance.
And yet, he points out, it does have an outsized interfaith appeal, one that the current power structure would do well to remember. He cites a more recent example, from the Six Day War: After IDF paratroopers captured the Temple Mount, restoring Jewish control after 1,900 years, defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered a policy of restraint. At his demand, an Israeli flag installed over the Dome of the Rock was taken down, while worship at the Temple Mount was restored to the Islamic Waqf endowment that had previously supervised it.
“In that moment,” Hosler noted, “Dayan and the IDF, they were in the same position the crusaders were in, Frederick II was in, Saladin was in, even Caliph Umar was in: You have taken the city, you have driven out the enemy… they’re in total military retreat, they don’t have a chance to save the city. You can do anything you want, before realizing, ‘Oh, there is a limit… there will be repercussions.’”
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