News headlines tell us day after day of the turmoil and tragedy in sacred Jerusalem and its environs that tarnish the pages of the history of the region. One wonders if all this will ever come to an end and the people there will learn to live in peace and friendship. It is both interesting and worrisome to recall that the inter-religious conflict for that land has been there, not for decades, but for many painful centuries.
In the context of the Holy Land, the hatred and rivalry between Christians and Muslims was intense and deep already more than a thousand years ago: so intense that when Reginald de Chantillion ascended the throne of Jerusalem he vowed to march into Arabia and decimate the tomb of “the accursed camel driver,” and pulverize the Kaaba. But when he tried to march towards Medina, it was his army that was decimated. It is said that in 1183, some of his soldiers who had been taken prisoners, were sacrificed to Allah instead of the customary goats in Mecca.
Reginald himself returned safe, and kept attacking Arab caravans. In one such ambush he captured the Egyptian king Saladin‘s sister. This infuriated Saladin who then led a successful attack on Jerusalem and took it swiftly. Thousands of Christians were taken prisoners, many were set free upon payment of a handsome ransom, and many were enslaved. But chroniclers have said that Saladin was a decent man, strong and bold in war and conquest, but gentle and merciful in times of peace, honorable and generous as ruler, but ardently devoted to his faith.
This was the context for the initiation of the Third Crusade. Frederick Barbarossa, acclaimed as the second Moses, set out from Germany to free Jerusalem, but was drowned in a small river on the way. The man was sixty seven years old. But a more youthful Richard the Lion Heart of England who was in his early thirties, accompanied by a much younger French king in his early twenties, went in full fury to dethrone the Muslim monarch from Jerusalem. There were numerous encounters, victory oscillated between the contenders, in accordance with the adage, you win some, you lose some. There were rumors that some water-wells were poisoned to thwart the enemy.
During an interlude when negotiations were underway, Richard conferred knighthood upon the son of a Muslim emissary. During a crucial battle, it is said, seeing Richard without a horse, but fighting bravely, Saladin sent him a good horse, saying it was not right that such a brave warrior should be fighting on foot. In another episode, Richard was tired and sick and asked for some water and fruits. Saladin sent his enemy some pears and peaches. So ironically humanistic were the bloody wars of those distant days.
The battles raged, many lives were lost, much pride was hurt, and it could have gone on endlessly, all in the name of gaining lordship over the land for the God of one’s own religion: Monotheism run amuck.
Eleven hundred years ago after a series of bloody battles, the Third Crusade was brought to a close with a treaty signed between two lordly figures: Richard I of Christendom and Saladin of the Muslim world. Palestine was split, the coastal regions were left to the Christians. Peace was guaranteed for only three years. After that anyone could do anything: they were realistic about their dissatisfaction. It was perhaps symbolic of the never-ending nature of the Middle-Eastern muddle.
One wonders if good sense and peace, cooperation and coexistence will ever become part of the people living in that region. The rest of the world can only pray for their well-being.
October 14, 2013