The Sea Speaks Arabic: Umej Bhatia Discusses Muslim Memories of the Crusades and Their Resonances in Middle Eastern Politics Today

By Bhatia, Umej | History Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview

The Sea Speaks Arabic: Umej Bhatia Discusses Muslim Memories of the Crusades and Their Resonances in Middle Eastern Politics Today


Bhatia, Umej, History Today


ON DECEMBER 11TH, 1917, eight centuries after the Kurdish warrior-general Saladin expelled the Crusaders from the holy city of Jerusalem, a British-led Egypt expeditionary force overcame its beleaguered Turkish defenders. The holy city had changed hands after nearly a millennium of Muslim rule, which had been interrupted only by the short-lived Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291) and assorted Crusader states which had introduced an alien, Western Christian, feudal order to the Levant.

Now, as the Ottoman empire tottered, the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force, General Sir Edmund Allenby approached the Jaffa Gate on the West Wall. Wearing the unspectacular khaki of the British Army, he entered on foot as a mark of respect to the Holy City. But the General had other strategic considerations in mind. The British and Imperial forces included Indian Muslim sepoys who shared the faith of the Ottoman army. After a failed mutiny in the Far East in 1915, they were deemed highly susceptible to the pan-Islamic propaganda of the Central Powers. Allenby therefore had to be careful not to offend their sentiments by invoking a Christian victory. European media coverage was far less circumspect. Allenby's victory was presented as the 'consummation of Europe's last crusade'. The triumphal narrative drew a straight line from the glorious First Crusade of 1095-1101, down to the thwarted Eighth in 1270, encompassing the inconclusive and fizzled Crusades of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This allowed the popular imagination in Europe to claim a final victory in 1917.

But two years after Allenby's British and Imperial forces took Palestine, it was victory of a more concrete sort that occupied Western statesmen and diplomats who convened in Paris for the frenzied diplomatic activity of the 1919 Peace Conference. Part of the wider mandate to create a lasting post-war peace, which found expression in the Treaty of Versailles, it was also a meeting to supervise the carve-up of the Middle East. In one of many sessions devoted to address the so-called Eastern Question, the French foreign minister Stephen Jean Marie Pichon began a speech to seek political support for France's claim to Syria, which he confidently dated back to the Crusades. Pichon's words resonated among some members of his audience.

But not all were amused. Among those concentrating on the interpretation of the minister's speech was the Emir Feisal of the Hijaz. The Emir's father, the Hashemite Sharif Husayn of Mecca, had led the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule in support of Allied victory in the Middle East. Planned by General Allenby and the Emir's military advisor, Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the desert combat had claimed the lives of many Arab fighters. In return, Sharif Husayn had been promised British support for an Arab state, with the expectation that this would include Greater Syria.

Feisal overcame French obstruction to arrive in Paris for the Conference, his credentials naming him as his father's representative, and not as the Crown Prince. Serving as Feisal's interpreter and aide was the colourful Lawrence, decked out in full Arab regalia. As Pichon held forth on Syria and the Crusades, the trained diplomats present at the meeting would have paid attention to Feisal's body language. But maintaining the stately composure that had so impressed the American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Feisal restricted his response to a succinct retort: 'Pardon me, Monsieur Pichon, but which of us won the Crusades?'

Feisal's riposte had been drawn from a collective memory of the Crusades as a proud and ultimately victorious phase in Islamic history. Pichon, disdainful of Feisal as a British puppet and less impressed by the sight of a regal Arab than his American counterpart, unapologetically asserted France's crusading pedigree in Syria. In gambits that resemble today's trans-Atlantic divide, France and Britain played out their age-old rivalry. …

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