February 24, 2012
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II stood up at the Council of Clermont in central France to make an important announcement. Persians (by whom he meant the Turks), “a people rejected by God,” had risen up against the Christians in the East, he said. It was imperative for the knighthood of Europe to rush to defend their brethren. Take up arms, he urged, and defend the faithful who were suffering unspeakable deeds at the hands of the oppressors.
The story of the First Crusade has remained largely the same ever since. The expedition that eventually reached and captured Jerusalem in 1099 was conceived by the pope, who seized the chance to encourage men in Western Europe (above all France) to march to drive the Turks back from major Christian sites. It is a story that was commemorated in chronicles, poems and songs almost as soon as the Crusaders reached the Holy City; and it is a story that has been told for generations ever since.
And yet, underneath this tale of bravery, courage and devotion is the story of what really happened, a story that has been hidden in the mists: In the place of heroism is a tale of deception; in the place of honor is the breaking of some of the most sacred oaths in Christendom. At its heart lies the betrayal of the Byzantine Empire.
The speech made by the pope is so famous that it is rarely asked why he delivered it in the first place. Jerusalem, it should be remembered, fell to the Muslims many centuries before he gave his address. Why now, more than 450 years later, was there a sudden need to recover the city where Jesus Christ lived and was crucified?
The answer lies not in Rome or in Clermont, but in the imperial capital of Constantinople. In fact, it was in the heart of the Byzantine Empire that the expedition to the East was conceived; it was the emperor -- Alexios Komnenos -- who devised the campaign and took control of it; perhaps most importantly, it was specific strategic targets, set by the emperor, that the Crusade was designed to attack.
The reign of Alexios Komnenos is recorded by several texts, the most important of which is the remarkable “Alexiad,” written by his daughter Anna Komnene. It is an account written in high style, full of subtlety and hidden meanings -- many of which have remained hidden and unidentified since she wrote the text.
But her account has now finally been unraveled. What has emerged can be taken alongside other Byzantine, Arabic, Syriac and Armenian sources to present a startling and new picture of the empire on the eve of the First Crusade.
Rather than being in a healthy position, as has long been assumed, a series of disastrous events took place in and around Constantinople that led Byzantium to the brink of collapse. The emperor’s immediate family, rather than being a rock he could rely on, turned on him -- his own brothers and relatives joining a conspiracy to depose and if necessary murder him.
If that was not bad enough, major attacks in the Balkans by Serbian opportunists and by nomadic tribesmen increased pressure further still on the embattled ruler. And then in Asia Minor, the empire’s position simply collapsed.
Although the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 has long enjoyed notoriety for marking the turning point in the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, the moment when Byzantium lost control of the region, evidence from the texts and from lead seals now shows that the apparatus of government remained intact long after this military setback.
As a matter of fact, there are signs that the provincial administration was in good shape long after the supposed defining moment in the history of Asia Minor. Indeed, there were extensive -- and direct -- contacts between Alexios and the Turkish ruler of Baghdad, with much cooperation between the two until the latter’s death in 1092.
What happened next was catastrophe: Turkish warlords in Nicaea, Smyrna and elsewhere took matters into their own hands, and pushed the empire to the brink of collapse. The Aegean was devastated -- figures like St Christodoulos were forced to abandon their monasteries in Patmos because of incessant raids; suddenly Byzantium was left without even a foothold in the East; Constantinople itself was under threat.
Alexios took a bold decision. He turned to the pope, suggesting an end to the schism between the churches in return for military help. The pope did not need to be asked twice -- and headed straight for his home region, where he was confident of raising men.
To start with, Alexios’s gamble paid off. Nicaea was recovered first, followed by a series of other gains in Anatolia. But at Antioch he lost control. One of the leading figures, Bohemond, a handsome but devious fellow, realized that he could benefit personally from the Crusade and set about doing exactly that, insisting that he be given control of substantial territories, including Antioch.
This was not easy, for the knights had given solemn oaths to Alexios as they passed through Constantinople on their way east. The emperor had demanded that the senior figures swear vows to him over some of the most holy Christian relics -- the Holy Cross and the crown of thorns -- that they would hand over any gains they made to him. It was hard to see how these could be conveniently put to one side.
And yet they were. Although many did not agree, Bohemond managed to take Antioch for himself, declaring boldly that his oath was invalid. He then promptly wrote to the pope, accusing Alexios of not doing enough to help the Crusade and of actively conspiring against the best interests of the Christian knights. It was the first salvo of what quickly became a vicious -- and highly effective -- campaign to destroy the reputation of Alexios and in fact of the Byzantine Empire in Western Europe. Neither recovered.
It also resulted in the real origins of the Crusade being concealed. Rather than Alexios and Byzantium being at the heart of the story, contemporary accounts made sure that the focus remained elsewhere -- on the pope and on those brave knights who set off for Jerusalem.
History, they say, is written by the winners. In the case of the First Crusade, it has taken nearly a millennium to show just how true this is. But finally the time has come for Alexios Komnenos to step out of the shadows.
* Dr Peter Frankopan is director of the Center for Byzantine Research at Oxford University and author of “The First Crusade: The Call from the East,” published this spring by Random House and Harvard University Press.