Constantinople, 1204

All wars are about rapine.

In ancient times, warriors were attracted to be part of an army by promising that they could loot, steal, destroy, kill and rape; nowadays these privileges are reserved for the rulers of the warring countries, provided they win, and their friends and associates. If we look at the most famous wars, in all of them are going to find a component of economic interest, be it land, gold, oil, some place of strategic value, or make slaves of the losers. Hitler started the war because they coveted the territories of Eastern Europe. The Texas War was about the territory of Texas. The independence wars of Latin American countries started because they no longer wanted to be part of the Spanish Crown. The American war of independence meant to escape from the British Crown and to avoid paying taxes to the King. The Crusades, glorified in the Christian tradition to the level of holy war, were originated because before 1095 there was another holy war, from the Muslims, who conquered Jerusalem for their domain and what is now Israel. The Gulf War was for oil in Kuwait. The fights of the Aztecs with all its neighbors were to submit them to its rule, which in turn created great dissatisfaction that the Spanish capitalized, joining the enemies of the non-Aztec Indians to take Tenochtitlan. You may mention virtually every region inhabited by man, and you will find a war behind it.

In the year 1095 Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council meeting in Clermont, France, where he called on all well-born Christians to take up arms and go to conquer again Holy Land, that had recently fallen in the hands of Muslims. It happens that for Mankind’s bad luck, the city of Jerusalem is a most holy city for three major religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each of these religions has its very particular reasons to believe that is its Holy City, and throughout History the region has been embroiled in wars in which one party tries to seize it. In 1095 Jerusalem was in Muslims’ hands and in Christians’ ambition. The pope urged the Christians to take up arms and launch a holy war, and this sermon was a huge success; groups of warriors were assembled in various parts of Europe, another large group of men and women was following a preacher named Peter the Hermit, which led thousands to the Holy Land as an army, but in fact it was a pilgrimage. And the climax of the excitement was the Children’s Crusade, preached by some children in France and Germany, who left their homes to go to Italy and thence to the Holy Land. None of these children came ever to the Holy Land, and almost none returned to their homeland.

Urban II’s preaching had such great success because it gave hope to most of European society, who lived under the feudal regime of those years. Nobles were nobles not for their education -at that time almost everyone was illiterate- but because they knew the sword, because they had a horse and were willing to fight for any reason at any place. Monks and priests were not exactly exemplary, they fulfilled their religious obligations without enthusiasm or knowledge, and most of them had chosen religious life as a way to live better, not as a result of a true vocation. People were submitted to nobility, priests gave no big help, and their conviction was that in this life they had no right, but in the afterlife they would have all. Along with illiteracy, there was almost total absence of instruction, and virtually everyone was ignorant, except in the things of his own office. In these circumstances, the pope preaches a crusade to vanquish Holy Land, offering indulgences to all who embraced the cause, and everyone saw in that sermon what he wanted to see: for the nobleman and not rich, it was a way to own a land, albeit in Jerusalem; common people hoped that life would be better there; all of them thought in a vague but enthusiastic way that the Crusade would be the solution to the shortage of life they happened to live.

The First Crusade was made around 1096, conquered Jerusalem and other cities in that area, where some knights got actually the land and titles they could not get in Europe, some Christian kingdoms were created, all of this and pushed the Muslims world in turn to preach their holy war and try to their regain lost land. So was live in this area for several centuries, until the Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and managed to stabilize the region.

By the year 1200, and it is now, the city of Jerusalem had a symbolic value for all Christianity, because Jesus Christ died there. However, the true important city in what is now Asia Minor was Constantinople, the second Rome, which had been founded by Emperor Constantine about the year 330 in the place where it is now Istanbul, Turkey’s capital. After the fall of Rome it became the largest city in the world, and had been the capital of the Byzantine Empire for nearly 900 years. It was at a strategic point on the shores of the Bosphorus, where it controlled the passage of ships going to or returning to the Black Sea, thereby controlling the trade between Europe and Asia. During that time their inhabitants had built palaces, churches and streets, had amassed a huge collection of works of art, had collected thousands of manuscripts, works of art from the Greek period, had schools and was possibly the only city in the world where people entertaining discussion of religion, theologians like: not simple-minded talks, but with some level of deepness they discussed about the nature of Persons in the Trinity, the sacraments and themes that reflected the level of instruction attained by most people.

In 1200 Europeans were not concerned with theological discussion at all, they were attracted by the legendary wealth of Constantinople. The First Crusade had been there, but all groups of crusaders who arrived were quickly helped to cross the strait, put them on land across the sea, and they were pointed “over there” to Jerusalem, where they had to fight. However, the area remained unstable, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was an island in areas dominated by Muslims, there had been more Crusades that ended up in failure, (such as St. Louis’, King of France), and in summary, Christians learned the lesson that one thing was to conquer Jerusalem, and quite another to enjoy the conquest.

Pope Innocent III had begun his reign to 1197 and yearned to establish an effective domination of Christianity in the Holy Land, of course, under the command of the Holy See. From the beginning he gave himself to the task of promoting the organization of a new Crusade, the fourth, and got it. The Pope was very intelligent, educated, and was able to inspire many European nobles in order to launch this new venture. And indeed, nobles from various parts of Europe met in Venice with the intention to embark to war. But there was a problem: they had no money. The Pope had “urged” them to go to war, but had no interest in finance them, and so, the Crusaders were stranded in Venice, idle and penniless, waiting for something to happen to continue on.

And here appears Enrico Dandolo, the real architect of what was indeed the Fourth Crusade, the real result of Innocent III’s preaching. Dandolo was Dux of Venice, the title given by Venetians to their leader. He was older than eighty when he came to office, was nearly blind, but had a great intelligence, energy and ambition, and behave like a young man. Venice was rich through trade made with their ships, carrying and bringing goods to the East, some of them through passage controlled by Constantinople. The wealth of Constantinople had aroused the ambition of Venice, and the thousands of soldiers stationed there, without money and waiting for a miracle happen to to be able to sail to Holy Land, was indeed a miracle… for Venetians; they saw an opportunity to realize their plans. Dandolo brought together leaders of the Crusaders and said to them that Venice could support their plan with ships and food, provided that they could do a small favor in return: “there was a city on the opposite shore of the Adriatic Sea, Zara by name, which Hungarians, another Christian kingdom, had taken from the Venetians”. “Why not? A little diversion from the main the road, this would even serve as training”, leaders answered, and set sail to Zara, the coveted city for Venice. They took it without problems, the pope elevated a holy scream to Heavens because Christians were attacking Christians, but he did not consider politically correct to do anything else, and let the world be as it was.

Providentially for Dandolo, in those days came to Zara Alexis Angelo, son of Byzantine emperor Isaac II, who had been thrown from the throne; Alexis asks for Dandolo’s help, he replies that Venice is a city of commerce, not of war, but coincidentally it happens that there is at hand a group of friends who may be of help. Dandolo arranges a meeting between Alexis and the leaders of the Crusade, and Alexis declares “I see that you are men of honor, because you have kept your word to help Dandolo. If you help me to regain the throne, your deeds will be rewarded.” The Crusaders, who had already decided to take a city just for the price of a one-way way ticket, were suddenly lured by the riches that awaited them in Constantinople. A few protested and said that this was not a crusade, but most of them simply thought of making another stop on the way to Jerusalem, just to take and plunder the world’s richest city. The Pope, usually well informed about everything happening in all of Europe, was busy at that time looking at more important issues, and expected Constantinople to fall, and only then he elevated a second Holy Scream.

April 12, 1204 is one of the most ominous days in history. That day, Crusaders took Constantinople by sack, looted, killed, raped, burned, destroyed and managed to lose for posterity an unquantifiable amount of art treasures: scrolls, statues, books, palaces, all that Constantinople had been treasured in nine centuries. The Venetians, who knew the value of these treasures, rescued what they could and now we can see the famous Horses at St. Mark’s Square in memory of this tragedy. Christian nobles and knights of Europe, who knew nothing of art, turned on to killing, raping and stealing. The English historian Steven Runciman says “there never was a greater crime against humanity that the Fourth Crusade. Not only it caused the destruction or dispersion of all the treasures of the past that had been stored devoutly by Byzantium, and inflicted a deadly wound to a great civilization that was still active, but it was also a huge act of political folly.” Indeed, the cruisaders inflicted enough damage to the Byzantine Empire, as it to happen, about 250 years later, that Constantinople fell to the Turks; that is to say, the beneficiary in the long run of this insane adventure were the Muslims, the very same that the Crusaders wanted to fight. When the Pope scolded the Christian warriors, damage had been done.

In the short term, the winner was Venice, it wiped out a business rival. In the long run, the whole Christendom lost, because the sack of Constantinople paved the way for the Muslims who were pushing from Asia to reach Europe. The Pope had tried to convince the Christian (but schismatic) Byzantium to accept his authority, and he could not pick a worse argument than this destruction. In few words, this war shows that even for allegedly religious reasons, even if there are plenary indulgences, war is nothing but the extreme of human folly, it creates distance and resentment between the contestants, and when one war ends, the next war starts its preparation.

P. S. Runciman’s quote is taken from his Historia de las Cruzadas, Alianza Editorial, page 715.

(Translation: jlgs)


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