The Middle East in 1095

Bab al-Futuh, Cairo, Egypt. Ordered by minister Badr al-Gamali al-Guyushi, 1087 AD. Photo courtesy of Islamic Art and Architecture Collection. Artstor.

Although it is often painted as such, “Islam” in the late 11th Century was not unified politically, geographically or militarily. Westerners of the time and later historians have described the First Crusade as an epic battle between two forces, but the reality on the ground was radically different. Although the Crusaders (pilgrims) adopted this dualistic perspective, their Muslim adversaries saw these Christians merely as new players on a complicated and crowded stage.  By stepping into this politically disorganized region, the Crusaders unknowingly took advantage of competition between both local warlords and the region’s major powers: the Seljuks and the Fatimids.  Had the Abbasid Caliphate maintained stronger control over its subject kingdoms, or had Muslims more quickly realized the scope of the Crusader movement, they could have undoubtedly presented a united front capable of wiping the Crusader army from the map. Instead, as we will see, the First Crusade became a miraculous success.

The Growth and Development of the Muslim Sects of 1095

Under the leadership of Muhammad in the seventh century, Islam spread rapidly up the Arabian Peninsula.  In the four centuries following Muhammad’s death, Muslim caliphs expanded their territories from modern day Iran to Sicily, North Africa and the border of modern France and Spain (see map below).

From “Road to Manzikert: Byzantine and Islamic Warfare, 527-1071,” by Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, and John Cairns. 2012.


The territory ruled by the Umayyad caliphs also included the city of Jerusalem by 638 and remained relatively stable until the Caliphate was significantly weakened by civil strife in the two centuries before the First Crusade.[2] In 959, disagreements over succession led to a split in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shiite sects. This split resulted in a weakly centralized Sunni Caliphate based in Baghdad and a Shiite Caliphate with a strong base of power in modern day Egypt.[3] Jerusalem fell under the control of the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate, whose liberal policies allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live and worship in the city freely.

The sudden and powerful rise of the Sunni empire of the Seljuk Turks changed this situation entirely.  The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 broke the back of Byzantine power in the Middle East and wiped out a significant portion of their military forces, leaving Anatolia and the Middle East open to Turkish control.[5] Despite Byzantium’s constant calls for help, Western Christendom was not particularly willing to provide military support at this point because their religious sovereignty in the Holy Land (still under Fatimid control) was not yet threatened.[6]


In 1077, however, the Seljuk Turks besieged Jerusalem and wrested it from their Fatimid rivals. A newer, more fundamentalist Muslim sect, the Seljuks drove Christians and Jews out of the city, denying them access to their holy sites.  With the right of pilgrimage under threat, the Pope in Rome could no longer ignore consequences of non-Christian control of Jerusalem.[8]  After speaking with a Byzantine delegation, Pope Victor III laid out plans for a military intervention after Jerusalem’s fall, designed to aid the Byzantines in driving the Turks from Anatolia and reconquering the Holy Land for Christianity.  However, political crises in Europe delayed this endeavor until 1095, when Pope Urban II finally preached the First Crusade, beginning centuries of warfare that would galvanize zealous Christians and Muslims alike. [9]

Challenges Facing the Muslim Sects in 1095

Despite a newfound Christian interest in the spread of Islam into Byzantine lands, in 1095, Muslim groups in the Middle East continued to focus on expanding their territory by fighting each other. The Fatimid Caliphate considered the Abbasid Caliphate a rival and sought to overcome them militarily, waging a series of campaigns against them.[10] When the Seljuk Turks burst onto the scene in the 1050s, the Fatimid caliphate had control over the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. This power balance was quickly reversed as the Seljuks grew in power and began to both dominate the Fatimids and expand into Byzantium.[11] As the Seljuks expanded, the Abbasid Caliphate strove to keep itself afloat, and the Fatimids sought to maintain the power they had and continue to combat the region’s Sunnis, none of the three groups was prepared to meet the challenge of the crusaders.

Working Title/Artist: Bowl w/eagle Department: Islamic Art Culture/Period/Location: Egypt HB/TOA Date Code: 06 Working Date: ca. 1000 photographed by mma in 1982, interior view, transparency 2b scanned by film & media 3/4/01

Bowl with Eagle, Egypt ca. 1000. Fatimid. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Furthermore, the three groups were each commanded by sprawling political organizations whose disorganization and loose hierarchies contributed to instability. The Abbasids’ central authority was the caliph, who was based in Baghdad, but the rest of the caliphate was broken up into provinces ruled by independent leaders, whose loyalty to the caliph varied.[12] The Seljuks were nominally controlled by the Abbasid Caliphate, but their military strength far exceeded that of their overlords.  Further, they maintained a state of relative sovereignty, conducting politics independently of the caliphate. The Seljuk empire was characterized by decentralization, with conquered territories-turned-provinces governed by vassals, emirs, and atabegs who all reported to higher-up authorities called sultans.[13] The Seljuk Empire’s complicated hierarchical structure, vast amount of territory, and high degree of autonomy made it vulnerable to both interior conflict and external threats. The Fatimid Caliphate was characterized by a series of splintering sects that warred with both each other and their Sunni rivals. In 1094, a Fatimid prince named Nizar rebelled when he was not chosen as successor of his family’s caliphate. He was killed, but a number of Fatimids who had supported him broke with the rest of the caliphate to form the Nizari sect, which was loyal to his line. The Fatimid Shi’ites were now embroiled in conflicts with both their Sunni rivals and each other.[14]

The political decentralization of 1095 was compounded by a number of other weaknesses that prevented the Muslims of the Middle East from meeting the crusader threat head-on. The Fatimids struggled to defeat the crusaders because they had no local allies, seeing the entire Sunni majority as their rivals. Egypt was also suffering from the dual disaster of a plague and a famine, which left the Fatimids ill-equipped to combat a new rival.[15] The deaths of a great number of important Muslim figures between 1092 and 1094 led to the disintegration of the familiar web of alliances and rivalries among the Seljuks, leaving the already-disorganized Seljuk Empire closer to anarchy. These figures included the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, the de facto ruler of the Seljuk empire; the powerful Seljuk sultan Malikshah, and his family; al-Mustansir, and al-Muqtadi, the Abbasid Sunni caliph.[16] Furthermore, the Seljuks were occupied by intense military conflict between the two sons of Malikshah, Barkyaruq and Muhammad. Most Seljuk military resources were devoted to their conflict, particularly needed leadership: neither brother wanted to leave his area undefended in order to pay attention to the Frankish invasion. The geographic area they prized was in Iran and Iraq, not Syria and Palestine, and the struggles of the Muslims facing crusader invasion were not priorities for them.[17] Due to the disparate nature of the Seljuk empire, a strong sultan was needed to step up and lead the vast and varied troops under one cause in order for military campaigns to be successful. This was precisely the opposite of the actual situation. Given that the Seljuks were the only Islamic group with the military resources that would have been necessary to defeat the crusaders, the sultans’ focus on their own power struggles kept the Islamic Middle East from combating this invasion.

Political boundaries of the Eastern Mediterranean 1090

From “The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories,” edited by Conor Kostick. 2011

On the march to retake the Holy Land, the pilgrims of the First Crusade were totally unaware of the political tensions between the many warlords and caliphs occupying the Middle East.  These tensions and the impressive fragmentation of Muslim states, demonstrated in the map below, offered the Crusaders their best chance of success.

Indeed, Pope Urban II was almost certainly unaware of the perfect timing of his armed pilgrimage into the Holy Land.  However, it was the Muslim preoccupation with their own internal border wars and total ignorance of the threat bearing down upon them that allowed the First Crusade to reach and take Jerusalem.  The importance of this internal division of the Muslim world in 1095 cannot be overstated, nor can its ultimate effect on the history of the Middle East, the West and Islam and Christianity.


[1] Cairns, John. “The Umayyad Caliphate in 750.” Map. ¼ in. = 250 miles. In Road to Manzikert: Byzantine and Islamic Warfare, 527-1071. Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, and John Cairns. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books Ltd., 2012.

[2] “The Muslim Period.” The Muslim Period of Jerusalem. American University, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

[3] Cobb, Paul M. “Introduction.” The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, Usama Ibn Munqidh. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

[4] “The Muslim Period.” The Muslim Period of Jerusalem. American University, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

[5] Pitman, Paul, III. “The Rise of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.” The Rise of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Sam Houston State University, 1987. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

[6] “The Muslim Period.” The Muslim Period of Jerusalem. American University, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

[7] RealCrusadeHistory. “The First Crusade – Episode 1: Byzantium’s Call for Help.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 July 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

[8] Madden, Thomas F. A Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cobb, Paul M. “Introduction.” The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, Usama Ibn Munqidh. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008. xviii.

[11] Ibid., xix.

[12] Ibid., xvii.

[13] Ibid., xix.

[14] Ibid., xviii.

[15] Hillenbrand, Carole. “The First Crusade: the Muslim Perspective.” In The First Crusade: Origins and Impact, edited by Jonathan Phillips, 130-41. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997, 134.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.