Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 March 2000
Issue No. 472
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Alexandria re-inscribed
No One Sleeps in Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, tr. Farouk Abdel-Wahab, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp409
Southern Part

The Crusades through Muslim eyes
The Crusades -- Islamic Perspectives, Carole Hillenbrand, Edinburgh University Press, 1999. pp648

Economic schizophrenia, global style
Misr wa Riyah Al-'awlama (Egypt and the Winds of Globalisation), Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 1999. pp264

Canine ruminations
Darourat Al-Kalb fil Masrahiya (The Need for the Dog in the Play), Girgis Shukri, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2000. pp101

History and parallel history
Tumanbay: Al-Sultan Al-Shahid (Tumanbay: The Martyred Sultan), Emad Abu Ghazi, Cairo: Mirette, 1999. pp96

Sun Dancer speaks his sorrow
Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance, Leonard Peltier, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999. pp243

Novel of novels
Al-Bashmouri II, Salwa Bakr, Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture. 2000, pp151

Chagall's Arabian Nights: Four Tales from The Thousand and One Nights with lithographs by Marc Chagall, Prestel Verlag, 1999. pp163 Read caption

To the editor
At a glance
A shorthand guide to the month compiled by Mahmoud El-Wardani

Magazines & Periodicals
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), a Monthly Review of Books, issue No. 14, March, 2000, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publishing
* Aafaq Ifriqiya (African Horizons), quaretrly, Cairo: State Information Service, issue no. 1
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamiya (World Culture), bimonthly cultural magazine, Kuwait, no.99

* Al-Riwaya fi Nihayat Al-Qarn (The Novel at the End of the Century), Ali El-Ra'i, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2000, pp371
* Al-Himaya wal-Iqab: Al-Gharb wal-Mas'ala Al-Diniya fil-Sharq Al-Awsat (Protection and Punishment: The West and the Religious Question in the Middle East), Samir Morqos, Cairo: Miret, 2000, pp210
* Al-Wataniya Al-Misriya fil-Asr Al-Hadith (Egyptian Nationalism in Modern Times), Amina Higazi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2000, pp555
* Khamriya, Amin El-Ayyouti, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 2000, pp121
* Awlamat Al-Faqr (The Globalisation of Poverty), Michael Chossudovsky trans. Mohamed Mostagir, Cairo: Sotour, 2000, pp328
* Hal Intahat Ostourat Ibn-Khaldoun? (Is the Myth of Ibn-Khaldoun over?), Mahmoud Ismail, Cairo: Dar Qibaa, 2000, pp333

Books is a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly appearing every second Thursday of the month. We welcome contributions and letters on subjects raised in this supplement. Material may be edited for length and clarity; and should be addressed to Mona Anis, Books Editor, Al-Ahram Weekly, Galaa St., Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt; Faz: +202 578 6089; E-mail:
For advertising call +202-5780233; Fax +202 394 1866

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

The Crusades -- Islamic Perspectives, Carole Hillenbrand, Edinburgh University Press, 1999. pp648

The Crusades through Muslim eyes

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

The CrusadesThe world's knowledge of the Crusades derives almost exclusively from Christian sources. This being so, the present book is something of a pioneering venture in seeking to see these Western incursions into the Levant through Muslim eyes and in attempting to evoke the real response of the Muslims -- both at the time and subsequently -- to the Crusader presence. In her book the writer lays the foundations for redressing the balance and yielding new insights into a phenomenon that left indelible marks on the area and its inhabitants. It was the Crusades above all else that shaped European perceptions of the Muslim world and vice versa. On both sides these stereotyped images are deeply entrenched, and the author goes a long way to providing the Muslim point of view, thus making it possible for overall reassessments to be made.

This substantial book contains chapters on such subjects as jihad at various periods, on how the Muslims of that time saw the invading Franks, and on aspects of life in the Levant in the Crusading period. One of the few sources for Muslim reaction to the First Crusade are the examples of Arabic poetry that have survived from those times. They all show reactions of shock, fear and incredulity that the Muslim world should be seemingly unaware of the danger threatening it. These feelings are given vent to in the following lines from a poem by Al-Abiwardi, for example, written after the fall of Jerusalem:

"How can the eye sleep between the lids at a time of disasters
That would waken any sleeper?
While your Syrian brothers can only sleep on the backs of their
Chargers, or in vultures' bellies!
This is war, and the infidel's sword is
Naked in his hand, ready
To be sheathed again in men's necks and skulls."

The only other contemporary source from these times is the Book of Holy War by Al-Sulami. Carole Hillenbrand expresses admiration for this work and for the way in which the writer understood the necessity for the Muslims to act quickly against the invader. He even possessed an extraordinary awareness, at this early stage, of the nature of the vulnerability of the Crusaders, commenting that "One knows for sure their weakness, the small amount of cavalry and equipment they have at their disposal, and the distance from which their reinforcements come... It is an opportunity that must be seized quickly." However, as the writer of the present book remarks: "like many a prophet of doom, he was without honour in his own country. He was born at least a generation too early."

Citadel of Aleppo
Inner gateway, citadel of Aleppo, Syria, 1210

A chapter of particular interest is the one devoted to the way in which the Muslims saw their foreign invaders. One of the main sources for such knowledge is of course the autobiographical work of Usama ibn Munqidh entitled Kitab al-I'tibar , a book which has been translated several times and which makes for entertaining reading. It provides a picture of the hatred and contempt in which the Franks were held, though Carole Hillenbrand warns us that it would be dangerously misleading to take the evidence of the book at face value. Certainly many of its anecdotes, though entertaining in themselves and containing seeds of truth, suffer from hyperbole and a desire to divert and titillate the reader. In this context it is significant to note that very few Muslims made the effort to learn the languages of the invading armies and in fact were under the impression that they all shared the same language. A number of Crusaders, on the other hand, did succeed in acquiring a knowledge of Arabic.

In the long chapter on "The Conduct of War", the book provides fascinating information about the manner in which each side conducted its warfare. Thus we find the contrasting styles of fighting adopted by the cavalry of the two sides: the heavily mailed horses of the Franks, which would charge hoping to sweep all before them by their sheer weight, and the mobile Turkish horseback archers who adopted what was known as the Scythian method of fighting whereby they would approach at a gallop as though about to engage the enemy in close combat and would then, at the last moment, wheel round and shoot their arrows as they retreated. Of such Turkish horsemen it was written that were one to compute the number of days they spent fighting, one would found that they spent longer sitting upon the backs of their horses than they did upon the earth. It was also said of them, in censorious terms, that they did not fight for religion or patriotism, nor in defence of their homes, but only for plunder. Notwithstanding, their hit-and-run tactics were highly effective and often won the day for the Muslims; a contemporary writer describes how their arrows fell like locusts, making the bodies of men and horses look like hedgehogs.

Pitched battles were, however, generally avoided by both sides, particularly by the Crusaders who had their many forts and strongholds to which they were able to retreat. It was therefore siege warfare that proved to be overridingly important, and it was the development by the Muslims of effective techniques for penetrating the Crusader castles that eventually made it possible for them to drive the enemy out of their lands. The book provides detailed information and pictures about the various types of mangonel (manjaniq in Arabic) employed for unleashing stones at the walls of fortresses. Other weapons used were the tower (burj) and covered shelter (dabbaba), which were mounted on wheels and pushed up to the bottom of the fortifications. Sapping was also effectively used by the Muslims, whereby specially trained men worked at undermining the foundations of a stronghold till it collapsed.

Communications in time of war are of paramount importance, and the Muslims set up staging posts between the principal towns where horses could be changed and riders could rest. They also employed pigeons. As a Muslim writer of the time pointed out, pigeons were capable of covering in less than a day what a man could cover in 20 days' walking. Egypt already possessed a whole network of pigeon towers, and a similar system was set up in Syria, with rations set aside for the birds and also for their breeders.

Historians have attributed the length of the Frankish occupation of the area to the weakness of the navies of the Muslims and to the Arabs' dislike of venturing out by sea. This dislike was deep-rooted, and a Prophetic Hadith says, "A campaign by sea is like 10 campaigns by land." Also quoted is an old Arab proverb which states that "it is preferable to hear the flatulence of camels than the prayers of fishes." Saladin, however, soon realised the importance of sea warfare in driving out the Frankish invaders and for preventing them from reinforcing and supplying their Syrian ports. It was also clear, because of the entrenched position of the enemy along the Syrian coastline, that Egypt was the obvious place for building up a navy, with Alexandria, Damietta and Fustat already established as shipbuilding centres. Unfortunately, Egypt suffered from one great disadvantage in not having ready supplies of suitable timber, and Saladin therefore began acquiring the necessary materials for building a fleet by concluding commercial ties with Italy's maritime city-states. These happened to be the very cities that were launching Crusader fleets against the Muslims, but this did not inhibit the merchants. As the writer herself comments, business is business.

Of special interest, too, is the book's final chapter entitled "The Heritage of the Crusades", where it is shown how deeply the experiences of two centuries of Western attempts at interference in their lives have etched themselves on the hearts and minds of present-day Muslims. While the Muslims had the satisfaction of eventually driving out the foreign invaders, during which time they had convincingly shown that they enjoyed a culture and way of life immeasurably superior to that of their enemies, their prestige in most fields seriously waned, while that of the West steadily increased until it virtually attained mastery of the world's affairs. While this decline of the great mediaeval Islamic civilisation, the writer points out, cannot be attributed directly to the negative effect of the Crusades, Muslim opinion was profoundly influenced by attitudes first moulded in that period of confrontation and Christian invasion. She suggests that many useful lessons can be learnt from an analysis of Islamic perspectives on the Crusades and that this would lead to a better understanding between the West and Islam.

This substantial book is a mine of information about this critical period of history, the bibliography alone occupying 17 pages. It is also copiously illustrated and excellently produced. Besides being a work of scholarship for future historians, the book makes for entertaining reading for anyone curious about these two centuries of East-West confrontation.


   Top of page
Front Page