On a dark street in a wealthy district of Damascus, a light shines from an arched, brass doorway. The door is slightly ajar. Inside, except for a small computer in the corner, the room seems like a medieval study. Ottoman-engraved silver plates, carved wood couches, and stained glass windows line the sides of this narrow office. Here, University of Damascus professor Suhair Zakkar is translating old manuscripts for a 90-volume series on the Crusades--an accumulation of his life's work
To Zakkar, these texts are not exactly ancient history. "We feel the campaigns never ceased," says Zakkar, who speaks with the precision of a historian. "Europe invaded our country, and we fought the Europeans here and at last succeeded in liberating our country."
In Syria, the memory of the Crusades runs deep. It is here that Muslims fought an onslaught of crusaders all along the coastline from Damascus to Aleppo. For Arabs and Muslims, the Crusades marked a time of assault and destruction—a time when the Muslim world was in dire jeopardy, defending against bloodthirsty crusaders bent on destroying their land and their people simply because they were not Christian—or because they were Muslim.
“For two centuries, the crusaders killed several million Muslims,” explains Zakkar. “They left in this country a very bad memory of killing, destruction, spoiling and devastation. More than that, they came to this country to ‘rescue’ or help the local Christians. Before the coming of the Christians, in every part of Syria, there was a considerable number of Christians. But because of the Crusades, [Christianity] became a smaller religion in Syria and the Christians became a real minority.”
Like Zakkar, many Muslims in the region believe that the current political situation in the Arab world--which began when the French and the British attempted to divide the region and helped establish the state of Israel after the second world war--is nothing more than another wave of the Crusades.
"The Crusades have continued until today," Zakkar says. "In 1291 we had the Crusades against Egypt by Cyprus and then several Crusades against North Africa. The Ottoman Empire faced several Crusades. Then we have the French and the British mandate. Then up to today. When President Bush wanted to take his forces to Iraq, he used the word Crusades several times--and up to this moment, he believes himself to be the new messiah."
Because past hurts of the Crusades are felt afresh, the Muslim heroes of earlier campaigns are powerful symbols in the Arab world. Nureddin, the son of a Turkish tribal leader, united all of Syria in the 12th century and defeated the crusaders in Egypt. His successor, Saladin al-Ayyubi, symbolizes resistance and pride in defending against Christian crusaders. The leader of Egypt, Saladin wrested Muslim land from the crusaders and gained his place in history in the Battle of Hattin in 1187, when he liberated Jerusalem with little bloodshed. This battle is the climax of the new Ridley Scott movie "Kingdom of Heaven."
Saladin died in Damascus in 1193, but his spirit lives on in this and other cities. Just outside the old city walls, which were once expanded and strengthened by Saladin, his statue stands as a present-day protector. Inside the walls in a red-domed building just behind the famous Umayyid Mosque, his mausoleum lies between columns that were once part of the Roman Temple of Jupiter.
Other than "Kingdom of Heaven," few recent Hollywood films have tackled the Crusades. But in the Middle East, screen portrayals of Saladin are plentiful. Over the last decade, documentaries and television series on the Crusades and the life of Saladin have multiplied, presenting to the Arab world an honorable history in which Muslims were united, strong, and able to defend themselves against Western aggression. Muslims here view Saladin as both astute and chivalrous—a general who earned the respect not only of his own people, but also of his enemy with whom he sought peaceful coexistence. Saladin continues to represent the savior who brought hope and dignity to a Muslim world in a time of pain and darkness.
In “Kingdom of Heaven,” Saladin is played by Ghassan Massoud, a respected Syrian actor. A slight man with strong Arab features--a furrowed brow and brown, expressive eyes--Massoud portrays Saladin as a stately, chivalrous man who knew how to deal with his enemy. In a Beliefnet interview, he said he believes Saladin would have been able to bring understanding and dialogue between the Muslim world and the West, were he alive today.
“It is in my nature to understand Saladin more than [Westerners can],” Massoud says over coffee. “My religion is the same religion as his. We have the same geography, the same history. He was a huge hero. He enabled Arabs, Muslims, and the Christians to return to Jerusalem. ...He conveyed a good image to the West of a noble enemy.”
Muslims today have no counterpart to Saladin, Zakkar says. He hopes Saladin’s model of coexistence will provide a prototype for a new generation of Muslims who could bring about a peaceful solution to the dispute over Jerusalem.
“If we are looking for a new champion, we want him to liberate our land and not to kill anybody,” he says. “We do not like to do it the way the Americans do. We want to liberate Jerusalem and Palestinian land, but we do not want to kill the Jews. We are looking for a new generation and a new generation will create new leadership—a Muslim one, not an American one or a Russian one.”
For now, Zakkar says that the key to defusing the current clash of civilizations may be found in the past.
“Saladin liberated Jerusalem and dealt [fairly] with the crusaders, with his enemy, as a good Muslim because Islam is a tolerant religion,” says Zakkar. “He won respect here and in the West. Nowadays, because of the struggle between Islam and the West—the struggle between civilizations—and the movement to unite Europe and [the attempt to unite] the West under the leadership of the U.S. by will or by force—and because of the occupation of Israel, many people here and there are writing about Saladin. Probably not to know what happened in the past, but to predict what will happen in the future."