James Waterson, Sacred Swords: Jihad in the Holy Land, 1097-1271 (Albright)

James Waterson

Sacred Swords: Jihad in the Holy Land, 1097-1271

(London, UK: Frontline Books, 2010) 206pp.  £19.99/$39.95

Sacred Swords

In Sacred Swords, the third work by historian James Waterson dealing with the time of the Crusades from the Muslim perspective, Waterson works to give a one-volume treatment of the period of the Crusades as seen by the Muslims while using the dates that Western readers would be familiar with (instead of the lunar year count used by Muslims). The result is an insightful text that seeks to present the Crusades and their repercussions as much as possible through Muslims eyes so that the Muslim perspective may be comprehensible to sympathetic Western readers. This works serves to fill out his previously published books The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder and The Knights of Islam: The Wars of the Mamluks, both of whom overlap in content with the present work and are cited as sources within.

Sacred Swords opens with a Foreword from popular Medieval Historian and Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. In many ways, this Foreword and the Epilogue to the book serve to frame the rest of the book. The Foreword presents the case that the need to understand the Muslim perspective is necessary in our times, and the Epilogue provides a brief account of how the end of the Crusades led to Islam in Egypt and Syria closing itself off from the West, ignoring the threatening rise of Spain, and leading the Middle East to a growing brutality in its warfare. The Epilogue closes very pointedly: “The path back from such a place of violence is a long journey. We have not returned from it yet.” (195)

The first three chapters of Sacred Swords are organized around the initial response of the Muslim world to the Crusades, and an examination of the shape that response took. Chapter One, “An Exhausted Distracted Land,” discusses the state of the Dar-al-Islam in Syria when the Franj, or Westerners, invaded, discussing the First Crusade itself and the lack of understanding that Muslims in the Middle East had about the goals of the Crusaders or the reason for their invasion. This chapter ends with an account of the Crusader victory at Antioch in 1098. Chapter Two, “Stirrings of a Response,” examines the first efforts of the Shiite Fatimid rulers of Egypt and the Sunni rulers of Syria to respond to the invasion of the Crusaders. Chapter Three, “The Pen and the Sword,” examines the fateful alliance between Sunni Muslim leaders and the clerical intelligentsia of the Muslim cities of Syria, which allowed Muslim rulers to gain propaganda value for practicing jihad against unbelievers, even if most of their wars were against other Muslims.

From the end of Chapter 3 onward, the work focuses on the rulers or dynasties that led the Muslim kingdoms of the Levant against the Outremer (Crusader territories). Chapter 4, The Martyr Zangi, discusses the career of the Muslim martyr who became honored, despite his violent life, for his seizure of Edessa from the Crusaders in 1144. Chapter 5, “The Pure King, Nur al-Din,” discusses the life and career of Zangi’s son, who sought to greater unify Syria and Egypt, and who placed a Kurd of the clan of Ayubb in control of Egypt, a man by the name of Shirkuh. Though both Nur al-Din and Shirkuh are unfamiliar to Western audiences, Shirkuh’s nephew, Saladin, the subject of Chapter 6, is a much more familiar name. Chapter 6, “Fortune Makes A King,” focuses on the extraordinary and successful career of Saladin, who ended up capitalizing on the disunity of the Crusaders in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to conquer most of their kingdom after the Battle of Hattin. Chapter 7, “Dètente and Competition,” briefly examines the career of Saladin’s disunited and squabbling Ayubbid descendents. Chapter 8, the last chapter of the book (other than a brief Epilogue), “Jihad and Nemesis,” examines the Mamluk rise to power, their defeat of the Mongols, and the Mamluk destruction of the last remnants of the Crusader kingdoms during the late 1200’s.

Though the book is organized chronologically, there is a great imbalance between different the sizes of the various chapters. For example, a full quarter of the book is devoted to covering the career of Saladin, while less than half that space covers the reign of the rest of his dynasty. Overall, the personages who come across the most clearly through the book are the ruthless Baybars, founder of Mamluk power, the idealistic Nur-al-Din, and the pragmatic and careful Saladin. On the European side, it is the brave leper king Baldwin IV of Jerusalem who comes across the fullest. These individuals are well-drawn through first-hand accounts and (in the case of the Muslim kings) Muslim hagiography that serve to explain how these heroes of the jihad were remembered by contemporaries and successors. Other individuals leave a more shadowy and less distinct impression.

As a whole, Sacred Swords can be compared to works like The New Concise History of the Crusades, by Thomas F. Madden in terms of size and scope[1]. Both books are about 200 pages in length, both cover the Crusades in a chronological fashion, and both are full of useful maps, and occasionally rich descriptions of individuals, battles, and sieges. The main differences are a few: Sacred Swords gives scholarly footnotes, which are useful in uncovering some of the fascinating research that supports the judgments of the books (particularly useful when examining the naval competition during the Crusades, an often neglected but pivotal reason for the longevity of the Crusader state), while The New Concise History of the Crusades does not include footnotes and is organized by Crusade rather than by Muslim leader or dynasty. Otherwise, both works appeal to a similar audience, one written from the point of view of the Europeans and the other from the Muslims of Egypt and Syria. As a result, the two books form a useful conversation in how the Crusades were viewed by both sides.

As a whole, despite some lack of balance, and the obvious desire of the author to share research tidbits from other works that are not entirely relevant to the main topic of the work (this includes many stories about the Assassins throughout the book), Sacred Swords is a very excellent effort in presenting the Muslim perspective of the Crusades in manner that is accessible to the Western reader. Such a task is very important for contemporary geopolitical reasons besides being worthwhile from a historical perspective. Especially touching are the book’s frequent quotations of the Koran, Hadiths, and medieval works by Muslim poets and historians, which introduce every chapter and are also sprinkled liberally within. This attention to detail of the literary and historical context of the times allow those readers without access to the original texts to gain some familiarity with the Muslim side in its own words as closely as possible. As a result, in Sacred Swords, James Waterson provides both an accessible and a worthwhile explanation of the Muslim view of the Crusades.

Nathan Bennett Albright
Norwich University


[1] Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).

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