A lesson about warfare from the Crusades

As you walk along the sea front in the old Greek city of Rhodes, the Turkish coast emerges from the haze on the horizon. The sea at this time of year is deep blue, the same blue that you see on the Greek flags that are everywhere.

Rhodes islanders are celebrating a historic Greek national day (more of which later). I’m visiting relatives and taking a break from the awful news headlines from Palestine. I wanted to visit the ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman sites. All these civilisations were at home here in this Eastern Mediterranean crossroads between Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

What I most wanted to see was the Rhodes museum. The old pottery, about 2,600 years old, has been beautifully restored. The cracked pots and decorated vessels send a message that resonates through the centuries as a testament to our shared heritage. They show that human beings have always loved beauty and design as well as functionality. The pots and vessels commemorate ancient heroes, warriors and legends or animals, from lions to livestock, with gorgeous geometric designs.

Unfortunately warfare really is an extension of politics by other means

Part of the museum has rooms where the Ottomans rested in the heat of the day. Their couches look so welcoming it is as if the inhabitants just left for a stroll on the beach. One of the large and beautiful rooms is full of memorials to the Christian crusaders who came here from all over western Europe.

Rhodes was a convenient base from which to launch their invasions of what all three Abrahamic religions agree is the Holy Land, the place where those religions have their roots. But as well as reminding us what we have in common, the crusader memorials are obviously also a testament to historic intolerance.

Despite the common teachings of kindness, friendship and learning, religious differences very obviously continue to divide many people violently eight centuries after the last Crusade was abandoned.

Yet history is instructive. The crusaders were motivated by ideas of faith but also by conquest, loot, land and property. For some, it was an adventure. Presumably leaving England, France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere to conquer others in the name of religion must have seemed to them a good idea at the time.

But what happened next is telling. The Crusades continued through the Middle Ages from 1095 until 1291, although armed conflict in each of the eight Crusades lasted two or three years each time and ultimately fizzled out.

Estimates of the damage are difficult to assess but historians accept that disease and lack of hygiene meant only about one in 20 crusaders actually reached the Holy Land. Some estimates conclude that just short of two million people were killed in total, at a time when the world population was merely 300 million. And for what?

As I stand looking at the tombstone of one long dead English crusader from 800 years ago, what strikes me is the constant human ability to allow hope to triumph over experience. It took eight Crusades and three centuries for the Christian nobility of Western Europe to cease organising invasions based on the idea that only one faith can be a true faith.

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What began as a visit to a Greek museum to escape the news headlines from Gaza and Israel turned into something else. I thought of our common human ability to cause trouble for others and ourselves by failing to recognise what we have in common far exceeds that which divides us.

It took the Christian crusaders centuries to understand the old wisdom that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. They got there in the end, I suppose. But I also wondered how long it will take for those unleashing rockets, tanks and bombs right now to recognise that the slabs commemorating the deaths of those in the Rhodes museum also have a message for the 21st century.

Long before the Crusades, the Roman writer Tacitus understood the ultimate futility of war. As for all those Greek flags, my Greek friends and relatives explained to me that they celebrate what is called “Ochi” Day – translated as “No Day”. At the end of October, Greeks all around the world commemorate the prime minister from the 1940s, Ioannis Metaxas, who received an ultimatum from the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini demanded that Greece accept an invasion by Italian forces and ultimately an Italian fascist government.

The Greeks said “Ochi”. It means “No”. I left the Rhodes museum thinking that there’s a lot we should say “No” to right now. But unfortunately, warfare really is an extension of politics by other means. Conflict means politicians have failed. And museums are evidence that history shows that one of our most common human failings is to ignore the most important lessons of history itself.

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Published: October 31, 2023, 4:00 AM

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