Crescent versus the Cross
ZIYA US SALAM
"The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross", to be telecast shortly by the History Channel, will engage viewers across 130 countries, and thereby hangs a tale.
Our aim is to warn of the dangers of exaggerated ideology. Richard Bradley
COMPETING RELIGIONS: "The Crusades;Crescent and the Cross" the History Channel hopes the world learns from the past
Religion, in all its forms, violent and vengeful, generous and courageous, is ready to take over the small screen. With a series that aims to relate "an epic story with appropriately big dramatic reconstruction". And for those who often choose their memory with care, easily forgetting that everybody is either an immigrant or an invader depending on how far back you go in history, it may just be a bit of an eye-opener.
In a world of "we" and "they", history is often reduced to a handmaiden of the rich and ruling. Much the same has happened with all the battles fought in the name of religion by men, wise and skilful, reckless and ruthless. And the biggest of them all, the Crusades, have been no different. Many in the West often look at them for inspiration and studying the lives of the "accursed race, alienated from God". And many in West Asia recount the tales of valour and sagacity of Saladin, not always averse to exaggeration. They give bonus points to a man who needs none. Now all this shall stop. At least for a moment or two. All thanks to "The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross", scheduled to be telecast on The History Channel. Beginning November 13, the show is the biggest such venture of the channel and is likely to engage viewers across 130 countries, including most in countries unaffected by the bloody battles of the 11th and 12th centuries. Says Executive Producer Susan Werbe, "People in India may not have been directly affected by the Crusades. But it is a small world of many competing religions. What goes on in the Superpower affects everybody. I was not well informed of the Crusades when George Bush uttered the term. There was little awareness among kids even in the U.S. about the Crusades. So, we set ourselves up to film the story of the battles where there were atrocities of unimaginable magnitude from both the sides."
Incidentally, for those of us who have not often had a chance to serenade history, the Crusades started in November 1095 when Pope Urban-II granted remission of all sins to anyone who joined the war against Muslims. The First Crusades, in which more than 10,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Masjid Al Aqsa, was won by the Christians. In the next two Crusades the Muslims extracted revenge, winning under the leadership of Saladin. The second round of battles started when Chatillon attacked pilgrims going for Haj in 1187. Saladin's forces won the day. While Chatillon paid the price with his head, King Guy was raised from his knees by Saladin, and told to act in a manner befitting a king. Remarkably, Saladin issued instructions not to convert any church into a mosque or hurt the Christians. Widows were spared and many slaves were freed by him. Of course, the soldiers on the ground did not always live up to the ideals of the ruler. Incidentally, in this battle, Saladin entered Jerusalem on October 2, 1187, the day on which Muslims celebrated the ascension of the Prophet to heaven.
The third round brought Richard The Lionheart face to face with Saladin. While Richard saved his life with his customary valour, he could not prolong the Christian occupation of the Holy Lands. Incidentally, Saladin and Richard were engaged in a direct combat too, with the former granting two Arabic horses on seeing the latter fighting on foot instead of on horseback as befitted his royal stature.
Isn't it too risky a job to recount tales of such generosity, such bravery? "It is," admits Richard Bradley, Executive Producer with Lion Television, who has filmed it all. "Historians interacted with the Crusades' sides. The story starts in Istanbul. At one place Dr. Taef El-Azhari, Faculty of Arts and Education, Buraida, Safra Quassim, Saudi Arabia, visits the abandoned city of Maarrat Numan to tell the tale of Christian soldiers' brutality in the First Crusade. There was nobody there and suddenly children emerged, playing at the site of great warfare. We also realised that the site of the first battle is now a junkyard."
And then there were practical problems of shooting on location in film and HD across many places - Morocco, Syria, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Antioch. For three weeks the producers shot in Morocco using sets from Ridley Scott's "The Kingdom of Heaven" and "The Mummy". And artistes who had featured in "The Kingdom of Heaven" stayed on for some more battles scenes for "The Crusades"! They were provided costumes specially made for "The Kingdom of Heaven".
Recounts Bradley, "In Morocco we had four languages on the sets. And we shot in the month of Ramzan. We even encountered sandstorms there." Chips in Werbe, "The documentary includes a scene with a cobra, and also at one time the crew filmed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul just hours after people had been involved in a riot there."
To give a touch of authenticity, four chroniclers have been used for the documentary. These chroniclers have written contemporaneous accounts of the Crusades. The producers also made use of some of the recent translations to get the version of the Arabic scholars, including Ibn Al-Athir, a chronicler of the 12th Century and Bahal al-Din Ibn Shaddad, spiritual advisor to Saladin.
Fair enough. Says Bradley, "We are living with the legacy of the Crusades. The way the West and the Islamic world speak to each other is determined by the Crusades. Our aim here has been to understand the world as it is and warn of the dangers of exaggerated ideology. The series looks at the high-risk venture that were the Crusade battles. Out of 60,000 people who answered Pope Urban-II's call, only 300 remained in Jerusalem after the battle. This series is not only about the Crusaders. It is about the people among whom they came and for the first time, the Muslim side of the story is told in detail and accuracy." Remarks Jonathan Phillips, Reader in Crusading History, Royal Holloway University of London, who was also present at the media interaction in Istanbul, "It is not going to be an apology for the Crusades. I am not trying to say who is right or wrong. We can learn from history if we choose." What did one say about choosing one's memory!
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