Beneath the decades of battles on the modern Middle East lies a far bloodier past, which began more than eight centuries ago. In 1098, European armies, wearing crosses of cloth on their backs, rode down from the north.
The crusaders marched for God and for territory. Crossing Syria en route to Jerusalem, they laid siege, killing thousands. The next year, they arrived in Jerusalem, with a vengeance that lives on the collective Arab memory.
"One rode in blood up to one's knees," wrote a Christian witness. "And up to the horses reins." The Muslim scribes told a similar story.
The population of the Holy City was put to the sword, and the crusaders spent a week massacring Muslims.
They killed more than seventy thousand people at al Aqsa Mosque.
Egypt, at Saladin's Citadel
Saladin's Citadel, Cairo, Egypt, 1989. Photo: Nasser Rabbat © Aga Khan Trust for Culture
The city of Cairo is built on seventy centuries of history; and the past bleeds out of stone. At the Citadel of Saladin, the beloved Muslim sultan who took back Jerusalem from the rampaging Christian in 1187, raising up Islam and the Arabs. Saladin was known for his just treatment of Christians and Jews in the city of three faiths. His death left a vacuum, a centuries-long yearning for a new hero.
At the Citadel, we spoke with Youssef Chanine, one of Egypt's cultural giants. Chahine is a member of Egypt's Christian minority, and the director of dozens of films, including "Saladin."
Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chanine speaks of the countless humiliations heaped upon a proud people. Photo: arab-celebs.com
"The legend will not go away easily. It triggers a feeling of pride, a feeling of strength," says Chahine. "When they go back and say, Saladin, they are trying to find somebody that is as honorable, who is as charitable, as tolerant, and as great as Saladin to cover the feeling that I feel measly, I feel I am nothing."
Chahine speaks of the historical weight of accumulated defeat, from the crusades forward: the occupation of the Europeans beginning two centuries ago; the creation of Israel by a U.N. partition vote in 1947, and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinians; Arab Israeli wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982...the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991... U.S.-led sanctions and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. He speaks of blood spilling endlessly in the occupied territories. In short, countless humiliations heaped upon a people proud of their history; their contributions to art, science, literature, music.
Next: At Home in Cairo