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The deep interaction between the Franks and the Syriac people can be reflected at its best through Syriac literature. In this regard, Michael the Great wrote that “the Syriac bishops and their priests enjoyed peace and tranquility during the time of the Crusaders. We had no troubles with the Franks as they deemed that all worshippers of the Cross were equal.”
By delving into medieval literature, one can uncover and compare the chronicles of the Franks and the Syriacs. The literature of the former discloses the native Christians’ perception towards the Latins, while the manuscripts of the Syriacs (whether Jacobites or Maronites*) unveil the authentic spirit of the era. Their approach breathes life into history and restores a part of truth to the episode of the Crusades, which has often been discredited and slandered.
Through ancient texts, one can ascertain that the Crusaders did not only encompass the Franks, and there were no cultural walls or political barriers that separated the different communities. In this regard, according to the French consul René Ristelhueber (1918), the Armenians and Maronites were the Franks’ most reliable allies. The memories of the Maronites have been preserved through the writings of their valued historian, Archbishop Guillaume of Tyr, who described them as “a group of people known as Syriacs who lived in the land of Phoenicia, near the land of Lebanon, close to the city of Gibelet (Byblos). They were brave and skilled warriors and provided significant support to our Christians when they fought against our enemies” (Book 12, Chapter 8).
Jacques de Vitry, echoing Guillaume of Tyr, talks about the presence of “men in the province of Phoenicia, not far from the city of Byblos, armed with bows and arrows and skilled in combat, known as Maronites. They embraced the Catholic faith, proclaiming it in front of the venerable father Aymery, Patriarch of Antioch.”
Official interactions shed light on the nature of intercommunity relations. In 1177, the Jacobite Patriarch Michael the Great received an invitation from the Latin Patriarch of Antioch Aymery of Limoges to attend the Third Lateran Council convened by Pope Alexander the Third. Later on, in 1213, the Maronite Patriarch Jeremiah the Second received a papal request from Pope Innocent the Third, inviting him to attend the Fourth Lateran Council, which was held in 1215.
Unlike Michael the Great and Aimery of Limoges, who were unable to undertake the journey in 1179, Jeremiah the Second became the first Maronite patriarch to be received at the Vatican, confirming the strong bond between his Church and Rome’s.
The Greeks in Syriac Literature
The deep interaction between the Franks and the Syriac people can be reflected at its best through Syriac literature. In this regard, Michael the Great wrote that during the Crusaders’ era, “the Syriac bishops and their priests enjoyed peace and tranquility. We had no disputes with the Franks as they deemed that all worshippers of the Cross were equal. They did not involve them in theological discussions the way Byzantine bishops did.”
These statements made from a Jacobite patriarch expressed the affinities of the Syriacs in general, whether they were Jacobites or Maronites. The accounts clarify that the Chalcedonian Syriacs (Maronites) adamantly chose to side with Rome rather than with Byzantium.
The literature of Michael the Great persistently implies that the relations between the Syriacs and the Greeks were not as lenient as with the Franks. The Jacobite patriarch relentlessly accused the Greeks of interfering in matters of faith, whereas the Franks respected the autonomy of every confession with respect to law and dogma.
However, the Syriacs were appalled when the Fourth Crusade attacked Byzantium. Gregory Bar Hebraeus expressed his dismay regarding the looting of Constantinople, which occurred between April 9 and April 12, 1204. In his Chronography, he described the massacres of the Greeks in the most outrageous details, including the murders of priests, the slaughtering of people, and the endless pillaging of churches and monasteries in an unabated carnage.
The relations of the Franks with other Christian communities were seemingly divergent. While they formed alliances with the Armenians and the Maronites, at other times, they took control of Greek churches.
The Franks in Syriac Literature
Nonetheless, for both Michael the Great and Gregory Bar Hebraeus, the Crusades were an essential component for the protection of Western pilgrims who were persistently attacked by the Turkmans of Syria-Palestine.
At this point, we are witnessing a somewhat global identification among the Frank, Syriac, and Armenian communities towards a common cause. The victories of one community were celebrated by all three, and the misfortunes of each were painfully shared by all. This became apparent when King Amaury the First of Jerusalem died on July 11, 1174, and Michael the Great wrote that he “ended his life at the beginning of July, and his death inflicted tragic and mournful afflictions on the Christians.”
The incidents that occurred among Christians were perceived as mistakes carried out by idle leaders, rather than mere frictions between communities. In 1149, Joscelin the Second de Courtenay (Count of Edessa) allied with the Seljuk Sultan Masud and his son Kilij Arslan as they launched an attack on the Christian city of Maraash, resulting in brutal massacres, but the victims were equally Franks and Armenians.
As early as June 18, 1148, Joscelin the Second was involved in the looting of the Jacobite Monastery of Mar Bar Sauma. Back then, Michael the Great kept on portraying this ruler as a man driven by greed and sin, whose actions did not reflect the values of the Franks. He further specified that Joscelin’s brothers (Knights Templar) told him before deserting him, “we didn’t come with you to loot churches and monasteries, but to fight against the Turks and help the Christians,” as written by the Patriarch.
In the realm of beliefs and religious mindset of that time, misfortunes had their causes that were explained and justified. Victories and defeats were attributed to the divine will and were consequences of human behavior. In this regard, the Syriacs fully shared the fate and destiny of their Frank co-religionists. The sins of some were thus atoned for by all. Regarding Saladin’s wars in 1187, Michael the Great wrote, “on Saturday, July 4th of Tammuz (July), the Franks were abandoned (by the Lord) because of our sins.”
Relations and Interactions
Other than capitals like Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, Tyre, and Jerusalem, the Franks controlled part of the territory such as Gibelet (Byblos), Saguette (Sidon), Guézin (Jezzine), and Buissera (Bshari) through a seigneurial system.
The Knight Hospitallers established their stronghold in the Shouf region, in Deir el Kamar. The Knight Templars allied themselves with Lord Guy the Second of Gibelet. Occasionally, Genoese and Venetians engaged in ruthless competitions. The former tried to assert themselves in Gibelet, while the latter obtained favors from the Count of Tripoli.