The Fourth Crusade Takes a Detour

Delacroix. Conquest of Constaninople by the Crusaders in 1204

At first the Fourth Crusade looked like all the other Crusades. In 1198, Pope Innocent III called for Christian knights to sail to the Holy Lands and re-capture Jerusalem, which Saladin had taken back from crusaders in 1187. In response to his call, thousands signed up, eager to fight Muslims in the Holy Lands and maybe accumulate a little plunder along the way. *  Same song, fourth verse.

In fact, the Fourth Crusade took a wrong turn before it even began.** The leaders of the Fourth Crusade had negotiated with the Doge of Venice for enough ships to transport some thirty thousand crusaders at a cost of two marks per man and four marks per horse. The army that showed up in Venice in the summer of 1202 was one-third the size its leaders had prepared for. The crusaders were thirty-four thousand marks short of the agreed price..

The Venetians made an offer that the crusade leaders couldn’t refuse. Venice was having trouble with Zara, a rebellious Venetian outpost on the Dalmatian coast. If the crusaders helped subdue Zara on the way to the Middle East, they could pay their debt from captured booty. It was a perfect solution, if the crusaders were willing to ignore the fact that Zara was a Christian city under the protection of the King of Hungary, who was one of the crusaders.

From a crusading perspective, the attack on Zara was a disaster. (Why this came as a surprise to anyone is not clear.) The spoils of war found their way into the treasuries of individual lords instead of paying off the debt to the Venetians. And an outraged Pope Innocent excommunicated everyone involved.

Things got worse.

On January 1, 1203, ambassadors from Philip of Swabia contacted the crusade leaders with a proposal that would solve all their problems. If the crusaders would help a young Byzantine nobleman named Alexius Angelus regain the Byzantine throne, from which his father had been deposed, he would bring the Orthodox church back into the papal fold, pay the crusaders 200,000 silver marks and join the Crusade with ten thousand soldiers of his own. Putting Alexius Angelus on the throne would be a piece of crusader cake. His supporters would throw open the gates to their liberators.

Evidently the crusader leaders had never heard the phrase “if it seems too good to be true….” The Fourth Crusade headed to Constantinople, prepared to sack the seat of Orthodox Christianity in the name of Christianity, pay off the Venetians. and make peace with the pope. *** The discovery that Alexius Angelus had no supporters worth the name changed nothing. Faced with a rising tide of anti-western feeling in the city, the crusaders decided to take the city for themselves. In April, 1204, after three days of rape, pillage, and desecration, Constantinople was in the hands of the Fourth Crusade. It would remain the seat of a Roman Catholic regime until 1261.

* In fact, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade never intended to go to Palestine, a fact they did not share with the rank and file. The goal was Egypt, a wise move in military terms but without the emotional appeal of invading the Holy Lands.

**Even by the standards of people who considered crusades to be a good thing.

***Pope Innocent III did not approve. Learning of the crusaders’ intention, he sent a blistering letter in which he warned, “Let no one among you rashly convince himself that he may seize or plunder the Greeks’ lands on the pretext that they show little obedience to the Apostolic See.”

Deciphering the Indus Valley

Around 2500 BCE, the first cities appeared on the banks of the Nile in Egypt, at the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and in the valley of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan and northwest India India.

Thanks to the Old Testament, traveling museum exhibitions, and popular media, most of us know a little about the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.  We have clear images in our heads of mummies, the pyramids, the Sphinx, King Tut and Nefertiti. Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar, and the hanging gardens of Babylon are familiar names.

But how much do you know about the Indus Valley civilization?  My guess is, not much.  No one does.

Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization are not glamorous.  There are no palaces, no temples, no public monuments. (There was, however, piped water. Given a choice, would you rather have pyramids or plumbing?  Me, too.)  Centered on two main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara, the remains of the culture are scattered over an area of 1.2 square kilometers.  The cities are laid out in a grid design that feels familiar to anyone who knows the American Midwest.  The buildings are made of uniform brick and are relatively unadorned.  (Sounds like Chicago, doesn’t it?)

Also unlike ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, scholars have not deciphered the Indus Valley script.  With no public monuments and no preserved documents, most of our examples of the script are limited to very short samples contained on the small engraved seals that are the most typical artifact of the Indus Valley civilization.* Not a great sample for a project that depends on the numbers. **  As Rajesh Rao makes clear in this TED talk, it’s the kind of challenge a computer programmer can’t resist:

* These seals range in size from three-quarters of an inch to an inch and a half square, and are engraved with lively and often beautiful images of animals (real and imaginary), heroes and gods.

** In fact, some scholars have huffed and puffed and claimed that it isn’t a script at all.

The Other First Thanksgiving

Unless you live in the American Southwest, the grade school version of American history* typically leaps from Columbus and 1492 straight to 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.  There is a vague awareness that the Spanish and the French were “out there” doing something, but the story focuses on the development of the thirteen British colonies.

In Fact, El Paso, Texas, makes a good claim to being the site of the first American thanksgiving feasr. **

In March, 1598, an expedition under the leadership of Juan de Oñate set out from Santa Barbara in the modern Mexican state of Chihuahua toward the northern Rio Grande Valley, where Oñate had been granted land by the viceroy of New Spain.  Instead of taking the normal route along first the Rio Conchos and then the Rio Grande, the group of 500 people and 7000 head of livestock set out across the Chihuahua desert.

The trip took fifty days.  For the first seven days, the expedition traveled through heavy rain.  For the rest of the trip, they suffered from heat and dryness.  Five days before they reached what is now El Paso, they ran out of both food and water.  They scavenged what they could in the desert, but it was the Rio Grande that saved them. After resting for ten days on the banks of the river, Oñate declared a day of thanksgiving, including a feast of game and fish.  One member of the expedition described the event in his diary:

We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before. . .We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.

 In fact, the feast wasn’t the main event of the day.  Festivities also included claiming the land of the Rio Grande Valley in the name of Philip II of Spain***–an event known as La Toma, literally The Taking.  Many historians consider this event the beginning of Spanish colonization of the American Southwest.  (Oñate’s party continued up the Rio Grande and settled in what is now Santa Fe.)

Since 1989, the El Paso Mission Trail Association has celebrated a day of thanksgiving on April 30 in commemoration of Oñate’s feast.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a holiday I could buy into.  Thanksgiving tamales, anyone?


* Which tends to be the default version in our heads.

**Or more accurately, the first European-American Thanksgiving.

*** Just to help you connect the dots:  Philip II was married to Queen Mary of England, the older sister of Queen Elizabeth.  In 1588, he ordered the ill-fated attempt on England known as the Spanish Armada.