Could the Crusader States ever have survived?

By Nicholas Morton

Playing games with “alternative history” – what might have happened? – is always a tricky business because the simple answer is nearly always that we will never know. History is messy and the alteration of a single event – even a small one – can have innumerable unforeseeable repercussions. So how then can we go about tackling a counter-factual question such as “Could the Crusader States ever have survived”?

The closest we can get is to ask whether it was plausible that the territories established by the crusaders in the Near East could ever have endured in the long term?


To date, commentators have tended to answer this question with a resounding “no” – the territories established by the crusaders were too small; their populations too sparse; their armies too small; the distances separating them from Western Christendom too wide.

Map by Amitchell125 / Wikimedia Commons

Too few troops?

A consideration that historians normally flag up when discussing this kind of question is the Franks’ lack of troops. Time and again we are told that their armies were too small to compete effectively with their various regional opponents. There is some basis of fact here. Frankish armies were often, although not always, outnumbered in battle. Even so the Crusader States’ rulers put measures in place to address this deficiency. They constructed enormous castles to protect their frontiers, hired mercenaries to augment their numbers, and encouraged the famous military orders of the Temple and the Hospital to bulk out their forces. Reviewing their many battles fought against a range of opponents: they sometimes won; they sometimes lost, but they were rarely defeated by sheer weight of numbers.


In fact, by about the 1150s the Kingdom of Jerusalem (the most powerful of the Crusader States) was possibly the most – or at least one of the two most – powerful territories in the region. Supported by large maritime metropolises strung out along the Levant coast, places like Acre, Tyre, and Beirut, the kingdom’s commercial revenues were substantial and its rulers could afford to raise very large and well-equipped armies. At this point at least, the Kingdom of Jerusalem could meet even its most formidable opponents on at least equal terms and while its territories may have been slender, its frontiers were sufficiently resilient to ensure that its heartlands remained at peace for decades during the mid-twelfth century; a rare condition in the war-torn Near East.

No second line of defence

Even though the Franks could field large and powerful armies, there is another side to this equation.  Towards the end of the century in the 1180s, as Saladin began to construct his vast empire across Syria and Egypt, the Franks increasingly found it necessary to go ‘all in’ so as to meet him in battle, finding themselves compelled to gather all available troops.  This was problematic because of course, if the Franks should ever lose really badly then they would have no second line of defence; no new force to curb their victorious opponents’ gains.

This is exactly what happened. In 1187 Saladin annihilated the kingdom of Jerusalem’s army at the battle of Hattin and then marched straight into the kingdom of Jerusalem. Some castle garrisons put up a fight, but the simple fact was that they lacked the troops to raise a new army quickly. They could of course appeal to Western Christendom for reinforcements, but this would take months, even years – too late.

The argument could be made that this underlying weakness – the inability to raise a new army quickly in the event of a major defeat – was a clinching factor for the Crusader States’ long-term prospects and yet in the decades following Hattin, a series of crusading armies laboriously managed to reconstruct much of the former Crusader States and there is a very good chance that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was actually better resourced in its second thirteenth-century iteration than in the first. Something more is needed to explain the ultimate failure of the Crusader States – and therefore to answer whether they could ever have survived.

Map by Blue Danube / Wikimedia Commons

Nomadic and agricultural warcraft

Panning out to the broader situation across the entire region, there is another vital point to make here. The Near East during the era of the Crusader States (1097-1291) was subject to many invasions and not just from the crusaders. The most far-reaching invasions of this era were conducted by nomadic peoples advancing out of the Central Asian steppe, the most famous of these being the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century and the Mongols in the thirteenth. Both these peoples managed to conquer the greater part of the Near East establishing dominions across the region spanning from Syria in the west to the borders of India in the east, encompassing vastly more territory than the slither of coastland seized by the Franks.

These invasions are important because they changed the Near East’s character.  Where previously much of the region had been governed largely by agricultural communities, now there was a rapid swing towards nomadism. This is not to say that the Seljuks and Mongols saw no value in the agricultural societies they came to rule; quite the reverse, they were happy to tax them and make use of their resources. Even so, the nature of civilization was changing and this had substantial implications for the survivability of the Crusader States.

The First Crusade and the establishment of the Crusader States was something of an anomaly in the Near East – the invasion by armies raised from agricultural societies into a region marked otherwise by the advent and rise of powerful nomadic empires. For a time the Crusader States prospered because when they first arrived in 1097 the then-dominant Seljuk Turks were in disarray and locked in civil war. The Seljuks had only established control across the region traversed by the crusaders around twenty years previously and many local communities rose against the Turks during and in the wake of the First Crusade.

Mina’i Bowl with prince on horseback. Seljuk period, 12th-13th century. Iran – photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nevertheless, the Near East’s Turkish powers did not remain in disarray forever. The Seljuk sultanate passed into long decline during the twelfth century, but local Turkish or Kurdish successor dynasties took its place which were less preoccupied with internal affairs and better able to pursue their own expansionist ambitions. In these years, the battlelines were rarely as simple as Christians vs Muslims and yet the Franks generally found themselves pitting their own warcraft – grounded in agriculture – against Turkish light cavalry – grounded in the nomadic way of life.

My point is that this was a contest the Crusader States had little hope of winning. Here’s why…

In this era, Turkish armies, nomadic in template, were faster moving than the armies of the Crusader States. They were typically all mounted and therefore better able either to escape unscathed in the event of a defeat or to storm forward in the event of a victory. They were also extremely well suited to cutting their opponents’ ponderous supplies lines and to harassing them when they tried to establish a siege. Just as importantly, in nomadic communities there was generally an expectation that every single male could be called upon to fight.

The situation in the predominantly agricultural Crusader States was very different. Only a fraction of the Frankish population was trained and equipped to fight – probably a higher fraction than in Western Christendom but they still depended on a large population of farmers to support a very small and heavily armoured force of elite knights and their retainers, who each required considerable resources and support personnel. Frankish armies could win battles, but they were slow. In defeat, the infantry and camp followers had little chance of escaping on foot and were generally slaughtered, while in victory their armies could only very slowly trundle forwards. The Franks famous “Crusader Castles” helped them to protect their territories, but they provided little assistance in gaining new conquests.


In short, the basic agricultural template of Frankish society and its armies was simply less effective when pitted against the nomadic warcraft practiced by their neighbours. They could survive for a time, taking advantage of the Seljuks’ disarray and infighting in the early twelfth century. They could cling to the Levantine coastline, making use of their dominance at sea to maintain a toehold in the Near East. They could make alliances with local powers and dynasties and they could recruit nomadic troops themselves to offset their own weaknesses. But in the long run these basic structural differences were decisive, leaving them in a conspicuously weaker position. It is notable that, during this same era, many of the region’s other agricultural societies also collapsed in the face either of nomadic societies, or at least societies that still waged war in a largely nomadic fashion. These casualties included the Fatimid Empire and later the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia, and even the Byzantine Empire.

Looking back in hindsight from the twenty-first century it is easy to forget that there was a time when nomadic civilizations were often more powerful and more effective than their agricultural counterparts. Advanced gunpowder weapons ultimately tipped the balance in the other direction during the early modern period, but at the time of the Crusader States, these developments lay far in the future.

My view is that, for these reasons, the Crusader States could not have survived, but there is one further concern here that needs to be spliced into the analysis.  This is very simple: the unknown. So many ideas, processes, religions, ideas, technologies, armies, and pandemics crisscrossed the Near East during this era that drawing any conclusion about long-term trends too firmly is a hazardous matter. There were plenty of occasions when unique circumstances brought about by a chance combination of factors elevated some societies whilst destroying others. An untimely death, an outburst of infighting, an unexpected alliance, the sudden arrival of an external power – any one of these events could send events spinning off in an unforeseen direction. Near Eastern history during this era tends to be complex and messy – events could change suddenly and unexpectedly. The Crusader States profited initially from these complexities, due to the infighting consuming the region’s major powers, yet in the long run their neighbours’ structural advantages enabled them to gain the upper hand.

If you would like to find out more about the military confrontations between nomadic and agricultural societies in the Near East during this era then see my book The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East.

Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history. These include The Crusader States and their Neighbours: A Military History, 1099-1187 (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (Basic Books, 2018). More recently he has launched his own YouTube channel with videos on the history of the Medieval Near East.

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Top Image: A 14th-century image depicting the Second Crusade – BnF MS Français 22495 fol. 154v.