An exacting, compulsively readable narrative of the Third Crusade’s (1187–92) protracted battle of wills between Richard I and Saladin.
Pulitzer winner Reston (The Last Apocalypse, 1998, etc.) relies on diverse sources in recreating this era of bloodshed and religion, noting that, of five major crusades, “Only the First Crusade was ‘successful’ in the sense that it managed to capture Jerusalem.” He conveys his fascination with the regal figures who drove the Third and “most interesting” Crusade, portraying Richard the Lionhearted as a sadist and homosexual who nonetheless was a fierce strategist and commander. In addressing the human sides of the crusades, Reston provides a good look at both the complex chivalric structures that governed the conflicts and the deep brutality that they concealed (crusader knights, for example, were expected to provide not just financial support but peasant manpower as well). The crusaders’ ostentatious rhetoric masked an astonishingly bloodthirsty enterprise, which the Arabic defenders quickly matched. Richard had 2,700 Muslim prisoners slaughtered following the siege of Acre in 1191, for example—and this atrocity led Saladin to “permit his soldiers . . . to hack their prisoners to pieces.” Like a medieval Viet Cong, Saladin drew the crusader armies into a protracted war of attrition, counting on the region’s natural hazards (especially the lack of water) to decimate them, and dismantling their ancient cities ahead of Richard’s advance. Repeated (and duplicitous) peace negotiations amounted to nothing, and the Third Crusade ended ignominiously short of Jerusalem, following the Pyrrhic capture of Jaffa at a total estimated cost of 300,000 Crusader lives.
A remarkably intimate and engagingly detailed account of pre-modern violence and obsession—with the principal figures robustly portrayed.