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Led by an enigmatic man known as Peter the Hermit, an army of 20,000 peasants marched across Europe 900 years ago with the goal of recapturing the holy places of Christianity from Islam.

Peter's band was decimated well short of Jerusalem. But his quest began the Crusades, nearly 200 years of war that left the Middle East with a string of magnificent castles and a legacy of bitterness that lives on today.Muslim militants preach against modern "crusaders" in their vision of a new Western assault on Islam. Palestinians curse Israelis as "crusaders," in hopes the Jewish state eventually will disappear like the Christian kingdoms of the Holy Land.

Even some Jews harken back to the Crusades as an example of oppression of Jews and the value of the Holy Land.

To many Westerners, the Crusades are something for the history books. In the Arab Middle East, they remain very much alive, a symbol of European encroachment that still evokes suspicion and comparisons to present events.

This year, three Arab countries - Egypt, Syria and Libya - are producing movies on Saladin, the Muslim conqueror of the crusaders. Arabs often talk of finding "a new Saladin" to unify their squabbling nations and return Islam to a great age.

At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world was the modern world that gave new knowledge to the European invaders. Arabs were far advanced in medicine and mathematics, and they had preserved ancient Greek thought while it disappeared in Europe's Dark Ages.

The crusaders also took home more mundane things that are now part of Western life, among them apricots, scallions and sugar, which replaced honey as Europe's sweetener. Sugar's name is from the Arabic sukkar; "scallion" derives from the Philistine city of Ascalon, now on Israel's coast.

Today, the traffic is in the other direction. The new Western crusaders are seen as bringing in their values, rather than spiriting away knowledge or goods. Many Arabs - especially Islamic militants - fear that imports of blue jeans, rock music and Western ways of thinking are destroying Muslim and Arab traditions.

Hussein Ahmed Amin, an Egyptian diplomat who has studied Arab views of the Crusades, said that because history is "very much alive" for Arabs, they easily see parallels to today's world.

For example, he said, even the anti-terrorism summit of world leaders in Egypt in March raised fears of a "new crusade," abetted by some Mideast leaders, under the guise of fighting extremist Muslims.

"If you look more closely, it can seem as though it's not just against Islamic fundamentalism but against Islam as a religion," Amin said.

Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, said the Arabs' deep feelings about the Crusades arise because of the parallel with Israel - in both cases Europeans fought to create a state in Arab lands.

He said the Crusades have a second resonance for the Arabs because they fall in with their historical view of "past greatness contrasted with the weakness of today."

"The Crusades . . . provoked and gave rise to the establishment of a large state by Saladin," Khalidi said. "For many Arab nationalists and many Islamists, this is a sort of ideal to which they look back fondly."

Karen Armstrong, a British writer on religion, said extremists who reject Middle East peace - both the Islamic radical group Hamas and militant Jewish settlers - are motivated by feelings like the crusader dream of redeeming the land of Jesus as a religious act.

"Certainly, the crusaders' reverence for the Holy Land of Palestine also inspires such fundamentalist movements as the Gush Emunim," the group behind Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, she said.

Armstrong explored modern parallels to the Crusades in the book "Holy War" and has a history of Jerusalem coming out soon. She said the crusaders' zealotry is echoed in today's violence in the region, from Hamas suicide attacks on Israelis to the killing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist.

However, she said such acts do not represent an embrace of religion but a turning away from its most basic ideals.

"To kill another person as the crusaders did, as in the suicide bombers and as in the case of Rabin, is a form of idolatry," she said. "It's putting the Holy Land in the place of God."

Historians are meeting in June in Beersheba, Israel, to study the killing of thousands of Jews by Teutonic knights heading to join Peter the Hermit's march for Jerusalem in the summer of 1096.

Benjamin Kedar, a history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the murders in Germany's Rhineland were the largest massacres of Jews up to that time. They set a pattern for the following Crusades.

It was an age when Christian zeal provoked murder. Europe's Christians felt under siege. The Muslims' advance into Europe had brought them rule in Spain and Sicily. Orthodox Christians were threatened by Islam in the East.

Cries of "Deus le volt!" - God wills it - greeted Pope Urban II in November 1095 when he urged a crusade in Clermont, France. Bishops and cardinals fell to their knees. Kings and knights soon volunteered in the thousands.

While Peter's peasant army was wiped out by Islamic forces in October 1096 in what is now Turkey, the itinerant preacher survived to urge on the knights who captured Jerusalem three years later. The Christian forces slaughtered the city's Muslims as well as its Jews, who had taken refuge in a synagogue.

Saladin recaptured Jerusalem on Oct. 2, 1187, but did not repeat the atrocities. The Christians had sued for peace, and all were allowed to leave the city on payment of a small ransom. To the dismay of his treasurers, Saladin freed many poor who could not pay.

Nine major crusades were mounted through the year 1270, with some even aimed at Egypt as desire for land replaced the spread of Christendom as a motive. The wars ended on Oct. 18, 1291, when the crusaders were forced from their last stronghold in the Holy Land, at Acre on the Mediterranean coast.



The Crusades

The Crusades still resonate in the Middle East, in religion and knowledge, and in the continuing transfer of culture throughout the region.

First Crusade - 1096-1099

Christians captured Jerusalem and established a Latin kingdom in the holy city.

Second Crusade - 1147-1149

Began after the loss of the Byzantine city of Edessa to Muslims. Ended in failure.

Third Crusade - 1189-1192

Organized after Muslim leader Saladin's capture of Jerusalem in 1187. Failed to regain the city, but a treaty won Christians the right of access.

Fourth Crusade - 1202-1204

European Christian knights capture the Byzantine city of Constantinople, now Istanbul in Turkey.

Children's Crusade - 1212

Thousands of children were recruited as crusaders. Many died of hunger or disease, or were sold into slavery.

Fifth Crusade - 1217-1221

Crusaders captured Damietta in Egypt but were defeated by the forces of the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil.

Sixth Crusade - 1228-1229

German King Frederick II led an army to the Holy Land and achieved a short-lived truce with Muslims.

Seventh Crusade - 1248-1254

French King Louis IX, later St. Louis, led a force against Egypt but was captured. Ransomed, he strengthened Christian defenses in the Holy Land.

Eighth Crusade - 1270

Louis IX led another crusade but died after landing in Tunis.