One thing Assassin’s Creed definitely gets right is history. Some of the later games do focus on better-known events, but what I love about the first one is that it takes place during events that most people know nothing about. Even if you do know a little about the crusades, chances are everything you know comes from the Western perspective.
Now that I think of it, I don’t know how the game got as big as it did in 2004, considering they made the Muslims the good guys and the White Christians the antagonists. I retroactively salute the design team on a risky move that definitely paid off.
After playing a bit, I decided to educate myself about the context in which I’m doing all my assassin shenanigans.
War for the Holy Land
You probably already know that the crusades were about Jerusalem. If you keep up with world events even vaguely, you know people are still fighting over the Holy Land to this day, so learning about the crusades may actually inform us about modern events.
Staying as neutral as I can, I will say the idea of Jerusalem is inherently tricky. It is the single most sacred place on earth for three different religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each religion stipulates that it is more or less sacrilege for one of the other religions to control it–not to mention certain sects within each of those religions wouldn’t be able to tolerate another sect owning it. Its going to be difficult to get to a place where there isn’t some sort of conflict over Jerusalem, although I could see a future where the conflict is political rather than violent.
Assassin’s Creed takes place in the middle of the Third Crusade. The previous two crusades had more or less been failures; in fact, all the crusades were failures. While the Christians hadn’t conquered Jerusalem in either of the previous ventures, they had won the right for Christian pilgrims to enter the city peacefully.
Then Saladin conquered the city. I’m extremely interested in doing more research on Saladin and the events he was involved in. I’ve never seen any of this stuff covered in a Western history, but at first glance these events seem to have about the same impact as the founding of the Roman Empire.
For now, just know that Saladin was the greatest conqueror of the Islamic world, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and, in 1187, the conqueror of Jerusalem.
If you don’t like history, it’s probably because you haven’t yet discovered how absurd it all is. Seriously. We like to romanticize events, but when seen objectively, history is a series stupid mistakes, bizarre coincidences, hilarious mistakes, and powerful men acting like children.
The Third Crusade exemplifies everything I love about history. Let’s start with the main characters, who could quite easily fill out the cast of a sitcom. First you have Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, who you might recognized from your favorite adaptation of Robin Hood. He’s usually portrayed as brave, chivalrous, pious, regal, and generous. The real Richard was definitely brave. He was also very interested in having a reputation for those other things, which was why he jumped at the chance to throw a crusade.
Next up is Philip II of France. In fantasy setting, titles are always so cut and dry: there’s a kind, and then a bunch of nobles who do what he says. At that time, France still had dominion over England, making Richard a vassal to Philip. On the other hand, almost all of France had come under the dominion of the British throne, so pretty much all the important nobles in both countries were Richard’s vassals and practically he was probably more powerful than Philip. If the Third Crusade was an office comedy, Philip is the serious and hardworking boss responsible for the company’s success, but nobody really likes him because he holds them to such high standards. Richard is the manager who insists that every day is casual Friday. He’s great at getting everyone fired up about ambitious new ideas and projects but he never follows through on any of them. Philip desperately wants to fire him, but knows if he did, Richard would start his own company and the rest of the staff would go with him.
Then there’s Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. Over seventy years old, the Holy Roman Emperor is still in his prime and doesn’t mess around. He’s the old guy who’s been working here forever and knows how to fix any problem, but he’s never asked for a promotion or any recognition. All he cares about is doing a good job and putting in the work.
A Comedy of Battles
No-nonsense Barbarossa set out for the Holy Land in 1989 with the unstoppable legions of Germany and Italy. They marched through the Byzantine Empire and all through Asia Minor, easily crushing anyone who stood in their way. Their glorious campaign lasted until 1190, when the army reached a dangerous gorge. The officers insisted on going around it rather than risk heavy losses. To prove it was safe, Barbarossa charged into the gorge himself. He was promptly swept away and drowned, and the world’s greatest army broke up and went home.
It took another year for Philip to land at Acre, and he was well ahead of Richard, who had stopped in Sicily to gamble, party, and visit whores. It wasn’t until the summer of 1191 when all the forces left in the crusade had made it to the Middle East. Leopold of Austria, a minor player leading a fragment of Barbarossa’s original army, also joined Richard and Philip in Acre.
Before much of anything happened, Richard managed to aggravate Philip so much that Philip took his army back to France and began conspiring with Richard’s brother John to overthrow him and take control of England. The remaining crusaders did manage to conquer Acre, and Richard proudly planted his flag on the battlefield. Leopold tried to plant his own banner next to it, but Richard tore it down, so Leopold left, too. Saladin had barely lifted a finger and was now facing roughly a quarter of the original force which had marched against him.
Still, Richard scored some impressive victories and Saladin agreed to a treaty. The leaders found they liked each other and immediately struck up a bromance for the ages. As a result, they worked out a treaty which benefited them both: Richard got to declare victory for all the world to see, and other than that, nothing changed. If you take Richard’s ego out of the equation, the Third Crusade accomplished absolutely nothing.
Satisfied with his glory, Richard set sail for England. Along the way, he was captured by a vengeful Leopold of Austria. He rots in a cell for the next two years while Philip and John consolidate their power in England.
So keep all that in mind as the story of Assassin’s Creed unfolds. It might be hard to buy in to the conceit that the world has been ruled by some Knights Templar-Illuminati hybrid for thousands of years, but after learning what really happened, I think that’s the least ridiculous part of the story.