‘The True Cross’ is the name given to the part of the wooden cross to which Jesus’s body was nailed in the crucifixion.
It was salvaged and preserved, and later became a highly symbolic artefact during the course of the Crusades – a series of missions starting around the end of the 11th century, undertaken by Christian armies from what is now western Europe, with the aim of wresting control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.
Jesus is an important figure to both religions – Christians believing him to be the son of God, while Muslims recognise him as being the second most important prophet after Muhammad, but nevertheless a mortal.
Both armies sought to control the city of Jerusalem, which for Muslims marks the place from which Muhammad visited heaven, and for Christians is the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Jesus.
And both sides sought to possess The True Cross.
In 1099 both Jerusalem and The True Cross were captured by the Crusaders, and the city and its hinterland became a Christian Kingdom. During the subsequent reign of Baldwin III (1142-1162), The True Cross was set with jewels because it was felt to be too plain to represent its great significance and to honour Christ. Also, by this time, The True Cross was regularly carried into battle by the Christian armies as a symbol of authority and sign of God’s protection.
Baldwin’s army was carrying The True Cross when partially surrounded by Turkish Muslim troops at Bozra. The Turks set fire to the tinder-dry thistles and brambles, leaving Baldwin’s army in danger of being engulfed by flames. In a gesture of defiance and faith (or perhaps in desperation), the Archbishop of Nazareth raised The True Cross high in the air. At that moment, the wind changed direction, thus sending the flames the other way. Baldwin’s troops were saved and the Turks forced to retreat.
In 1187, Muslim Saracen forces under the leadership of the brilliant military strategist Sultan Saladin (correctly Salah al-Din, meaning ‘Rectifier of the Faith’) recaptured The True Cross when the Christian Franks were massacred at Hattin. Salah al-Din’s forces then stormed through the Holy Lands and recaptured Jerusalem.
The most famous of the Crusades ensued in 1189 when King Richard I (‘The Lionheart’) of England, King Phillip II of France and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (‘Red Beard’) of Germany led fresh Christian armies to the Holy Lands to confront Salah al-Din. Although popular history has tended to glamorise the titanic struggled which followed, it was a protracted and exhausting campaign in which huge numbers of men were sacrificed in pursuit of tiny territorial gains.
In 1192 a truce was finally struck, the terms of which gave the Muslims control of Jerusalem, but with the Christians granted a right of pilgrimage, and which saw The True Cross returned to the Christians.
It seems likely that The True Cross was subsequently broken up so that small pieces could be owned by various collectors of religious relics, but it remains an enigmatic symbol of the legacy left by Jesus of Nazareth.
© Peter Ulrich 2005