THE FIRST Crusade was set in motion 895 years ago by Pope Urban II with a rousing speech at the Council of Clermont that brought the assembled French prelates clattering to their feet with shouts of ''God wills it, God wills it.'' The pope had discovered the power of jihad (Arabic for ''holy war'') in 1095, about 470 years after Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had concluded the first one.
Urban II sought to oust the Moslem Arabs and Turks from Jerusalem and Palestine in order to guarantee Christian access to the Holy Places. This masterful psychological move would incidentally provide political and economic benefits for the papacy and Europe's secular rulers. And though the cast of characters has since changed, the script over the centuries has not.
The First Crusade was led by minor nobility, their followers and a rag-tag assemblage of faithful common folk. Europe's major monarchs were at odds with the pope, either excommunicated (the French and German emperors) or schismatic (the English king). The pope also had to contend with a French-supported antipope and an entrenched schism separating the Roman and Byzantine churches.
Thus when emissaries of the Byzantine emperor arrived in Rome seeking the pope's permission to recruit Western European mercenaries to fill the imperial ranks fighting the Moslems, they came at the right time. Urban II needed an opportunity to rejuvenate a waning papacy. Imagine the Byzantines' surprise and concern when instead the pope called for an expedition that would place an independent foreign army on Byzantine soil to fight the Moslems and compete for the spoils.
From Clermont the fervor spread across Europe as Catholic clergy, led by an eloquent monk, Peter the Hermit, collected oaths from European Christians to wage ''holy war'' against Arab Moslems. The oath takers were enjoined to sew a white cross on their shoulders (hence the term ''crusader,'' from a Latin verb meaning ''to mark with a cross.'')
Urban II's prestige was enhanced by an unprecedented unity of purpose. The emotional appeal of his religious patriotism swept aside all secular contenders for world leadership. The payoff was big. For a short while the Byzantine emperor was able to force the Byzantine Church back into the Roman fold. Europe's kings bowed to papal religious and temporal authority. And an eerie peace settled over Western Europe as the Crusade provided an outlet for constantly warring kingdoms, whose free-lancing knights and landless gentry sought conflicts by which to make their fortunes.
Three crusading armies met at Byzantium (now Constantinople) and ended the Moslem siege of that city in the autumn of 1096. But their push into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) slowed as Christian nobles began breaking ranks to set up Christian fiefdoms on desirable pieces of Moslem turf. The splintered crusader army encountered weak Arab resistance as Shiite and Sunni Moslems preferred fighting each other. (Starting to sound familiar?) In fact the Sunni Syrians stood idly by while the Egyptian Shiites were driven out of Jerusalem on June 15, 1099 )) by a French force under Godfrey of Bouillon, the Duke of Lower Lorraine.
The First Crusade to the Holy Land was the only successful one. The Kurdish ruler Saladin retook Jerusalem for the Moslems 88 years later, and the Latin Kingdom of Jersusalem was eventually driven from its last remaining Palestinian strongholds to the island of Cyprus after the fall of Acre in 1291. Thus ended the epoch of crusading after almost 200 years.
In reality, the Crusades are a small episode in the longest-running conflict in world history, which for 2,500 years has pitted the nations north and west of the Mediterranean basin (Europeans) against the nations south and east of it (North Africans and Middle Easterners). The prizes have been the agricultural and mineral products of the land and control of the sea and land routes for shipping them. Today it is oil.
If the religious ardor of the First Crusade overshadowed its political objectives, there was no such subtlety in subsequent crusades. Succeeding crusades degenerated into economic and military adventures in which Christians sometimes fought each other and sometimes allied with one Moslem sect against another. The Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice used the Crusades to set up privileged trade enclaves (free ports) rimming the Mediterranean. The papacy profited from new taxing powers and donations from nobles seeking release from their oaths to ''take up the cross,'' and eventually the sale of indulgences minus the formality of an oath -- a practice which contributed to the Protestant Reformation.