THE SIEGE OF ANTIOCH
The main Crusader army arrived before Antioch on 21 October 1097. They were confronted by the massive walls of what had once been the second city of the Byzantine Empire.
Antioch on the Orontes was built originally by Seleucus Nicator, general of Alexander the Great and founder of the Seleucid Empire. During the Roman period it had been the capital of the Syrian province, and by the Byzantine Era the second city of the empire. It had fallen to the Arabs in the 7th century, then recaptured by the Byzantines in the 10th. It had been seized by the Turks 1085, and was now ruled by a Turkish governor by the name of Yağısıyan.
The city the Crusaders faced in 1097 was much reduced in population and prosperity since the Turkish occupation, but still covered more than 3.5 square miles. It was located on the south bank of the Orontes River and backed onto the slopes of Mount Silpius, which towered 1,000 feet behind the city. The defenses were built by Justinian the Great in the 6th century, repaired and improved ever since by various Byzantine and Arab rulers. They consisted of a tall and thick circuit wall warded by some 400 towers. The walls ran along the river-front in the north, and backed up both sides of the mountain on the east and west, culminating in the citadel atop Mt. Silpius on the south side. The mountain’s slopes and crevasses made approaching from the south difficult in the extreme, and limited access from the east and west. So the most practical approach for an attacker was from the north, across the river and its defending wall.
(Ab0ve) This 18th century illustration of the ruins of Antioch give an idea of how immense were its circuit walls. On the left the fortifications climb Mount Silpius toward the citadel. (Below) The ruins of St. Paul’s Gate in the city’s eastern wall, in another 18th century illustration
The Crusader force by this time was much depleted by casualties and desertions. It likely was no greater than 20,000 fighting men by this point, half as many as laid siege to Nicaea at the start of the campaign just five months earlier. It was far too small to surround the city (impractical in any case due to the bulk of Mount Silpius to the south), and still leave enough forces concentrated to repel a sally by the Turkish defenders. Storming the city would be a very costly proposition, with the garrison of 5,000 manning the massive walls. So the Crusaders set up camp on the flat ground north and northeast of the city, and established a loose blockade.
Yağısiyan knew in advance of the approach of the Frankish crusading army. He had sent couriers to the other Turkish rulers of the surrounding towns and territories seeking alliance against the Crusaders; but due to rivalries among these rulers and the chaos within the Seljuk empire that had existed since the death of sultan Malik-Shah I, each chose to defend his own territory. The governor did take the precaution of expelling many of the city’s Christian leaders and at least some of its most able-bodied men to prevent revolt during the siege: the population was, after all, mostly Greek or Armenian Christians.
As the main Crusader army had arrived, scouts under Bishop Ademar of Le Puy, the warlike Papal legate, intercepted a convoy of supplies of corn, sheep, and cattle being rushed to Antioch’s storehouses. As the army made its initial camp, the Franks were able to feast on this unexpected largess. “Those in camp,” wrote Raymond of Aguilers, “had such an abundance of food that they spurned anything but the haunches and loins of cattle, and only a few were willing to eat the breast; grain and wine were consumed with little regard for the future.”
This imprudent profligacy would come back to haunt the Crusaders in the coming months, as supplies became increasingly hard to come by.
Meanwhile, due to Yağısiyan’s foresight, the garrison within was well-provisioned. Throughout the siege the Crusader’s blockade was ineffectual, and supplies continued to enter from time-to-time throughout. It was the Frankish besiegers who continuously faced starvation, especially with the coming of winter as they sat before its walls. Supplies of food and fodder for their horses became the major issue for the Franks throughout the siege.
The ruins of the citadel atop Mt. Sulpius to the south. The two pictures above give an idea of why surrounding and investing the city was so difficult, with the mountain warding the city to the north
The Crusader army invested the walls on two sides, and patrolled as best they could the other two. The Normans under Bohemond of Taranto and Robert of Normandy camped on the east side of the city, blocking the Gate of St. Paul and the Aleppo road. Besides them, to the west, was the camps of the remaining French contingents under Hugh of Vermandois, Robert of Flanders, and Stephen of Blois. The camps of Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon stretched further west, with Raymond’s Provençals blockading the Dog Gate, and Godfrey’s Lorrainers the Duke’s Gate.
That left only three of the city’s six gates covered. The Gate of Saint George (in pagan days the Daphne Gate) and the Citadel’s gate on the west and south, respectively, were still open; as was, for a time, the Bridge Gate, controlling the nearest bridge across the Orontes and with it access to the coastal road.
Soon a bridge of boats was built to allow Godfrey’s patrols to cover access from the Bridge Gate as well, and opened up communications between the Crusaders and the sea. When he arrived from Cilicia, Tancred was given the task of blocking the St. George Gate high on the southwestern side, and he established first a redoubt of rubble opposite this gate and later converted a ruined monastery into a makeshift fort, grandly christening it “Tancred’s Tower”. However, the problem of supplies reaching the city via the citadel gate remained a problem, as there were too few troops to leave a detachment exposed on the lofty heights of Mt. Silpius south of the citadel.
In August an Anglo-Saxon fleet in Byzantine service (perhaps enlisted as Varangians, and possibly commanded by the English prince, Edgar the Ætheling) captured St. Symeon, the port of Antioch. This town and nearby Latakia were in turn taken again in October by a Flemish “pirate”, Guynemer of Boulogne with a small fleet of Danish, Frisian, and Flemish ships. This colorful freebooter aided Tancred’s capture of Alexandretta while the latter was enroute to Antioch, and with these ports in Christian hands supplies could reach the Crusaders by sea. Additionally, a Genoese fleet of 13 galleys reached St. Symeon in November, before winter made sailing too dangerous for future supply ships. All this helped with both the Crusader’s communications with the west and with their difficult supply situation.
But as the coast road ran close under the walls at the Bridge Gate, the Turkish garrison threatened any and all supply convoys from the port. Patrols had always to be ready to intercept Turkish raiders coming from within the city, either by this gate or from the citadel. Convoying supplies became a regular duty of the besiegers, harassed in the process by the Turks on many occasions. As winter drew on and foraging more difficult, it must have seemed that it was the Christian camp that was under siege, not the well-provisioned Turkish garrison within.
Another problem for the Franks was the bridge across the Orontes at the Dog’s Gate. From here the Turkish garrison could make a sudden sally, harassing and even threatening Count Raymond’s camp with little or no warning. To prevent this and further bottle-up the city, Bishop Adhemar led some of Raymond’s men in an attempt to destroy this bridge using picks and hammers. But under archery fire by the defenders, they made little impact on the well-build Roman bridge. Another attempt was made to destroy the bridge, this time with a mobile shelter to protect the workers; but a sortie by the garrison successfully drove them away. Finally the crusaders erected a blockade on the bridge to obstruct potential sorties, a partial solution to the problem.
The Normans of Apulia, facing the main eastern gate, built a fort of their own to contain the garrison. Known as Malregard, it was likely rubble and earthworks. But garrisoned by Italian crossbowmen, it kept the Turks within the city from sallying, and allowed the bulk of Bohemond’s mounted troops to forage far-and-wide.
A protracted siege during the Middle Ages was always a hungry business, and the situation for the Franks soon became critical. It was a lean Christmas, and the new year found the besiegers on very thin rations. The weather had turned particularly cold, and many of the Crusaders perished, as did war horses and draft animals. One contemporary estimate put the death-rate in the army as high as one-in-five, and was particularly hard on the camp followers and the wounded, as only those able to fight were given rations.
Under these conditions, and with no clear end in sight, some knights and soldiers began to desert. Among these was Peter the Hermit.
He had joined the Crusade after the destruction of his own “People’s Crusade“, and was a much-respected pilgrim within the army. Peter’s example could certainly encourage other (less pious) Crusaders to likewise give up on the enterprise. So Bohemond dispatched his nephew, Tancred, to bring him back. Peter was captured and returned to the army, where he would soon play an important part in the drama to come.
BATTLE OF THE IRON BRIDGE
Attempts were made by local Muslim rulers to relieve the city during the winter. A force of some 10,000 Turks under Duqaq of Damascus moved to the relief of Antioch in December. Enroute they ran into a force under Bohemond and Robert of Flanders, out foraging for livestock. On the morning of December 31, 1097 the two forces engaged in a sharp little battle, in which the Franks were able to bring the Turks to close-quarters and inflict heavy casualties. Duquq retreated, but the Crusaders were forced by casualties to return to Antioch without the livestock they desperately needed to bring back.
While Robert and Bohemond were away from the camp, the garrison at last sallied forth in force. Perhaps timed to open the way for Duquq’s expected reinforcements and supplies, the Turks poured from the gates simultaneously, at night when the besiegers were least prepared. The hardest fighting was in front of Count Raymond’s camp, and further west where the men of Lorraine sat before the Duke’s Gate and the bridge of boats. Duke Godfrey was too ill to take up arms, but Raymond assumed command like a paladin and with Bishop Adhemar by his side, rallied the knights in a counter-attack. The Turks were driven back, and the gate almost captured before the retreating Turks could get it closed in the face of the Franks. (One account is that a stampeding horse broke back through the Crusader ranks, sowing enough confusion to allow the gates to be shut.)
By February 1098 the pilgrims were near starvation. Tatikios, the commander of the Byzantine scouts who had accompanied the Crusade across Anatolia to Antioch, became the focus of ire for those in the Frankish camp who blamed his master, Emperor Alexius, for not supplying the Crusaders. He soon found it prudent to leave the siege, and return to his master “for consultation”. He promised to return with supplies, but this was the last that most of the Crusaders would see of Tatikios or any Byzantine military forces.
There was argument in the Christian camp regarding the fate of the city if/when it was captured. In Constantinople, the Crusaders had agreed to turn over former Byzantine towns to the emperor’s forces. However, since then the Franks had grown disgruntled by the lack of participation and support they were receiving from the Byzantines. Though Alexius and the imperial army were in western Anatolia, recovering territory from the Seljuks in the wake of the Crusader victory at Dorylaeum, the Emperor had not sent supplies or forces to help the Franks take Antioch.
Bohemond announced to the council of leaders that in private Alexius had promised Antioch to him. Raymond of Toulouse, who had become Bohemond’s rival in the council of commanders, took the opposite view; saying that they were honor-bound to return the city to the emperor. With feelings running high against the Greeks this cost Raymond much of the popularity he had gained in the defense of the camp earlier. The clever Bohemond told the leaders that without the emperor’s help and under the present conditions, he didn’t believe the city could be taken. He announced he and his Italo-Norman would return home to Italy, having done all that honor demanded to fulfill his Crusader vow; and advised each of them to do the same. To stay and fight on was tantamount to suicide, a mortal sin.
This caused great consternation in the council of leaders. At that moment, as though on cue, a messenger arrived with news that a second Turkish relief force of some 12,000 horsemen was marching on Antioch. This army was led by the emir Ridwan of Aleppo, brother of Duquq and nephew of the late Malik Shah.
Some advised immediately breaking camp and retreating to the coast. Bohemond, however, warned that they had too many sick, wounded, and weak from starvation in the camp; and that these would perforce have to be abandoned to the Turks. That this was an unthinkable breach of fealty the leaders owed to their followers. Instead, Bohemond promised a solution: if they would promise him Antioch once it fell, he would lead them to victory against Ridwan. Raymond continued to argue, but in the end the leaders agreed that if the city fell to Bohemond’s efforts, they would acknowledge his right to the city.
Leaving Raymond to hold the camp and defend it against the eventuality of a sally by Yağısiyan and the garrison, Bohemond took all those knights who still had horses east to face Ridwan. The Crusade had been particularly hard on the Frankish warhorses. Only a mere 700 remained of the many thousands that had started the campaign. This limited Bohemond’s force to only the healthiest and best-armed knights, the cream of the Crusader force. Among these were all of the high-born leaders and their mesnies, the most famed warriors wearing the best armor available to a western knight of the age. A small but very elite force.
Armor and equipment of Frankish knight, end of 11th century
All night the Crusader strike force rode east, down the Aleppo Road, keeping the Orontes on their left. By dawn on February 9, 1098 they reached a place Bohemond, in his many foraging expeditions over the last few months, had very likely chosen as a perfect place for a small force to engage a much larger one: a narrow stretch of ground where the road passed between the river and the marshy Lake of Antioch. Bohemond arranged his small force in 5 lines, each of two ranks, and with each led by one of the princes and comprised of their sworn followers. It is notable that in this illustrious company, which included a brother of the king of France (Hugh of Vermandois), a son and son-in-law of William the Conqueror (Robert Curthose and Stephen of Blois, respectively), and a descendant of Charlemagne (Godfrey of Bouillon) that Bohemond of Taranto, grandson of a petty Norman lord from the Cotentin was the acknowledged leader. Never was their a society more conscious of status and birth than that of Medieval Europe. Yet these great men accepted the leadership of this near-landless Norman adventurer, the son of another adventurer, from Apulia. It speaks volumes of the force of personality and military ability of Bohemond of Taranto.
As dawn rose in their face, the rumble of hooves and Turkish kettle drums could be heard by the waiting Franks. Crossing the Iron Bridge, where an invading Arab army under Khalid ibn al-Walid had defeated the Byzantines in the 7th century, Ridwan’s host rode in loose column down the road, towards the waiting Crusader force.
As the head of the Turkish column came into sight, Bohemond addressed the knights in their ranks. Each line would charge in succession, not one blow but five, each following the other. In the narrow space between river and lake their flanks would be safe, and though outnumbered the Turks could not bring their numbers to bear. Nor could they retreat out of reach of the Frank’s charge, with the narrow bridge at their backs creating a bottleneck. Here they would be forced to stand and fight, and any Turk who stood up to a Frankish knight would be a dead Turk!
It fell out as Bohemond planned: The Turks resisted the first charge, but were driven back by each successive blow. Soon the whole mass was fleeing the way they had come, the knights in close pursuit, hacking at their defenseless backs. At the bridge, many were caught and slaughtered. The rest scattered beyond.
The Franks returned victorious to Antioch, bringing captured Turkish horses to remount some of the knights back in the camp. They found that Raymond had again repulsed the garrison’s attempt to sally out. Both rival leaders, Bohemond and Raymond, had come off the day’s events with enhanced prestige.
But though they had defeated this attempt to relieve the city, the Crusaders seemed no closer to taking Antioch than they were the previous day.
THE FALL OF ANTIOCH
As summer 1098 approached and the Franks began to celebrate and recuperate from the privations of the winter, word came of still another, even greater Turkish relief army approached from the east; this led by Kerbogha, Emir of Mosul. Now the Crusaders faced being crushed against the city walls, pinned between the proverbial rock and the very hard place.
Some now abandoned the Crusade, returning down the road to the coast to take ship for home. The most notable of these was Stephen Count of Blois, son-in-law of William the Conqueror, who departed the camp on June 1, 1098 with a party of northern French. His desertion was to have far-reaching effects. His party reached the Emperor Alexius in Anatolia, now finally marching with and army and supplies for the Crusaders at Antioch. But hearing from the Count of Blois’ own lips that he had left his fellow Crusaders starving and on the verge of annihilation at the hands of Kerbogha. Mindful that his might be the last Christian army left operating the region, Alexius halted his advance, and gave the Crusade up as a lost cause. This abandonment left a deep and lasting distrust between the Franks in the Holy Land and the Byzantines to their north; one that would truly never heal.
Seal of Stephen Count of Blois. His desertion and misreporting of the failure of the Crusaders at Antioch would taint his reputation and have lasting effects on relations between the Franks and the Byzantines.
Stephen of Blois returned to his wife Adela in France, bearing with him the shame of having abandoned the Crusade and his comrades at their most desperate hour. For the rest of his life, he was branded a coward. Adela, a true daughter of a relentless father, never gave him rest till, in 1101, he once again took up the cross and returned to fulfill his Crusader vow. He would never return from the Holy Land, dying in battle. He left a son and namesake who would, in time, become King Stephen I of England.
As events at Antioch would show, both Stephen of Blois and the emperor Alexius gave up on the Crusade a moment too soon.
The very day that the Count of Blois’ party deserted the camp, Bohemond was approached by an officer in the Turkish garrison. Called Firouz the Armorer, he was likely an Armenian who had converted to Islam. He was in command of town, a postern gate, and a section of the southern wall atop Mount Silpius near the citadel. For reasons unknown, he now offered to betray the city to the Franks in return for safe passage out of Syria. He would allow entry into his tower under the cover of night, from where the Franks could then overpower his troops and open the postern gate.
For Bohemond and the Franks it was an eleventh-hour gift from God. But fearing treachery, Bohemond demanded the young son of Firouz be handed over, in secret, before the Franks attacked.
This was done, the boy arriving in Bohemond’s camp on the evening of the 2nd of June. That night the Franks assembled for battle, and while Bohemond and Godfrey made their way up the ridge of Mount Silpius, Raymond and the south French waited for the northern gates to be opened to them. Scaling the wall beneath Firouz’ tower, Bohemond led his troops inside. All transpired as planned, and the postern gate was opened form within.
“Without delay the gate was opened. The Franks shouted: ‘God wills it! God wills it!’ For this was our signal cry…”
Soon the Crusaders were in possession of a stretch of the southern walls and ten towers along it, though Godfrey’s Lorrainers were repulsed in an attempt to storm the citadel at the same time. It seems that as dawn displayed Bohemond’s banner on the heights above the city, the Christian population rose against their Turkish occupiers, and opened the gates to Raymond and the bulk of the waiting Crusader army.
“The Turks were terrified. Then, when the redness of dawn had paled, the Franks began to attack the city. When the Turks saw the Franks running through the streets with naked swords and wildly killing people… they began to flee…” 
Assuming that the citadel had also fallen, Yağısiyan fled out another postern along the southern walls. Attempting to negotiate the ravines on the south side of Mount Silpius, he was thrown from his horse. Found dazed and on foot, he was murdered by Syrian shepherds, who later brought his head to the “mighty Bohemond”. His son, Shams ad-Daula, kept a cooler head and instead sought refuge within the citadel, where he took command and repulsed attempts to storm it as well.
In the city below, the Greek and Armenian Christian population joined the Franks in massacring all the Turks not within the citadel. “By nightfall on 3 June, there was no Turk left alive in Antioch… You could not walk on the streets without treading on corpses… But Antioch was Christian once more.”
The city was in Christian hands.
But just two days later, Kerbogha arrived. Too late to prevent the city falling, he was now come to take it back. He brought with him a very great army, some 35,000 strong.
Within Antioch the jubilation the Crusaders had felt at the city’s capture was muted: they, now, were the besieged.
NEXT: THE BATTLE OF ANTIOCH AND THE MARCH ON JERUSALEM
For further reading I recommend the following works:
- God’s Battalions: the Case for the Crusades, by Professor Rodney Stark.
- A History of the Crusades (3 Volumes), by Steven Runciman
- Matthew of Edessa
- Fulcher of Chartres
- Runciman, Steven (1951), The History of the Crusades Volume I: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.