This is the third part of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades, but with the politically correct blinders often found in modern scholarship removed. In these initial installments we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.
At long last the Crusaders had reached the goal of their pilgrimage, the holy city of Jerusalem, and many a man wept at the sight. The army had shrunk considerably in the years since departing Europe, now estimated at some 12,000 men, of which only 1,500 (at best) were still mounted. They found a city strongly fortified, an Egyptian garrison holding the walls, and the gates barred against them. The countryside surrounding the city was nearly barren, lacking in water (the wells poisoned) or food supplies. Another long and exhausting siege seemed in the offing, and the prospect must have been daunting after the ordeal they had endured at Antioch.
The Crusaders made two camps, blockading Jerusalem. Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Tancred camped to the north of the city with the Norman, north French, and Low Country contingents; while Raymond and the southern French camped to the south of the city. A probing attack on the walls was made soon after arriving, on June 13, using ladders made from locally scavenged wood (in short supply). Though initially gaining lodgement upon the walls, the assault was soon thrown back.
At this point, however, a group of knights claimed to have been visited in a vision by the now-dead and sorely missed Papal Legate, Bishop Adhemar. They claimed he had instructed them to march around the city walls barefoot, in penance and humility, to show their worthiness to take possession of the Holy City. This they did, the army marching around the city walls and singing holy psalms. After which Peter the Hermit held religious sermons in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the Mount of Olives. This greatly boosted the Crusaders’ morale; and now in a state of religious zeal, they were prepared to do what must be done to storm the city.
Material aid came at this time from the coast. On June 17th a party of Genoese sailors arrived with supplies of wood taken from their dismantled ships, and the fittings needed to assemble siege engines. After five weeks spent constructing a pair of siege towers (“Belfry”), an assault was planned for July 13th.
The attack on the walls took three days, with the defenders exchanging fire from stone-throwing mangonels (which also hurled balls of flammable material covered in pitch) as well as arrows. On the 15th the towers were rolled towards the walls, it taking several hours to push the towers against the battlements. The Muslim garrison had hung quilted cotton pads from the top of the walls, to pad the stone face against the impact from the mangonel fire. However, in the north flaming arrows had lit this cotton covering ablaze, and the rising heat from the flames soon drove the defenders back from the battlements. This allowed Godfrey’s tower to reach the wall unimpeded. The draw-bridge dropped onto the walls, and the first to storm across were two Flemish knights named Lethalde and Engelbert , followed closely by Duke Godfrey, his brother Eustace, the giant Tancred, and their men.
The Franks hacked their way across the walls, clearing the defenders and entering the city below. In this melee they were served well by their heavier armor and larger stature than their Muslim opponents. In the south, where Count Raymond’s tower had caught fire and the attack there had stalled, many of the defenders were called off to try to stem the tide in the north. But this allowed Raymond’s men to batter down a gate and enter as well. Soon the city was swarming with Franks, slaughtering enemy warriors and civilians with equal gusto.
A band of Muslims barricaded themselves in the mihrab Da’ud (Tower of David) and fought on for several days. They were granted their lives in return for surrendering.
The governor surrendered the citadel to Raymond, whose men showed greater restraint in the ongoing sack. The count honored his agreement with ad-Dawla and the surviving members of the Fatimid garrison, Egyptians and Sudanese, retired to Ascalon where a Muslim relief army was approaching.
Tower of David by night; part of the extensive citadel complex
The slaughter went on into the next day. A great number of Muslims took refuge on the Temple Mount. There they were attacked on the 16th by Franks with “unsheathed swords”. According to (the not-unbiased) Ibn al-Athir some 70,000 in all perished, and a great loot of silver was carried away in the form of adornments stripped from the interior of the Dome of the Rock. Jews suffered almost as badly as Muslims, a great many slain in their synagogue where they had taken refuge.
The massacre of the populace of Jerusalem was indeed a terrible blight upon the history of the Crusades; but neither unique to Christian armies nor unusual in its day. Under the commonly understood conventions governing war, a city or fortress that refused surrender and held out until stormed by the attackers was acknowledged to have forfeited all rights to mercy. Its people and goods were forfeit to the rage of the conquering army. Had the city surrendered before the belfreys were constructed and rolled towards the walls, the Fatimid garrison and population would likely have been spared.
The capture is often portrayed as a general massacre of the entire population. That would be an overstatement. The Gesta Francorum states: “Our men took many prisoners, both men and women in the Temple. They killed whom they chose, and whom they chose, they saved alive.” The exact casualty count among the city’s population is unknown, but there was not a general massacre.
The victors spent the next week cleaning out the piles of bodies, using Muslim captives to drag the corpses out of the city before their decomposition could start a “pestilence”.
The object of the Crusade had been achieved: Jerusalem, holy city of three great religions, was again in Christian control for the first time since the armies of Islam had wrested it from the Byzantines in the first flush of Arab conquest, four-and-a-half centuries earlier.
On 22 July, eight days after the city was captured, the Frankish leaders held a council in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose purpose was to choose a king for the newly created Kingdom of Jerusalem. Duke Godfrey, who had resigned his title in Europe and had made it known he planned to stay in the Holy Land, was chosen; though out of humility he refused the title “king”. Instead this humble hero accepted only the title of Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri ( “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre).
THE BATTLE OF ASCALON
The Crusaders could not afford to wrest upon their laurels. A Fatimid army was gathering 58 miles to the west at Ascalon (modern Ashkelon, 8 miles north of the Gaza Strip), to recapture the city and destroy the Crusade once and for all. Jerusalem was in no condition to stand a siege so soon after its capture. Perhaps mindful of being in the same situation after the fall of Antioch, the Franks decided to sally out and meet the Fatimid army in the field.
The Fatimid forces assembling at Ascalon to retake Jerusalem were led by vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah. The vizier commanded perhaps as many as 50,000 troops; the core of which consisted of the professional ghulams of his own and perhaps the Caliph’s guard, as well as other professional regiments of Berber, Egyptian, and Sudanese subjects. He was awaiting the arrival of his fleet, perhaps carrying the siege equipment necessary to take back Jerusalem, as well as the local bedouin tribes of southern Palestine who normally helped defend the region. Al-Afdal camped outside Ascalon, likely northeast of the city where drinkable water could be found. Here he was joined by local Muslim levies (the ahdath militia).
The size of the Frankish forces coming from Jerusalem is uncertain. Raymond of Aguilers states that there were 1,200 knights and 9,000 infantry present, a reasonable number; while the highest estimate is 20,000 men (unlikely after so much privation and struggle). Oddly enough the Fatimids appear to have been unaware of the Frank’s approach, and had posted no scouts or pickets to give early warning. On August 11 the crusaders found herds of livestock meant to feed the Fatimid camp, and as they continued their approach the next day, these accompanied their forces, the rising dust cloud from the herds exaggerating and concealing the true size of the Frankish forces.
The following morning, August 12, 1099 the Franks rose at dawn and marched on the Fatimid camp. They were organized into nine divisions: Godfrey led the left wing, Raymond the right, and Tancred, Eustace, Robert of Normandy and Gaston IV of Béarn made up the center. Each of these division was proceeded by the foot-soldiers, the foremost rank of which consisted of dismounted knights and armored sergeants, supported by crossbowmen and other lighter foot. Behind the foot were the mounted forces, ready to support the infantry and deliver the decisive charge. There is speculation that the nine division formation consisted of three division in each of three lines, and was adopted from central Asian and Turkish tactics. If so, it is hard to see how this box formation could also consist of a left, right, and center commands.
By all account the Fatimids were caught unprepared:
“The Arabs remained their camp in the belief that at news of their coming we would remain close to our walls (Jerusalem)… They had daily reports on desertions (among the Frankish forces) in Jerusalem, the small size of our army, and the enfeebles state of our people and horses…
The Fatimids hastily arrayed for battle, and there is possibility that their cavalry sallied out first and attacked the approaching Frankish lines, as one chronicler states that the Frankish crossbowmen repelled such an attack before the knights charged. In any case, the battle was short-lived, and the unprepared Muslim forces quickly panicked and broke.
The Fatimid left, pursued by Raymond, fled around the northwest side of the city towards their ships, and at least some were chased into the sea and slaughtered. The Fatimid center escaped into the city, but their right wing was driven south by Godfrey’s men, into an orchard. There some climbed trees, which were lit on fire to drive them out, where they were then killed with arrows. Al-Afdal escaped with his staff, but left behind his camp and its treasures, which was captured by Robert and Tancred. Crusader losses are unknown but presumably light. The Muslim losses were great, about 10–12,000 men.
After the battle, the Crusader force withdrew back to Jerusalem. There, while some returned to Europe others were stayed and were granted fiefs in the new Crusader Kingdom created in Palestine and the Levant. Godfrey became the first King of Jerusalem (though see note 3 below); Raymond became the Count of Tripoli; and Bohemond of Taranto was named the Prince of Antioch. Lesser princes received lesser fiefs: Tancred became Prince of the Galilee region, and Baldwin (brother of Godfrey) ruled in Edessa as count. A native European aristocracy took root, ruling over the local populace (many of which were members of the centuries old Maronite Christian Church, and were only too happy to exchange Christian for Muslim rulers). Castles were constructed to dominate the countryside, and every town was well fortified. The Military Orders of the Knights Templars (headquartered in the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Knights of St. John warded the kingdom and the pilgrim’s route from brigands and Muslim incursions. These Orders also provided the Kingdom with a semi-professional corps-de-elite available to the King in battle. Their fanaticism matched that of the their worst Ghazi enemy. They came to be feared and hated by the Muslim foes of the Kingdom.
During this time, the Turks in the northern part of Mesopotamia and Syria were slowly united under the leadership of the Zengids. First by Zengi (Imad ad-Din Zengi, or Zangi), the Seljuk Atabeg (ruler) of Mosul; then under his successors, Nureddin (Nur ad-Din Zangi) and his Kurdish lieutenant, Saladin (salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the Zengids succeeded in pushing back the frontiers of the Crusader state. The capture of Edessa by Zengi led to a Second Crusade, but this failed in its objective of capturing Damascus, the acquisition of which would have given the Crusader kingdom more “breathing room” and cut the Muslim powers in northern Mesopotamia off from their brethren in Egypt.
Nureddin dreamed of a united Sultanate from the Nile to the Tigris, and he nearly achieved his dream before his death. Saladin inherited and expanded this authority, becoming the most famous Muslim ruler-general perhaps of all time. But as great a general as Saladin was, he was soon to come face-to-face with the greatest warrior-king of the age: Richard the Lionheart!
The Krak des Chevaliers castle in Syria was home to the Knights of St. John of the Hospital (the “Hospitalers”) during the Crusader period. The strength of such places allowed the numerically outnumbered Franks to hold off their Muslim enemies and dominate the countryside for two centuries.
- Gesta Francorum
- Ibn al-Athir
- Godfry’s title during his life is the subject of some controversy. He seems to have used the more ambiguous term princeps (prince), or continued to style himself by his older title of Duke. William of Tyre, writing later in the 12th century, claims Godfrey refused to wear “a crown of gold” where Christ had worn “a crown of thorns”. His brother and successor, Baldwin, was the first to use the title “King of Jerusalem”.
- The Gesta Francorum puts the Fatimid forces at an improbable 200,000; and this is the high-end of estimates. Others vary between 20,000 and 30,000.
- Raymond d’Aguilers
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.