Post-classical history





Thou land devourest up men, and hast bereaved thy nations.’ EZEKIEL XXXVI, 13

When the Frankish armies entered Jerusalem, the First Crusade attained its goal. But if the Holy City were to remain in Christian hands and if the way thither were to be made easy for pilgrims, a stable government must be set up there, with reliable defences and sure communications with Europe. The Crusaders that planned to settle in the East were well aware of their needs. The brief reign of Duke Godfrey saw the beginnings of a Christian kingdom. But Godfrey, for all his estimable qualities, was a weak, foolish man. Out of jealousy he quarrelled with his colleagues; out of genuine piety he yielded far too much power into the hands of the Church. His death and his replacement by his brother Baldwin saved the young kingdom. For Baldwin possessed the wisdom, the foresight and the toughness of a statesman. But the task that lay before him was formidable; and he had few helpers on whom he could rely. The great warriors of the First Crusade had all gone northward or returned to their homes. Of the leading actors of the movement only the most ineffectual remained in Palestine, Peter the Hermit, of whose obscure life there we know nothing, and who himself went back to Europe in 1101. The princes had taken their armies with them. Baldwin himself, a landless younger son, had not brought to the East any vassals of his own, but had borrowed men from his brothers. He was now dependent upon a handful of devout warriors who had vowed before they left Europe to remain in the Holy Land, and of adventurers, many of them younger sons like himself, who hoped to find estates there and to enrich themselves.

The Land of Palestine

At the time of Baldwin’s accession the Franks maintained a precarious hold over the greater part of Palestine. It was most secure along the mountainous backbone of the province, from Bethlehem northward to the plain of Jezreel. Many of the villages there had always been Christian; and most of the Moslems of the district had abandoned their homes on the appearance of the Frankish armies, even deserting their favourite city of Nablus, which they called the Little Damascus. This was an easy district to defend. On the east it was protected by the valley of the Jordan. Between Jericho and Beisan there was no ford across the river and only one track led up from the valley into the mountains. It was almost equally hard of access from the west. Farther north was the principality of Galilee, which Tancred had conquered for Christendom. This included the plain of Esdraelon and the hills from Nazareth to Lake Huleh. Its borders were more vulnerable; it was easily entered from the Mediterranean coast by Acre and from the east along roads to the north and to the south of the Sea of Galilee. But, from there too, much of the Moslem population had emigrated, and only Christians remained, apart from small Jewish colonies in the towns, especially in Safed, long the chief home of the Talmudic tradition. But most of the Jews, after the massacre of their co-religionists at Jerusalem and at Tiberias and their opposition to the Christians at Haifa, preferred to follow the Moslems into exile. The central ridge and Galilee were the core of the kingdom; but tentacles were stretching out into the more Moslem districts around. The principality of Galilee had recently been given an outlet to the sea at Haifa. In the south the Negeb was dominated by the Frankish garrison at Hebron. But the Castle of Saint Abraham, as it was called by the Franks, was little more than an island in a Moslem ocean. The Franks had no control over the tracks that led from Arabia, round the southern end of the Dead Sea, along the course of the old Spice Road of the Byzantines; by which the Bedouin could infiltrate into the Negeb and link up with the Egyptian garrisons at Gaza and Ascalon on the coast. Jerusalem itself had access to the sea down a corridor running through Ramleh and Lydda to Jaffa; but the road was unsafe except for military convoys. Raiding parties from the Egyptian cities, Moslem refugees from the uplands and Bedouins from the desert wandered over the country and lay in wait for unwary travellers. The Norse pilgrim, Saewulf, who went up to Jerusalem in 1102, after Baldwin had strengthened the defences of the kingdom, was horrified by the dangers of the journey. Between Jaffa and Haifa were the Moslem cities of Arsuf and Caesarea, whose emirs had announced themselves the vassals of Godfrey but kept all the while in touch by sea with Egypt. North of Haifa the whole coast was in Moslem hands for some two hundred miles, up to the outskirts of Lattakieh, where the Countess of Toulouse was living with her husband’s household, under the protection of the Byzantine governor.

Palestine was a poor country. Its prosperity in Roman times had not outlasted the Persian invasions; and constant wars since the coming of the Turks had interrupted its partial recovery under the Caliphs. The land was better wooded than in modern times. Despite the devastations of the Persians and the slow destruction by peasants and by goats, there were still great forests in Galilee and along the ridge of Carmel and round Samaria, and a pine-forest by the coast, south of Caesarea. They brought moisture to a countryside naturally short of water. Cornfields flourished in the plain of Esdraelon. The tropical valley of the Jordan produced bananas and other exotic fruits. But for the recent wars, the coastal plain, with its crops and its gardens where vegetables and the bitter orange were grown, would have been prosperous; and many of the mountain villages were surrounded with olive-groves and fruit orchards. But in the main the country was arid and the soil shallow and poor, especially round Jerusalem. There was no big industry in any of its towns. Even when the kingdom was at its zenith, its kings never were as rich as the Counts of Tripoli or the Princes of Antioch. The main source of wealth came from tolls; for the fertile lands across the Jordan, Moab and the Jaulan, found their natural outlet in the ports of the Palestine coast. Merchandise travelling from Syria to Egypt passed along Palestinian roads; and caravans laden with spices from southern Arabia had, down the ages, travelled through the Negeb to the Mediterranean Sea. But to ensure this source it was necessary to block all other outlets. The whole frontier from the Gulf of Akaba to Mount Hermon, and even from the Lebanon to the Euphrates, must be controlled by the Franks.

Need for a Seaport

Palestine was, moreover, an insalubrious country. Jerusalem, with its mountain air and its Roman sanitation, was healthy enough, except when the khamsin blew, sultry and dust-laden from the south. But the warmer plains, whose fertility attracted the invaders, were the homes of disease, with their stagnant waters, their mosquitoes and their flies. Malaria, typhoid and dysentery flourished there. Epidemics such as cholera and the plague spread rapidly through the crowded insanitary villages. Lepers abounded. The western knights and soldiers, with their unsuitable clothes, their heavy appetites and their ignorance of personal hygiene, easily succumbed to these diseases. The rate of mortality was even higher among the children that they bred there, especially amongst their sons. The cruel prank of nature that makes baby girls tougher than their brothers was in future generations to present a constant political problem to the Frankish kingdom. Later, as the colonists learned to follow native customs, their chances of a long life improved; but the death-rate remained formidable among their infants. It was soon obvious that if the Frankish population of Palestine was to be kept at a sufficient strength to dominate the country, there must be continuous and ample immigration from Europe.

King Baldwin’s first task must be to secure the defence of his kingdom. This would involve offensive action. Arsuf and Caesarea must be taken and their territories absorbed. Ascalon, lost to the Christians in 1099 owing to Godfrey’s jealousy of Count Raymond, must be annexed and the Egyptian frontier pushed to the south if the access from Jerusalem to the coast were to be made safe. Advance posts must be established in Transjordan and to the south of the Dead Sea. He must try to link up his kingdom with the Christian states to the north, to open the road for pilgrims and more immigrants; he must advance as far as possible himself along the coast and must encourage the formation of other Christian states in Syria. He must also secure for his kingdom a better seaport than either Jaffa or Haifa. For Jaffa was an open roadstead, too shallow for larger ships to come close inshore. Landings were made in small ferry-boats, and were full of danger if any wind were blowing. If the wind were strong, the ships themselves were in danger. The day after Saewulf landed there in 1102, he witnessed the wrecking of more than twenty ships of the flotilla with which he had voyaged, and the drowning of over a thousand pilgrims. The roadstead at Haifa was deeper and was protected from the south and west winds by the rampart of Mount Carmel, but was dangerously exposed to the north wind. The only port on the Palestinian coast that was safe in all weathers was Acre. For commercial as well as strategical reasons the conquest of Acre must be achieved.

For his internal government Baldwin’s chief need was for men and money. He could not hope to build up his kingdom if he were not rich and powerful enough to control his vassals. Manpower could only be obtained by welcoming immigration and by inducing the native Christians to co-operate with him. Money could be obtained by encouraging commerce with the neighbouring countries and by taking full advantage of the pious desires of the faithful in Europe to subsidize and endow establishments in the Holy Land. But such endowments would be made in favour of the Church. To ensure that they would be used to the advantage of the whole kingdom he must be master of the Church.

The Franks’ greatest asset was the disunity of the Moslem world. It was owing to the jealousies of the Moslem leaders and their refusal to work together that the First Crusade had achieved its object. The Shia Moslems, headed by the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, loathed the Sunni Turks and the Caliph of Baghdad quite as much as they loathed the Christians. Amongst the Turks there was perpetual rivalry between the Seldjuks and the Danishmends, between the Ortoqids and the house of Tutush, and between the two sons of Tutush themselves. Individual atabegs, such as Kerbogha, added to the confusion by their personal ambitions, while minor Arab dynasties, such as the Banu Ammar of Tripoli and the Munqidhites of Shaizar profited by the disorder to maintain a precarious independence. The success of the Crusade only added to this ineffectual chaos. Despondency and mutual recrimination made it still harder for the Moslem princes to co-operate.

The Christians had taken advantage of the discomfiture of Islam. In the north Byzantium, directed by the supple genius of the Emperor Alexius, had utilized the Crusade to recover control of western Asia Minor; and the Byzantine fleet had recently brought the whole coast-line of the peninsula back into the Emperor’s power. Even the Syrian port of Lattakieh was, owing to the help of Raymond of Toulouse, once more an imperial possession. The Armenian principalities of the Taurus and Anti-Taurus mountains, which had been threatened with extinction by the Turks, could now feel hopeful of survival. And the Crusade had given birth to two Frankish principalities, which drove a wedge into the Moslem world.

The Principality of Antioch

Of these the wealthier and more secure was the principality of Antioch, founded by the Norman Bohemond, in spite of the opposition of his leading Crusader colleague, Raymond of Toulouse, and of his own sworn obligations to the Emperor Alexius. It did not cover a large area; it consisted of the lower Orontes valley, the plain of Antioch and the Amanus range, with the two seaports of Alexandretta and Saint Symeon. But Antioch itself, despite its recent vicissitudes, was a very rich city. Its factories produced silk cloths and carpets, glass and pottery and soap. Caravans from Aleppo and Mesopotamia ignored the wars between Moslem and Christian to pass through its gates on their way to the sea. The population of the principality was almost entirely Christian, Greeks and Orthodox Syrians, Syrian Jacobites and a few Nestorians, and Armenians, all of them so jealous of each other that it was easy for the Normans to control them. The chief external danger came less from the Moslems than from Byzantium. The Emperor considered that he had been cheated over the possession of Antioch; and now, with the Cilician ports and Lattakieh under his control and his navy based on Cyprus, he awaited an opportunity to reassert his rights. The Orthodox within the principality were eager to see Byzantine rule restored; but the Normans could play off against them the Armenians and the Jacobites. Antioch had suffered a severe blow in the summer of 1100, when Bohemond led his expedition to the upper Euphrates, and his army was destroyed by the Danishmend emir and he himself taken into captivity. But apart from the loss of man-power, the disaster had not done lasting harm to the principality. The prompt action of King Baldwin, who was then still Count of Edessa, had prevented the Turks from following up their victory; and a few months later Tancred came up from Palestine to take over the regency during his uncle’s imprisonment. In Tancred the Normans found a leader as energetic and unscrupulous as Bohemond.

The second Frankish state, the county of Edessa, served as a buffer to protect Antioch from the Moslems. The county, now ruled by Baldwin’s cousin and namesake, Baldwin of Le Bourg, was larger than the principality. It sprawled on either side of the Euphrates, from Ravendel and Aintab to a vague frontier in the Jezireh, to the east of the city of Edessa. It lacked natural boundaries and a homogeneous population; for though it was mainly occupied by Christians, Syrian Jacobites and Armenians, it included Moslem towns such as Saruj. The Franks could not hope to set up a centralized government. Instead, they ruled by garrisoning a few strong fortresses from which they could levy taxes and tribute on the surrounding villages and could embark on profitable raids across the border. The whole district had always been border-country, subject to unending warfare, but it contained fertile land and many prosperous towns. From his taxes and his raids the Count of Edessa could raise an adequate revenue. Baldwin I was comparatively far wealthier as Count of Edessa than as King of Jerusalem.

Moslem Cities on the Coast

The chief need of the two states was man-power; and even here their need was less than that of Jerusalem. In Palestine the Christian population had been forbidden to bear arms since first the Moslems had invaded the land. There were no native soldiers on whom the new rulers could rely. But Antioch and Edessa lay within the old frontiers of Byzantium. There were Christians there with a long tradition of military prowess, notably the Armenians. If the Armenians would work in with the Frankish prince, he would have an army ready-made. Both Bohemond and Tancred at Antioch and Baldwin I and Baldwin II at Edessa, tried at first to conciliate the Armenians. But they proved themselves to be unreliable and treacherous. They could not be given places of trust. The rulers of Antioch and of Edessa needed western-born knights to lead their regiments and to command their castles, and western-born clerics to administer their government. But while Antioch offered to immigrants the prospect of a fairly secure existence, Edessa could only attract adventurers ready to lead the life of a brigand-chief.

Jerusalem was divided from these two northern Frankish states by a long stretch of territory ruled by a number of jealous Moslem potentates. The coast immediately to the north of the kingdom was held by four rich seaports, Acre, Tyre, Sidon and Beirut, each owing an allegiance to Egypt that waxed and waned according to the proximity of the Egyptian fleet. North of Beirut was the emirate of the Banu Ammar, with their capital at Tripoli. The emir of Tripoli had recently profited by the departure of the Crusaders to the south to extend his dominion as far as Tortosa. Jabala, between Tortosa and Lattakieh, was in the hands of a local magnate, the Qadi ibn Sulaiha, who in the summer of 1101 handed it over to Toghtekin, the atabeg of Duqaq of Damascus, from whom it passed to the Banu Ammar. In the Nosairi mountains, behind Tortosa and Jabala, were the small emirates of the Banu Muhris of Marqab and Qadmus and the Banu Amrun of Kahf. The upper Orontes valley was divided between the adventurer Khalaf ibn Mula’ib of Apamea, a Shiite who therefore acknowledged Fatimid suzerainty, the Munqidhites of Shaizar, the most important of these petty dynasties, and Janah ad-Daulah of Homs, a former atabeg of Ridwan of Aleppo, who had quarrelled with his master and enjoyed virtual independence. Aleppo was still in the hands of Ridwan, who as a member of the Seldjuk ruling family bore the title of Malik, or King. The Jezireh, to the east, was mainly occupied by members of the Ortoqid dynasty, who had retired there on the Fatimid reconquest of Jerusalem in 1097, and who were considered to be the vassals of Duqaq of Damascus. Duqaq, a Malik like his brother Ridwan, ruled in Damascus.

These political divisions were made more unstable by the divergent elements in the population of Syria. The Turks formed a sparse feudal aristocracy; but the smaller emirs were almost all Arabs. In northern Syria and in Damascene territory the urban population was largely Christian, Syrians of the Jacobite church, with Nestorians in the eastern districts and Armenians infiltrating from the north. The territory of the Banu Ammar was largely peopled by the Monothelete sect of the Maronites. In the Nosairi mountains there was the tribe of the Nosairi, a Shiite sect from whom Khalaf ibn Mula’ib drew his strength. On the slopes of the southern Lebanon there were the Druzes, Shiites who accepted the divinity of the Caliph Hakim, and who hated all their Moslem neighbours but who hated the Christians more. The situation was further complicated by the steady immigration into the cultivated lands of Arabs from the desert and of Kurds from the northern mountains, and by the presence of Turcoman companies, ready to hire themselves out to any warring chieftain that would pay them.

The Rival Caliphs

Of Syria’s Moslem neighbours the most powerful were the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. The Nile valley and the Delta formed the most thickly populated area in the medieval world. Cairo and Alexandria were great industrial cities whose factories produced glass, pottery and metalwork, as well as linens and brocades. The cultivated districts grew vast quantities of corn; and there were huge sugar-plantations in the Delta. Egypt controlled the trade of the Sudan, with its gold and its gum-arabic, its ostrich feathers and ivory. The Far Eastern trade was now carried by ships using the Red Sea route and therefore reached the Mediterranean through Egyptian ports. The Egyptian government could put enormous armies into the field; and, though the Egyptians themselves enjoyed a poor reputation as soldiers, it could afford to hire as many mercenaries as it pleased. Moreover, alone of the Moslem powers, it possessed a considerable navy. The Fatimid Caliph himself as a Shia was the natural protector of the Shia of Syria. But he was traditionally tolerant; and many of the Sunni Arabs who feared Turkish domination were ready to acknowledge his suzerainty. The Turkish invasions had curtailed the empire of the Fatimids in Syria; and the Frankish capture of Jerusalem and victory over the Egyptian relieving force at Ascalon had damaged their prestige. But Egypt could afford to lose an army. It was clear that Vizier al-Afdal, who ruled Egypt in the name of the young Caliph al-Amir and was himself an Armenian born at Acre, would seek as soon as possible to avenge the defeat and recover Palestine. In the meantime the Egyptian fleet kept in touch with the Moslem cities of the coast.

The rival Caliph, the Abbasid al-Mustazhir, was a shadowy youth, who reigned at Baghdad by the grace of the Seldjuk Sultan. But the Sultan himself, Barkiyarok, the eldest son of the great Malik Shah, lacked his father’s power and ability. His brothers continually revolted against him. He had been obliged to enfeoff the youngest, Sanjar, with Khorassan, and from 1099 onwards he was at war with another brother, Mohammed, who eventually secured the province of Iraq. These preoccupations made him a useless ally in the struggle against the Christians.

The head of the youngest branch of the Seldjuk dynasty, the Anatolian Malik Kilij Arslan, self-styled Sultan, was at the moment little better placed than his cousin. The First Crusade had deprived him of his capital, Nicaea, and of most of his treasure, lost on the battlefield of Dorylaeum. Much of the land that he had controlled had passed back into Byzantine hands. He was on bad terms with the Seldjuks of the East, whose supremacy he refused to admit. But Turcoman immigrants into Anatolia gave him the means for rebuilding his army and a population that would crowd out the Christians. More effective was the Danishmend emirate, firmly established at Sivas and dominating the north-east of the peninsula. The emir, Gumushtekin, had recently won renown by his capture of Bohemond. He was the first Moslem leader to win a victory over an army of Frankish knights. He too was being continually strengthened by Turcoman immigration.

Between the Turks of Anatolia and the Frankish states of northern Syria was a group of Armenian principalities. There was Oshin, who controlled the central Taurus mountains, and to the east of him the princes of the house of Roupen. There was Kogh Vasil in the Anti-Taurus, Thatoul at Marash and Gabriel at Melitene. Thatoul and Gabriel belonged to the Orthodox Church and were therefore inclined to co-operate with Byzantium. They and Oshin based their juridical position on titles conferred on them by the Emperor. But the Roupenians, who alone of these Armenians succeeded in founding an enduring state, were traditionally hostile both to Byzantium and the Orthodox Church.


The external Christian power most concerned with Syrian affairs was Byzantium. There the Emperor Alexius had been on the throne for nearly twenty years. He had found the Empire at its nadir; but by his diplomacy and his thrift, his judicious handling of his subjects and his rivals, both at home and abroad, he had re-established it on solid foundations. He had used the Crusading movement to recover western Asia Minor from the Turks; and his reorganized fleet gave him control of the coasts. Even at its lowest ebb, Byzantium enjoyed great traditional prestige throughout the East. It was the Roman Empire, with a thousand years of history behind it; and its Emperor was the acknowledged head of Christendom, however much his fellow-Christians might dislike his policy or even his greed. Constantinople, with its innumerable, busy inhabitants, its vast wealth and its formidable fortifications, was the most impressive city in the world. The armed forces of the Empire were the best equipped of their time. The imperial coinage had long been the only sure currency. International exchange was calculated in terms of the hyperpyron, often called the besant, the gold solidus whose value had been fixed by Constantine the Great. Byzantium was to play a dominant role in Oriental politics for almost a century to come; but in fact its successes were due more to the brilliance of its statesmen and the prestige of its Roman name than to its real strength. The Turkish invasions had destroyed the social and economic organization of Anatolia, from whence of old the Empire had derived the greater part of its soldiers and its food; and though territory might be recovered, it was almost impossible to restore the former organization. The army was now almost entirely mercenary, and therefore both expensive and unreliable. Turkish mercenaries such as the Petchenegs might be safely employed against the Franks or the Slavs, but they could not be trusted against the Turks in Asia. Frankish mercenaries would not willingly fight against fellow-Franks. Early in his reign Alexius had been obliged to buy Venetian help by giving commercial concessions to the Venetians, to the detriment of his own subjects; and these were followed by concessions to the other maritime cities, Genoa and Pisa. The trade of the Empire thus began to pass into alien hands. A little later, in his need for ready-money, Alexius tampered with the coinage, issuing gold pieces that lacked their proper gold content. Confidence in the besant began to diminish; and soon the clients of the Empire insisted on being paid in ‘Michaels’, the currency minted under the Emperor Michael VII, the last that was known to be trustworthy.

The Emperor’s chief concern was the welfare of his Empire. He had welcomed the First Crusade and had been ready to co-operate with its leaders; but Bohemond’s ambition and perfidy at Antioch had shocked and angered him. His first desire was to recapture Antioch and to control the roads that led there across Asia Minor. When the Crusaders moved southwards into Palestine his active co-operation ended. The traditional Byzantine policy had been for the past century an alliance with the Fatimids of Egypt against the Sunni Abbasids and the Turks. Except under the mad Caliph Hakim the Fatimids had treated the eastern Christians with kindly forbearance; and Alexius had no reason to suppose that Frankish rule would be more agreeable to them. He had therefore dissociated himself from the Frankish march on Jerusalem. But at the same time, as patron of the Orthodox, he could not be indifferent to the fate of Jerusalem. If the Frankish kingdom seemed likely to endure, he would have to take steps to see that his rights were recognized. He was ready to show the Franks in Palestine signs of good-will; but his active help would be restricted to co-operation in opening up the routes across Asia Minor. For the Normans at Antioch he felt nothing but hostility and was to prove a dangerous enemy. He seems to have entertained no ambition for the recovery of Edessa. Probably he recognized the value of the Frankish county there as an outpost against the Moslem world.

A new factor had recently been introduced into Oriental politics by the intervention of the Italian merchant-cities. They had at first been diffident of joining in the Crusade till they saw that it promised to be successful. Then Pisa, Venice and Genoa all sent fleets to the East, promising help in return for establishments in any city in whose conquest they shared. The Crusaders welcomed them; for they offered the sea-power without which it would be impossible to reduce the Moslem coastal cities; and their ships provided a swifter and safer route of communication with western Europe than the long journey overland. But the concessions that they demanded and obtained meant that the Frankish governments in the East lost much of their potential revenue.

Baldwin’s Problems

The complexities of the international situation around him did not give King Baldwin much cause for optimism. His allies were either half-hearted or rapacious, and concerned with their selfish interests. The disunity of his enemies was helpful; but were the Moslem world to find a leader who could bind it together, there was little chance that the Frankish states in the East would survive. In the meantime he was placed with far too few supporters in a land with a deadly climate, that had been down the centuries the battlefield of nations. It was with pleasant expectation that he learnt of new Crusading expeditions setting out from the West.

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