Post-classical history

Chapter Four



Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built over what is believed to be the tomb in which Jesus was buried. The original church was built by Constantine between 326 and 335, but was destroyed by order of the caliph of Egypt in 1009. The present church was built on the ruins of the first, the work beginning in 1037.
© The Francis Frith Collection / Art Resource, NY

WHEN POPE URBAN II called upon the knights of Europe to join God’s battalions, he justified it on the grounds that after many centuries of toleration, Muslims were desecrating the sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land and were inflicting savage mistreatment on Christian pilgrims. Was it true? Or did the pope make it all up? To fully assess these claims it is useful to trace the rise of Christian pilgrimage and to see how Muslims responded to it over time.


Christian pilgrims did not exist in the first century, and had they existed it is not clear where they would have gone. After all, Jesus spent nearly all of his ministry in Galilee and made only several1 brief visits to Jerusalem. Even so, potential sacred sites in Galilee were not of compelling significance. Eventually Nazareth, Cana, and several other places in Galilee began to attract some pilgrims, and monasteries and churches were built there to commemorate the events involved. But that was later. Meanwhile, although there were extremely sacred sites in Jerusalem, the city had been destroyed by the Romans under Titus in the year 70 and razed again by Hadrian in 135 in the wake of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. So, although early Christians no doubt shared with Jews a special reverence for Jerusalem, we have little knowledge of when Christians began to visit its sacred sites.

What we do know is that pilgrims from the West were never more than a “tiny stream” compared with the “flow of pilgrims to Jerusalem from the East.”2 Unfortunately, nearly all specific knowledge of Byzantine pilgrims has been lost, so it is the “tiny stream” that we know more about, while we know relatively little about the throngs that came from the Eastern Christian areas.

One early Eastern pilgrim was Melito (died c. 180), bishop of Sardis, who provided the earliest known Christian canon of the Old Testament. Melito visited Jerusalem, and in Peri Pasha (“Concerning Passover,” a work that was not discovered until the 1930s) he located major sacred sites in the city. Another visitor was the celebrated Alexandrian theologian Origen (c. 185–254), who traveled in the Holy Land and wrote of “the desire of Christians to search after the footsteps of Christ.”3 But even though Palestine was relatively close to the major Byzantine cities, there is no evidence that many pilgrims came in early times.4

That changed with the conversion of Constantine. His mother, the empress Helena, was elevated to sainthood after having visited Jerusalem, where she found many sacred relics and learned that strong local traditions had survived concerning the locations of the important sacred sites. Foremost among these was the belief that Christ’s tomb lay buried beneath a temple of Venus built by Hadrian to spite the Christians.

What followed was one of the very earliest archeological undertakings, well told by the church historian Eusebius (c. 263–339) in his Life of Constantine.5 Eusebius began by noting that apparently Hadrian’s engineers had been “determined to hide” the tomb “from the eyes of men…After expending much labor in bringing in earth from outside, they covered up the whole place; then having raised the level of the terrain, and after paving it with stone, they entirely concealed the sacred grotto beneath a great mound.” On top of this the Romans had constructed “a dark shrine of lifeless idols.”

As Eusebius continued: “Constantine gave orders that the place should be purified…And as soon as he issued the orders, these deceitful constructions were torn down…images and demons and all…were overthrown and utterly destroyed…one layer after another was laid bare…then suddenly, contrary to all expectation, the venerable and sacred monument to our Savior’s resurrection became visible, and the most holy cave.” What the excavators seem to have uncovered was a tomb carved into the rock that fit the biblical description.

Constantine’s response was to have the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre constructed over the site, and Eusebius, by then bishop of Caesarea, was present at its consecration. Constantine also had great churches built in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. The discovery of what was believed to be the Holy Sepulchre and Constantine’s other construction projects spurred a rapidly growing stream of pilgrims.

The first of the known pilgrims from the West was a man from Bordeaux (France) who journeyed to the Holy Land in 333, when Constantine’s churches were being finished. We don’t know his name, but he wrote an extended itinerary, which has survived. Much of it is devoted to providing a route and listing good stopping places along the way. He crossed the Alps into Italy and then into Thrace, through Byzantium, across the Bosporus, and on down the coast to Palestine. According to his estimate, it was a trip of about 3,250 miles, and he changed horses 360 times.6

Once in the Holy Land, the author wrote descriptions of Constantine’s churches and the locations of sacred sites: “On your left [as one heads north toward the city and the Damascus Gate] is the hillock Golgotha where the Lord was crucified, and about a stone’s throw from it, the vault where they laid his body, and he arose again on the third day. By order of the emperor Constantine there now has been built there a basilica…which has beside it cisterns of remarkable beauty, and beside them a baptistery where children are baptized.”7

In 1884 an Italian scholar discovered a manuscript in a monastery library that was part of a letter written by a woman named Egeria (also Aetheria) who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from about 381 to 384. Although some historians have supposed that Egeria was a nun, it seems far more likely that she was a wealthy laywoman who reported her tour of the sights in a letter written to her circle of women friends back home (probably on the Atlantic coast of Gaul). The portion of her letter that survives was copied from the original in the eleventh century by monks at Monte Cassino. No doubt this portion was valued because it describes monks in the Holy Land and their liturgical practices. But the surviving part of Egeria’s letter also reports her visits to many holy sites and side trips to Egypt and Mount Sinai.

In 385 Saint Jerome (340–420) led a group of pilgrims from Rome to the Holy Land. Among them were Bishop Paulinus of Antioch; the wealthy widow Paula and her unmarried daughter Eustochium; and Paula’s good friend, the widow Marcella. Paula was an upper-class Roman matron of immense wealth who had long been part of Jerome’s entourage (which inspired rumors of immorality). After visiting the sacred sites, Jerome and his female circle went to Egypt. But in 388 they returned and took up residence near Bethlehem in a monastery built and funded by Paula. During the last thirty-two years of his life, Jerome lived there and translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin.

Oddly enough, Jerome did not think it at all important for anyone to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and many early church fathers condemned or ridiculed the practice. Saint Augustine (354–430) denounced pilgrimages, Saint John Chrysostom (c. 344–407) mocked them, 8 and Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394) pointed out that pilgrimages were nowhere suggested in the Bible and that Jerusalem was a rather unattractive and sinful city. Jerome agreed, noting that it was full of “prostitutes…[and] the dregs of the whole world gathered there.”9

But the public paid no attention. When the empress Eudocia (c. 401–460) settled in Jerusalem in 440, it was becoming a very fashionable residence, and women of the nobility dominated the ranks of the pilgrims.10 Moreover, most pilgrims continued to come from the Byzantine East, it being a very long and expensive trip from the West. Even from Constantinople, it was more than a thousand miles along the Roman roads to Jerusalem.11 But the numbers kept climbing, and by the end of the fifth century there were more than three hundred hostels and monasteries offering lodging to pilgrims in the city of Jerusalem alone.12 If we assume that on average each of these could accommodate twenty guests, that would have been a daily capacity of six thousand, which is suggestive of very heavy travel, given that the resident population of the city at that time was only about ten thousand.13

The upward trend in pilgrim traffic continued through the sixth century, with an increasing number coming from the West by sea. Among them was Antoninus Martyr, who sailed from Italy to Cyprus and then to the coast of Palestine in about 570. In his narrative, he remarks at length on the beauty of Jewish women, and he is the first to report that there were three churches on Mount Tabor in lower Galilee—a claim now supported by surviving ruins.14 His visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre occurred more than two centuries after its original construction, and, according to his descriptions, it had been constantly decorated by pious visitors: “[T]he stone by which the tomb was closed…is adorned with gold and precious stones…its ornaments are innumerable. From iron rods hang armlets, bracelets, chains, necklaces, coronets, waistbands, sword belts, and crowns of emperors made of gold and precious stones, and a great number of ornaments given by empresses. The whole tomb…is covered with silver.”15

Byzantine embellishments of Jerusalem continued under the celebrated emperor Justinian (483–565), who also greatly expanded Byzantium by “recovering” North Africa, Italy, Sicily, and a portion of southern Spain from various “barbarian” invaders. Justinian built and restored so many buildings in every part of his empire that the ancient historian Procopius (c. 500–565), who was a member of Justinian’s court, wrote an entire book about his constructions.16 The most monumental of all his buildings was the New Church of Saint Mary, usually referred to as the Nea (new) Church, built in Jerusalem, probably to rival memories of Solomon’s Temple. It was built of enormous blocks of stone, and according to Procopius no other church “can be compared.”17 Several modern Holy Land archaeologists suspect that the Nea Church served primarily to house the Temple treasures stolen by the Romans in 70 and said to have been recovered by Byzantium at this time.18 In any event, the enormous complex included a hospice for pilgrims and was a major attraction.

But then it ended.


In 636 a Muslim army entered Palestine, and in 638 Jerusalem surrendered. Soon after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the caliph ‘Umar wrote a letter of assurance to the city’s population:

This is the covenant given by God’s slave ‘Umar, commander of the believers, to the people of Jerusalem: He grants them security, to each person and his property: to their churches, their crosses, their sick and the healthy, to all people of their creed. We shall not station Muslim soldiers in their churches. We shall not destroy the churches nor impair any of their property or their crosses or anything which belongs to them. We shall not compel the people of Jerusalem to renounce their beliefs and we shall do them no harm.19

Sounds humane and reasonable. However, the next sentence in this letter reads: “No Jew shall live among them in Jerusalem.”

This seems a very odd prohibition, since Arab sources claim that local Jews had welcomed and often aided the Muslim forces in Palestine.20 Some suppose that the prohibition was merely an extension of the Byzantine policy precluding Jews from Jerusalem; Saint Jerome revealed that the Jews “are forbidden to come to Jerusalem.”21 Remarkably, the Byzantines had merely extended the prohibition that Hadrian had first imposed against Jews occupying Jerusalem after he crushed their revolt in 135.22 As for the Muslims continuing the ban, this was consistent with the prohibition against Jews living anywhere in Arabia and with Muhammad’s persecutions of the Jews in Medina.23 In any event, a few years later the Muslim rulers dropped this prohibition and allowed Jews to move back into the city. This was at best a mixed blessing, since neither Christians nor Jews could live in Jerusalem—or anywhere else under Muslim rule—unless they accepted the subordinate role of dhimmi and were willing to live with the contempt and occasional persecution that that status entailed. “Almost generation after generation, Christian writers recorded acts of persecution and harassment, to the point of slaughter and destruction, suffered at the hands of the Muslim rulers.”24 In a number of instances, the reports—not only from Christian but also from Muslim sources—implicate the Jewish community as participating in the attacks on Christians.25

In any event, mass murders of Christian monks and pilgrims were common. An unsystematic list based only on Moshe Gil’s immense History of Palestine, 634–1099 includes the following events:

·         Early in the eighth century, seventy Christian pilgrims from Asia Minor were executed by the governor of Caesura, except for seven who converted to Islam.

·         Shortly thereafter sixty pilgrims, also from Asia Minor, were crucified in Jerusalem.

·         Late in the eighth century, Muslims attacked the Monastery of Saint Theodosius near Bethlehem, slaughtered the monks, and destroyed two nearby churches.

·         In 796 Muslims burned to death twenty monks from the Monastery of Mar Saba.

·         In 809 there were multiple attacks on many churches, convents, and monasteries in and around Jerusalem, involving mass rapes and murders.

·         These attacks were renewed in 813.

·         In 923, on Palm Sunday, a new wave of atrocities broke out; churches were destroyed, and many died.

These events challenge the claims about Muslim religious tolerance.

Eventually, Jerusalem became a city of great religious significance to Muslims, but it did not start out that way. There is no mention of Jerusalem in the Qur’an, although initially Muhammad taught that Muslims should face Jerusalem when they prayed; he later shifted this to Mecca when the Jews disappointed him by failing to embrace him as the Prophet. But what eventually caused Muslims to regard Jerusalem as a holy city is its centrality to Muhammad’s famous “Night Journey.”

Muslims believe that in 620, about ten years before his death, Muhammad was sleeping in the home of his cousin in Mecca when he was awakened by the Angel Gabriel, who led him by the hand to a winged horse, whereupon the two were quickly transported to Jerusalem. There he was introduced to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, after which he and Gabriel flew up to heaven, where Muhammad was taken through each of the seven heavens and then beyond, where he was allowed to see Allah, who appeared as a divine light. On his way back down through the seven heavens, Muhammad had a series of interactions with Moses concerning the number of times Muslims would be required to pray each day, the number gradually being reduced from fifty to five. By morning, Muhammad awoke safely in his bed in Mecca.26

The Dome of the Rock was built from 685 to 691 on the site of the long-destroyed Jewish Temple to symbolize that Islam had succeeded Judaism and Christianity.27 Subsequently, those concerned with promoting Muslim pilgrimages to Jerusalem identified the Dome of the Rock as having been built on the very spot where Muslims believe Muhammad and Gabriel rose into the heavens. The combination of a splendid structure and its embodiment of this sacred tradition soon made Jerusalem holy to Muslims, although not nearly as significant to Islam as it is to Judaism and Christianity. Jerusalem’s being holy to all three faiths has led to conflicts ever since, nicely illustrated by the fact that on the side of the Dome of the Rock, facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is written in Arabic: “God has no son.” But there also have been bitter conflicts among Christians in Jerusalem ever since the split took place between the Roman and Greek Churches.

Before the Muslim invasion, Jerusalem had been controlled by the Byzantine Orthodox Church, and Roman (Latin) Catholics were merely tolerated. Orthodox dominance continued under the Muslims until about 800, when Caliph Haroun al-Rashid agreed to allow Charlemagne to endow and maintain facilities, including hostels, for pilgrims from the West, and these were placed under the control of Roman Catholics. Of course, this was deeply resented by the Orthodox, 28 and after the death of Charlemagne they soon reasserted their authority, leaving only one church in Latin hands, “and the Latin nuns serving in the Holy Sepulchre.”29 (Even today fistfights break out between Roman Catholic and Orthodox monks involved with the Sepulchre.) 30 In 1056 Pope Victor II complained that not only did Byzantine officials impose a head tax on Western pilgrims passing through their territory, but Orthodox monks also charged westerners a fee at the Holy Sepulchre.31

As noted, local Muslim authorities had hoped that by stressing the religious significance of Jerusalem they could attract a flow of Muslim pilgrims, their motive being the same as that of every promoter of tourism: attracting spenders from out of town. But few Muslim pilgrims ever arrived. For a time after Jerusalem came under Muslim rule, there also seem to have been few Christian pilgrims. But their numbers soon began to increase, and by the eighth century they were coming in substantial numbers, some of them from as far away as England and Scandinavia. There was a short interruption in the ninth century due to conflicts over control of Sicily and southern Italy, but this soon passed with the defeat of Muslim naval forces in the western Mediterranean, and soon many pilgrims journeyed by boat from Venice or Bari.32

The pilgrims were welcomed in the Holy Land because they “brought money into the country and could be taxed.”33 So by the tenth century the stream of Christian pilgrims had turned into a flood.


Pilgrimage can be defined as “a journey undertaken from religious motives to a sacred place.”34 Among Christians, especially in the West, the “religious motives” increasingly had to do with atonement—with obtaining forgiveness for one’s sins. Some who made the long journey were seeking forgiveness for the accumulated sins of a lifetime, none of them particularly terrible. But by the ninth and tenth centuries, the ranks of pilgrims had become swollen with those who had been told by their confessors that their only hope of atonement lay in one pilgrimage, or even several, to Jerusalem. For example, when Count Thierry of Trier murdered his archbishop in 1059, his confessor demanded that he undertake a pilgrimage, and he went.35

Perhaps the most notorious pilgrim was Fulk III, Count of Anjou (972–1040), who was required to make four pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the first as penance for having his wife burned to death in her wedding dress, allegedly for having had sex with a goatherd. All things considered, four pilgrimages may have been far too few, given that Fulk was a “plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths, a truly terrifying character of fiendish cruelty…Whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor he rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping and killing; nothing could stop him.”36 Nevertheless, when confronted by his confessor Fulk “responded with extravagant expressions of devotion.”37

Fulk’s case reveals the most fundamental aspect of medieval Christian pilgrimage. The knights and nobility of Christendom were very violent, very sinful, and very religious! As Sidney Painter (1902–1960) put it: “[T]he ordinary knight was savage, brutal, and lustful. At the same time he was, in his own way, devout.”38 Consequently, the knights and nobles were chronically in need of atonement and quite willing to accept the burdens involved to gain it; there was widespread agreement that for terrible crimes, only a pilgrimage could possibly suffice. Consider these excerpts from the “Laws of Canute,” written about 1020 and attributed to the Viking king of England and Denmark:

39. If anyone slays a minister of the altar, he is to be an outlaw before God and before men, unless he atone for it very deeply by pilgrimage.

41. If a minister of the altar becomes a homicide or otherwise commits too grave a crime, he is then to forfeit both his ecclesiastical orders and his native land, and to go on a pilgrimage.”39

And so they came. Toward the end of the tenth century, the huge and energetic monastic movement based at Cluny (in France) built hostels and hotels all along the route east to accommodate the pilgrim traffic. Parties of a thousand were common, and one group from Germany is known to have begun with at least seven thousand male pilgrims (including a number of bishops) and probably grew substantially by picking up small groups along the way.40 This party was attacked both going and coming home by Bedouin robbers, and ultimately only about two thousand of them survived the trip.41

By the tenth century, many Norse pilgrims were coming even though most of their countrymen were still pagans.42 “Most Scandinavian pilgrims liked to make a round tour, coming by sea through the Straits of Gibraltar and returning overland through Russia.”43 Like the Franks, the Norse converts were “very devoted to Christ if not to his commandments.”44 Among them was Thorvald the Far-Traveled, who came all the way from Iceland. Thorvald was a renowned Viking who had converted to Christianity and then “tried to preach the new faith to his countrymen in 981.”45 He undertook a pilgrimage in 990 seeking to atone for having killed two poets who had mocked his faith and another man who had criticized his preaching. Following his pilgrimage he devoted his missionary activities to Russia and died there, presumably without murdering any Russian pagans. Another Norse pilgrim was Lag-man Gudrödsson, the king of the Isle of Man, who sought atonement for having murdered his brother. Swein Godwinsson was also a royal Norse pilgrim. He died in the mountains, having been required to make the trip barefoot in order to atone for murders.

And so it went.


In 878 a new dynasty was established in Egypt and seized control of the Holy Land from the caliph in Baghdad. Initially, nothing much changed. But in 996 Timageriqu al-Himagekim became the sixth Fatimid caliph in Egypt, at the age of eleven, and ruled until he disappeared at age thirty-six.

Whether or not Himagekim was mad has been debated. The illustrious Marshall Hodgson admitted he was “eccentric” but claimed he was “an effective ruler.”46 It is true that Himagekim lived simply. It also is true that sometimes he traveled around the streets and had conversations with ordinary people. On the other hand, he ordered that all the dogs in Cairo be killed, that no grapes be grown or eaten (to prevent the making of wine), that women never leave their homes, and that shoemakers cease making women’s shoes. Himagekim also outlawed chess and the eating of watercress or of any fish without scales. He suddenly required that everyone work at night and sleep during the day since these were his preferred hours. He murdered his tutor and nearly all of his viziers, large numbers of other high officials, poets, and physicians, and many of his relatives—often doing the killing himself. He cut off the hands of the female slaves in his palace. To express his opposition to public baths for women, he had the entrance to the most popular one suddenly walled up, entombing alive all who were inside. Himagekim also forced all Christians to wear a four-pound cross around their necks and Jews to wear an equally heavy carving of a calf (as shame for having worshipped the Golden Calf). Finally, Himagekim had his name substituted for that of Allah in mosque services.47

None of this changed history. But then Himagekim ordered the burning or confiscation of all Christian churches (eventually about “thirty thousand were burned or pillaged”) 48 and the stripping and complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, including all traces of the carved-out tomb beneath it. According to the eleventh-century Arab chronicler Yahya ibn Said of Antioch, Himagekim ordered Yaruk, the governor of Palestine, “to demolish the church [of the Holy Sepulchre] and to remove its symbols, and to get rid of all traces and remembrance of it.” Yaruk’s son and two associates “seized all the furnishings that were there, and knocked the church down to its foundations, except for what was impossible to destroy…[and they] worked hard to destroy the tomb and to remove every trace of it, and did in fact hew and root up the greater part of it.”49

Word of this outrage caused an enormous wave of anger all across Europe—a bitter grievance that was later rekindled by those who recruited volunteers for the First Crusade. As for Himagekim, he disappeared during a ride in the hills where he usually practiced astrology; his donkey came home with blood on its back. The Druze believe that Hakim is “hidden” and will return as the Mahdi on judgment day. Most others think he was murdered by order of his sister, who feared he meant to kill her as he had so many others.

In return for the release of five thousand Muslim prisoners held by Byzantium, Himagekim’s successor permitted reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 50 although most of the destruction done to the cavern could not be undone. Work began in 1037, by which time the flow of pilgrims from the West had resumed: “[A]n unending stream of travellers poured eastward, sometimes travelling in parties numbering thousands, men and women of every age and class, ready…to spend a year or more on the voyage.”51Just as they could no longer visit the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre, neither could they visit Justinian’s enormous Nea Church, which also lay in ruins; it is uncertain who destroyed it, and when.52 Still the pilgrims came, despite the fact that in addition to the usual hardships and dangers involved in such a long trip, Muslim attacks on Christian pilgrims had become more frequent and bloody: 53

·         In 1022 Gerald of Thouars, abbot of Saint-Florent-lès-Saumur, had reached the Holy Land when he was imprisoned and then executed by Muslims.

·         In 1026 Richard of Saint-Vanne was stoned to death for having been detected reciting the Mass in Islamic territory.

·         In 1040 Ulrich of Breisgau was stoned by a mob near the river Jordan.

·         In 1064 Bishop Gunther of Bamberg and his large party of pilgrims were ambushed by Muslims near Caesarea, and two-thirds did not survive.

Despite the dangers along the way, once again pilgrims were welcomed in Jerusalem for their substantial contributions to the local economy.

But in 1071, things changed dramatically.


Late in the tenth century a large tribe of nomadic raiders in the area southeast of the Aral Sea that today is divided between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan encountered Islam and soon converted, first by treaty and later by conviction. (Pagans usually converted far more rapidly to Islam than did Jews, Christians, or Zoroastrians.) 54 However, the Islam to which they converted differed considerably from the prevailing Muslim orthodoxy. Claude Cahen (1909–1991) described it as “a folk-Islam,” not only for its lack of sophistication, but for its militant intolerance of “heretical” Islamic groups, especially the Shiites. Cahen continued: “[N]aturally the Turks, on adopting the new faith[,] did not entirely forget all the customs, beliefs, and practices of their non-Moslem ancestors.”55Hence, even as Muslims, the Seljuk Turks continued as brigands, “pillaging and plundering wherever the opportunity arose.”56 And although they sometimes hired on as mercenaries to various Muslim rulers, their conversion to Islam did not shield other Muslims or Muslim-ruled societies from their attacks. Eventually, however, instead of hit-and-run raids, the Turks began to impose permanent control on territories—substituting the systematic, organized plundering committed by states for mere brigandage.

In the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks began to move west, and, under an effective leader named Tughrul Bey, by 1045 they had seized Persia and set themselves up in Baghdad as the heirs of the Abbasid Caliphate, whereupon Tughrul Bey proclaimed himself “Sultan and King of East and West.” Still in an expansionist mode, Tughrul Bey turned his forces north and attacked Armenia, a Monophysite Christian kingdom that recently had fallen captive to Byzantium and was subjected to fierce religious persecution led by Orthodox Byzantine bishops. Given the prevailing bitterness against Byzantium, the Armenian princes offered little resistance, although they surely would have done so had they known what was in store. Thus in 1048, while the Byzantines were distracted by a revolt at home, the Turks overran the city of Ardzen and massacred the men, raped the women, and took the children into slavery.57

However, the Turks did not occupy Armenia, but were content to continue raiding it. More massacres followed. In 1063 Tughrul Bey died and was succeeded by his thirty-three-year-old nephew Alp Arslan. The next year Arslan led a large army into Armenia and laid siege to its capital of Ani. Although enjoying a superb defensive position, the city surrendered after only twenty-five days, obviously thinking that would avoid needless suffering. But according to the Arab historian Sibt ibn al-Gawzi (d. 1256), who claimed to be quoting an eyewitness: “The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked all the streets.”58 In 1067 Arslan’s forces pushed through Byzantine defenses to Cappadocian Caesarea, in the center of modern Turkey, and committed another massacre. Finally, these depredations drew a serious Byzantine response.

To make this possible, however, it was necessary for the Byzantines to overcome the convoluted and cowardly political intrigues of the Greek court, made acute by the death of the emperor Constantine X, notorious for his neglect of the army and the interests of the empire. With the crowning of Romanus Diogenese in Constantinople as the Byzantine emperor on January 1, 1068, it appeared as if responsible and competent leadership had been restored. Romanus was a successful and very experienced general—young, vigorous, brave, and fully aware of the Seljuk menace.

Emperor Romanus’s first act was to begin rebuilding the Byzantine army, which had become a demoralized collection of mercenaries—ill equipped, poorly trained, and owed enormous sums in back salaries. He spent two years on the task, devoting much time and effort to recruiting new forces. In 1071 he was prepared to move against the Turks with about sixty to seventy thousand fighting men. (Some Muslim sources claim the Byzantine army numbered six hundred thousand, and the Armenian historian Matthew of Edessa placed the total at one million!) Although Romanus had devoted two years to upgrading the army, he had been able to do little more than assemble a larger force that was not much better equipped, trained, or loyal than before. To make matters worse, it “was a motley force” composed of mercenaries from many different nations, some of them bitter enemies of one another.59 Indeed, a major contingent was made up of Uzes, Turks with ties to the Seljuks, and who promptly deserted to the enemy during the crucial battle.

Although upset by various omens and fully aware of the defects of his battalions, Romanus marched east to engage the Turks. Having camped near Erzurum, Romanus inexplicably split his army, giving command of the larger portion to Joseph Tarchaniotes and sending it to attack Khelat (now Ahlat), on the shores of Lake Van, while he led the smaller contingent toward the town of Manzikert. No one knows what happened next, except that the larger force fled and never returned to the campaign. Some Muslim historians claim that Alp Arslan and a much smaller Muslim force won a pitched battle against Tarchaniotes and his Greeks. Others claim that when word of the pending arrival of a Turkish force circulated among Tarchaniotes’ Byzantines, they simply ran away. However, that no word of the debacle was sent to Romanus, who was only thirty miles away, is consistent with the conclusion reached by Viscount Norwich that Tarchaniotes was a traitor in league with plotters back in Constantinople and that he simply abandoned Romanus and marched to the rear.

Now with only about a third of his army, Romanus still attempted to deal with the Turks. A series of hit-and-run engagements followed, and finally came the major battle at Manzikert, whereupon the Uzes changed sides and the Byzantines were routed. Romanus fought on until wounds made it impossible for him to grip his sword, and then he was captured. He was taken to Alp Arslan, and the two seem to have hit it off quite well: a peace treaty was signed. It ceded an area to the Turks and settled on an annual tribute payment; further, Romanus agreed to give one of his daughters in marriage to one of Alp Arslan’s sons. All things considered, it was not a bad deal for the Byzantines.

Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, not only did word of the defeat and the loss of territory reach the congenital conspirators of the court, but at this time they also learned that their forces in Italy had been overwhelmed by Iron Arm and his Normans. So the conspirators gathered troops from the nearby garrisons and rode out to meet the returning emperor Romanus. Perhaps there was some fighting. In any event Romanus was seized. As the contemporary Byzantine historian John Scylitzes told it: “[H]arsh men took him and pitilessly, mercilessly, put out his eyes. Carried forth on a cheap beast of burden like a decaying corpse, his eyes gouged out and his face and head alive with worms, he lived a few days in pain with a foul stench all about him until he gave up the ghost.”60

The new emperor, Michael V, was incompetent, and his reign was nothing but one insurrection and riot after another all across the empire. In 1078 things got so out of control that Michael abdicated and fled, and was replaced by an aged general. Three years later he, too, abdicated, in favor of a brilliant young commander: Alexius Comnenus. Although he was unable to recapture the lost territories, Comnenus restored order, established a reliable army, and eventually wrote the letter that prompted Pope Urban II to launch the First Crusade.

At that point the Turks might have settled down to life as a ruling elite over a substantial and wealthy territory, but for religious antagonism. The Turks were orthodox Sunni Muslims, but the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo was ruled by Shiites—heretics “guilty” of splitting Islam. So the Turks moved west and south, invading Fatimid territory, including the Holy Land.

The Turkish commander was Atsiz bin Uwaq, who had served in Alp Arslan’s court until he deserted to serve the Fatimids in Palestine, whereupon he deserted the Fatimids and in 1071 became commander of the Turkish invasion forces. Historians debate61whether Atsiz took Jerusalem in 1071 during the first year of his campaign, or in 1073, but it is agreed that Acre was taken in 1074 and Damascus in 1075. At that point Atsiz turned south, intent on driving the Fatimids from Egypt, but he was badly defeated in 1077. In the wake of the Fatimid victory over the Turks, there were risings by Fatimid Muslims in Palestine, and Atsiz was forced to flee all the way to Damascus. But he soon returned and laid siege to Jerusalem. Given Atsiz’s promise of safety, the city opened its gates, whereupon the Turkish troops were released to slaughter and pillage, and thousands died. Next, Atsiz’s troops murdered the populations of Ramla and Gaza, then Tyre and Jaffa.62

In the midst of all this turmoil and bloodshed, it cannot have been a good time to be a Christian pilgrim. And it soon got worse. Not only because the Turkish rulers persecuted pilgrims, but because they did not (possibly they could not) interfere with the hordes of bandits and local village officials who preyed upon them. A few large, well-armed groups got through, such as the one led by Robert I of Flanders in 1089. But most either were victimized or decided to turn back.63 Even the twelfth-century Syrian historian al-‘Azimi acknowledged that in 1093 Muslims in Palestine prevented Christian pilgrims from going to Jerusalem. He also suggested that the survivors’ going home and spreading the word caused the Crusades to be organized. Moshe Gil pointed out that by speaking of survivors, al-‘Azimi clearly suggested “that there had been a massacre,”64 and perhaps many of them.

Finally, the nobility of Europe were not dependent on the pope or on Alexius Comnenus for information on the brutalization of Christian pilgrims. They had trustworthy, independent information from their own relatives and friends who had managed to survive and who had returned “to the West weary and impoverished, with a dreadful tale to tell”65—the very people mentioned by al-‘Azimi.


The Crusades were not unprovoked. Muslim efforts at conquest and colonization still continued in the eleventh century (and for centuries to come). Pilgrims did risk their lives to go to the Holy Land. The sacred sites of Christianity were not secure. And the knights of Christendom were confident that they could put things right.

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