Post-classical history

Chapter Seven



Against all odds, following their capture of Jerusalem, the crusaders quickly marched south and defeated a huge Egyptian army at Ascalon. Here Godfrey of Bouillon is shown directing his victorious troops as they sack the Egyptian camp.
© Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

THE ACTUAL MILITARY PHASE of the First Crusade began when the combined forces of the Princes’ Crusade, accompanied by “a small detachment of Byzantine engineers, with siege machines,”1 left their encampment on the banks of the Bosporus and marched twenty-five miles south to Nicaea, the first Muslim stronghold between them and the Holy Land. Little did they know that more than a year later, after fierce fighting and very heavy losses, they would still only be in Antioch. And it was another year before they reached the gates of Jerusalem, on June 7, 1099 (see map 7.1).


Nicaea was the capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rûm, ruled by Kilij Arslan. Rûm was the Turkish word for “Rome,” and this sultanate consisted of the large portion of Anatolia that the Turks had conquered from the Byzantines, who still referred to theirs as the Roman Empire. It was an opportune time to attack Nicaea, because the sultan was so contemptuous of the crusaders after his easy slaughter of Peter the Hermit’s followers that he had ignored the nearby gathering of “Franj” (Frank) forces and led his army eastward to confront a challenger to his rule. In fact, he was so unconcerned that he left his wife, his children, and his treasure store within Nicaea.

The siege of Nicaea began on May 14, 1097. When word reached Sultan Arslan that the crusaders had surrounded Nicaea and then had easily repelled a sortie by troops from the city, he hurriedly led his army back. Upon arrival he immediately attacked the forces of Raymond of Toulouse, whose troops blocked the way to the southern entrance to the city. Robert of Flanders brought some of his troops to Raymond’s aid, and the battle with Sultan Arslan’s army lasted all day. Arslan was stunned to discover that, “man for man, his Turks were no match for the well-armed westerners on open ground.”2 As the Gesta Francorum described it, the Turks “came along gleefully…but as many as came…had their heads cut off by our men, who threw the heads of the slain into the city by means of a sling, in order to cause more terror among the Turkish garrison.”3 After dark the sultan withdrew his forces and abandoned Nicaea to its fate.


But the victors had suffered badly, too. Again the Gesta: “[M]any of our men suffered martyrdom there and gave up their blessed souls to God with joy and gladness.”4 Despite these losses, Nicaea was still in Turkish hands. So the crusaders began to plan a general assault.

Unbeknownst to them, Emperor Alexius had quite different plans. He sent several of his agents to conduct secret negotiations, and they convinced the Turks to surrender the city. So, as the sun rose on the morning when the assault on Nicaea was scheduled to begin, the crusaders were greeted with the sight of Byzantine banners flying over the defensive towers of Nicaea and of Byzantine troops patrolling the walls, having been smuggled in during the night. Western crusaders were permitted to enter the city only in groups of six or less at a time.

This further confirmed for the Western leaders that Alexius and his court were not to be trusted, thus adding to the growing antagonism toward the emperor—especially since no Greek troops had helped with the fighting. Suspicions of Alexius grew even more intense when the Turkish commanders and the sultan’s family, instead of being held for ransom, were taken to meet the emperor in Alexandria. “The emperor, who was a fool as well as a knave,” treated them as distinguished guests and then sent them home safely and in style, leaving them, as the Gesta put it, “ready to injure the Franks and obstruct their crusade.”5 Bohemond, of course, reminded his colleagues that Alexius had once used Turkish forces against him.

Perhaps seeking to appease the knights, Alexius decided to reinforce the tiny Byzantine contingent accompanying the crusaders. This impressed no one in the crusader camp because, although the Byzantine army stationed in and around Constantinople greatly outnumbered the crusaders, Alexius sent only a surprisingly small detachment of about two thousand soldiers, 6 commanded by a general named Taticius, the son of an enslaved Turk.


A week after the surrender of Nicaea, the crusaders began to move again. Historians long believed that they headed toward the ruined city of Dorylaeum—for which their next major battle is named. It now is accepted that they followed a more western route and that the battle occurred about forty miles west of Dorylaeum.7 Meanwhile, the Turks had regrouped under Kilij Arslan and been heavily reinforced by other Turkish princes as well as by Persian and Albanian mercenaries. After the crusaders had traveled for three days, their scouts alerted them that major Turkish forces were approaching and that a battle could be expected soon. At dawn on July 1, this large Turkish force attacked the crusader vanguard made up of Bohemond’s forces, and inflicted substantial casualties while the Normans were getting organized. Bohemond gathered the noncombatants at the center of the encampment, where there were springs, and assigned them the task of carrying water to the troops; crusader women often performed this vital task bravely and effectively. Bohemond dismounted his knights and placed them with his infantry to form a solid defensive perimeter. The Turkish army consisted entirely of light cavalry armed with bows and swords, 8 and although they inflicted some casualties with their arrows, they could make no headway against the infantry line. It seems that the Turks mistook Bohemond’s force for the entire crusader army and were caught entirely unprepared when the main body of knights launched a thundering heavy-cavalry charge against their flank and rear.

Both sides suffered serious losses, but the Turkish casualties were far greater. According to the Gesta: “As soon as our knights charged, the Turks, Arabs, Saracens, and Agulani and all the rest of the barbarians took to their heels and fled…God alone knows how many there were of them. They fled very fast to their camp, but they were not allowed to stay there for long, so they continued their flight and we pursued them, killing them, for a whole day, and we took much booty…If God had not been with us in this battle and sent us the other army quickly, none of us would have escaped.”9 The defeat was so swift and complete that once again Arslan lost his entire treasury, which he had managed to raise to replace the one he had lost at Nicaea.10 Nevertheless, before he took his forces off to the mountains Arslan had his troops ravage the countryside to “make it impossible [for the crusaders] to feed themselves as they advanced.”11

After resting for two days following the battle, the crusaders set out to cross Anatolia on their way to Antioch. It was a dreadful march. The summer heat was intense. There was no water: the wells and cisterns (built to store rainwater) had all been destroyed by the Turks. As the Gesta tells it, they were passing through “a land which was deserted, waterless and uninhabitable, from which we barely emerged or escaped alive, for we suffered greatly from hunger and thirst, and found nothing at all to eat except prickly plants…On such food we survived wretchedly enough, but we lost most of our horses.”12

The crusaders slogged on until they reached Iconium, in a fertile valley filled with streams and orchards. In addition to claiming the city, the crusaders rested there for a few days and then marched on to Heraclea, also located in a fertile valley. There they found a substantial Turkish army, led by two emirs who seem to have thought their mere presence would be sufficient to cause the crusaders to change course. But the crusaders attacked at once, and soon the Turks withdrew at full speed—the crusaders’ shortage of horses saving the Turks from being slaughtered.

At Heraclea the crusaders had their choice of two routes to Antioch. One was more direct but very mountainous. The other passed through Caesara Mazacha and was longer but less easily defended. Bohemond chose to cross the mountains. The rest went through Caesara, which they found to have been deserted by the Turks. The forces were reunited at Coxon. There they found plentiful supplies and a cordial welcome from the largely Christian population. After three days of rest, they moved on and discovered that the journey from Coxon to Antioch “was the most difficult that the crusaders had to face.”13 As the Gesta reported: “[W]e set out and began to cross a damnable mountain, which was so high and steep that none of our men dared to overtake another on the mountain path. Horses fell over the precipice, and one beast of burden dragged another down. As for the knights…[some] threw their arms away and went on.”14 The armor was discarded because of the loss of pack animals; it was very heavy to carry.

Once across the mountain, the crusaders reorganized their units at Marash. Here Baldwin of Boulogne and about a hundred mounted knights, accompanied by the historian Fulcher of Chartres, left the Crusade and traveled east, where Baldwin was adopted by Thoros, the childless Armenian ruler of Edessa. (Secret negotiations had gone on for some time.) Soon after, Thoros was murdered by a mob of citizens, Baldwin became the first count of Edessa, and the county of Edessa became the first of the crusader kingdoms.

Meanwhile, the crusaders marched to the city of Antioch, then the capital of Syria.


Antioch is situated on the Orontes River where it cuts through the mountains, about twelve miles from the Mediterranean. At the start of the Christian era it was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire; only Rome and Alexandria were larger.15 Under Muslim rule it suffered a substantial decline of both population and commerce. Having been recovered briefly by Byzantium in the tenth century, it regained some importance, but declined again when lost to the Turks. Nevertheless, in 1098 it was a city of substantial size, with very impressive fortifications.

The city stood partly on a mountainside, and its massive walls climbed steep slopes, crossed a river, and included a citadel a thousand feet above the main part of the city. Four hundred towers punctuated the walls, “spaced so as to bring every yard of them within bow shot.”16 Because these defenses were so strong, the conquest of Antioch in the past usually had been achieved by treachery. That is precisely what Bohemond had in mind this time, too. But he kept this to himself as the other leaders considered the military situation. Meanwhile, things were not so good inside the city. For one thing, the garrison was too small to fully man the walls. For another, by recently mistreating the Christian residents (who were the majority) and converting their cathedral into a horse stable, the emir had created a substantial population of potential traitors.17

While the crusaders considered their options, the emir sent ambassadors far and wide in search of military support—with some success, although no relief forces could arrive for some time. Meanwhile, in October 1097 the crusaders undertook a siege of the city. Unfortunately, just as the Muslim commander did not have enough troops to fully man the walls, there were too few crusaders to fully surround the city. Hence, the flow of supplies to Antioch continued. In November, the crusaders received an important reinforcement: thirteen Genoese galleys and transports arrived on the coast, carrying more crusaders and supplies. Nevertheless, the crusader forces soon consumed all of the available supplies, including fodder.

As winter set in, the besiegers suffered far more from hunger and disease than did those besieged within Antioch—since they continued to be resupplied. Large numbers of the poor noncombatants with the crusaders actually starved to death. Obviously, Alexius could have sent ample supplies by sea. But he did not. Instead, in February he ordered Tatikios and his contingent of Byzantine troops to withdraw, and they sailed away on ships that had been sent for that purpose but had not used the opportunity to bring any supplies. Tatikios made matters even worse by pretending that he was not deserting but going back to get abundant supplies for the crusaders. The crusaders knew better. The Gesta put it this way: “[H]e is a liar, and always will be. We were thus left in direst need.”18 Things soon got so bad in the crusader encampments that Peter the Hermit and William the Carpenter (who had taken part in Emicho’s massacre of Jews) deserted and headed for Constantinople. Bohemond’s nephew Tancred pursued them and brought them back in disgrace. After humiliating them at length in public, Bohemond let them live. Shortly thereafter, William fled once more and probably found sanctuary with Alexius.19

It was then that a very substantial Muslim relief force advanced on Antioch. The battle was fought on Shrove Tuesday, February 9, 1098. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the crusaders won a smashing victory. Having very few horses, nearly all the knights joined the ranks of the heavy infantry, against which the Muslim cavalry suffered terrible losses during each attack. At the appropriate moment Bohemond suddenly appeared on the Muslim flank with the remaining heavy cavalry of perhaps three hundred knights. At the same time, the crusader infantry also charged. The Muslim force was massacred. Beyond their amazing victory, the crusaders also gained desperately needed supplies from the enemy camp. As the Gesta summed up: “Thus, by God’s will, on that day our enemies were overcome. Our men captured plenty of horses and other things of which they were badly in need, and they brought back a hundred heads of dead Turks to the city gate.”20 A month later, a small Norman fleet from England arrived off the coast, bringing additional supplies and more crusaders.

Even so, the prospects for storming the city seemed grim. Consequently, a trickle of desertion began. It soon swelled to major proportions when Stephen of Blois and a large group of northern Franks defected without warning; they left a day too early, as will be seen. This defection had far more devastating effects than a simple reduction in the crusader ranks. For at this time Alexius, having decided that despite everything the crusaders were going to take Antioch, had quickly led a large Byzantine army south in order to be in on the victory and to claim Antioch. Stephen of Blois and other noble deserters met Alexius at Alexandretta, only about forty miles north of Antioch. There they told Alexius that the situation in Antioch was hopeless. Rather than quickly move on to redress the situation, Alexius decided to stay put while awaiting further information.

Meanwhile, Bohemond was attempting to suborn someone in Antioch who could open a gate so that a bloody and very risky assault on the walls of the city could be avoided. Bohemond’s subversive efforts were made possible by the fact that the city was full of Christians who hated the Turkish commander and thus provided Bohemond with an extensive network for communicating within the city. Even so, the traitor he found was not a Christian; rather, he was a Muslim convert in command of a tower, a postern gate, and a segment of wall on the southeastern side of the city. On the night of June 2–3, a day after Stephen of Blois had deserted, Bohemond led a small group of his Normans through the unlocked gate and took control of ten towers and a long stretch of the wall, whereupon elements of the Christian population of the city attacked Muslim troops from within while the crusaders poured into the city. The Muslim troops were quickly wiped out—even most of those who fled the city, including their commander.

Antioch was again a Christian city. But it appeared to be an empty victory. A very large and imposing Muslim army had been gathering for some time, made up of forces supplied by many sultans and emirs and led by the Turkish sultan Kerbogah. Fearing this development, more desertions took place, including Bohemond’s brother-in-law William of Grant-Mesnil. The deserters reached the Byzantine encampment at Alexandretta just when Alexius, having heard that Antioch had been taken, was about to resume his march south to stake his claim; indeed, Stephen of Blois was getting ready to return to Antioch as well. But news of the impending arrival of Kerbogah’s powerful forces decided the issue. All agreed that it was too late to save the Crusade, and all turned tail and headed north. It should be noted that when Stephen of Blois reached home he was universally defined as a coward, even by his wife, who was so unrelenting in her contempt that in 1101 Stephen recruited a new army, led it back to the Holy Land, and was killed in an ill-advised charge at the Egyptians in the Battle of Ramla. It also should be noted that by his retreat, Alexius had destroyed any remaining credibility he had with the crusaders. When they really needed his support, he had left them to their fate.

Kerbogah’s large, well-trained force arrived at the gates of Antioch on June 9, 1098. The situation appeared hopeless: by this time the crusaders may have been down to fewer than two hundred warhorses.21 Consequently, Kerbogah assumed that the crusaders would go on the defensive and man the walls, necessitating a siege. And that’s what many of the Crusade commanders thought was the only possible strategy other than surrender.

So, for a few days fierce fighting took place between Kerbogah’s attackers and the crusaders defending the walls, with heavy losses on both sides. Then, religion intervened. On June 11 a priest reported that Christ had appeared to him during the night and promised divine aid to the crusaders in five days. In response, the leaders all swore not to abandon their mission. Then, on June 14, Count Peter Bartholomew reported that Saint Andrew had appeared to him in a vision and revealed to him the location of the Holy Lance—this being the spear used by the Roman soldier to pierce the side of Jesus during the Crucifixion. Many of the clergy were skeptical, but several nobles accepted this story and helped Bartholomew dig in the promised spot. They dug up a piece of iron that they proclaimed to indeed be a spearhead, and the news caused excitement throughout the army. With the lance leading the way, they would certainly be invincible. Incredibly, they were!

On June 20, 1098, Bohemond was acknowledged as the overall commander of the crusader army in recognition of his greater experience and the severity of the situation. He immediately prepared the army to sally forth and attack the Turks—not only because of the divine reassurances, but because he realized that this was the best military option, albeit “a dangerous gamble.”22 So, on June 28, with the historian Raymond of Aguilers carrying the Holy Lance, the remaining crusader forces marched through the Bridge Gate of Antioch to face Kerbogah’s far larger host. The Turks attacked immediately but recoiled after colliding with the unmovable, well-armored, disciplined heavy infantry formations, whose members were confident that they were God’s battalions. It was, in many ways, the Battle of Tours all over again. The Muslim forces attacked and died. The crusader ranks seemed impregnable. Soon the Turks began to withdraw and then to flee. The crusaders tromped along in their close formations, overran Kerbogah’s camp, and killed everyone within reach. The only reason some Turkish forces escaped was that the crusaders lacked the horses needed to catch them. To have triumphed so completely against such a powerful enemy seemed incomprehensible to many crusaders, even after the fact. The story spread that a contingent of mounted saints had descended from heaven and joined in the attack.23

So it was that another major Turkish force was destroyed, and now the road to Jerusalem lay open before them. But Bohemond did not plan to march down it. Instead, he began negotiations to become the ruler of a new kingdom based in Antioch. The initial agreement with Emperor Alexius, sworn to by the crusader leaders, acknowledged his claim to all territories that recently had been part of Byzantium. That included Antioch. But, Bohemond argued, when Alexius deserted them, that invalidated all oaths and obligations. Moreover, since Bohemond had arranged for the unlocked gate and had led the troops that took the city, and because he was very popular with the Christian residents of the city, he claimed the right to rule. Although most leaders agreed with Bohemond that Alexius had no claims, they were not prepared to cede him Antioch. The rest of the year was spent in disputes and maneuvers over Bohemond’s claims. This delay did not reflect any loss of determination to take back Jerusalem, and it was agreed that they would wait until early spring before heading south. The crusaders used this interim to write letters to Pope Urban begging him to come and take command of the crusader forces. Some historians suppose that the crusaders knew the pope would not come east, but that writing to him “enabled them to postpone once more the need to decide upon the fate of Antioch.”24

Meanwhile, the army suffered. An epidemic broke out (it may have been typhoid), 25 and many died. They ran short of food and began to eat their remaining horses. Soon many were eating “leaves, thistles, and leather.”26 Again, as at Nicaea, many of the poor starved to death. In December, under the leadership of some dispossessed knights, a group of poor men armed themselves with the abundant captured Muslim weapons and formed a fighting brigade. Known as the Tafurs, they were remarkable for their religious fanaticism and ferocity. Lacking the funds needed to buy what little food was available, the Tafurs overwhelmed the Muslim town of Ma’arrat al-Numan. A massacre followed, and, according to some reports, so did incidents of cannibalism.27

Finally, in February the crusaders began the march to Jerusalem. Bohemond accompanied them for about fifty miles, as far as Latakia, and then by mutual consent returned to assume full control of Antioch. Latakia was a port, and the crusaders continued along the coast and were several times supplied by fleets from Genoa, Pisa, and even England. The ships kept coming, not only because their owners favored the crusader cause, but perhaps primarily because the crusader leaders had money to pay well for supplies. In addition, each trip brought a few more late-coming crusaders willing to pay for passage. Of course, the ships were able to come because the Byzantine navy controlled the eastern Mediterranean and Alexius was willing to allow the European ships access to his ports on Cypress. Offsetting this gesture was the fact that Alexius had written to the Fatimid court in Cairo to “repudiate any connection with [the crusader] advance” on Jerusalem.28 Later, when the crusaders captured copies of this correspondence, they were astounded at such treachery.

Finally, on June 7, 1099, the crusaders reached the walls of Jerusalem.


According to Steven Runciman, “The city of Jerusalem was one of the great fortresses of the medieval world…The walls were in good condition and [it was manned by] a strong garrison of Arab and Sudanese troops.”29 Note that these were not Turkish troops. A year before the crusaders reached the city, it had been captured from the Turks by the Fatimids of Egypt under the command of their grand vizier, al-Afdal, who had taken advantage of the Turkish defeats at Antioch to move against them. With Jerusalem securely in Fatimid hands, the vizier returned to Cairo, leaving Ifitkhar al-Dawla as governor of the city.

When he became aware of the approaching crusaders, Ifitkhar had all wells around the city polluted or blocked, drove away all the livestock, and set workmen to constructing defensive machines such as catapults. He also expelled the city’s Christian population. This was a wise move, as Christians had outnumbered the Muslims in the city, and, as demonstrated by Bohemond at Antioch, they were unlikely to have been loyal to the regime. Sending away the Christians also reduced by about half the demand on Jerusalem’s stockpile of supplies. But Ifitkhar’s hole card was that he did not believe he would need to defend the city for very long because an overwhelming relief force would soon arrive.

The crusader force that gathered to attack Jerusalem consisted of only about thirteen hundred knights and perhaps ten thousand infantry, 30 having been reduced by about two-thirds from the crusader army that had besieged Nicaea two years previously. As always, in addition to the fighting men, there were many noncombatants as well. All things considered, the crusaders were reasonably fit, the march down the coast having been both well supplied and leisurely; on average they had traveled only about eight miles a day and had taken many full days of rest.31 Along the way, they were welcomed by some cities; the others they simply bypassed. But now time was of the essence. It was getting hot, and their food and water would soon run out.

So, on June 13, the crusaders launched an attack. Initially things went well as they smashed through the outer defenses. However, it turned out that they lacked the number of ladders needed to make it over the walls in sufficient numbers, and they were repelled. This was a very serious defeat, because there were no materials in the area that could be used to construct more ladders, let alone siege machines such as portable towers. At this critical moment six Christian ships—two from Genoa and four from England—arrived at Jaffa, about twenty-five miles away. All six carried food, but the Genoese ships also had cargoes of ropes, nails, and bolts needed for making siege machines.

Meanwhile, Tancred and Robert of Flanders led expeditions in search of wood and returned with logs and planks, many of them carried by Muslim prisoners captured along the way. As the crusaders set to work on scaling ladders and constructing two wooden towers on wheels and equipped with catapults, they suffered greatly from heat and thirst: they had to send detachments as far as the Jordan River to bring back water. There were desertions, since it appeared to many that even with ladders and siege equipment, the odds were not in their favor, especially since they knew that a huge army had set out from Egypt to attack them. Once again, a solution was sought in religion.

A priest received a vision that promised victory if the crusaders stopped bickering, fasted, and walked barefoot around the walls of Jerusalem. The vision was accepted as authentic, and a three-day fast was observed. Then, on July 8, 1099, the procession began: bishops, clergy, princes, knights, foot soldiers, and noncombatants—all of them barefoot as they marched around the city. Residents of Jerusalem crowded the walls to mock them, but “they gloried in such mockery.”32 The procession ended on the Mount of Olives, where Peter the Hermit (once again in good graces) preached an impassioned sermon.

The next two days were a blur of activity as the siege towers were completed and all the necessary preparations made. During the night of July 13–14 the ditches around the walls were filled in at several widely separated points so the towers could be rolled against the walls. By the evening of the 14th, Raymond of Aguilers’s men succeeded in placing their tower against the south wall. Despite fierce fighting, the crusaders could not gain a foothold. But the next morning, Godfrey of Bouillon’s force was able to place their tower against the north wall. Godfrey is reported to have stood atop the tower firing his crossbow.33 We should assume that many others in his squadron had crossbows, too (see chap. 3), and that their lethal fire enabled Godfrey’s men to be firmly in control of a stretch of wall by noon. This allowed scaling ladders to be set up without resistance, and a strong crusader force mounted the walls and soon was fighting in the city streets. The Muslim forces were overwhelmed, and a massacre began; by the morning of the 16th the city was littered with corpses.

This is the horror story that has been used again and again to vilify the crusaders. Consequently, let us pause here to consider the matter from several perspectives. First of all, it is not only absurd but often quite disingenuous to use this event to “prove” that the crusaders were bloodthirsty barbarians in contrast to the more civilized and tolerant Muslims. Dozens of Muslim massacres of whole cities have been reported in previous chapters, and the crusaders knew of such occurrences. Second, the commonly applied “rule of war” concerning siege warfare was that if a city did not surrender before forcing the attackers to take the city by storm (which inevitably caused a very high rate of casualties in the besieging force), the inhabitants could expect to be massacred as an example to others in the future. That is, had the Muslims surrendered Jerusalem on June 13 when the towers were ready to be rolled against the walls, they would no doubt have been given terms that would have prevented a massacre.

Another rule of medieval war was “To the victor go the spoils.” Loot and booty were major motivating factors, especially for the common soldiers in all armies. Hence, surrender agreements with cities usually provided for very substantial settlements, which then were shared out. But when cities were taken by storm, the spoils were obtained by looting. As Guibert of Nogent described the looting of Jerusalem: “Palaces and other buildings lay open, and silver, gold, and silken garments were seized as booty…and in the houses they found a great abundance of every kind of food. This was right and proper for the army of God, that the finest things that offered themselves to each man, no matter how poor, became his by right, without doubt or challenge, no matter the social class of the man who first came upon them.”34 When troops began to loot, things often got out of hand. In this instance, as Guibert put it, “[t]he army ran amok,” and a killing spree began. Soon Jerusalem “was filled with so many corpses that the Franks were unable to move without stepping on dead bodies.” Captives were set to work collecting the bodies and carrying them from the city. Placed in front of the main gates in huge piles, they then were burned. Thus, “God repaid them…by exacting a retribution equal to their hideous crimes.”35

Granted, it was a cruel and bloody age, but nothing is to be gained either in terms of moral insights or historical comprehension by anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention on these times. Moreover, the sources may have greatly exaggerated the extent of the massacre: these same writers routinely reported armies of nearly a million men and hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side in various battles. Surely, no sensible person will believe Raymond of Aguilers’s report that “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”36 What most likely happened was, as the distinguished John France put it, “not far beyond what common practice of the day meted out to any place that had resisted.”37

Caution should especially be applied to the claim that when the Jewish residents of Jerusalem fled to their major synagogue, they all died when angry crusaders burned the building down around them. This is the favorite example of those determined to condemn the Crusades and one I repeated in an earlier study of anti-Semitic outbursts. 38 On the face of it, the story is plausible. As reported in several previous chapters, Jews frequently sided with the Muslims against the Christians in the Holy Land. In this instance, there were Jews in Ifitkhar’s regular forces as well as in the city militia.39 Hence, there is no reason to assume that the Jews would have received special treatment; people inside synagogues were as endangered as those inside mosques. Nor can there be any doubt that there were substantial taints of anti-Semitism among the crusaders.

Even so, there is very credible evidence that most of the Jews were spared and that the story that all the Jews were burned alive may be false! Some of the Christian accounts report that the Jews were taken captive and later forced to clear the corpses out of the city, which is what the Israeli historian Moshe Gil believes happened. 40 Indeed, one of the famous Geniza letters discovered in Cairo in 1952 was written in Hebrew by Jewish community leaders seeking funds to ransom Jews taken captive at the fall of Jerusalem.41 It is possible, too, that some Jews died when their synagogue was burned while most Jews in Jerusalem did not take shelter in a synagogue and were taken captive.

Despite taking several years and costing thousands of lives, the capture of Jerusalem was, in many ways, only the beginning of the story. In fact, it was only about three weeks before the next chapter took place: a battle against a newly arrived Fatimid army from Cairo.


When al-Afdal, grand vizier to the Fatimid caliph of Egypt, first heard that the crusaders were advancing on Antioch, he assumed that they were Byzantine mercenaries and would be excellent allies against the Seljuk Turks. Emperor Alexius strengthened that impression and even coaxed the crusader commanders into negotiating with the Fatimids. Eventually al-Afdal realized that the crusaders were on an independent mission, and he scrambled to assemble a mighty army. It was too late to save Jerusalem, which at this time had been a Fatimid possession, but it was not too late to take it back.

Part of al-Afdal’s army marched across the Sinai Desert to Palestine. Another part sailed with al-Afdal and landed at Ascalon, about fifty miles southwest of Jerusalem. The rest of the army joined him there, as did a number of other contingents, including various Bedouin tribes. The crusaders were, of course, kept fully abreast of these developments by their agents and scouts, and even had they not been they would have learned of this threat when al-Afdal sent them a message suggesting negotiations. Instead, the crusaders marched off to Ascalon, leaving all their noncombatants behind under the protection of a tiny garrison. Peter the Hermit also was left behind with instructions to hold constant services of intercession for victory. At this point, the crusader force could not have numbered more than ten thousand, and al-Afdal’s force probably totaled around twenty thousand.42

On the 11th of August the crusaders arrived just north of Ascalon, where they discovered immense herds that had been brought to feed the Muslim army. Taking control of these, they then rested for the night. In the early morning the crusaders formed up their ranks and advanced on al-Afdal’s camp. Incredibly, they took the enemy completely by surprise; once again, an arrogant Muslim leader had not even posted sentries, let alone sent out scouts. The Muslims offered no sustained opposition and fled for their lives, but there were few survivors. The vizier managed to escape with a few of his officers by sailing away to Egypt.

The booty taken by the crusaders seems incredible, not only for the staggering amounts involved, but why it was there at all: “[b]ullion and precious stones were found in huge quantities.”43


What Pope Urban had begun in that field in Clermont had now come to pass. God’s battalions had been victorious, and the unbelievers had been driven from Jerusalem. Almost immediately, large numbers of crusaders began to head for home; after all, they had been gone much longer than anyone had expected. Within several months the crusader forces remaining in the Holy Land had fallen to perhaps no more than three hundred knights and an unknown, but not very large, number of foot soldiers. This was a very dangerous development, for surely Muslim forces would come again; the Holy Land remained encircled by a large Muslim world. Unfortunately, no plans had been made at the outset for maintaining a liberated Jerusalem, because it was thought that the Byzantines would take the lead. No one believed that now. Thus the question that had been bothering many leading crusaders for several years was, How can our miraculous achievement be sustained?

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