Post-classical history


The Crusade Unravels

AFTER ALL THEY had been through – disease and deprivation at Antioch, countless casualties sustained in combat and along the long march, and conditions so bad that the battle-hardened had turned to cannibalism – it was not surprising that the arrival of the Crusader force at Jerusalem on 7 June 1099 was accompanied by rejoicing and exultation. One chronicler wrote of tears of happiness flowing when the army reached its destination.1

Yet there was still much to be done. Jerusalem was heavily fortified, with impressive walls and defences and a garrison that had been preparing for months for the arrival of the western knights. As the Crusaders met in council and pondered how to storm the city, Tancred, suffering from an acute case of dysentery, made for a nearby cave; there he found a pile of equipment for building siege engines, remnants of past attempts to take the city. It was another moment of great good fortune for the Crusaders.2 Useful materials were gathered locally before news was received that six Genoese boats had put in at Jaffa, carrying supplies and provisions, as well as ropes, hammers, nails, axes and hatchets.3 Even though bringing the materials back to camp involved a fifty-mile round trip across hostile terrain, this was a godsend that made the difference between success and failure of the entire expedition.4

In spite of the many successes and the fearsome reputation which preceded the western knights, Jerusalem’s garrison had good reason to think that they could repel the attacks. Like Antioch, the city enjoyed the protection of formidable defences. Moreover, while it was still substantial, the attacking army had decreased dramatically in size over the course of the previous two years, losing men in battle as well as to illness and disease. It has been estimated that by the time it reached Jerusalem, the western army had been reduced to a third of its original strength.5 The inhabitants of the Holy City could also take heart from the difficult conditions the Crusaders were experiencing in front of the city walls. This time the primary problem was not food. As Fulcher of Chartres reported: ‘Our men did not suffer from lack of bread or meat. Yet because the area was dry, unwatered and without streams, our men as well as our beasts suffered for lack of water to drink.’6

All the wells outside Jerusalem had been blocked up or poisoned in anticipation of the imminent assault, with the result that a round trip of twelve miles was needed to fetch fresh water from the nearest source. Ox and buffalo hides were stitched together to try to transport it safely and in large volume. Those brave enough to go and find water ran the risk of ambush. And when they returned to camp, the returning water-bearers often met with furious argument, so acute was the thirst, so strong the heat. Some saw the chance to make money from such ventures, feeling they deserved more than the thanks and appreciation of their comrades, and insisted on payment for water. As a result, water was not shared out equally but sold at prices that were nothing short of extortionate. For those able or willing to pay, it was not always good value for money: at times the water was dark and muddy, and on occasion even contained leeches. Filthy water led to disease; eyewitnesses described how drinking unclean water caused severe swelling of the throat and stomach, and often led to an agonising death.7

There were few alternatives for those who could not afford to buy from their unscrupulous peers. One was the Pool of Siloam, just outside the walls of Jerusalem; fed by a natural spring and safe to drink, water could be found there at least some of the time. But getting to the pool was another matter: as it was located close to the city’s battlements, a well-judged shot from the walls could prove lethal.8 There was also the risk of ambush; some Crusaders who ventured there were attacked and killed, while others were captured never to be heard of again.9

The inhabitants of Jerusalem were also reassured by messages they received from the powerful vizier of Cairo, al-Afdal, telling them that he was coming to their rescue and was a mere fifteen days away. The capture of one of his messengers, who revealed this information under torture, spread alarm among the Crusaders. Their concerns were heightened after the interception of a carrier pigeon brought down by a hawker. Describing the western knights as foolhardy, headstrong and disorderly, the note it was carrying urged the Muslim governors of Acre and Caeserea to attack the Crusaders, stressing that if they did so, they would find easy pickings.10

The westerners’ response was to accelerate plans to capture the city. On 8 July 1099 they held a solemn procession with knights bearing crosses, walking barefoot round the walls of Jerusalem, imploring God for help and mercy. The inhabitants of the city used the spectacle to indulge in target practice, shooting arrows at the men marching around the city. It seemed to them that they had little to fear from the bedraggled and beleaguered western army.11

The Crusaders were not relying on divine inspiration alone for their success, however. Two assault towers were built at speed, and as soon as they were ready, they were set up against the walls, one to the south of the city, the other close to the imposing Quadrangular Tower defending the western side of Jerusalem. The construction and positioning was watched closely by the city’s garrison, who reinforced defences and deployed resources accordingly.12

In the searing heat of July, the Crusaders now pulled off a tactically brilliant move that brought them a decisive advantage. The siege tower that had been assembled by the Quadrangular Tower was dismantled during the night of 9 July and re-erected to the north of the city where weaker defences had been identified and the ground was flat.13 The attack on Jerusalem now began in earnest. A defensive ditch was quickly filled in and a tranche of the outer wall dismantled. Stone-throwing devices provided vital cover, as did Crusade archers, raining arrows on to the defenders. A huge battering ram was used to make a breach in the defences that was large enough for the siege tower to be brought up against the main wall. Rather than pull the ram back out of the way, and lose precious time, it was then set on fire. As the tower was hauled into position under furious enemy fire, sappers set about mining the wall from below. Others climbed up to the top of the tower, fighting the defenders manning the wall, and before long gaining a position on the battlements.14 Jerusalem was suddenly teetering.

While there was rapid progress on the defences to the north of the city, concerted efforts were being made simultaneously on a southern section of the walls. Another siege tower, well built and robust, had been pushed against the battlements. Its value, however, proved to lie less in its operational efficiency than in the fact that it drew enemy fire and distracted attention from the assault elsewhere. The defenders had concluded that they were more vulnerable to attack from the south of the city and concentrated resources there as a result: nine of the fifteen projectile devices in Jerusalem were positioned to protect the southern approach. Other contraptions that flung fireballs of fat, resin, pitch and hair into the Christian army were also concentrated in this part of the city. The defence of the southern section was successful, for the siege tower was set ablaze and substantial casualties were sustained by the westerners. The counter-attack was so well directed that the Crusaders, led by Raymond of Toulouse, contemplated withdrawal. It was only when news was received that the attack was progressing well elsewhere that efforts were renewed. As the siege engine to the south burned and missiles, oil and arrows rained on the western knights, reports came through that the Crusaders had breached the northern wall and were streaming into the city.

Resistance within Jerusalem collapsed immediately. The town’s commander, Iftikhar ad-Dawla, looked to his own safety and cut a deal with the western leaders, handing control of the Holy City over in return for safe transit to the citadel, where he planned to hold out until the vizier of Cairo’s forces arrived. The agreement that he, his wives and selected others would be able to leave the city unharmed was respected by the Crusaders.15 The Muslim commander must nevertheless have worried; the governor of Maarrat an-Numan had made a similar agreement with Bohemond in the spring of 1099, only to be butchered as he left the town.16

The city of Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders on 15 July 1099. The Latin sources leave little to the imagination in their description of the behaviour of the westerners as they poured into the city: ‘Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows from the towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet lay in the homes and streets, and men and knights were running to and fro over corpses.’17

The slaughter was on a scale which shocked even the most sanguine of eyewitnesses: ‘Almost the whole city was filled with their dead bodies so the survivors dragged the dead ones out in front of the gates and piled them up in mounds as big as houses outside the city gates. No one has ever heard of such a slaughter of pagans, for they were burned on pyres like pyramids and no one save God knows how many of them there are.’18

Another author, not present at the time, concurred about the horror of the attack. ‘If you had been there, your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared.’19 The accounts of the sack of Jerusalem were dramatic and bleak. But the portentous language and imagery of many of the victors’ accounts were also deliberate – with the Book of Revelation providing a specific reference point to underline the significance of the Christian success.20

Nevertheless, other sources reveal something of the scenes that accompanied the capture of the city. One horrified Muslim writer claimed that 70,000 were murdered in the al-Aqsa mosque alone, including imams, scholars and righteous men.21 Jews too were massacred as cries of vengeance for Christ’s crucifixion hung thick in the air. The Crusaders seemed not in the mood to celebrate so much as to settle scores.22

Some visited the Holy Sepulchre to thank God for having delivered them finally to their destination. But for many, there were other priorities. The appetite for loot seemed inexhaustible. The Crusaders had heard rumours that Muslims had swallowed their most precious belongings to prevent them from being looted. ‘How astonishing it would have seemed to you’, Fulcher of Chartres reported, ‘to see our squires and footmen, after they had discovered the trickery of the Saracens, split open the bellies of those they had just slain in order to extract from their intestines the bezants which the Saracens had gulped down their loathsome throats while alive! For the same reason, a few days later, our men made a great heap of corpses and burned them to ashes in order to find more easily the above-mentioned gold.’23

Those who had entered Jerusalem seized whatever property they wished; many Crusaders of previously limited means suddenly occupied houses in the most important city in the Christian world.24 Eventually, after two days of bloodshed and chaos, the expedition’s leaders decided to clear corpses from the streets to prevent the spread of disease. And as the bloodlust subsided, the Crusaders became more restrained in their dealings with the city’s inhabitants. One Jewish commentator even preferred the Crusaders to the previous Muslim overlords – at least they were given food and drink by their new masters.25

Jerusalem was finally restored to Christian hands. It was the culmination of a journey of almost unimaginable ambition, of unprecedented scale and organisation that had seen tens of thousands of men cross Europe and Asia Minor campaigning against all the odds and in astonishingly hostile conditions. The logistics of keeping a substantial force supplied with food and water while maintaining order and discipline had been highly challenging. In terrain that was more gruelling and hotter than these men had experienced before, the Crusaders had attacked many well-defended forts, towns and cities. There was no mistaking the achievement – three of the biggest cities in the eastern Mediterranean, cornerstones of Christianity, had been conquered in the space of two years: Nicaea, Antioch and Jerusalem.

It was the third and last that was the most important to those who had left western Europe in 1096. The capture of Jerusalem was an extraordinary feat, a testimony to the determination, skill and tenacity of the Crusaders. All had endured hardship, tension and fear; many had not made it. It was a time for celebration.

‘With the fall of the city it was rewarding to see the worship of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre, the clapping of hands, the rejoicing and singing of a new song to the Lord’, said Raymond of Aguilers, who was among those present at the fall of the city. ‘Their souls offered to the victorious and triumphant God prayers of praise which they could not explain in words. A new day, new gladness, new and everlasting happiness, and then fulfilment of our toil and love brought forth new words and song for all. This day, which I affirm will be celebrated in centuries to come, changed our grief and struggles into gladness and rejoicing. I further state that this day ended all paganism, confirmed Christianity and restored our faith. “This is the day which the Lord has made; we shall rejoice and be glad in it”, and deservedly because on this day, God shone upon us and blessed us.’26

In the aftermath of the capture of Jerusalem, the Crusaders were faced with difficult decisions. How should the city be governed; how should they engage and interact with the local population; what reliance, if any, would they have on Byzantium and the emperor Alexios; how would the city and its new masters be supplied; what opposition were they going to face in future? Steps had to be taken as it dawned on the westerners that they would have to try to ensure that the capture of the city was not a transient success, but the basis of permanent Christian rule.

There was not much time for debate. Jerusalem and the surrounding region needed to be secured quickly, for even as the city was being looted, news came of a huge army bearing down on them from Cairo. As a first move, a week after taking the city, the Crusade’s leaders met and proposed to elect the richest, worthiest and most devout of them as monarch. The establishment of royal government was of course partly a replication of a political system the knights were most familiar with. But there was also a deliberate purpose behind vesting authority in one individual: to avoid the fragmentation and indecision that had plagued the expedition after the capture of Antioch. Raymond of Toulouse was the obvious choice for this role. Yet against the expectations of the Crusaders, Raymond refused; his devout response was that the royal title was suitable only for the Son of God, at least in this most holy of cities. This piety was all very well, but the Crusaders recognised the need for authoritative leadership. If Raymond was not prepared to step up, who else might be suitable to take the role?

Godfrey of Bouillon had also performed well during the Crusade; he had been diligent and reliable throughout, and perhaps most importantly, he had not been divisive. His argument with the emperor in Constantinople about taking the oath showed that he was prepared to stand his ground when necessary, and his apparent intention to remain in the Holy Land after the expedition also counted strongly in his favour. Godfrey did not need to be asked twice. Sensitive, however, to Raymond’s objections to the royal title of king, he was shrewd enough to find a way to get round the issue. On 22 July 1099, Godfrey was named as Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre. It was up to him to turn the western conquerors into settlers.

While the capture of Jerusalem reverberated around Europe, its local impact was no less profound. The city had been home to Muslims, Jews and indeed Christians for centuries, producing and exporting olive oil, fragrances, marble and glass around the Mediterranean. It was an important pilgrimage centre for Islam as well; according to one eleventh-century visitor, many thousands of Muslim pilgrims came to Jerusalem as it was a much easier destination for them to reach than Mecca.27

The Christian conquest dramatically altered the social, ethnic and economic structure of the city. Muslims fled Jerusalem and other towns and locations in Palestine and left behind everything that they could not carry.28 As a result, the production of oils, ceramics, fruit preserves and other goods for which this region was famous came to a standstill. Yet in addition to resuming economic production, there was also the need to establish new links to replace the web of largely Muslim networks that dominated trade to and from the Levant. Genoese and Venetian merchants were only too willing to step in and negotiated highly favourable terms for themselves. In return for supplying the new Crusader colonies, the Italian city-states were granted quarters and extensive properties in the main cities on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, notably Antioch, Jerusalem and eventually Tyre, the main port for the Holy City.29

The first priority, however, was to secure lasting control of the Holy City. The Crusaders had received envoys from the Fatimids of Cairo as they made their way south in the spring of 1099 proposing an alliance against the Sunni Turks.30 Although this was not rebuffed outright, the Fatimids had drawn their own conclusions as the Crusader force marched on Jerusalem. A very substantial army under the command of the vizier al-Afdal had already been dispatched and was on its way north by the time the Crusaders reached the Holy City, and it arrived at the beginning of August. On 10 August, the knights rode out from Jerusalem and met the enemy near Ascalon, catching the Fatimid army by surprise. In the panic that ensued, many tried to hide in the trees, only to be shot like birds by arrows or speared with the knights’ lances. Yet again, the discipline of the knights brought about an unlikely victory against vastly superior numbers, scattering al-Afdal’s force and driving it back within the walls of Ascalon from where the demoralised survivors soon set sail for home.31

Despite the success, the first stages of Crusader settlement were precarious, with Muslim forces putting almost constant pressure on the towns that had been captured in 1098–9. To try to alleviate the situation, urgent appeals for help from Europe were issued by the Crusade leadership. In the spring of 1100, Archbishop Daimbert of Pisa, sent east by the Pope as his representative after the death of the bishop of Le Puy, wrote to ‘all the archbishops, bishops, princes and all Catholics in the Germanic region’, begging them to send reinforcements to the Holy Land to help the Christians hold on to the towns and territories they had taken.32

The appeals fell on fertile ground, with many in Europe enthralled by news of the capture of Jerusalem and the exploits of those who had taken part in the expedition. The fact that the heroes who had captured the Holy City were now badly exposed inspired a new wave of armed men to set out for Jerusalem in 1100. Contingents from Lombardy, Burgundy, Aquitaine and Austria reached Byzantium by the spring of the following year, together with several knights – such as Hugh of Vermandois and Stephen of Blois – who had taken part in the original campaign but had returned home without reaching Jerusalem.

Determined to emulate the deeds of their peers, the new Crusaders gathered near Nikomedia in the early summer of 1101. Ignoring the advice of Emperor Alexios to take the most direct route across Asia Minor, they instead headed into the heart of Turkish-held territory. When they reached Mersivan in Paphlagonia, they were attacked by Kilidj Arslan at the head of a massive Turkish army and all but annihilated. The few survivors, including Raymond of Toulouse, who was escorting the fresh force to Jerusalem, returned to Constantinople. The attempt to strengthen the Christian position in the east had been a fiasco.33

The chronic vulnerability of the Crusaders in the Holy Land was underlined by the death of Godfrey in the summer of 1100, almost a year to the day since the fall of Jerusalem.34 Around the same time, Bohemond was captured on the battlefield near Melitene by a Turkish emir.35 This deprived the westerners of some of their senior and most respected figures, and further weakened the Crusaders’ ability to withstand the assaults of their Muslim neighbours.

The turbulence was made worse by the ambitions of Tancred, who quickly assumed his uncle Bohemond’s mantle in Antioch, and of Daimbert of Pisa, who had managed to have himself declared patriarch of Jerusalem after his arrival in the east.36 Seeing the power vacuum that emerged after Godfrey’s death and Bohemond’s capture, the two men attempted to take control of Jerusalem for themselves. This met with opposition from an important faction within the Holy City, who sent a delegation to Baldwin in Edessa, asking him to come urgently to take his brother’s place.37

Historians have traditionally paid little attention to the motivations for the call to Edessa, but the appeal to Baldwin was significant because it was also aimed at repairing relations with Alexios. Although the Crusaders had seen off the Muslims at Ascalon, the pressure on the new settlements was chronic. There were also severe problems with supply. The arrival of fleets from Pisa, Genoa and Venice promised the opening of new routes to the Christian east, but there was still the more significant problem of ensuring that the supply links from Cyprus and the ports of southern Asia Minor, which were in Byzantine hands, were kept open in the aftermath of the conquest of Jerusalem. Baldwin, who had performed his duties as the emperor’s representative in Edessa effectively and reliably, was the obvious choice to help rebuild relations with Byzantium.

After appointing his kinsman, Baldwin of Le Bourg, to govern Edessa in his absence, Baldwin set off for Jerusalem. When he arrived, he worked tirelessly to outmanoeuvre the anti-Byzantine animosities that were rapidly rising in the city. Led by Daimbert and Tancred, this group had further antagonised the Byzantines by engineering the flight of John, patriarch of Antioch, to Constantinople in the summer of 1100 and appointing a Latin Church leader in his place.38 It was telling that when Baldwin reached Jerusalem in November, his arrival was greeted by cheering crowds made up not only of westerners but also of Greek and Syrian Christians.39 On Christmas Day 1100, Baldwin was crowned in Bethlehem, taking the title of king of Jerusalem; his elder brother had been buried at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre.40

Baldwin was keen to dampen anti-Byzantine sentiment and make peace with the emperor but tensions simmered in the city until the summer of 1101 when the troublesome Daimbert was suspended by a papal legate, who had been sent east following heavy lobbying of the Pope by Baldwin.41Soon afterwards, Baldwin captured Jaffa, which provided the Crusaders with essential access to the sea. It was no coincidence that the town was placed in the hands of Odo Arpin of Bourges, a knight who was close to Alexios and was to become an important conduit for the emperor to central France in the early twelfth century: it was another positive step forward in relations with Byzantium.42

By the spring of the following year, the need for Byzantine support had become even more urgent. In the summer of 1102, another huge Muslim army, which had been sent north from Cairo to prise the Crusaders out of Jerusalem, inflicted a massive blow on the westerners at Ramla, crushing a force led by Baldwin that was woefully unprepared and badly outnumbered. Although the king was lucky to escape, the weakness of his position was painfully exposed; with increasingly skeletal garrisons holding on to the towns still controlled by the Crusaders and manpower dwindling drastically following setbacks on the battlefield and the lack of reinforcements, the situation looked bleak.43

It was imperative to rebuild bridges with Constantinople. One step was the forced deposition of the anti-Byzantine Daimbert as patriarch of Jerusalem and his replacement with Evremar, an elderly French priest, who was a more malleable character.44 But the key step came with the dispatch of an embassy to the imperial capital with the express aim of cementing an alliance with Byzantium. Baldwin resolved to approach Alexios ‘in the most humble way he could, and with mild entreaties … appeal to the emperor of Constantinople about the Christians’ miseries’.45 High-ranking officials were sent to the capital, along with two pet lions as gifts, to appeal for help, particularly in the supply of provisions from Cyprus and other parts of the empire. An accord was reached with Alexios, who demanded guarantees that Baldwin’s ambassadors would repair the damage done to his relations with the papacy caused by the rumours about his supposed betrayals of the Crusaders. In return, he swore to ‘show mercy … and to show honour and love to King Baldwin’. The good news was swiftly transmitted back to Jerusalem.46

Alexios had his own reasons for reconciling with the Crusaders. Although Bohemond was safely out of the way, held captive by Turks in eastern Anatolia, Tancred was still proving to be a thorn in the emperor’s side. Using Antioch as a base, the knight had made significant inroads into newly recovered imperial territory in Cilicia, taking the town of Marash and moving against Laodikeia.47 This threatened to destabilise the new alliance between Constantinople and Jerusalem, with the result that senior Crusaders took steps against Tancred. Raymond of Toulouse tried to relieve Laodikeia on behalf of the emperor in 1102, but without success.48 Baldwin of Le Bourg openly declared himself to be an enemy of Tancred and set about raising money to pay Bohemond’s ransom in the hope that the latter would return to Antioch to stamp his authority over his feisty nephew.49

Initially, this was precisely what happened. Released from captivity in 1103, Bohemond resumed control of Antioch, sidelining Tancred, establishing cordial relations with Baldwin in Edessa and taking part in joint attacks in northern Syria.50 However, things soon started to go wrong. Bohemond responded petulantly to an embassy sent from Constantinople in late 1103 or early 1104, raising concerns about his willingness to co-operate with the agreement reached between the emperor of Byzantium and the king in Jerusalem.51 Bohemond’s relations with other leading western knights also began to deteriorate after his release, who took a dim view of his attempts to expand his territories. Things were so bad that one eyewitness wrote of the complete collapse of relations between the Crusaders at this time.52

Matters took a decisive turn in the early summer of 1104 when Bohemond and Tancred commanded a force from Antioch in support of an attack, led by Baldwin of Le Bourg and a contingent from Edessa, on the town of Harran in south-eastern Asia Minor. When the westerners were comprehensively routed and Baldwin was taken captive, Bohemond and Tancred merely looked on from a safe distance before withdrawing – at least according to the Muslim sources.53

The defeat at Harran was a major setback for the Crusaders. The Christians were disheartened by their loss, reported one chronicler in nearby Damascus, their resolve shaken by the Muslim victory. It was a huge boost to the morale of the latter, who took this as a sign that fortunes were finally reversing.54 That reversal had a wider impact, however, for it seems to have profoundly destabilised the delicate balance of power in the Latin settlements in the Holy Land and their relations with Byzantium. Part of the problem was that following Baldwin’s capture and that of other senior officers who had been stationed with him in Edessa, Tancred moved north and took possession of the town. Although the inhabitants of Edessa do not appear to have been unduly discomfited by this, his arrival would not have been welcomed by Alexios – even though he had himself taken advantage of the chaos finally to restore imperial authority in Cilicia and Laodikeia.55

A more serious problem, however, came from Bohemond’s response to the defeat at Harran. The Norman seems to have realised that with Antioch secure, Edessa under the control of his nephew, Baldwin out of the way in captivity and the Christian hold on Jerusalem looking precarious, an unmissable opportunity had opened up for Bohemond to make himself master of the Crusader states in their entirety. He therefore refused to pay a ransom for Baldwin of Le Bourg when approached by his captors, and instead launched another assault on Laodikeia, though this was unsuccessful.56 In the autumn of 1104, he gathered his retinue in the Basilica of St Peter in Antioch. ‘We have irritated the two richest powers in the world’, he said; however, there were not enough men in the east to continue to hold out against Byzantium and Persia. ‘We must search for help from the men across the sea. The people of the Gauls must be roused. Their bravery will arouse us, or nothing will.’ Bohemond would head for Europe and raise an army of his own.57 His eye was on Jerusalem and Constantinople – and possibly both.

According to Anna Komnene, Bohemond was so convinced that the emperor would take revenge for his treachery during the Crusade that he travelled home in secret. He even spread reports that he had died and had a coffin designed which purported to be carrying his corpse. As his ship passed through imperial waters, he lay in the sarcophagus alongside a dead chicken whose rotting carcass lent the coffin a powerful and unmistakable smell of death.58

As soon as he made land in Italy, Bohemond began gathering support for a new military expedition, lighting the same tinder that Urban had so skilfully ignited in the mid-1090s. On that occasion, the purpose of the terrible descriptions of the dangers in the east, the ravagings of the Turks and the plight of the Eastern Church, had been to help Byzantium. Now, the aim was to destroy it.

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