Zengi’s Jihad

IN 1138 THE ARAB DIPLOMAT Usamah ibn Munqidh was sent to Jerusalem by the independent Turkish ruler of Damascus, Muin al-Din Unur. His purpose was to discuss with King Fulk the possibility of an alliance against Imad al-Din Zengi, who a decade earlier had been confirmed by the Seljuk sultan as the atabeg, or governor, of Mosul in northern Iraq and of Aleppo in northern Syria. But the Seljuk dynasty was in decline and exercised only the loosest control over its minions, or over the Abbassid caliph in Baghdad or over anyone else, leaving Turkish strongmen like Zengi to vie for power in the region. William of Tyre called Zengi ‘a vicious man’,1 and the inhabitants of Damascus agreed: they had learned something of his brutality during his unsuccessful siege of their city in 1135, and Usamah ibn Munqidh’s mission to Jerusalem was sent with popular support. For two years Usamah travelled back and forth, negotiating an alliance and making friends. Zengi threatened Damascus again in 1140, but his fear of being caught in a pincer movement forced him to withdraw, an event celebrated later that year when Usamah accompanied Muin al-Din Unur on a state visit to Jerusalem.

During the times Usamah spent in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the kingdom he became a close observer of the Franks and their ways, and he described his encounters in his memoirs, though often in a tone of self-congratulation at what he saw as the superiority of his own culture over theirs. He was shocked, for example, by the lack of restriction placed on their women by Frankish men.

        The Franks are without any vestige of a sense of honour and jealousy. If one of them goes along the street with his wife and meets a friend, this man will take the woman’s hand and lead her aside to talk, while the husband stands by waiting until she has finished her conversation. If she takes too long about it he leaves her with the other man and goes on his way.2

On a visit to Acre, Usamah met an important Frankish knight who had come on a pilgrimage. ‘He was of my intimate fellowship and kept such constant company with me that he began to call me “my brother”. Between us were mutual bonds of amity and friendship.’ But when the knight was about to embark for home and offered to take Usamah’s teenage son into his household for some time, a form of tutelage that was common among the nobility of Europe, Usamah declined, remarking in his memoirs that ‘even if my son were to be taken captive, his captivity could not bring him a worse misfortune than carrying him into the lands of the Franks’.3

Usamah was an Arab, born at Shaizar in Syria in 1095, the year that launched the First Crusade. He was a widely read and cultivated man; he was also raised as a hunter and a warrior, and as a young man he helped defend Shaizar against all comers. He fought against the Franks at Tripoli and Antioch as well as against the Turks at Hama and Homs, and also against the Assassins who built their castle of Masyaf within view of Shaizar across the valley of the Orontes river. But in 1131 he was exiled by his uncle the emir of Shaizar, who feared that Usamah was plotting against him. Thereafter Usamah wandered the Middle East in the service of one ruler or another and developed a reputation as an unscrupulous political intriguer. He was accused of arranging the assassination of a Fatimid caliph and his vizier, as well as scheming against Muin al-Din Unur, the ruler of Damascus, whom he nevertheless served as diplomatic envoy. But his abilities and charm opened many doors, and he was befriended by numerous figures in the East, among them the Templars and King Fulk; Usamah died at Damascus in 1188, the year after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, another of his friends.

Usamah came to know the Templars particularly well and told how they made a point of providing him with a place to pray in their headquarters on the Temple Mount, although inevitably in his memoirs he turned the tale against the Franks.

        This is an example of Frankish barbarism, God damn them! When I was in Jerusalem I used to go to the Masjid al-Aqsa, beside which is a small oratory which the Franks have made into a church. Whenever I went into the mosque, which was in the hands of Templars who were friends of mine, they would put the little oratory at my disposal, so that I could say my prayers there.

Usamah would then arrange himself to pray towards Mecca, which is south of Jerusalem, whereas Christian churches were usually oriented to the east. But on one occasion a Frank noticed Usamah’s direction of prayer and roughly pointed him towards the east, saying ‘That is the way to pray!’ Usamah’s Templar friends rushed forward and led the man away, but when their attention was diverted the man accosted Usamah again, repeating ‘That is the way to pray!’ Again the Templars intervened and led the Frank away, apologising to their Muslim friend, saying the man had just arrived from the West and had never seen anyone pray as Usamah had done.4 All in all, decided Usamah, ‘There are some Franks who have settled in our land and taken to living like Muslims. These are better than those who have just arrived from their homelands, but they are the exception’.5

During the Muslim occupation Christians were not permitted on the Temple Mount at all, whereas Usamah was treated royally by the Franks. But the Franks were ‘animals’, he wrote, ‘possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else; just as animals have only the virtues of strength and carrying loads’.6 It was that old familiar contempt that Muslims had for dhimmis, which went back hundreds of years. As for his remark that the Franks ‘have settled in our land’, it comes oddly from Usamah, whose family, ensconced in Shaizar, were aliens to the place, which had only recently been in Byzantine hands and had been the seat of a bishop. Known to the Byzantines as Cezer, it had been part of Graeco-Roman Syria for a thousand years until it fell to the Arabs in 638, although it was recovered in 999. But in 1081, almost on the eve of the First Crusade and just fourteen years before Usamah was born, Cezer was lost to the Banu Munqidh, Usamah’s clan. It was not so much the Franks who had ‘settled in our land’ as the Banu Munqidh who had taken the land from the indigenous population.

Early in 1099, after the First Crusade had captured Antioch and was marching south towards Jerusalem, the army at first followed the valley of the Orontes river, where the crusaders were welcomed by the Banu Munqidh clan of Shaizar, who were delighted to help any enemy of the Turks. The emir of Shaizar, the uncle of Usamah ibn Munqidh, provided them with horses and food and other provisions and gave them guides to show the way along the valley and through the Homs gap, where the army emerged on the Mediterranean just north of Tripoli. There another Arab clan, the Banu Ammar, gave the crusaders further help as they marched along the coast as far as Fatimid territory, where from Jaffa they ascended through the highlands to Jerusalem.

Yet within Usamah’s own lifetime the attitude of local Muslim rulers, whether Arab or Turk, towards Turkish imperial domination went from resistance to acceptance, mostly because they were beaten into submission in the cause of dynastic ambition by successive warriors, Imad al-Din Zengi, his son Nur al-Din, and Nur al-Din’s successor Salah al-Din, famous in the West as Saladin. One historian has succinctly explained Zengi’s technique as a ‘policy of deliberately refraining from serious attack on the Latin states and concentrating his assaults on his Muslim rivals. His programme of the status quo in respect to the Franks was of course designed to give him a free hand in his endeavours to best his Muslim foes.’7

Zengi was a Turk who in 1127 prevailed on the weakened Seljuk sultan in Baghdad to appoint him atabeg, or governor, of Mosul in northern Iraq. A year later, after agreeing a truce with the Frankish count of Edessa, Zengi marched into northern Syria and made himself atabeg of Aleppo as well. By means of war and intimidation Zengi soon extended his authority over much of Muslim Syria, and he would have taken Damascus too but for the alliance negotiated in 1139 by Usamah ibn Munqidh between its Turkish ruler, Muin al-Din Unur, and King Fulk and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.

Zengi’s ambition to take Damascus had already brought him into conflict with the Franks and also with the Templars. In 1137 Zengi laid siege to the Syrian city of Homs, which was a dependency of Damascus, but Raymond II, the count of Tripoli, went to its defence if only to keep Zengi in check and to prevent him from gaining too much power. As the Franks approached, Zengi abandoned his siege and withdrew north into the Orontes valley, where he invested the castle of Montferrand, an outpost of the county of Tripoli. Raymond followed Zengi north, meanwhile calling on Jerusalem for assistance. King Fulk answered by dashing to Tripoli and through the Homs gap at the head of a small army which included a number of Templars.8 For all that the Templars were beholden to no authority other than the pope, they had from the beginning enjoyed a close relationship with the ruling family of Jerusalem, were prominent at court and played an important role in the political as well as the military affairs of the kingdom. The Templars’ participation in the failed assault against Damascus in 1129 and now this march north to the Orontes are the first recorded instances of the order being involved in outright warfare in the East rather than policing actions, and in both cases the Templars were lending their services to the king. But like the Damascus debacle, this adventure also ended in ignominious disaster.

As Raymond and Fulk marched against Zengi at Montferrand, Zengi quit his encirclement of the castle and fell upon the Franks, taking them by surprise, decimating their infantry and taking Raymond and a number of knights captive. Fulk and his forces, including the Templars, abandoned their supplies and sought refuge at Montferrand, where Zengi quickly put them under siege. Help was on the way; a mass conscription of fighting men from Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa rushed towards the Orontes, so numerous that it seemed to the Muslims like a fresh crusade. This was the usual form of Frankish defence in the early years of Outremer; rather than relying on massive castles and static warfare, the Franks rapidly deployed their forces to relieve the town or fortress that was under attack or siege, which had only to hold out for a few days until overwhelming help arrived. But the Franks had dashed inside the castle of Montferrand without their supplies, and they were starving now and eating their own horses. Isolated and unaware of the approaching forces, they sued for terms. Zengi agreed to let them go for nothing more than the surrender of Montferrand; at first astonished at his generosity, the Franks soon learned of the relieving army and reproached themselves for giving in too soon. Among those who went free were eighteen humiliated Templars. As for Zengi, he had avoided a major battle with the Franks, which, had he suffered a loss, would have played to the advantage of his true enemy, Damascus; but he had acquired Montferrand, which would prevent the Franks from pushing through the Homs gap into the Orontes valley and which gave him control of Homs and the nearby city of Hama, a gain that the Franks would never succeed in taking back. A year later, in not dissimilar circumstances, Zengi would show how he dealt less favourably with his fellow Muslims; while besieging Baalbek, a dependency of Damascus, he guaranteed the safety of its garrison if they would surrender; when they did so, he skinned their commander alive and crucified the rest.

Yet just three years later, still without any serious campaign against the Franks, Zengi was proclaiming his jihadist prowess with a series of inscriptions on public buildings in Aleppo: ‘Tamer of the infidels and the polytheists, leader of those who fight the Holy War, helper of the armies, protector of the territory of the Muslims’.9 The inscriptions were probably composed by Muslim clerics, who also talked up jihad in the marketplace and the mosque; it was the beginning of the alliance between the Turkish commanders and the religious authorities, whose mutual interests would be bolstered by whipping up public opinion against the Franks. But Zengi, Nur al-Din and Saladin were primarily driven by an ambition to build up their own imperial domains; fighting against the Franks was incidental to that goal. All three applied the call for jihad not only to their occasional campaigns against the Franks but also to their far more numerous and violent wars against their Muslim rivals, using the excuse that a jihad against the Franks was not possible until wrongdoing, heretical or foot-dragging Muslims were got out of the way – excuses that disguised the fact that neither Zengi nor Nur al-Din nor Saladin enjoyed the support of all Muslim rulers, let alone the Muslim population at large, many of whom fought alongside the Franks against these self-described holy warriors.10

Fear is the most common word associated with Zengi in the Muslim chronicles. He was ‘a chillingly ruthless personality who literally inspired terror in his army and subjects alike’,11 writes Carole Hillenbrand in The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. According to the Persian chronicler Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, who later saw service with Nur al-Din and Saladin, ‘Zengi was tyrannical and he would strike with indiscriminate recklessness. He was like a leopard in character, like a lion in fury, not renouncing any severity, not knowing any kindness.’12 Oppressive, perfidious and murderous towards his fellow Muslims, he was nevertheless pardoned for his brutality by the Muslim chroniclers because of one act, his conquest of Edessa. ‘This was truly the victory of victories and the one of them most similar to Badr’, exulted the Kurdish chronicler Ibn al-Athir, comparing Zengi’s taking of the city to a decisive early battle in the career of Mohammed, adding that those who witnessed it became ‘devoted to jihad with the firmest conviction’.13

Thwarted in his great goal of conquering Damascus, Zengi turned his attention to lesser Muslim enemies elsewhere. Kara Arslan, of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty of the Diyabikar region in eastern Asia Minor, was one of those Muslim princes whom Zengi was determined to destroy. With Zengi ravaging his lands, Kara Arslan made an alliance with Joscelin II, the half-Armenian, half-Frankish count of Edessa, who in the autumn of 1144 marched northwards with the greater part of his soldiery, leaving Edessa lightly garrisoned and protected only by its walls. When reports reached Zengi that the city lay exposed, he immediately turned south and by a series of forced marches stood before Edessa, which he encircled with his vast army.

Zengi understood the strategic importance of Edessa; the city was a bulwark of the Frankish states against Muslim aggression. The other states of Outremer fringed the Mediterranean, but Edessa was landlocked; it lay beyond the Euphrates, a day’s ride east of the river, where it commanded the trade route from Mosul to Aleppo and separated the Muslims of Iraq from the Seljuks of Rum in Asia Minor. Westerners rarely visited the city, and only a small number of its citizens were Franks, who, like the ruling family from which Queen Melisende of Jerusalem had sprung, were mostly intermarried with the local people; otherwise the greater part of the population were Armenians, and also Syrian Orthodox. Edessa was famous as an early centre of Christianity; the gospels were translated into Syriac there in about AD 150, and by the tenth century it had as many as three hundred churches, including a cathedral with a vaulted ceiling covered in mosaics rated among the wonders of the world. Architects from Edessa were sought all over the East, including by the Fatimids, for whom they built the great gates of Bab al-Futuh and Bab al-Nasr at Cairo. And so when Zengi laid siege to the city, he came up against its formidable walls. But William of Tyre was dismissive of the Edessans, complaining that they were more devoted to trade than skilled in the use of arms.

        All these defences could be of use against the enemy only if there were men willing to fight for their freedom, men who would resist the foe valiantly. The defences would be useless, however, if there were none among the besieged who were willing to serve as defenders. Towers, walls, and earthworks are of little value to a city unless there are defenders to man them. Zengi found the town bereft of defenders and was much encouraged.14

But the Edessans showed no lack of courage, and when Zengi called on them to surrender they defiantly answered through their leaders, Bishop Papios, a Latin, Basilius Bar Shumanna, a Syrian, and Iwannis (John), an Armenian; trusting in the Franks, to whom they remained loyal, they refused Zengi’s demand, and at the end of November the siege began.

Joscelin appealed for help from the other Frankish states of Outremer, but he had long been at odds with the prince of Antioch, who now ignored him, while relief forces sent from Tripoli and Jerusalem arrived too late. Meanwhile Zengi’s men showered the city walls with stones propelled by catapults, while others tunnelled beneath the walls to bring them down. According to the Syriac chroniclers, and contrary to the dismissive remarks of William of Tyre, the people of Edessa fought heroically and tried to counter the mining of the walls. Everyone was busy; women, girls and boys, weary and exhausted, carried stones and water and other materials to the labourers who were trying to shore up the foundations. Even when a section of wall collapsed, the people worked frantically to rebuild it, but Zengi’s men drove through the breach and rushed into the streets and houses of the city. The day was Christmas Eve, 1144.

‘They slew with their swords the citizens whom they encountered, sparing neither age, condition nor sex’,15 wrote William of Tyre, and they enslaved any who survived. The Syriac chroniclers went into greater detail. Six thousand people lost their lives on that day alone, and for three days in all Zengi allowed the violence to go unchecked. According to the account of Michael Rabo, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch,

        You could see the priests killed and the deacons slaughtered, the sub-deacons mangled, the churches looted and the altars turned upside down. What a calamity! Fathers deserted their own children and mothers lost compassion for their children. Some fled to the mountain, while others gathered their children as the hen does to the chicks, waiting to die or be taken captive.16

The Turks, he added, left a few Armenians, Syrians and Greeks alive, but they were merciless towards the Franks. First they robbed the Franks of all they had, then they separated the priests and dignitaries from the rest, stripped off their clothes and sent them naked to captivity in Aleppo. They also separated the craftsmen from the prisoners, each according to his trade, before enslaving them too. As for the others, some were tortured, some were used as targets for Turkish arrows, and some were despatched outright by the sword; one way or another, all were killed.

The Muslim chroniclers agreed with the Syriac sources that great numbers of Armenians and Franks perished and churches were destroyed and defiled, some turned into granaries and stables. Ibn al-Athir wrote that Zengi captured Edessa by the sword, and that his men went on killing and looting. ‘He declared the city open to the carnage wrought by his men. They turned crosses upside down, annihilated its priests and monks, killed its knights and brave men, and filled their hands with booty.’ Ibn al-Athir also quoted the Koran, 11:102: ‘Such was the scourge which your Lord has visited upon the sinful nations. His punishment is stern and harrowing.’17

Some inhabitants of the city fled to Jerusalem, where they found refuge at convents which with much difficulty provided them with food and shelter. Others stayed at Edessa, where over a hundred young women married Turks and converted to Islam.

Zengi’s conquest of Edessa excited panegyrics from contemporary Muslim poets, one writing that Zengi ‘will turn tomorrow towards Jerusalem’, another likewise directing the future course of jihad towards Jerusalem, writing: ‘If the conquest of Edessa is the high sea, Jerusalem and the Sahil [the coast of Palestine and Syria] are its shore.’ And the caliph at Baghdad honoured Zengi with a garland of titles, among them ‘the adornment of Islam, the king helped by God, the helper of the believers’.18

The following year, as Zengi was laying siege to the Frankish fortress of Jabar, on the Euphrates, he was murdered in his tent. Accounts of his death vary, but according to several Muslim sources, Zengi was in a drunken stupor when he was killed by a Frankish slave. In the ensuing chaos, and as Zengi’s sons battled for the succession, local Muslim rulers reclaimed what they could from Zengi’s domains; Muin al-Din Unur, the atabeg of Damascus, recovered Baalbek, Homs and Hama, while the Artuqids repossessed their territories round Diyarbikir. Edessa also yearned to throw off the Turkish yoke. Its native Christians sent secret word to Joscelin, then at Turbessel, his capital of what remained of the county of Edessa west of the Euphrates, reporting that the Turks had all but abandoned Edessa and saying they would open the gates to him. But by now the succession had been won by Zengi’s son Nur al-Din, who, on receiving word that Joscelin had taken Edessa, marched from Mosul at the head of an enormous army. Joscelin was unable to dislodge the Turkish garrison from the city’s citadel, and fearing being trapped between the Turks within and the Turks approaching from Mosul, he rode out from the city to face the Turks on open ground. But as the Franks charged, the Turkish lines gave way, then closed ranks again and attacked Joscelin and his army from the rear. Thrown into confusion, the Franks fled. Joscelin was wounded by an arrow but managed to escape.

On 3 November 1146 the Muslims once again became masters of Edessa. First the Armenians and other Christians were annihilated by the sword, in some cases tortured and their bellies cut open. Then the looting began. When Zengi had taken the city in 1144 it was pillaged for three days; this time the looting went on for a whole year. The Turks went about the city searching through secret places, digging into foundations, tearing open roofs. Churches, houses, monasteries were stripped bare and destroyed. Edessa was reduced to a scene of desolation and horror; the city became the abode of jackals, who picked over the corpses of its people, and no one entered except those searching for treasures. The Muslim chroniclers, however, avoided giving details about the attack on Edessa; Ibn al-Qalanisi said that Muslim hearts were strengthened as they rejoiced in their victory. The Christian chroniclers told a different story. Michael Rabo, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, wrote of the

        night of death and the morn of hell and the day of desolation which stunned the sons of the wretched city. [. . .] The corpses of priests, deacons, monks, dignitaries, and poor people were piled up. Those who died were luckier than those who remained alive. Those who were still alive suffered incredible torment. They fell into the midst of the fire of the Turks’ wrath. The Turks made them shed their clothes and shoes. They tied their hands behind them, beating them and forcing them, men and women, to walk naked alongside their horses. The Turks flayed the bellies of those who fell due to fatigue and torture, then left them dead to stink and become food for birds of prey.19

Michael Rabo estimated that in the two Turkish occupations of Edessa, in 1144 and 1146, some 30,000 of its people were slaughtered and 16,000 were taken captive, while only 1,000 men made it to safety. No women or children remained; some were killed, and the rest were driven to Aleppo, where they were sold into slavery and scattered throughout the lands of the East. It was Ani all over again.

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