The Turkish Invasion and the First Crusade


‘AS THE MOST of you have heard . . .’: so Pope Urban II introduced the subject of the Turkish menace to a vast crowd at Clermont in central France in 1095, for all the talk in Europe was of the Turks. He recounted to his listeners that the Turks were advancing into the heart of Christian lands, killing and mistreating many of the population and destroying their churches; and he added that the emperor of Byzantium had called for help and it was the duty of the West to respond.1 Urban was rousing his audience to a great cause, the liberation of the lands and churches and peoples of the East, what we now call the First Crusade.

Little had been known about the Turks in the West until 1071, when reports of an extraordinary military victory began to reach Europe. The Turks had defeated the army of the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert, opening the whole of Asia Minor to conquest and threatening Constantinople itself. In that same year the Turks also turned south, taking northern Syria from the Byzantines and Jerusalem from the Fatimids of Egypt.

The Byzantines had known the Turks for a long time. They had fought Turkish tribesmen when they appeared in the ranks of the Abbasid armies and had even employed them as mercenaries in their own. But these were a new Turkish people, the Seljuks, whom the Byzantines encountered only in the eleventh century, when they announced themselves on the empire’s eastern border with the invasion of Armenia and the destruction of Ani.


The Turkish Invasion

ANI, IN THE EXTREME EAST of present-day Turkey, is not a city many people have visited or even know about. Yet this once famous city of ‘a thousand and one churches’ was the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom and was comparable to Constantinople in the magnificence of its architecture and the size of its population. As though on a promontory, the city stood within the sharp angle of two conjoining river canyons, a two-mile line of walls closing the triangle – an outline rather like that of Constantinople itself. The massive ruins of these walls is all you see today as you approach from Kars across a bleak landscape with a handful of blighted villages of stone-built houses en route. The road goes nowhere now, not since the First World War, when the Turks murdered a million and a half Armenians,1 the first great genocide of modern times, or since the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, now the Republic of Armenia, was established across the river just ahead. But what has long been a no-man’s-land was once a major route of east–west trade, and Ani grew wealthy on the flow of caravans.

In 1045 the Armenian kingdom was annexed by the Byzantine Empire, and Ani became a forward position against the new enemy who had erupted from their heartlands in Central Asia. The Seljuks were a clan of the nomadic Orguz Turks who in the early tenth century inhabited the steppes north of Lake Balkhash in present-day Kazakhstan. In about 985 they split off from the Orguz and migrated southwards into a remote region of the Abbasid empire. There on the banks of the Jaxartes river (the present-day Syr Darya), east of the Aral Sea, they converted to Islam. Quick and agile mounted archers, the Seljuks were forged into a devastating strike force under their leader, Tughril. They fought their way westwards across Persia and into Mesopotamia, where Tughril captured Baghdad in 1055, reduced the caliph to his puppet, made himself sultan and replaced the ruling aristocracy with Seljuk Turks. The sultan’s court adopted in some degree the Persian language and the trappings of Persian culture, ‘but the body of the Turkish nation, and more especially the pastoral tribes, still breathed the fierceness of the desert’.2

Nothing stopped the onward rush of the Seljuks, who under Tughril’s nephew and successor Alp Arslan overran most of Armenia and in 1064, less than a century after leaving their homeland 3,000 miles away, stood before the walls of Ani. The Arab historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi quoted an eyewitness to what took place when after a twenty-five-day siege Ani finally surrendered to the Turks:

        The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive. The dead bodies were so many that they blocked all the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than fifty thousand souls. I was determined to enter the city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible.3

After the Seljuks sacked the city, earthquakes and Mongol raids would do the rest. Passing through the main double gate into Ani today is like entering a storm-wrecked harbour where broken churches have run aground. The circular Chapel of the Redeemer stands amid flowers and rolling grassland like an upright hull, half of it torn away as though by some dreadful whirlwind and spat on the ground. One of the few structurally intact monuments is the cathedral, begun in 988 and completed twelve years later; its architect was Trdat, who also restored the dome of Constantinople’s Haghia Sophia after its partial collapse in 989. As the Seljuks looted Ani, one of them clambered up the conical roof of the great church and tore down its cross; the cathedral was then converted to the Fethiye Cami, the Victory Mosque.

Alp Arslan is portrayed in Muslim sources as a fervent jihadist. His own chief minister, Nizam al-Mulk, called him ‘earnest and fanatical in his beliefs’.4 But for the time being, his policy towards the Byzantine Empire was defensive; his concern was to secure his north-west frontier while he turned his attentions southwards to Egypt. As the military arm of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the champion of Sunni Islam, Alp Arslan’s great enemy was the Shia regime in Cairo, and his immediate aim was to make war against the Fatimid caliphate. But in 1071, just as he was moving against Fatimid territory in Syria, he received word that 500 miles to the north-east a large army led by the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was advancing deep into Asia Minor with the intention of reconquering Armenia.

About 100 miles south of Ani and just north of Lake Van, the Byzantine army entered a broad steppe-like plain broken by volcanic outcrops and bounded to the right by the great shoulder of the Suphan Dagi massif, even in summer gleaming with snow, and to the left by the dun bare line of lesser mountains. Nowadays a monument like a huge pair of goalposts rises into the vast sky at the western end of the plain, where it falls off into a cultivated river valley green with orchards. A village stands close by, built round an ancient Armenian fortress tower, black and squat. This is Malazgirt – once Manzikert – where the monument erected by the Turkish government in 1990 commemorates what the Byzantines called that ‘dreadful day’ when Asia Minor, Christian and culturally Greek, began the long and violent process of being remade from the East. Here at Manzikert, on 26 August 1071, a Friday, Romanus was surprised by Alp Arslan’s fast-moving forces, his army was destroyed, and the emperor himself was taken prisoner – and then at once set free against promise of a tribute. On his return to Constantinople, Romanus was overthrown, blinded and exiled; he died a year later, the same year that Alp Arslan was himself killed by a Turkish rebel.

The catastrophe was greater than the defeat of the imperial army. Asia Minor was left doubly defenceless because the old theme system established by Heraclius had broken down. The security of the frontiers had made land a good investment and led to the emergence of a landed aristocracy that bought out the smallholders, those independent farmer–soldiers on whom the defence of Asia Minor depended. Now after Manzikert the empire lay open before bands of Turkish tribesmen, who looted, murdered and destroyed as they marauded westwards until in 1073 they were standing on the Bosphorus opposite Constantinople. In the words of a Byzantine chronicler, ‘Almost the whole world, on land and sea, occupied by the impious barbarians, has been destroyed and has become empty of population, for all Christians have been slain by them and all houses and settlements with their churches have been devastated by them in the whole East, completely crushed and reduced to nothing.’5 In fact, the Turks were as yet only thinly spread across the newly invaded territory and by no means replaced the existing population, but the dislocation to settled society was ruinous, not least because of the rapacity and strife as one tribe fought against another. The tragedy that had overtaken Armenia had now overtaken Asia Minor, and an Armenian refugee writing in Constantinople struck a note of grim foreboding:

        The voices and the sermons of the priests are silent now. The chandeliers are extinguished now and the lamps dimmed, the sweet fragrance of incense is gone, the altar of Our Lord is covered with dust and ashes. [. . .] Tell heaven and all that abide in it, tell the mountains and the hills, the trees of the dense woodlands, that they too may weep over our destruction.6

The warfare that had overtaken Palestine after the Fatimid invasion in 970 lasted for generations, and the country continued to suffer from Bedouin depredations throughout the eleventh century. Ramla, which the Arabs founded on the plain as the capital of Jund Filastin, was all but abandoned owing to earthquake damage and continuous Bedouin attacks; instead from the 1160s Jerusalem, lodged in the highlands of Judaea, became the centre of Fatimid rule in Palestine and its walls were strengthened.

Even during these perilous times pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem, where they made an important contribution to such prosperity as the city enjoyed. Their chief goal was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where al-Hakim’s successor had allowed the Byzantine emperor to rebuild the Rotunda at his own expense. But pilgrimages were unpredictable and required considerable courage and faith to pursue. In 1065 a large pilgrimage of seven to twelve thousand Germans, led by Gunther, bishop of Bamberg, travelled across Asia Minor and arrived at Latakia in northern Syria, still within the Byzantine Empire then. But in Latakia, according to a chronicler,

        they began to meet each day many people returning from Jerusalem. The returning parties told of the deaths of an uncounted number of their companions. They also shouted about and displayed their own recent and still bloody wounds. They bore witness publicly that no one could pass along that route because the whole land was occupied by a most ferocious tribe of Arabs who thirsted for human blood.

The pilgrims gathered to discuss what to do and quickly decided ‘to put all hope in the Lord. They knew that, living or dying, they belonged to the Lord and so, with all their wits about them, they set out through the pagan territory towards the holy city’. On Good Friday, within a day’s walk of Jerusalem, the pilgrims were attacked by Bedouin, ‘who leaped on them like famished wolves on long awaited prey. They slaughtered the first pilgrims pitiably, tearing them to pieces.’ Taking refuge in a village, the pilgrims defended themselves as best they could until on Easter Monday they were saved by the Fatimid governor at the head of a large body of men who drove the Bedouin off. The governor, ‘who had heard what the Arabs, like heathen, were doing, had calculated that if these pilgrims were to perish such a miserable death, then no one would come through this territory for religious purposes and thus he and his people would suffer seriously’.7 After thirteen days visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem the pilgrims departed for the coast but again were attacked by Bedouin before boarding ships to Byzantine territory. Only two thousand pilgrims out of the original number survived the journey and returned safely home.8

The experience of the German pilgrims was far from unusual. Muslim pirates operated against pilgrims at sea, either attacking them outright or exacting charges, bargains and gifts. Pilgrims were obliged to pay protection money, known as khafara, along the roads. Also the sensibilities and prejudices of Muslims had to be borne in mind: pilgrims could not enter mosques, they could not enter towns or cities except on foot, they could not dress in certain ways, they should not look at Muslim women, and they should not laugh or be merry lest the Muslims thought the Christians’ behaviour was directed at them. The oppressions borne by dhimmis were forced upon pilgrims too.

Pilgrimage depended on the Muslim authorities maintaining orderly conditions so that the unarmed and defenceless Christian traveller could move about and worship in safety, but the Muslim East was wracked by misgovernment, division, exploitation, fanaticism and aggression, which undermined that guarantee. And now after Manzikert the appearance of the Turks in Palestine made matters even worse.

While Turkish tribesmen were overrunning Asia Minor, other Turkish forces, led by Atsiz bin Uwaq, a freebooting warlord, were swarming over Syria and Palestine, adding to the already chaotic conditions existing there. They captured Ramla and put Jerusalem under siege in 1071, leaving the Fatimids clinging to the coast at Acre. Jerusalem fell in 1073, and when Acre was taken the following year, Fatimid control was reduced to Damascus, which Atsiz conquered in 1075. But when Atsiz carried the war into Egypt he was defeated at Cairo, and, falling back on Palestine, he was met with Muslim uprisings in Gaza, Ramla and Jerusalem, forcing him to retreat to Damascus.

The revolt against the Turks was a revolt against disruptive aliens who had imposed themselves on the Middle East. The Fatimids were alien too, their armies made up mostly of Berbers and Sudanese, but at least they spoke Arabic and employed Arabic-speakers, including the native Jews and Christians of Palestine, in their administration. But the Turks, to the extent that they were civilised at all, inclined towards Persian culture and looked down on the Arabs. If they spoke a language other than Turkish, it was more likely to be Persian than Arabic. The arrival of the Turks in Syria and Palestine marked the end of Arab domination there. Turkish chiefs dispossessed Arab landlords of their estates; Turkish nomads encroached on Bedouin pastures and hunting grounds; Turkish wars and Turkish administration dislocated trade; and everyone complained at the very heavy taxes imposed by the Turks on the entire population.

In 1077 Atsiz began his campaign to reconquer Palestine by attacking Jerusalem, destroying its surrounding vineyards and orchards as he placed it under siege a second time. On his promise of protection if they surrendered, the inhabitants opened the city gates; but reneging on his pledge, Atsiz led his soldiers on a rampage through the city, slaughtering three thousand of its Muslim population, including those who sought sanctuary in the Aqsa mosque atop the Temple Mount.9 The Christians, safe within their walled quarter of the city, escaped harm; the fate of Jerusalem’s Jews is less certain; but certainly numbers of both Jews and Christians abandoned Jerusalem, not daring to return, and together with fleeing Muslims they settled in coastal towns like Tyre.

Everywhere in Palestine, Atsiz punished the rebellions with a reign of terror, burning harvests, razing plantations, desecrating cemeteries, raping women and men alike, killing and maiming people – ‘they cut off the ears and even the noses are finished off’, reported an eyewitness.10 He annihilated Ramla and hastened on to Gaza, where he murdered the entire population. Damascus fared no better in the havoc; its population collapsed to three thousand due to the scarcity and starvation that followed in his wake. From al-Arish on the Egyptian border to Antioch in northern Syria the Turks continued the slaughter, taking people captive, pillaging their homes and setting them on fire, destroying monasteries and churches, and desolating entire villages and towns. Arab nomadic tribes were the allies of the Turks in this chaos and made a kind of living by kidnapping and looting. The Fatimids launched two campaigns against Atsiz in an effort to reclaim Palestine and Syria, but instead his end came at the hands of the Seljuk hierarchy itself when, in 1078, Atsiz was invited to Damascus for consultation with the brother of the Seljuk sultan, where he was arrested and put to death.

The Byzantines were all but helpless against the Seljuks. After Manzikert they lost their regained territories in Syria and, more importantly, lost the manpower and resources of Asia Minor, the richest part of the empire. Making matters worse, the new emperor was the incompetent Michael VII Ducas, who spent lavishly on luxuries while starving the army of money even as the empire was collapsing all about him. But finally, in 1074, with the Turks standing across the Bosphorus within sight of Constantinople, the emperor appealed to the West for aid. In doing so the Byzantines had to overcome their pride, not least in putting aside the Great Schism of 1054, that dramatic rupture between the Eastern and Western parts of the universal Church. A growing estrangement, accentuated by the use of Latin in the West and Greek in the East, had developed between the Churches, and when the Greek patriarch caused offence over matters of custom, rite and theological emphasis during delicate negotiations in Constantinople, the papal legate furiously threw down a bull of excommunication against the patriarch in the great church of Haghia Sophia and was excommunicated in turn. Nevertheless, no fundamental dogmas separated the two Churches, and the dispute remained something of which ordinary Christians in the East and West were largely unaware. But the Greek hierarchy in Constantinople, who counted the schism a great victory as it freed the patriarchate from having to acknowledge the traditional supremacy of the papacy at Rome, now had to endure the sight of Michael VII appealing to Pope Gregory VII for the very survival of their empire.

Gregory VII was heir in name, office and disposition to an earlier bishop of Rome, Pope Gregory I, who after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West had marshalled resistance against the barbarian invaders and in the process established the papacy as a temporal and military power. When Michael VII’s appeal reached Rome, it fell on ready ears, for not only was Gregory eager to heal the rift between the Churches but he also saw a role for the papacy in striking at the new barbarian invasions in the East. Gregory circulated a letter to leading figures throughout the West, explaining that he had just been visited by an emissary who ‘repeated what we had heard from many others, that a pagan race had overcome the Christians and with horrible cruelty had devastated everything almost to the walls of Constantinople, and were now governing the conquered lands with tyrannical violence, and that they had slain many thousands of Christians as if they were but sheep’. Gregory continued that it was not enough to grieve at the misfortunes of the Greek empire and of Christians in the East, but that ‘we should lay down our lives to liberate them’.11

Gregory’s concern with the oppression of fellow Christians had much to do with his hopes for reuniting the Church, which, like his call to help the faltering Byzantine Empire, was practical and strategic. For more than the East was at stake. Europe had slowly reconstructed itself after the disorders of the barbarian invasions in the West and after centuries of Muslim devastation round the Mediterranean; if Byzantium was overwhelmed by the Turks, then Europe would again be plunged into a dark age. Gregory sought to recruit knights to join a fighting force fifty thousand strong, the Militia Sancti Petri, the army of St Peter, which he would lead personally to relieve the East.

But this was not the moment when Gregory could call on the secular powers of Europe to march eastwards under his command, for within a year he became embroiled with many of those same secular authorities in the Investiture Controversy, over whether it was they or the Church who had the right to appoint high church officials and thereby control the great wealth and powers such officials could command. The Holy Roman emperors in particular, now represented by the incumbent Henry IV, claimed to rule by divine right, by which they justified exercising authority over Church appointments and sacraments, including penances and pardons. The reformers, led by Gregory, rejected lay interference in Church affairs, saying it led to severe abuses such as simony, the buying and selling of those same offices and sacraments, which they declared a heresy. But Gregory went further; not only did the Church have the right to appoint bishops, but also, he argued, spiritual authority was superior to temporal authority, and it was for the Church to dominate kings. But even this was only an aspect of a far greater revolution. Devout men and women who strongly felt the call to immerse themselves in the religious life had withdrawn from the world and had become monks and nuns within the growing Benedictine order. But for a century the Benedictines were swept with a great reform which redirected their spiritual energies outwards, transforming their monastic concern for liturgy and prayer into help for the poor, into artistic creation, into the sacralisation of everyday life. As society became increasingly pious, so every faithful Christian was a microcosm of the whole. As one of the reformers, the onetime Benedictine monk Cardinal Peter Damiani, remarked, ‘Each of the faithful seems to be, as it were, a lesser church’.12 Although the Investiture Controversy deflected Gregory from pursuing a military campaign in the East, his assertion of a unified and spiritualised world view under the authority of the papacy would dominate medieval Europe for the next two centuries and would provide an underpinning for the crusades.

Anxiety about Islam had long ago worked its way into Christian prophetic literature, which after the Bible and the works of the Church Fathers was the most influential body of writing circulating in Europe during the Middle Ages. Uncanonical, unorthodox and infinitely adaptable to the preoccupations of the moment, these concoctions followed a common theme derived from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation – that of the divine warrior who will come and save the world. An early candidate for this role was the Emperor Constantine, who had legalised Christianity and was then expected to bring about the Second Coming. Another was Charlemagne, who by the second half of the eleventh century was almost universally believed to have led a crusade to Jerusalem, where he reinstated the Christians whom the Muslims had driven out. In prophecy after prophecy the role of holy warrior passed from one emperor or king or prince to another while the story took on fantastical dimensions in relating the final triumph of Christianity.

One famous example that would reverberate throughout the Middle Ages was the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. Written in the seventh century, it was made to look as though it had been written in the fourth century as a prediction of the Muslim invasion of the Middle East, its author supposedly Bishop Methodius of Patara, who was martyred in 311 at Tyre in Lebanon during the Roman persecutions. Its original purpose was to console the Christians of Palestine and Syria for suffering under Muslim domination, but it was soon translated from Syriac into Greek and Latin and became known throughout the Christian world. It relates how the Ishmaelites – that is, the Arabs – emerge from the desert and ravage the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. The Christians are punished for their sins by being subjected for a time to the Ishmaelites, who kill Christian priests, desecrate the holy places, take the Christians’ land and force or seduce many Christians from their faith.

But just when all seems lost, a mighty emperor, whom many had thought long dead, rises up and defeats the Ishmaelites, lays waste their lands with fire and sword, and rages against those Christians who had denied Jesus as their lord. Now under this great emperor a golden age begins, a time of peace and joy, when the world flourishes as never before. This is shattered, however, when fearsome peoples known collectively as Gog and Magog, whom Alexander the Great had imprisoned in the far north, break out and bring universal terror and destruction until God sends a captain of the heavenly host who destroys them in a flash. The emperor journeys to Jerusalem, where he hands over Christendom to the care of God by going to Golgotha and placing his crown on the Cross, which soars up to heaven. But the emperor dies and the Antichrist appears, installing himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he inaugurates a reign of trials and tribulations, deceiving people with his miracles and persecuting those he cannot deceive. Before long, however, the Cross reappears in the heavens and Jesus Christ himself comes on clouds in power and glory to kill the Antichrist with the breath of his mouth and to carry out the Last Judgement.

In the event the story was reinforced by the reality. The persecutions of al-Hakim and the barbarities of the Seljuk Turks were all too real and gave an intensity and immediacy to the cosmic drama. The Last Days were not a fantasy about some remote and indefinite future but an infallible prophecy which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfilment. The lawless chaos experienced by Christians in the East and the threat of Turkish attack directed against Christians in the West could be seen as the expected prelude to the universal salvation of the Second Coming.

After the execution of Atsiz in 1078 Palestine was put under direct Seljuk rule, but conditions hardly improved. An atmosphere of the Last Days flourished amid the devastation and havoc caused by the endless wars between the Seljuks and the Fatimids, and there were rumours that the world would come to an end in 1092 or 1093. Jerusalem suffered from depopulation as Christians, Muslims and Jews continued to leave the city. Significantly, the Aqsa mosque, which had been damaged by an earthquake in 1033, was restored to only half its size, the original fourteen aisles reduced to seven, demonstrating a considerable fall in the Muslim population that was never made good. In 1086 a new and additional use was found for the Temple Mount; the Seljuks established their garrison there.

Yet throughout these unsettled times the pilgrim traffic never entirely ceased, although the journey was now far more difficult than it had been before. Asia Minor, which had offered secure passage when it was in Byzantine hands, could no longer be traversed without an armed escort owing to marauding Turkish tribesmen, and even then it was not safe. In Syria and Palestine pilgrims chanced brigands on the roads, and at small towns along the way petty headman tried to extort money from passers-by. Then, arriving at the holy city, there were more sufferings to endure, as described by Edward Gibbon:

        The pilgrims who, through innumerable perils, had reached the gates of Jerusalem were the victims of private rapine or public oppression, and often sunk under the pressure of famine and disease, before they were permitted to salute the holy sepulchre. A spirit of native barbarism, or recent zeal, prompted the Turkmans to insult the clergy of every sect: the patriarch was dragged by the hair along the pavement, and cast into a dungeon, to extort a ransom from the sympathy of his flock; and the divine worship in the church of the resurrection was often disturbed by the savage rudeness of its masters.13

The pilgrims who succeeded in overcoming all these harassments and dangers returned impoverished and weary to the West with tales to tell of the appalling conditions in the East. The consequences of such reports are set out by the Syrian Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Azimi, who gave an account of the very last pilgrimage we know about before the crusades. In 1093, al-Azimi wrote, Christian pilgrims, both Byzantines and ‘al-Franj’ as he called them – that is, Franks, a term that included anyone from Western Europe – were prevented by people living on the coast from going to Jerusalem, and ‘those who survived’ – implying there had been a massacre – spread the news of what had happened in their own countries. This, wrote al-Azimi, and he was the only Muslim chronicler to make such a connection, was why the Christians began their preparations for the campaign that was to become the First Crusade.14

Almost the last glimpse we have of Palestine before the crusades comes from Ibn al-Arabi, a young Islamic scholar from Seville, not yet twenty, who along with his father was forced to leave Andalusia when almost all of Muslim Spain was overrun by the Almoravids, puritanical fundamentalist Berbers whose aim was ‘a return to the doctrines of primitive Islam’.15 From 1093 to 1096 al-Arabi stayed at Jerusalem, mainly in the neighbourhood of the Temple Mount, where he remarked on the lively activities at the madrasas and conversed with Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious figures. The imposition of Shia beliefs and teachings under the Fatimids had meant something of a spiritual drought for Sunni Muslims and others, who found themselves pressed to the margins, but in the few years since the Seljuk re-occupation of the city in 1073 there was something of an effervescence. Jerusalem was an idyll for al-Arabi. ‘We entered the Holy Land’, he wrote, ‘and reached the Aqsa mosque. The full moon of knowledge shone for me and I was illuminated by it for more than three years.’ Yet al-Arabi could not ignore that, even four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city and that the same was true of Palestine generally.16 ‘The country is theirs’, al-Arabi observed about the Christians, ‘because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches.’17

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