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The Cannibals of MaÝarra

I know not whether my native land be a grazing ground for wild beasts or yet my home!

This cry of grief by an anonymous poet of MaÝarra was no mere figure of speech. Sadly, we must take his words literally, and ask with him: what monstrous thing came to pass in the Syrian city of MaÝarra late in that year of 1098?

Until the arrival of the Franj, the people of MaÝarra lived untroubled lives, shielded by their circular city walls. Their vineyards and their fields of olives and figs afforded them modest prosperity. The city’s affairs were administered by worthy local notables devoid of any great ambition, under the nominal suzerainty of RiÃwÁn of Aleppo. MaÝarra’s main claim to fame was that it was the home town of one of the great figures of Arab literature, Abu’l-ÝAlÁ’ al-MaÝarri, who had died in 1057. This blind poet, a free-thinker, had dared to attack the mores of his age, flouting its taboos. Indeed, it required a certain audacity to write lines like these:

The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts:
Those with brains, but no religion,
And those with religion, but no brains.

Forty years after his death, a fanaticism come from afar descended on this city and seemed to prove this son of MaÝarra right, not only in his irreligion, but also in his legendary pessimism:

Fate smashes us as though we were made of glass,
And never are our shards put together again.

His city was to be reduced to a heap of ruins, and the poet’s oft-expressed mistrust of his compatriots would find its cruellest vindication.

During the first few months of 1098 the inhabitants of MaÝarra uneasily followed the battle of Antioch, which was taking place three days’ march north-west of them. After their victory, the Franj raided several neighbouring villages, and although MaÝarra was spared, several of its families decided to abandon the town for more secure residences in Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. Their fears proved justified when, towards the end of November, thousands of Frankish warriors arrived and surrounded the city. Although some citizens managed to flee despite the siege, most were trapped. MaÝarra had no army, only an urban militia, which several hundred young men lacking any military experience hastily joined. For two weeks they courageously resisted the redoubtable knights, going so far as to hurl packed beehives down on the besiegers from the city walls.

To counter such tenacity, Ibn al-AthÐr wrote, the Franj constructed a wooden turret as high as the ramparts. Some Muslims, fearful and demoralized, felt that a more effective defence was to barricade themselves within the city’s tallest buildings. They therefore abandoned the walls, leaving the positions they had been holding undefended. Others followed their example, and another point of the surrounding wall was abandoned. Soon the entire perimeter of the town was without defenders. The Franj scaled the walls with ladders, and when the Muslims saw them atop the walls, they lost heart.

It was 11 December, a pitch-dark night, and the Franj did not yet dare to penetrate the town. The notables of MaÝarra made contact with Bohemond, the new master of Antioch, who was leading the attackers. The Frankish commander promised to spare the lives of the inhabitants if they would stop fighting and withdraw from certain buildings. Desperately placing their trust in his word, the families gathered in the houses and cellars of the city and waited all night in fear.

The Franj arrived at dawn. It was carnage. For three days they put people to the sword, killing more than a hundred thousand people and taking many prisoners. Ibn al-AthÐr’s figures are obviously fantastic, for the city’s population on the eve of its fall was probably less than ten thousand. But the horror lay less in the number of victims than in the barely imaginable fate that awaited them.

In MaÝarra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled. The inhabitants of towns and villages near MaÝarra would never read this confession by the Frankish chronicler Radulph of Caen, but they would never forget what they had seen and heard. The memory of these atrocities, preserved and transmitted by local poets and oral tradition, shaped an image of the Franj that would not easily fade. The chronicler UsÁmah Ibn Munqidh, born in the neighbouring city of Shayzar three years before these events, would one day write:

All those who were well-informed about the Franj saw them as beasts superior in courage and fighting ardour but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.

This unkind assessment accurately reflects the impression made by the Franj upon their arrival in Syria: they aroused a mixture of fear and contempt, quite understandable on the part of an Arab nation which, while far superior in culture, had lost all combative spirit. The Turks would never forget the cannibalism of the Occidentals. Throughout their epic literature, the Franj are invariably described as anthropophagi.

Was this view of the Franj unjust? Did the Western invaders devour the inhabitants of the martyred city simply in order to survive? Their commanders said so in an official letter to the pope the following year: A terrible famine racked the army in MaÝarra, and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens. But the explanation seems unconvincing, for the inhabitants of the MaÝarra region witnessed behaviour during that sinister winter that could not be accounted for by hunger. They saw, for example, fanatical Franj, the Tafurs, roam through the country-side openly proclaiming that they would chew the flesh of the Saracens and gathering around their nocturnal camp-fires to devour their prey. Were they cannibals out of necessity? Or out offanaticism? It all seems unreal, and yet the evidence is overwhelming, not only in the facts described, but also in the morbid atmosphere it reflects. In this respect, one sentence by the Frankish chronicler Albert of Aix, who took part in the battle of MaÝarra, remains unequalled in its horror: Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!

The ordeal of the city of Abu’l-ÝAlÁ’ ended only on 13 January 1099, when hundreds of torch-bearing Franj roamed through the alleyways setting every house alight. The city walls had already been demolished stone by stone.

The MaÝarra incident was to contribute to opening a chasm between the Arabs and the Franj that would not be bridged for centuries to come. For the moment, however, the populace was paralysed by terror and ceased to resist—unless forced to do so. When the invaders resumed their southward march, leaving nothing but smoking ruins in their wake, the Syrian emirs hastened to send them emissaries laden with gifts to assure them of their goodwill, and to offer them any assistance they might require.

The first to do this was Sultan Ibn Munqidh, the uncle of the chronicler UsÁmah, who ruled the small emirate of Shayzar. The Franj reached his territory very soon after their departure from MaÝarra. At their head was Raymond of Saint-Gilles, one of the commanders most frequently mentioned in the Arab chronicles. The emir dispatched an embassy to him, and an agreement was quickly concluded: not only would the sultan promise to supply the Franj with provisions, he would also authorize them to buy horses on the Shayzar market and would furnish them with guides to enable them to pass unhindered through the rest of Syria.

The entire region was now aware of the advance of the Franj; their itinerary was finally known. Did they not openly proclaim that their ultimate objective was Jerusalem, where they wanted to take possession of the tomb of Jesus? Everyone who lived along the route to the holy city sought to take precautions against the Frankish scourge. The poorest hid in neighbouring woods, haunted by big game: lions, wolves, bears, and hyenas. Those who had the means headed for the interior of the country. Others took refuge in the nearest fortress, as did the peasants of the rich plain of Bukaya during the first week of January 1099, when they were told that the Frankish troops were near. Gathering their cattle and their reserves of oil and grain, they climbed towards ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd, the Ýcitadel of the Kurds’, which, from the summit of an almost impregnable peak, overlooked the entire plain as far as the Mediterranean. Although the fortress had long ago fallen into disuse, its walls were intact, and the peasants hoped to find shelter there. But the Franj, ever short of provisions, laid siege. On 28 January their warriors began to scale the walls of ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd. Fearing that all was lost, the peasants Ãevised a stratagem. They threw open the doors of the citadel, allowing part of their herd to escape. The Franj, forgetting the battle, hurled themselves after the animals. So great was the chaos in their ranks that the emboldened defenders made a sortie and attacked the tent of Saint-Gilles, where the Frankish commander, abandoned by his bodyguards (who wanted their share of the cattle too), barely escaped capture.

The peasants felt more than a little satisfaction at their exploit. But they knew that the attackers would return to seek revenge. The next day, when Saint-Gilles ordered his men to assault the walls once more, they did not show themselves. The assailants wondered what new trick the peasants had come up with. In fact, it was the wisest trick of all: they had taken advantage of the darkness of night to slip away noiselessly. It was at the site of ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd, forty years later, that the Franj would construct one of their most formidable fortresses. The name would change but little: ÝAkrÁd’ was deformed first into ÝCrat’ and then into ÝCrac’. The Crac des Chevaliers, with its imposing silhouette, still dominates the plain of Bukaya today.

For several days in February 1099 the citadel became the general headquarters of the Franj. A disconcerting scene unfolded there. Delegations arrived from all the neighbouring cities, and even from several villages, leading mules carrying gold, cloth, and provisions. So complete was the political fragmentation of Syria that even the smallest hamlet acted as an independent emirate. Every town knew that in defending itself and dealing with the invaders it could rely only on its own forces. No prince, no notable, noqÁÃÐ, could indulge in the slightest gesture of resistance without placing his entire community in danger. Patriotic sentiments were thus held in abeyance, and the local potentates arrived, with forced smiles, to present their gifts and to pay homage. Kiss any arm you cannot break, a local proverb runs, and pray to God to break it.

It was this wisdom of resignation that dictated the conduct of the emir Janah al-Dawla, ruler of the city of Homs. This warrior, famous for his valour, had been the most faithful ally of the atabeg KarbÙqa only a scant seven months ago. Ibn al-AthÐr, in fact, notes that Janah al-Dawla was the last to flee at Antioch. But the time for bellicosity or religious zeal was long past, and the emir was particularly accommodating to Saint-Gilles, offering him, apart from the usual presents, a large number of horses, for as the ambassadors from Homs explained mawkishly, Janah al-Dawla had heard that the knights were short of mounts.

Of all the delegations that filed through the immense unfurnished rooms of ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd, the most generous came from Tripoli. Presenting one by one the splendid precious stones cut by the city’s Jewish artisans, Tripoli’s ambassadors welcomed the Franj in the name of the most respected prince of the Syrian coast, the qÁÃÐ JalÁl al-Mulk. He belonged to the family of the Banu ÝAmmÁr, which had made Tripoli the jewel of the Arab East. The Banu ÝAmmÁr were not one of those innumerable military clans that had carved out fiefdoms for themselves by sheer force of arms, but a dynasty of scholars; their founder was a magistrate, or qÁÃÐ, a title the sovereigns of the city had conserved ever since.

Thanks to the wisdom of the qÁÃÐs, at the time of the Franj advance Tripoli and its environs were enjoying an age of peace and prosperity that all their neighbours envied. The pride of the citizenry was the enormous DÁr al-ÝIlm, or ÝHouse of Culture’, which included a library of some one hundred thousand volumes, one of the largest collections of the era. The city was ringed with fields of olives, carobs, and sugar-cane, and many kinds of fruit had been amassed in the recent abundant harvests. Its port was the scene of bustling activity.

It was this very opulence that led to the city’s first problems with the invaders. In the message he sent to ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd, JalÁl al-Mulk invited Saint-Gilles to send a delegation to Tripoli to negotiate an alliance. This was an unpardonable error. The Frankish emissaries were amazed at the gardens, the palace, the port, and the gold-smiths’ souk—so much so that they paid no attention to the proposals of the qÁÃÐ. They were already dreaming of the rich spoils that would be theirs if they took this city. And it seems that once they had returned to their chief, they did their best to arouse his cupidity. JalÁl al-Mulk, who was naively awaiting Saint-Gilles’s response to his offer of an alliance, was more than a little surprised to discover that on 14 February the Franj had laid siege to ÝArqa, second-largest city of the principality of Tripoli. Although naturally disappointed, his stronger emotion was terror, for he was convinced that this operation by the invaders was only the first step to the conquest of his capital. How could he help remembering the fate of Antioch? JalÁl al-Mulk already saw himself in the shoes of the hapless Yaghi-SiyÁn, hurtling shamefully toward death or oblivion. In Tripoli, provisions were being stockpiled in preparation for a long siege. The inhabitants wondered anxiously how much time the invaders would spend at ÝArqa. Every passing day was an unexpected reprieve.

February slipped by, then March and April. In that year, as every spring, Tripoli was enveloped by the scent of orchards in blossom. The city seemed especially beautiful, for the news was comforting: the Franj had still not managed to take ÝArqa, whose defenders found this no less astonishing than did the besiegers. The town’s ramparts were no more solid than those of other, more important cities that the Franj had been able to seize. ÝArqa’s real strength was that from the very first moment of the battle its inhabitants were convinced that if a single breach in the walls were opened, they would all be slaughtered like their brothers in MaÝarra and Antioch. They kept watch day and night, repelling attacks and preventing the slightest infiltration. The invaders finally got tired of it all. The clamour of their disputes reached into the besieged city itself. On 13 May 1099 they finally struck camp and slid away, hanging their heads. After three months of exhausting struggle, the tenacity of the resistance had been rewarded. ÝArqa rejoiced.

The Franj began their southward march anew. They passed by Tripoli at a disquietingly leisurely pace. JalÁl al-Mulk, well aware of their irritation, hastened to send them his best wishes for the continuation of their journey. He was careful to accompany his good wishes with foodstuffs, gold, a few horses, and guides who would lead them along the narrow coastal route to Beirut. The Tripolitanian scouts were joined by many Christian Maronites from Mount Lebanon who, like the Muslim emirs, offered to cooperate with the Western warriors.

Without further attacks on the possessions of the Banu ÝAmmÁr, such as Jubayl (ancient Byblos), the invaders reached Nahr al-Kalb, the River of the Dog.

By crossing that river, they placed themselves in a state of war with the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt.

The strong man of Cairo, the powerful and corpulent vizier al-AfÃal ShÁhinshÁh, had not concealed his satisfaction when, in April 1097, emissaries from Alexius Comnenus had informed him that a massive contingent of Frankish knights had arrived in Constantinople and were about to launch an offensive in Asia Minor. Al-AfÃal, Ýthe Best’, a 35-year-old former slave who was the sole ruler of an Egyptian nation of seven million, had sent the emperor his best wishes for success and asked to be kept informed, as a friend, of the progress of the expedition.

Some say that when the masters of Egypt saw the expansion of the Seljuk empire, they took fright and asked the Franj to march on Syria and to establish a buffer between them and the Muslims. God alone knows the truth.

Ibn al-AthÐr’s singular explanation of the origin of the Frankish invasion says a great deal about the deep divisions in the Islamic world between the Sunnis, whose allegiance was to the Baghdad caliphate, and the ShiÝis, who recognized the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. The schism, which dates back to a conflict within the Prophet’s family during the seventh century, has always aroused bitter conflict among Muslims. Even men of state like Saladin considered the struggle against the ShiÝis as at least as important as the war against the Franj. ÝHeretics’ were regularly blamed for all the evils besetting Islam, and it is not surprising that the Frankish invasion itself should be attributed to their intrigues. Nevertheless, although the alleged Fatimid appeal to the Franj is pure fiction, the Cairene leaders’ elation at the arrival of the Western warriors was undoubtedly real. The vizier al-AfÃal warmly congratulated the basileus upon the fall of Nicaea, and three months before the invaders took Antioch, an Egyptian delegation bearing gifts visited the camp of the Franj to wish them a speedy victory and to propose an alliance with them. The ruler of Cairo, a soldier of Armenian origin, had no sympathy for the Turks, and in this his personal sentiments squared with the interests of Egypt. Since the middle of the century, Seljuk advances had been eroding the territory of the Fatimid caliphate and the Byzantine empire alike. While the RÙm watched as Antioch and Asia Minor escaped their control, the Egyptians lost Damascus and Jerusalem, which had belonged to them for a century. A firm friendship developed between al-AfÃal and Alexius, and between Cairo and Constantinople. There were regular consultations and exchanges of information; common projects were elaborated. Shortly before the arrival of the Franj, Alexius and al-AfÃal observed with satisfaction that the Seljuk empire was being undermined by internal quarrels. In Asia Minor, as in Syria, many small rival states had been established. Had the time come to take revenge against the Turks? Would the RÙm and the Egyptians now both recover their lost possessions? Al-AfÃal dreamed of a concerted operation by the two allied powers, and when he learned that the basileus had received a large reinforcement of troops from the lands of the Franj, he felt that revenge was at hand.

The delegation he dispatched to the besiegers of Antioch made no mention of a non-aggression pact. That much was obvious, thought the vizier. What he proposed to the Franj was a formal partition: northern Syria for the Franj; southern Syria (meaning Palestine, Damascus, and the coastal cities as far north as Beirut) for him. Al-AfÃal was careful to present his offer at the earliest possible date, before the Franj were certain that they would be able to take Antioch. He was convinced that they would accept with alacrity.

Their answer had been curiously evasive, however. They asked for explanations and the clarification of details, in particular as to the future of Jerusalem. Although they treated the Egyptian diplomats amicably, even offering to show them the severed heads of three hundred Turks killed near Antioch, they refused to conclude any agreement. Al-AfÃal did not understand. Was his proposal not realistic, even generous? Could it be that the RÙm and their auxiliaries seriously intended to take Jerusalem, as his envoys suspected? Could Alexius have lied to him?

The strong man of Cairo was still uncertain what policy to adopt when, in June 1098, he received the news of the fall of Antioch, followed three weeks later by that of KarbÙqa’s humiliating defeat. The vizier then decided to take immediate action in an effort to take friend and foe alike by surprise. In July, Ibn al-QalÁnisi reports, it was announced that the generalissimo al-AfÃal, emir of the armies, had left Egypt at the head of a powerful army and had laid siege to Jerusalem, where the emirs Sokman and Ilghazi, sons of Artuk, resided. He attacked the city and erected mangonels. The two Turkish brothers who administered Jerusalem had just arrived from the north, where they had participated in KarbÙqa’s ill-fated expedition. After a forty-day siege, the city capitulated. Al-AfÃal treated the two emirs generously, and set them and their entourage free.

For several months, events seemed to prove the master of Cairo right. It seemed as though the Franj, now facing an accomplished fact, had given up any idea of pressing ahead. The poets of the Fatimid court outdid themselves in composing eulogies of the famous exploit of the man of state who had wrenched Palestine from the Sunni Ýheretics’. But in January 1099, when the Franj relaunched their resolute march to the south, al-AfÃal became uneasy.

He dispatched one of his confidants to Constantinople to consult Alexius, who responded, in a celebrated letter, with a stunning confession: the basileus no longer exercised the slightest control over the Franj. Incredible as it might seem, these people were acting on their own account, seeking to establish their own states, refusing to hand Antioch back to the empire, contrary to their sworn promises. They seemed determined to take Jerusalem by any means. The pope had summoned them to a holy war to take possession of the tomb of Christ, and nothing could deter them from their objective. Alexius added that for his part, he disavowed their action and would strictly observe his alliance with Cairo.

Despite this latter assertion, al-AfÃal had the impression that he had been caught in a mortal trap. Being himself of Christian origin, he found it easy to understand that the Franj, whose faith was ardent and naive, might be determined to press their armed pilgrimage through to the end. He now regretted having thrown himself into this Palestinian adventure. Would it not have been better to let the Franj and the Turks fight for Jerusalem instead of having gratuitously interposed himself across the route of these knights, as courageous as they were fanatical?

Realizing that it would take him several months to raise an army capable of confronting the Franj, he wrote to Alexius, imploring him to do all he could to slow the march of the invaders. In April 1099, during the siege of ÝArqa, the basileus sent the Franj a message asking that they postpone their departure for Palestine, saying—and this was his pretext—that he would soon be arriving in person to join them. For his part, the ruler of Cairo sent the Franj fresh proposals for an agreement. In addition to the partition of Syria, he now explained his policy on the holy city: freedom of worship was to be strictly respected, pilgrims were to be granted the right to visit whenever they desired, so long, of course, as they were unarmed and travelled in small groups. The response of the Franj was scathing: ÝWe will go all of us to Jerusalem, in combat formation, our lances raised!’

It was a declaration of war. On 19 May 1099, matching word and deed, the invaders unhesitatingly crossed Nahr al-Kalb, the northern limit of the Fatimid domain.

But the River of the Dog was a largely fictitious border, for al-AfÃal had done no more than reinforce the garrison in Jerusalem, abandoning the Egyptian possessions of the littoral to their fate. All the coastal cities, virtually without exception, hastened to reach some accommodation with the invader.

The first was Beirut, four hours’ march from Nahr al-Kalb. Its inhabitants dispatched a delegation to the knights, promising to supply them with gold, provisions, and guides, if only they would respect the harvests of the surrounding plain. The Beirutis added that they would be prepared to recognize the authority of the Franj if they succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Saida, ancient Sidon, reacted differently. Its garrison effected several daring sorties against the invaders, who took their revenge by ravaging its orchards and pillaging nearby villages. That was to be the last act of resistance. The ports of Tyre and Acre, although they would have been easy to defend, followed the example of Beirut. In Palestine most towns and villages were evacuated by their inhabitants even before the Franj arrived. At no time did the invaders encounter any serious resistance, and on the morning of 7 June 1099 the inhabitants of Jerusalem saw them in the distance, on a hill, near the mosque of the prophet Samuel. They could almost hear the sounds of their march. By late afternoon the Franj were already camped at the walls of the city.

General IftikhÁr al-Dawla, ÝPride of the State’, who was commander of the Egyptian garrison, observed them with equanimity from atop the Tower of David. During the past several months he had made all the necessary arrangements to sustain a long siege. A section of the city walls damaged during al-AfÃal’s attack on the Turks the previous summer had been repaired. Enormous stocks of provisions had been amassed to avert any threat of shortages while waiting for the vizier, who had promised to arrive by the end of July to lift the siege. The general had even prudently followed the example of Yaghi-SiyÁn and expelled the Christian inhabitants liable to collaborate with their Frankish coreligionists. During these past few days, he had poisoned water sources and wells in the environs of the city, to prevent the enemy from tapping them. Life would not be easy for those besieging the city under the June sky in this mountainous and arid landscape, with olive trees scattered here and there.

IftikhÁr therefore felt that the battle would be joined in the best possible conditions. With his Arab cavalry and Sudanese archers solidly entrenched within the thick fortifications that crept up hills and dipped into ravines, he felt he would be able to hold the line. True enough, the Western knights were renowned for their bravery, but their behaviour before the walls of Jerusalem was somewhat disconcerting to an experienced officer. IftikhÁr had expected that as soon as they arrived, they would begin constructing mobile towers and the various other instruments of siege, digging trenches to protect themselves against sorties by the city garrison. Far from making such arrangements, however, they had begun by organizing a procession around the walls, led by bare-headed praying and chanting priests; they then threw themselves against the walls like madmen, without carrying even a single ladder. Al-AfÃal had told the general that these Franj wanted to seize the city for religious reasons, but such blind fanaticism nevertheless astonished him. He himself was a devoted Muslim, but if he was fighting in Palestine, it was to defend the interests of Egypt, and—why deny it—to advance his own military career.

He knew that this was a city unlike any other. IftikhÁr had always called it by its common name, ÏliyÁ’, but the ÝulamÁ’ (the doctors of Muslim law) dubbed it al-Quds, Bait al-Maqdis, or Bait al-Muqaddas—Ýsite of holiness’. They described it as the third holy city of Islam, after Mecca and Medina, for it was here that, one miraculous night, God led the Prophet to a meeting with Moses and Jesus, son of Mary. Since then, every Muslim had considered al-Quds the symbol of the continuity of the divine message. Many believers came to gather in al-AqÒÁ mosque, under the enormous sparkling dome that dominates the squat houses of the city.

Although heaven seemed present at every street corner in this town, IftikhÁr himself was quite down to earth. He believed that military techniques were always the same, whatever the city. These processions of singing Franj were irritating, but they did not worry him. It was only at the end of the second week of the siege that he began to feel uneasy, when the enemy enthusiastically set to work building two huge wooden towers. By the beginning of July they were already erect, ready to carry hundreds of fighters to the top of the ramparts. Their menacing silhouettes loomed ominously from the heart of the enemy camp.

IftikhÁr had issued the strictest orders: if either of these contraptions made the slightest move toward the walls, it was to be inundated in a flood of arrows. If the tower managed to draw near nevertheless, Greek fire would be used, a mixture of oil and sulphur that was poured into jugs, set alight, and hurled at the attackers by catapult. When it spattered, the liquid caused fires that were not easily extinguished. With this formidable weapon IftikhÁr’s soldiers repelled several successive assaults during the second week of July, even though the besiegers, in an effort to protect themselves from the flames, had lined their mobile towers with freshly flayed animal skins soaked in vinegar. In the meantime, rumours were rife that al-AfÃal’s arrival was imminent. The attackers, afraid of being trapped between the defenders and the arriving army, redoubled their efforts.

Of the two mobile towers constructed by the Franj, Ibn al-AthÐr writes, one was on the side of Zion, to the south, while the other was placed to the north. The Muslims managed to burn the first one, killing all those inside. But barely had they finished destroying it when a messenger arrived calling for help, for the city had been penetrated on the opposite side. In fact, it was taken from the north, one Friday morning, seven days before the end of ShaÝbÁn, in the year 492.

On that terrible day of July 1099, IftikhÁr was ensconced in the Tower of David, an octagonal citadel whose foundations had been welded with lead. It was the strongest point of the system of defensive fortifications. He could have held out for a few more days, but he knew that the battle was lost. The Jewish quarter had been invaded, the streets were strewn with bodies, and fighting was already raging alongside the great mosque. He and his men would soon be completely surrounded. Nevertheless, he continued to fight. What else could he do? By afternoon, fighting had practically ceased in the centre of the city. The white banner of the Fatimids now waved only over the Tower of David.

Suddenly the Frankish attack was halted and a messenger approached. He was carrying an offer from Saint-Gilles, who proposed that the Egyptian general and his men be allowed to leave the city alive if they would surrender the tower to him. IftikhÁr hesitated. The Franj had already broken their commitments more than once, and there was no indication that Saint-Gilles would now act in good faith. On the other hand, he was described as a white-haired sexagenarian respected by all, which suggested that his word could be trusted. In any event, IftikhÁr was sure that Saint-Gilles would eventually have to negotiate with the garrison, since his wooden tower had been destroyed and all his attacks repelled. Indeed, he had been dithering on the walls since morning, while his colleagues, the other Frankish commanders, were already plundering the city and arguing about who would get which houses. Carefully weighing the pros and cons, IftikhÁr finally announced that he was ready to yield, provided that Saint-Gilles would promise, on his honour, to guarantee his safety and that of all his men.

The Franj kept their word, Ibn al-AthÐr notes conscientiously, and let them depart by night for the port of Ascalon, where they camped. And then he adds: The population of the holy city was put to the sword, and the Franj spent a week massacring Muslims. They killed more than seventy thousand people in al-AqÒÁ mosque. Ibn al-QalÁnisi, who never reported figures he could not verify, says only: Many people were killed. The Jews had gathered in their synagogue and the Franj burned them alive. They also destroyed the monuments of saints and the tomb of Abraham, may peace be upon him!

Among the monuments sacked by the invaders was the mosque of ÝUmar, erected to the memory of the second successor of the Prophet, the caliph ÝUmar Ibn al-KhaÔÔÁb, who had taken Jerusalem from the RÙm in February 638. The Arabs would later frequently invoke this event, to highlight the difference between their conduct and that of the Franj. ÝUmar had entered Jerusalem astride his famous white camel, and the Greek patriarch of the holy city came forward to meet him. The caliph first assured him that the lives and property of the city’s inhabitants would be respected, and then asked the patriarch to take him to visit the Christian holy places. The time of Muslim prayer arrived while they were in the church of QiyÁma, the Holy Sepulchre, and ÝUmar asked his host if he could unroll his prayer mat. The patriarch invited ÝUmar to do so right where he stood but the caliph answered: ÝIf I do, the Muslims will want to appropriate this site, saying “ ÝUmar prayed here.” ’ Then, carrying his prayer mat, he went and knelt outside. He was right, for it was on that very spot that the mosque that bore his name was constructed. The Frankish commanders, alas, lacked ÝUmar’s magnanimity. They celebrated their triumph with an ineffable orgy of killing, and then savagely ravaged the city they claimed to venerate.

Not even their coreligionists were spared. One of the first measures taken by the Franj was to expel from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre all the priests of Oriental rites—Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Copts, and Syrians—who used to officiate jointly, in accordance with an old tradition respected by all previous conquerors. Dumbfounded by this degree of fanaticism, the dignitaries of the Oriental Christian communities decided to resist. They refused to tell the occupiers where they had hidden the True Cross, on which Christ died. In the minds of these men, religious devotion to the relic was compounded by patriotic pride. Indeed, were they not fellow citizens of the Nazarene? But the invaders were not impressed. They arrested the priests who had been entrusted with custody of the Cross and tortured them to make them reveal the secret. Thus did the Franj manage to forcibly deprive the Christians of the holy city wherein lay their most precious relics.

While the Occidentals were completing the massacre of a few hidden survivors and laying their hands on the riches of Jerusalem, the army raised by al-AfÃal was advancing slowly across Sinai. It reached Palestine twenty days after the tragedy. The vizier, who was personally in command, hesitated to march on the holy city directly. Although he had nearly thirty thousand men, he did not consider his position strong, for he lacked the matériel for a siege and was frightened by the determination shown by the Frankish knights. He therefore decided to camp with his troops in the environs of Ascalon and to dispatch an embassy to Jerusalem to sound out the enemy’s intentions. When they reached the occupied city, the Egyptian emissaries were led to a knight with long hair and a blond beard, a big man who was introduced to them as Godfrey of Bouillon, the new master of Jerusalem. It was to him that they delivered the vizier’s message, which accused the Franj of having abused his good faith and proposed to negotiate some arrangement with them if they would promise to leave Palestine. The Occidentals’ response was to assemble their forces and set out without delay on the route to Ascalon.

So rapid was their advance that they arrived near the Muslim camp before the scouts had even reported their presence. With the very first engagement, the Egyptian army gave way and fell back toward the port of Ascalon, Ibn al-QalÁnisi relates. Al-AfÃal also withdrew. The sabres of the Franj triumphed over the Muslims. Neither foot-soldiers, nor volunteers, nor the people of the city were spared in the killing. About ten thousand souls perished, and the camp was sacked.

It was probably several days after the Egyptian debacle that the group of refugees led by AbÙ ÑaÝad al-Íarawi reached Baghdad. The qÁÃÐ of Damascus was not yet aware that the Franj had just won another victory, but he knew that the invaders were now masters of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa, that they had beaten Kilij Arslan and Danishmend, that they had crossed all of Syria from north to south, massacring and pillaging at will and with impunity. He felt that his people and his faith had been scorned and humiliated, and he meant to raise such a great cry that the Muslims would finally awake. He would shake his brothers out of their torpor, provoke them, scandalize them.

On Friday 19 August 1099 he led his companions into the great mosque of Baghdad. In the afternoon, as the faithful were converging from all over the city to pray, he began eating ostentatiously, although it was RamaÃÁn, the month of obligatory fasting. Within a few moments an angry crowd pressed around him, and soldiers approached to arrest him. But al-Íarawi then rose and calmly asked those surrounding him how it was that they could feel so indignant at the violation of the fast whereas the massacre of thousands of Muslims and the destruction of the holy places of Islam met with their complete indifference. Having thus silenced the crowd, he proceeded to describe in detail the evils that had over-whelmed Syria, BilÁd al-Sham, and especially those that had just befallen Jerusalem. The refugees wept, and they made others weep, Ibn al-AthÐr writes.

Leaving the street, al-Íarawi carried the scandal into the palaces. ÝI see that the supporters of the faith are weak!’ he cried out in the dÐwÁn of the prince of the faithful al-MustaÛhir BillÁh, a young, 22-year-old caliph. Light-skinned, with a short beard and round face, he was a jolly and easy-going sovereign, his outbursts of anger brief and his threats rarely carried out. At a time when cruelty seemed the prime attribute of leaders, this young Arab caliph boasted that he had never wronged anyone. He felt genuine joy when he was told that the people were content, Ibn al-AthÐr candidly noted. Sensitive, refined, and of agreeable bearing, al-MustaÛhir had a taste for the arts. He was especially interested in architecture, and personally supervised the construction of a wall ringing the entire quarter of his residence, the ÍÁrim, situated east of Baghdad. In his ample spare time, he composed love poems: When I stretch out my hand to bid my beloved adieu, the ardour of my passion melts ice.

Unfortunately for his subjects, this man of good will, to whom any act of tyranny was alien (as al-QalÁnisi described him), had no real power, although he was constantly surrounded by complex ceremonies of veneration and the chroniclers evoke his name with deference. The refugees of Jerusalem, who placed their hopes in him, seem to have forgotten that his authority extended no further than the walls of his own palace and that in any case politics bored him.

Nevertheless, he was the legatee of a glorious history. From 632 to 833, across the two centuries that followed the death of the Prophet, his predecessors the caliphs were the spiritual and temporal commanders of a vast empire which, at its apogee, stretched from the Indus River in the east to the Pyrenees in the west and even thrust towards the Rhône and Loire valleys. The ÝAbbasid dynasty, to which al-MustaÛhir belonged, had made Baghdad the fabulous city of the Thousand and One Nights. At the beginning of the ninth century, during the reign of his ancestor HÁrÙn al-RashÐd, the caliphate had been the world’s richest and most powerful state, its capital the centre of the planet’s most advanced civilization. It had a thousand physicians, an enormous free hospital, a regular postal service, several banks (some of which had branches as far afield as China), an excellent water-supply system, a comprehensive sewage system, and a paper mill. Indeed, it was in Syria that the Occidentals, who until their arrival in the Orient used only parchment, learned the art of manufacturing paper from straw.

But in that blood-stained summer of 1099, when al-Íarawi came to tell the dÐwÁn of al-MustaÛhir about the fall of Jerusalem, this golden age was long gone. HÁrÙn al-RashÐd had died in 809. A quarter of a century later, his successors had lost all real power, Baghdad was half destroyed, and the empire had disintegrated. All that remained was the myth of an era of unity, grandeur, and prosperity that would haunt the dreams of the Arabs for ever. Although the ÝAbbasids were to rule in name for another four centuries, they no longer actually governed. They were no more than hostages in the hands of their Turkish or Persian soldiers, who were able to make or break sovereigns at will, often resorting to murder in the process. To escape that fate, most of the caliphs renounced any political activity. Cloistered in their harems, they devoted themselves exclusively to the pleasures of existence, becoming poets or musicians and collecting graceful perfumed female slaves.

The prince of the faithful, who had long embodied the glory of the Arabs, now became the living symbol of their decay. Al-MustaÛhir, from whom the Jerusalem refugees expected a miracle, was the very epitome of this race of idle caliphs. Even had he wanted to, he would have been incapable of going to the aid of the holy city, for his only army was a personal guard of several hundred eunuchs, both black and white. Not that there was any lack of soldiers in Baghdad. Thousands of them roamed the streets aimlessly, often drunk. To protect themselves against the consequent depredations, the citizens had taken to blocking access to the residential quarters every night, erecting heavy barriers of wood or iron.

Of course, this pestilence in uniform, whose systematic plunder had condemned the souks to ruin, did not obey the orders of al-MustaÛhir. In fact, their commander barely spoke Arabic. For Baghdad, like all the cities of Muslim Asia, had fallen under the yoke of the Seljuk Turks forty years earlier. The strong man of the ÝAbbasid capital, the young sultan Barkiyaruq, a cousin of Kilij Arslan, was theoretically the suzerain of all the princes of the region. In reality, however, each province of the Seljuk empire was practically independent, and the members of the ruling family were wholly absorbed in their own dynastic quarrels.

In September 1099, when al-Íarawi left the ÝAbbasid capital, he had been unable even to meet Barkiyaruq, for the sultan was away in northern Persia, waging a campaign against his own brother MuÎammad. The struggle was going badly for Barkiyaruq, for in the middle of October MuÎammad managed to take Baghdad itself. But that did not bring this absurd conflict to an end. As the bemused Arabs watched, having given up any attempt to understand, the struggle took a decidedly burlesque turn. In January 1100 MuÎammad fled Baghdad in haste, and Barkiyaruq re-entered the city in triumph. But not for long, for in spring he lost it yet again, only to return in force in April 1101, after an absence of one year, to crush his brother. Once more his name was pronounced in the Friday sermon in the mosques of the capital, but in September the situation was again reversed. Defeated by a coalition of two of his brothers, Barkiyaruq seemed out of the battle for good. But no. Despite his defeat, he returned obstinately to Baghdad and took possession of it for several days, before being evicted once again in October. This absence, too, was brief, for in December an agreement restored the city to his authority. Control of Baghdad had changed hands eight times in thirty months: on average, the city had known a new master every hundred days. This while the Western invaders were consolidating their grip on the conquered territories.

The sultans did not agree among themselves, Ibn al-AthÐr wrote in a masterpiece of understatement, and it was for this reason that the Franj were able to seize control of the country.

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