Every time the Franj took one fortress, they would attack another. Their power mounted relentlessly until they occupied all of Syria and exiled the Muslims of that country.
FAKHR AL-MULK IBN ÝAMMÀR
Ruler of Tripoli
After so many successive defeats, such great disappointment and humiliation, three pieces of unexpected news that reached Damascus in the summer of 1100 aroused considerable hope, not only among the religious militants now grouped around the qÁÃÐ al-Íarawi, but also in the souks. Here, under the arcades of Law Street, seated in the shadows of the creeping vines, the merchants of raw silk, gilded brocades, damask linen, and inlaid furniture passed the word from one booth to the next, over the heads of passers-by, excitedly hailing the coming of an auspicious day.
The first rumour, at the beginning of July, was soon confirmed: old Saint-Gilles, who had never concealed his designs on Tripoli, Homs, and all of central Syria, had suddenly left for Constantinople after a dispute with the other Frankish commanders. The word was that he would never return.
A second piece of news, even more extraordinary, came at the end of July. In a matter of moments it spread from mosque to mosque, alleyway to alleyway. While he was besieging the city of Acre, Godfrey, ruler of Jerusalem, was struck by an arrow, which killed him, Ibn al-QalÁnisi relates. There was also talk that poisoned fruit had been offered to the Frankish chief by a Palestinian notable. Some believed that he had died a natural death in an epidemic. But it was the version reported by the Damascene chronicler that found favour with the public: Godfrey was believed to have fallen under the blows of the defenders of Acre. Did not such a victory, coming a year after the fall of Jerusalem, suggest that the tide was beginning to turn?
This impression seemed confirmed a few days later when it was learned that Bohemond, the most formidable of the Franj, had just been captured. It was Danishmend Ýthe Wise’ who had bested him. Just as he had done three years earlier before the battle of Nicaea, the Turkish chief had encircled the Armenian city of MalaÔya. Upon hearing the news, says Ibn al-QalÁnisi, Bohemond, king of the Franj and ruler of Antioch, assembled his men and marched out against the Muslim army. A reckless undertaking it was too, for to reach the besieged city the Frankish commander had to ride for a week through mountainous countryside firmly in the hands of the Turks. Informed of his approach, Danishmend laid an ambush. Bohemond and the five hundred knights accompanying him were met with a barrage of arrows that rained down upon them in a pathway so narrow that they could not form up into ranks. God granted victory to the Muslims, who killed a great number of Franj. Bohemond and several of his companions were captured. They were led in chains to Niksar, in northern Anatolia.
The successive elimination of Saint-Gilles, Godfrey, and Bohemond, the three principal architects of the Frankish invasion, seemed to everyone a sign from heaven. Those who had been amazed by the apparent invincibility of the Occidentals took heart. Was it not the moment to deal them a decisive blow? One man, in any event, longed to do so, and that was DuqÁq.
Let there be no mistake: the young king of Damascus was no zealous defender of Islam. Had he not amply demonstrated, during the battle of Antioch, that he was prepared to betray his own people to further his local ambitions? Moreover, it was not until the spring of 1100 that the Seljuk suddenly found it necessary to wage a holy war against the infidels. One of his vassals, a bedouin chief from the Golan Heights, had complained of repeated incursions by Franj from Jerusalem, who were pillaging harvests and pilfering livestock, and DuqÁq decided to intimidate them. One day in May, as Godfrey and his right-hand man Tancred, a nephew of Bohemond, were returning with their men from a particularly fruitful raid, they were attacked by the army of Damascus. Weighed down by their booty, the Franj were unable to fight back. Instead they fled, leaving several dead behind. Tancred himself barely escaped.
In revenge, he organized a reprisal raid on the outskirts of the Syrian metropolis itself. Orchards were devastated, villages plundered and burned. Taken unawares by the scope and rapidity of the riposte, DuqÁq did not dare intervene. With his customary versatility, and now bitterly regretting his Golan operation, he even proposed to pay Tancred a tidy sum if he would agree to withdraw his men. This offer only hardened the determination of the Frankish prince. Believing, quite logically, that the king was now at bay, he sent him a six-man delegation, which called upon him to convert to Christianity or hand over Damascus. Nothing less. Offended by the arrogance of this demand, the Seijuk ordered the arrest of the emissaries. Spluttering with rage, he in turn enjoined them to embrace Islam. One of them agreed. The other five were immediately beheaded.
As soon as he heard the news, Godfrey rushed to join Tancred. With all the men at their command, they threw themselves into ten days of systematic destruction of the environs of the Syrian metropolis. The rich plain of GhÙÔa, which rings Damascus as a halo rings the moon, as Ibn Jubayr put it, became a scene of desolation. DuqÁq did not budge. Barricaded in his palace in Damascus, he waited for the storm to pass—especially since his Golan vassal had now rejected his suzerainty and would henceforth pay his annual tribute to the masters of Jerusalem. Even more serious, the people of the Syrian metropolis were beginning to complain about their leaders’ inability to protect the city. They grumbled about all the Turkish soldiers who strutted like peacocks through the souks but disappeared the moment an enemy appeared at the city gates. DuqÁq now had a single obsession: he wanted revenge, and as quickly as possible, if only to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his own subjects.
In these circumstances, one may well imagine the Seljuk’s immense joy at hearing of the death of Godfrey, although three months earlier he would hardly have cared less. The capture of Bohemond just a few days later emboldened him to undertake some spectacular action.
His opportunity came in October. When Godfrey was killed, writes Ibn al-QalÁnisi, his brother Count Baldwin, master of Edessa, set out for Jerusalem with five hundred knights and foot-soldiers. At the news of his passage, DuqÁq assembled his troops and marched out against him. He met him near the coastal locality of Beirut. Baldwin was visibly striving to succeed Godfrey. He was a knight known for his brutality and lack of scruples, as the murder of his Ýadoptive parents’ in Edessa had shown. But he was also a courageous and crafty warrior whose presence in Jerusalem would constitute a permanent threat to Damascus and indeed to all of Muslim Syria. To kill or capture him at this critical moment would leave the invading army leaderless and challenge the very presence of the Franj in the Orient. If the date of the attack was well chosen, the site was no less ideal.
Baldwin was moving down from the north, along the Mediterranean coast, and was expected to reach Beirut around 24 October. Before that, he would have to cross Nahr al-Kalb, the old Fatimid frontier. Near the mouth of the River of the Dog the route narrowed, skirting cliffs and steep hills. An ideal spot for an ambush, it was here that DuqÁq had decided to wait for the Franj, deploying his men in the grottoes and wooded slopes. His scouts supplied regular reports of the enemy’s advance.
Nahr al-Kalb had been the bane of conquerors since remote antiquity. Whenever one of them managed to get through the pass unscathed, his pride would be such that he would chisel an account of his exploit into the walls of the cliff. Vestiges of several of these boasts could still be admired back in DuqÁq’s time, from the hieroglyphs of the Pharaoh Ramses II and cuneiform characters of the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar to the Latin eulogies that Septimius Severus, the Roman emperor of Syrian origin, had addressed to his valiant Gallic legionnaires. But apart from the handful of victors, how many warriors had seen their dreams shattered without trace on these rocks! The king of Damascus had no doubt whatever that Ýthe accursed Baldwin’ would soon be added to that cohort of the vanquished. DuqÁq had every reason for optimism. His troops outnumbered those of the Frankish commander by six or seven to one, and most important of all, the element of surprise was on his side. He would not only avenge the affront he had suffered, but would resume his pre-eminent place among the princes of Syria. Once again he would exercise the authority that had been undermined by the irruption of the Franj.
No one was more aware of the stakes of the battle than the new ruler of Tripoli, the qÁÃÐ Fakhr al-Mulk, who had succeeded his brother JalÁl al-Mulk one year earlier. He had more than one reason to fear Baldwin’s defeat, for the ruler of Damascus had coveted his city even before the arrival of the Occidentals, and if DuqÁq was able to portray himself as the champion of Islam and the liberator of Syrian land, it would then be necessary to recognize his suzerainty and submit to his whims.
Fakhr al-Mulk was bothered by no scruples in seeking to avert this. When he learned that Baldwin was approaching Tripoli on his way to Beirut and then Jerusalem, he had wine, honey, bread, and meat sent to him, as well as lavish gifts of gold and silver. He also dispatched a messenger who insisted on seeing Baldwin in private and informed him of the ambush planned by DuqÁq. He provided him with much detailed information about the disposition of the Damascene troops and offered him advice as to the best tactics for countering the ambush. The Frankish chief thanked the qÁÃÐ for his collaboration, as precious as it was unexpected, and then set out again for Nahr al-Kalb.
The unsuspecting DuqÁq was preparing to swoop down upon the Franj as soon as they had entered the narrow coastal strip that his archers were keeping in their sights. In fact, the Franj made their appearance on the side adjacent to the town of JÙnÐya and advanced with apparent nonchalance. A few more steps and they would be caught in the trap. But suddenly they halted, and then slowly began to retreat. Nothing had yet been decided, but DuqÁq was disconcerted when he saw the enemy avoid his trap. Harassed by his emirs, he finally ordered his archers to unleash a few salvoes of arrows, but without daring to send his cavalry against the Franj. As night fell, the morale of the Muslim troops sank. Arabs and Turks hurled mutual accusations of cowardice and scuffles broke out. The next morning, after a brief confrontation, the Damascene troops withdrew to the Lebanese mountains, while the Franj calmly continued on their way to Palestine.
The qÁÃÐ of Tripoli had deliberately decided to save Baldwin, believing that the main threat to his city came from DuqÁq, who had himself acted in just this way against KarbÙqa two years before. At the decisive moment, each of them felt that the Frankish presence was the lesser evil. But the evil was to spread swiftly. Three weeks after the abortive ambush of Nahr al-Kalb, Baldwin proclaimed himself king of Jerusalem and initiated a programme of organization and conquest designed to consolidate the gains of the invasion. Nearly a century later, when Ibn al-AthÐr tried to comprehend what had induced the Franj to come to the East, he attributed the initiative to King Baldwin, Ýal-BardawÐl’, whom he considered a sort of commander of the Occident. He was not far wrong, for although this knight was only one of the many leaders responsible for the invasion, the Mosul historian was correct in calling him the principal architect of the occupation. Given the incorrigible fragmentation of the Arab world, the Frankish states—with their determination, warlike qualities, and relative solidarity—appeared as a genuine regional power.
The Muslims nevertheless still held a powerful trump card: the extreme numerical weakness of their enemies. Most of the Franj had headed back to their own countries after the fall of Jerusalem. When he acceded to the throne, Baldwin could count on no more than several hundred knights. This apparent weakness was eliminated, however, when it was learned in the spring of 1101 that new Frankish armies far more numerous than any of those yet seen were being assembled in Constantinople.
The first to become alarmed were Kilij Arslan and Danishmend, who had not forgotten the previous passage of the Franj through Asia Minor. They immediately decided to unite their forces in an attempt to bar the route of the new invasion. The Turks no longer dared to venture into the vicinity of Nicaea and Dorylaeum, now firmly in the hands of the RÙm. They preferred to attempt a new ambush much further away, in south-eastern Anatolia. Kilij Arslan, who had gained in age and experience, had all the water sources poisoned along the route that had been taken by the previous expedition.
In May 1101 the sultan learned that nearly a hundred thousand men had crossed the Bosporus under the command of Saint-Gilles, who had been living in Byzantium for the past year. He tried to follow their movements step by step in order to decide when to surprise them. Their first port of call was thought to be Nicaea. But curiously, the scouts posted near the sultan’s former capital saw no sign of their arrival. No news about them was heard from the Sea of Marmara, nor even from Constantinople. Kilij Arslan got word of them only at the end of June, when they suddenly appeared before the walls of another of his cities, Ankara, in the middle of Anatolia, right in Turkish territory, a place where no one had ever expected an attack. The Franj took the city even before Kilij Arslan could arrive. Kilij Arslan felt that he had been transported four years back in time, to the fall of Nicaea. But this was not the time for lamentation, for the Occidentals were now threatening the very heart of his domain. He decided to lay an ambush for them as soon as they left Ankara to resume their march south. This turned out to be a further mistake. Turning their backs on Syria, the invaders resolutely headed north-east, toward Niksar, the powerful citadel in which Danishmend was holding Bohemond. So that was it! The Franj were trying to rescue the former ruler of Antioch!
With disbelief, the sultan and his allies began to understand the curious itinerary of the invaders. In one sense they felt reassured, for they could now choose the site of the ambush. They settled on the village of Merzifun, which the Occidentals, stupefied by the leaden sun, reached early in August. Their army was hardly impressive. A few hundred knights advanced heavily, weighed down by their burning armour; behind them came a motley crowd including more women and children than genuine fighters. The Franj gave way as soon as the first wave of Turkish cavalry swooped down. It was not a battle, but a slaughter, which continued the entire day. As night fell, Saint-Gilles fled with his aides, without even informing the bulk of the army. The survivors were finished off the next day. Thousands of young women were captured and would stock the harems of Asia.
Barely was the Merzifun massacre over when messengers arrived to warn Kilij Arslan: a fresh Frankish expedition was already advancing through Asia Minor. This time there was nothing unusual about their itinerary. The warriors of the cross had taken the southern route, and not until they had been on the road for several days did they realize their mistake. At the end of August, when the sultan arrived with his cavalry, the Franj were racked by thirst, already in their death agony. They were decimated without offering any resistance.
It was not over yet. Just one week later, a third Frankish expedition followed the second, along the same route. Knights, foot-soldiers, women, and children arrived, in a state of almost complete dehydration, near the city of Heraclea. When they glimpsed a glistening body of water, they hurled themselves toward it in complete disarray. Kilij Arslan was waiting for them on the banks.
The Franj never fully recovered from this triple massacre. Given their expansionist objectives during these decisive years, such a large number of new arrivals, whether combatants or not, would likely have enabled them to colonize the entire Arab East before the region had time to pull itself together. Yet it was precisely the shortage of men caused by their losses that was responsible for the most lasting and spectacular achievement of the Franj in Arab lands: the construction of fortresses. To mitigate their numerical weakness they built fortresses which were so well protected that a handful of defenders could hold off a multitude of attackers. Despite the handicap of numbers, however, for many years the Franj commanded a weapon even more formidable than their fortresses, and that was the torpor of the Arab world. There is no better illustration of this state of affairs than Ibn al-AthÐr’s description of the extraordinary battle that unfolded before Tripoli at the beginning of April 1102.
Saint-Gilles, may God curse his name, returned to Syria after having been crushed by Kilij Arslan. He had only three hundred men left. Fakhr al-Mulk, the lord of Tripoli, sent word to King DuqÁq and to the governor of Homs: ÝNow is the time to finish off Saint-Gilles for ever, for he has so few troops!’ DuqÁq dispatched two thousand men, and the governor of Homs came in person. The troops of Tripoli joined them before the gates of the city, and together they marched into battle against Saint-Gilles. The latter threw a hundred of his soldiers against the Tripolitanians, a hundred against the Damascenes, and fifty against the troops of Homs; he kept fifty behind with him. At the mere sight of the enemy, the troops of Homs fled, and the Damascenes soon followed. Only the Tripolitanians held their ground, and when he saw this, Saint-Gilles attacked them with his two hundred other soldiers, defeating them and killing seven thousand of them.
Three hundred Franj triumphing over several thousand Muslims? But the unlikely account of the Arab historian seems to match the facts. The most probable explanation is that DuqÁq wanted to make the qÁÃÐ of Tripoli pay for the attitude he had taken during the Nahr al-Kalb ambush. At that time, Fakhr al-Mulk’s betrayal had prevented the elimination of the founder of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The revenge of the king of Damascus was to permit the creation of a fourth Frankish state: the county of Tripoli.
Six weeks after this humiliating defeat came a fresh demonstration of the negligence of the region’s leaders, who despite their numerical superiority proved incapable of taking advantage of victory even on the occasions when they triumphed.
The scene unfolded in May 1102. An Egyptian army of nearly twenty thousand men, commanded by Sharaf, son of the vizier al-AfÃal, arrived in Palestine and managed to take Baldwin’s troops by surprise in Ramlah, near the port of Jaffa. The king himself barely avoided capture by hiding flat on his stomach among the reeds. Most of his knights were killed or captured. The Cairene army could perfectly well have retaken Jerusalem that same day, for as Ibn al-AthÐr would later note, the town was undefended and the Frankish king in flight.
Some of Sharaf’s men said to him: ÝLet us take the holy city!’ Others said: ÝLet us instead take Jaffa!’ Sharaf could not make up his mind. While he hesitated, the Franj received reinforcements by sea, and Sharaf had to return to his father’s home in Egypt.
Realizing that he had come within a hair’s breadth of victory, the ruler of Cairo decided to launch a fresh offensive the following year, and another the year after that. But some unforeseen event robbed him of victory at each attempt. On one occasion the Egyptian fleet fell out with the land army. On another, the commander of the expedition was accidentally killed, and his death sowed disarray among the troops. He was a courageous general, but very superstitious, Ibn al-AthÐr tells us. It had been predicted that he would die as the result of a fall from his horse, and when he was named governor of Beirut, he ordered all paving-stones removed from the streets, for fear that his mount might stumble. But prudence is no protection against fate. During the battle, his horse reared without having been attacked, and the general fell dead among his troops.
Bad luck, want of imagination, lack of courage: every one of al-AfÃal’s successive expeditions ended unhappily. In the meantime, the Franj were steadily continuing their conquest of Palestine.
In May 1104, after taking Haifa and Jaffa, they attacked the port of Acre, whose well-protected natural harbour made it the only place where ships could moor winter and summer alike. Despairing of receiving any assistance, the Egyptian king asked that his life and those of the people of the city be saved, writes Ibn al-QalÁnisi. Baldwin promised that they would not be harmed. But the moment the Muslims exited from the city carrying their property, the Franj attacked, plundering them and killing many. Al-AfÃal swore that he would redress this new humiliation. He sent powerful armies against the Franj year after year, but each one met with some fresh disaster. The lost opportunity of Ramlah in May 1102 was never again on offer.
The negligence of the Muslim emirs also saved the Franj from annihilation in the north. The principality that Bohemond had founded in Antioch remained leaderless (and practically without an army) for seven months after his capture in August 1100, but none of the neighbouring monarchs—neither RiÃwÁn, nor Kilij Arslan, nor Danishmend—dreamed of taking advantage of the situation. They allowed the Franj the time to select a new regent for Antioch, Bohemond’s nephew Tancred as it happened. He took possession of his fiefdom in March 1102, and in an effort to assert his presence, set to ravaging the environs of Aleppo as he had those of Damascus the year before. RiÃwÁn’s reaction was even more cowardly than that of his brother DuqÁq. He sent word to Tancred that he was prepared to satisfy his every whim if he would only leave him in peace. More arrogant than ever, the Franj demanded that an enormous cross be placed on the minaret of the great mosque at Aleppo. RiÃwÁn did so. It was a humiliation which, as we shall see, was not without sequel.
In the spring of 1103 Danishmend, who was by no means unaware of Bohemond’s ambitions, nevertheless decided to release him without any political recompense. ÝHe demanded of him a ransom of a hundred thousand dinars and the release of the daughter of Yaghi-SiyÁn, the former master of Antioch, who was then being held captive.’ Ibn al-AthÐr was scandalized.
Once out of prison, Bohemond returned to Antioch. His people took heart, and before long he had recovered the ransom from the people of the neighbouring towns. Thus did the Muslims suffer such harm as caused them to forget the boon of the capture of Bohemond.
After thus Ýreimbursing’ himself at the expense of the local population, the Frankish prince set about enlarging his domain. In the spring of 1104 a joint operation by the Franj of Antioch and Edessa was launched against the stronghold of ÍarrÁn, which overlooks the vast plain stretching to the edge of the Euphrates and in practice controls communications between Iraq and northern Syria.
The city itself was of no great interest. Ibn Jubayr, who visited it several years after these events, described it in particularly depressing terms.
Water is never cool in ÍarrÁn; intense heat, like a furnace, scorches its territory relentlessly. Here one finds no shaded corner for a siesta; one breathes in oppressive gasps. ÍarrÁn gives the impression of having been abandoned on the bare plain. It lacks the brilliance of a city, and no trace of elegance adorns its environs.
Its strategic value was considerable, however. If the Franj took ÍarrÁn, they would be able to advance towards Mosul and even Baghdad itself. In the short run, its fall would mean the encirclement of the Kingdom of Aleppo. Admittedly, these were ambitious objectives, but the invaders did not lack daring—especially since the divisions of the Arab world encouraged their undertakings. The murderous struggle between the two enemy brothers Barkiyaruq and MuÎammad was once more in full swing, Baghdad passing from one Seljuk sultan to the other. In Mosul the atabeg KarbÙqa had just died, and his successor, the Turkish emir Jekermish, had not yet managed to assert his authority.
The situation was chaotic in ÍarrÁn itself. The governor had been assassinated by one of his officers during a bout of heavy drinking, and the city was mired in blood and fire. It was then that the Franj marched on ÍarrÁn, Ibn al-AthÐr explains. When Jekermish, the new ruler of Mosul, and his neighbour Sokman, the former governor of Jerusalem, learned of this, they were at war with each other.
Sokman was trying to avenge one of his nephews who had been killed by Jekermish, and both were preparing for the confrontation. But in the face of this new event, they called upon each other to unite their forces to save the situation in ÍarrÁn, each stating his willingness to offer his life to God and to seek only the glory of the Almighty. They united, sealed their alliance, and set out against the Franj, Sokman with seven thousand horsemen and Jekermish with three thousand.
The two allies met the enemy in May 1104 on the banks of the River BalÐkh, a tributary of the Euphrates. The Muslims pretended to flee, allowing the Franj to pursue them for more than an hour. Then, on a signal from their emirs, they spun around, encircling their pursuers and cutting them to pieces.
Bohemond and Tancred split away from the bulk of their troops and hid behind a hill, from which they hoped to assault the Muslims from behind. But when they saw that their troops were defeated, they decided to stay where they were. They waited there until nightfall and then fled, pursued by the Muslims, who killed and captured a good number of their companions. They themselves escaped, along with six knights.
Among the Frankish chiefs participating in the battle of ÍarrÁn was Baldwin II, a cousin of the king of Jerusalem who had succeeded him at the head of the county of Edessa. He, too, tried to flee, but his mount slipped in the mud while he was fording the BalÐkh. The soldiers of Sokman took him prisoner and led him to the tent of their master. According to the account of Ibn al-AthÐr, this aroused the jealousy of their allies.
Jekermish’s men said to him: ÝWhat will we look like if the others take all the booty and we sit here empty-handed?’ And they persuaded him to seek out the count in Sokman’s tent. When the latter returned, he seemed deeply moved. His companions were already in the saddle, prepared for battle, but he restrained them, saying: ÝThe joy our victory has aroused among the Muslims must not be spoiled by our dispute. I do not want to soothe my anger by granting satisfaction to the enemy at the expense of the Muslims.’ He then assembled all the weapons and banners he had taken from the Franj, dressed his men in their clothing, ordered them to mount up, and then headed for the fortresses held by the Franj. It was their custom, whenever they saw their companions returning victorious, to rush out to meet them. They did so this time too, and Sokman massacred them and seized the fortress. He repeated this stratagem in several places.
The victory of ÍarrÁn had profound repercussions, as Ibn al-QalÁnisi’s unusually enthusiastic tone testifies.
For the Muslims it was an unequalled triumph. The morale of the Franj was deeply affected, their numbers were reduced, their offensive capacity undermined, and their arsenal depleted. The morale of the Muslims rose, their ardour in defence of their religion was enhanced. People congratulated one another on this victory, feeling certain that success had forsaken the Franj.
One Franj—and not one of the less important either—was indeed demoralized by his defeat, and that was Bohemond. A few months later he sailed away, never again to set foot on Arab land.
The battle of ÍarrÁn thus removed from the scene the invasion’s principal architect, this time for good. More important, it halted the Franj drive to the east for ever. The victors, however, like the Egyptians in 1102, proved unable to reap the fruit of their success. Instead of advancing together against Edessa, only two days’ march from the battlefield, they separated in a fresh outbreak of their dispute. Although Sokman’s trick had enabled him to seize a few relatively unimportant fortresses, Jekermish was soon taken by surprise by Tancred, who managed to capture several leading members of his entourage. Among them was a young princess of rare beauty; the ruler of Mosul was so enamoured of her that he sent word to Bohemond and Tancred that he was prepared either to exchange her for Baldwin II of Edessa or to buy her back for fifteen thousand gold dinars. Uncle and nephew consulted and then informed Jekermish that, on balance, they preferred to take the money and to leave their companion in captivity—where he remainedfor another three years. It is not known how the emir felt about this less than chivalrous response from the Frankish chiefs. He nevertheless paid them the agreed sum, recovered his princess, and kept Baldwin.
But the affair was not over yet. Indeed, it was ultimately to give rise to one of the most curious episodes of the Frankish wars.
The scene occurred four years later, at the beginning of October 1108, in a field of plum trees where the last of the dark fruit was ripening. The surrounding lightly wooded hills seemed to stretch out endlessly. On one of them rose the majestic ramparts of Tel BÁshir, alongside which the two opposing armies offered an unusual spectacle.
In one camp stood Tancred of Antioch, ringed by fifteen hundred Frankish knights and foot-soldiers wearing cervellières that covered head and nose, firmly gripping their swords, maces, and sharpened battleaxes. Alongside them stood six hundred long-haired Turkish cavalry sent from Aleppo by RiÃwÁn.
In the other camp stood Jawali, the emir of Mosul, his coat of mail covered by a flowing robe with brocade sleeves. His army was composed of two thousand men divided into three battalions: Arabs on the left, Turks on the right, and in the centre Frankish knights, among them Baldwin of Edessa and his cousin Joscelin, master of Tel BÁshir.
Could the participants in the titanic battle of Antioch possibly have believed that, a mere ten years later, a governor of Mosul, successor of the atabeg KarbÙqa, would make an alliance with a Frankish count of Edessa and that the two would fight side by side against a coalition made up of a Frankish prince of Antioch and the Seljuk king of Aleppo? It had decidedly not taken the Franj long to become full partners in the murderous game of the Muslim petty kings. The chroniclers do not seem in the least astonished. The hint of an amused grin may just be detected in Ibn al-AthÐr, but he mentions the quarrels and alliances of the Franj without any change in tone, just as he speaks, throughout his Perfect History, of the innumerable conflicts among the Muslim princes. The Arab historian explains that while Baldwin was being held prisoner in Mosul, Tancred took Edessa, which suggests that he was not all that eager for his companion to recover his freedom. In fact, he had intrigued with Jekermish to have him held as long as possible.
In 1107, however, this emir was overthrown, and the count now fell into the hands of the new master of Mosul, Jawali, a Turkish adventurer of remarkable intelligence, who immediately understood the advantage he could draw from the dispute between the two Frankish chiefs. He therefore freed Baldwin, offered him vestments of honour, and concluded an alliance with him. ÝYour Edessa fiefdom is threatened,’ he told him in substance, Ýand my position in Mosul is scarcely secure. Let us aid one another.’
As soon as he was released, Ibn al-AthÐr relates, Count Baldwin (Ýal-Comes BardawÐl’) went to see ÝTankri’ in Antioch and asked him to restore Edessa to him. Tancred offered him thirty thousand dinars, horses, arms, clothing, and many other things, but refused to restore the city to him. When Baldwin left Antioch, in a fury, Tancred tried to follow him to prevent him from uniting with his ally Jawali. There were a number of clashes between them, but after each battle they came together again to eat and chat!
These Franj are crazy, the Mosul historian seems to be saying. And he continues:
Since they had not succeeded in settling this problem, an attempt at mediation was made by the patriarch, who is a sort of imÁm for them. He appointed a commission of bishops and priests, who testified that before returning to his home country, Bohemond, the uncle of Tancred, had advised Tancred to restore Edessa to Baldwin if he were released from captivity. The master of Antioch accepted the arbitration and the count again took possession of his domain.
Believing that his victory was due less to Tancred’s goodwill than to his fear of intervention by Jawali, Baldwin quickly released all the Muslim prisoners in his territory, going so far as to execute one of his Christian functionaries, who had publicly insulted Islam.
Tancred was not the only leader exasperated by the curious alliance between the count and the emir. King RiÃwÁn of Aleppo wrote to the master of Antioch to warn him against the ambitions and perfidy of Jawali. He told him that the emir coveted Aleppo, and that if he succeeded in taking it, the Franj would be unable to maintain their positions in Syria. The Seljuk king’s concern for the security of the Franj seems somewhat ludicrous, but among princes understanding is always possible, regardless of religious or cultural barriers. A new Islamo-Frankish coalition was therefore formed to counter the earlier one. Thus it was that in October 1108 these two armies stood opposite one another near the ramparts of Tel BÁshir.
The men of Antioch and Aleppo soon gained the advantage. Jawali fled, and a large number of Muslims sought refuge in Tel BÁshir, where Baldwin and his cousin Joscelin treated them with kindness; they cared for the wounded, gave them clothing, and led them home. The Arab historian’s tribute to Baldwin’s chivalrous spirit stands in sharp contrast to the opinion the Christian inhabitants of Edessa had formed of the count. Upon learning that he had been defeated, and presumably believing him dead, the Armenians of the city thought that the time had come to rid themselves of Frankish domination. On his return, Baldwin found the city being administered by a kind of commune. Uneasy at his subjects’ desire for independence, he had the principal notables arrested, among them several priests, and ordered their eyes put out.
His ally Jawali would dearly have liked to take similar action against the notables of Mosul, who had likewise taken advantage of his absence to revolt. But he had to forgo the urge, for his defeat had discredited him too thoroughly. His subsequent fate was unenviable. He lost his fief, his army, and his treasure, and the sultan MuÎammad put a price on his head. But Jawali did not admit defeat. He disguised himself as a merchant, travelled to the palace of Isfahan, and threw himself suddenly and humbly before the throne of the sultan, holding his own shroud in his hands. MuÎammad was touched, and agreed to pardon him. Some time later, he named him governor of a province in Persia.
As for Tancred, his victory of 1108 brought him to the apogee of his glory. The principality of Antioch became a regional power feared by all its neighbours, be they Turk, Arab, Armenian, or Frank. King RidwÁn was now no more than a cringing vassal. The nephew of Bohemond dubbed himself Ýthe grand emir’!
Just a few weeks after the battle of Tel BÁshir, which sanctioned the presence of the Franj in northern Syria, it was the turn of the Kingdom of Damascus to sign an armistice with Jerusalem. Under the terms of the agreement, the revenue from the agricultural lands lying between the two capitals would be split in three, one third for the Turks, one third for the Franj, and one third for the peasants, notes Ibn al-QalÁnisi. A protocol was drafted on that basis. Several months later, the Syrian metropolis signed a new treaty acknowledging the loss of an even more important zone: the rich plain of Bekaa, east of the Lebanese mountains, was in turn divided with the kingdom of Jerusalem. In fact, the Damascenes were reduced to impotence. Their harvests were at the mercy of the Franj, and their trade passed through the port of Acre, now ruled by Genoese merchants. In southern and northern Syria alike, the Frankish occupation was a daily reality.
But the Franj did not stop there. In 1108 they stood on the eve of the most sweeping territorial expansion they had attempted since the fall of Jerusalem. All the great coastal cities were threatened, and the local potentates had neither the strength nor the will to defend them.
The initial target was Tripoli. Saint-Gilles had camped on the outskirts of the city back in 1103, and had ordered the construction of a fortress which the citizens still knew by his name. The well-preserved ÝQalÝat Saint-Gilles’ is still visible in the twentieth century, in the centre of the modern city of Tripoli. At the time of the arrival of the Franj, however, the city extended no further than the MinÁ’ quarter, the port, which lay at the end of a peninsula access to which was controlled by this famous fortress. No caravan could reach or leave Tripoli without being intercepted by Saint-Gilles’s men.
The qÁÃÐ Fakhr al-Mulk wanted at all costs to destroy this citadel, which threatened to strangle his capital. Night after night his soldiers attempted daring raids, stabbing a guard or damaging a wall under construction, but it was in September 1104 that the most spectacular operation was mounted. The entire garrison of Tripoli effected a sortie en masse, led by the qÁÃÐ himself. Several Frankish warriors were massacred and a wing of the fortress was burned. Saint-Gilles himself was caught by surprise atop one of the flaming roofs. Suffering from severe burns, he died five months later, in terrible agony. As he lay dying, he asked to see emissaries from Fakhr al-Mulk and proposed a deal: the Tripolitanians would stop their assault on the citadel, and in exchange the Frankish chief would promise never again to interfere with the flow of travellers and goods. The qÁÃÐ agreed.
It was a strange compromise. Is not the aim of a siege precisely to prevent the circulation of people and foodstuff? And yet, one has the impression that besiegers and besieged had established something approaching normal relations. The port of Tripoli suddenly enjoyed a spurt of activity, as caravans came and went after paying a tax to the Franj, and Tripolitanian notables crossed enemy lines with safe-conduct passes. In fact, however, the belligerents were simply waiting each other out. The Franj anticipated the arrival of a Christian fleet, from Genoa or Constantinople, which would enable them to assault the besieged city. The Tripolitanians, not unaware of this, were expecting a Muslim army to speed to their rescue. The most effective support should logically have come from Egypt, for the Fatimid caliphate was a great maritime power whose intervention would suffice to discourage the Franj. But once again, relations between the lords of Tripoli and Cairo were disastrous. Al-AfÃal’s father had been a slave in the qÁÃÐ’s household, and it seems that he had been on very bad terms with his masters. The vizier had never concealed his rancour and his desire to humiliate Fakhr al-Mulk, who for his part would have preferred to abandon his city to Saint-Gilles rather than place his fate in the hands of al-AfÃal. The qÁÃÐ could rely on no ally in Syria either. He had to seek help elsewhere.
When news of the ÍarrÁn victory reached him in June 1104, he immediately dispatched a message to the emir Sokman begging him to complete his triumph by driving the Franj from Tripoli. He sweetened his request with a gift of a great quantity of gold, and also promised to cover all the expedition’s expenses. The victor of ÍarrÁn was tempted. Assembling a powerful army, he set out for Syria. But when he was less than four days’ march from Tripoli, he was halted by an attack of angina. His troops dispersed. The morale of the qÁÃÐ and his subjects collapsed.
Nevertheless, in 1105 a ray of hope appeared. Sultan Barkiyaruq had just died of tuberculosis, which put an end to the interminable fratricidal warfare that had paralysed the Seljuk empire since the beginning of the Frankish invasion. Henceforth Iraq, Syria, and western Persia were supposed to have but a single master, Ýthe sultan, saviour of the world and of religion, MuÎammad Ibn MalikshÁh’. This 24-year-old Seljuk sultan’s title was taken literally by the Tripolitanians. Fakhr al-Mulk sent the sultan message after message, and received endless promises in return. But there was no sign of any rescuing army.
In the meantime, the blockade of the city was tightened. Saint-Gilles was replaced by one of his cousins, Ýal-Cerdani’, the count of Cerdagne, who stepped up the pressure on the besieged. It was increasingly difficult to get food through overland. The prices of foodstuffs within the city spiralled dizzyingly: a pound of dates was sold for a gold dinar, a coin that would normally suffice to feed an entire family for several weeks. Many citizens sought to emigrate to Tyre, Homs, or Damascus. Hunger led to betrayals. One day some Tripolitanian notables sought out al-Cerdani and, in exchange for his favours, revealed how the city was still managing to receive some provisions. Fakhr al-Mulk then offered his adversary a fabulous sum if he would deliver the traitors. But the count refused. The next morning the notables were found inside the enemy camp itself; their throats had been cut.
Despite this exploit, the situation in Tripoli continued to deteriorate. There was still no sign of rescue, and persistent rumours suggested the imminent approach of a Frankish fleet. In despair, Fakhr al-Mulk decided to go in person to Baghdad to plead his cause before the sultan MuÎammad and the caliph al-MustaÛhir BillÁh. In his absence, one of his cousins was entrusted with the interim government of the city, and the troops were given six months’ pay in advance. A large escort had been prepared, five hundred cavalry and foot-soldiers, plus many servants bearing gifts of every description: engraved swords, thoroughbred horses, brocaded robes of honour, as well as various products of the goldsmiths’ craft, Tripoli’s speciality. Thus it was that towards the end of March 1108 Fakhr al-Mulk left the city with his long cortège. He left Tripoli by land, reports Ibn al-QalÁnisi unambiguously, the only chronicler who actually lived through these events, thus suggesting that the qÁÃÐ obtained permission from the Franj to pass through their lines in order to go and preach holy war against them! Given the curious relations between the besiegers and the besieged, that is not impossible. But it seems more plausible that the qÁdÐ reached Beirut by boat and only then took the land route.
However that may be, Fakhr al-Mulk stopped first in Damascus. The ruler of Tripoli had a marked aversion for DuqÁq, but the inept Seljuk king had died some time earlier, probably poisoned, and the city was now in the hands of his tutor, the atabeg Tughtigin, a lame former slave whose ambiguous relations with the Franj were to dominate the Syrian political scene for more than twenty years. Ambitious, wily, and unscrupulous, this Turkish officer, like Fakhr al-Mulk himself, was a mature and realistic man. In contrast with the vindictive stance adopted by DuqÁq, Tughtigin received the master of Tripoli warmly, held a great banquet in his honour, and even invited him to his own private bath. The qÁÃÐ appreciated these attentions, but preferred to be lodged outside the walls—confidence has its limits!
In Baghdad his reception was even more sumptuous. So great was Tripoli’s prestige in the Muslim world that the qÁÃÐ was treated as a powerful monarch. Sultan MuÎammad took him across the Tigris in his own boat. The officers of protocol led the master of Tripoli through a floating salon to where had been placed a brocade cushion on which the sultan usually sat. Fakhr al-Mulk settled himself next to it, in the place usually allotted to visitors, but the dignitaries rushed forward and took him by the arm: the monarch had personally insisted that his guest be seated on his own cushion. The qÁÃÐ was welcomed in one palace after another, and was asked many questions by the sultan, the caliph, and their collaborators. They wanted to know everything about the siege, and all Baghdad praised Fakhr al-Mulk’s bravery in the jihÁd against the Franj.
But when it finally came to political matters, and Fakhr al-Mulk asked MuÎammad to send an army to lift the siege of Tripoli, the sultan, Ibn al-QalÁnisi spitefully reports, ordered several of his principal emirs to go with Fakhr al-Mulk to help repel those who were besieging the city. He instructed the expeditionary force to stop briefly in Mosul to take the city from Jawali, and told them to head for Tripoli once that was done.
Fakhr al-Mulk was devastated. The situation in Mosul was so muddled that it would take years to sort out. Moreover, the city was situated north of Baghdad, whereas Tripoli lay due west. If the army made such a detour, it would never arrive in time to save his capital, which, he insisted, was liable to collapse any day now. But the sultan would not hear of it. The interests of the Seljuk empire required that the problem of Mosul be given priority. The qÁÃÐ tried everything, even buying some of the sultan’s counsellors at inflated prices, but in vain: the army would go first to Mosul. When Fakhr al-Mulk set out to return to Tripoli after a four-month stay in Baghdad, he left without any ceremony. He was now convinced that he would no longer be able to hold his city. What he did not know was that he had already lost it.
He was told the sad news when he arrived in Damascus in August 1108. Demoralized by his long absence, the notables of Tripoli had decided to entrust the city to the ruler of Egypt, who promised to defend it against the Franj. Al-AfÃal sent his vassals food, as well as a governor to take charge of the city’s affairs; his first mission was to arrest the family of Fakhr al-Mulk and his supporters, to seize his treasury, furniture, and personal property, and to send them all to Egypt by ship.
While the vizier was thus persecuting the unfortunate qÁÃÐ, the Franj were preparing the final assault on Tripoli. One after the other, their commanders had arrived at the walls of the besieged city. King Baldwin of Jerusalem, their supreme commander, was there. Baldwin of Edessa and Tancred of Antioch, who had been reconciled for the occasion, were both there, as were two counts from the family of Saint-Gilles, who had just arrived from his country with dozens of Genoese vessels. Both coveted Tripoli, but the king of Jerusalem ordered them to halt their quarrels. Ibn Saint-Gilles would await the end of the battle to have his rival assassinated.
In March 1109 everything seemed ready for a concerted attack by land and sea. The terrified Tripolitanians observed all these preparations, but did not lose hope. Had not al-AfÃal promised to send a fleet more powerful than any they had ever seen, with enough food, fighters, and matériel to hold out for a year?
The Tripolitanians had no doubt that the Genoese vessels would flee the moment the Fatimid fleet sailed into view. Let it only arrive in time!
At the beginning of the summer, Ibn al-QalÁnisi says, the Franj launched an attack on Tripoli with all their forces, driving their mobile towers toward the city walls. When the people of the city saw what violent assaults they would have to face, they lost heart,for they understood that their defeat was inevitable. Food supplies were exhausted, and the Egyptian fleet was nowhere in sight. The winds were blowing against them, for such was the will of God, who determines what things will come to pass. The Franj redoubled their efforts and took the city by storm, on 12 July 1109. After two thousand days of resistance, the city of goldsmiths and libraries, of intrepid seamen and learned qÁÃÐs, was sacked by the warriors of the West. The hundred thousand volumes of the DÁr al-ÝIlm were pillaged and burned, so that Ýimpious’ books would be destroyed. According to the chronicler of Damascus, the Franj decided that one third of the city would go to the Genoese, the other two-thirds to the son of Saint-Gilles. All that King Baldwin desired was set aside for him. Most of the inhabitants were sold into slavery, the rest were despoiled of their property and expelled. Many headed for the port of Tyre. Fakhr al-Mulk ended his life in the vicinity of Damascus.
And the Egyptian fleet? It arrived in Tyre eight days after the fall of Tripoli, Ibn al-QalÁnisi relates, when all had been lost, because of the divine punishment that had struck the inhabitants.
The Franj selected Beirut as their second target. Lying next to the Lebanese mountains, the city was ringed by pine forests, in particular in the suburbs of Mazrat al-ÝArab and Ra’s al-Nabah. There the invaders would find the wood they needed to construct the instruments of siege. Beirut had none of the splendour of Tripoli, and its modest villas could not easily be compared to the Roman palaces whose marble ruins were still scattered across the grounds of ancient Berytus. But because of its port, it was a relatively prosperous city, situated on the rocky slope where, according to tradition, St George had slain the dragon. Coveted by the Damascenes, held negligently by the Egyptians, Beirut finally had to confront the Franj on its own, beginning in February 1110. Its five thousand inhabitants fought with an ardour born of despair, as they destroyed the siege towers one after another. Never before or since did the Franj face such a harsh battle, Ibn al-QalÁnisi exclaimed. The invaders were unforgiving. On 13 May, when the city was taken, they threw themselves into a blind massacre. To set an example.
The lesson was well learned. The following summer, a certain Frankish king (the Damascene chronicler may be forgiven for failing to recognize Sigurd, the sovereign of distant Norway) arrived by sea with more than sixty vessels packed with fighters intent on making their pilgrimage and waging war in the lands of Islam. They headed towards Jerusalem, Baldwin joined them, and together they laid siege, by land and sea, to the port of Saida, the ancient Phoenician city of Sidon. The walls of this city, destroyed and rebuilt more than once in the course of history, are impressive even today, their enormous blocks of stone lashed relentlessly by the Mediterranean. But the inhabitants, who had shown great courage at the beginning of the Frankish invasion, no longer had the heart to fight, since, according to Ibn al-QalÁnisi, they feared that they would suffer the same fate as Beirut. They therefore sent their qÁÃÐ with a delegation of notables to ask Baldwin to spare their lives. He accepted their request. The city capitulated on 4 December 1110. This time there was no massacre, but a massive exodus to Tyre and Damascus, which were already bulging with refugees.
In the space of eighteen months three of the most renowned cities of the Arab world—Tripoli, Beirut, and Saida—had been taken and sacked, their inhabitants massacred or deported, their emirs, qÁÃÐs, and experts on religious law killed or forced into exile, their mosques profaned. Could any power now prevent the Franj from pressing on to Tyre, Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Mosul, or—why not?—even Baghdad? Did any will to resist remain? Among the Muslim leaders, probably not. But among the population of the most seriously threatened cities, the relentless holy war waged for the past thirteen years by the pilgrim-fighters of the West was beginning to have its effect: the idea of jihÁd, which had long been no more than a slogan used to enliven official speeches, was being reasserted. Groups of refugees, poets, and even men of religion were now preaching it anew.
It was one of these religious figures—ÝAbdu FaÃl Ibn al-KhashÁb, a qÁÃÐ of Aleppo, small of stature but loud of voice—who resolved, by sheer tenacity and strength of character, to waken the sleeping giant of the Arab world. His first public initiative was to rekindle, twelve years on, the scandal that al-Íarawi had aroused in the streets of Baghdad. This time, however, there would be a genuine riot.