The Crusades, historically, are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, you can trace medieval Europe’s commercial development and, eventually, its itch to explore the world in part to the East-West cultural exchange that was boosted by the Crusades, and the wealth of Arab learning that was transmitted back to Europe (including preserved texts from ancient Greece and Rome that had been lost to the Europeans) from the Middle East did jolt intellectual progress there. Still, in the short run they were a waste of lives and resources, and ultimately, even in the long-run, self-defeating for the two main branches of Christianity that existed at the time (you can draw a straight line from the crusading movement to the Reformation and from the Fourth Crusade in particular to the Fall of Constantinople). They also showcase some of the most inept military leadership you’ll find in history, at least in the medieval period, mostly on the European side but not entirely.
During the First Crusade, before Saladin came to power in Egypt and was able to build a new empire uniting Egypt and Greater Syria, the Muslims were in serious disarray politically, and their military capabilities suffered for it. The rise of the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa and then Egypt in the 10th century, followed by its quick expansion into the Levant, had cut the former caliphate into two competing caliphates, neither one anywhere near as strong as the former unified caliphate had been. The 10th century also saw the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad lose their effective power (though they retained considerable symbolic authority, at least in theory) to a succession of “caretakers”–first the Iranian Buyids in 945 and then the Turkish Seljuks in 1055.
The caliphate had been slowly decentralizing anyway, as regional “governors” began to amass enough strength to act more or less autonomously from the caliph without risk of repercussion (as long as they maintained the official pretense that the caliph was still in charge). But these blows to the unitary authority of the caliph, first by the rise of a competing caliph (Shiʿa, no less) and then by the installation of these new dynastic powers behind the throne, rapidly accelerated that decentralization.
For the Fatimids, a rapid decline in their ability to project authority let much of their possessions slip from effective control; for the Seljuks, who were organized as a tribal confederation rather than a single political entity, it was almost inevitable that their internal political bonds would be relatively weak. Add in the fact that the Fatimids and Seljuks kept fighting each other every chance they got, and were increasingly reliant on foreign mercenaries to do their fighting for them (more on that later!), and you’ve got some real issues going on here. It got to the point where every Muslim governor in the region controlled his little fiefdom and was either indifferent, or outright hostile, to the governors around them, despite their common religious affiliations and Islam’s insistence on a unified community of believers. These petty kings were as likely to ally with the Christian invaders against other Muslim rulers as they were to band together with other Muslims to try to get rid of the Christians, and it was this discord that the leaders of the First Crusade were able to exploit, usually without even trying, to eventually take Jerusalem.
Make no mistake, without that Muslim disunity it’s hard to imagine the First Crusade being any more successful than any of the others, which is to say “not at all” (unless you count that Fourth Crusade, which sure showed it to those…Greeks, I guess?), because the men leading it seem more or less to have had no idea what they were doing. I mean, they obviously knew how to fight in the barest sense of the term, but strategy, tactics, everything else was kind of a mystery, and if you thought the Muslims couldn’t get along with one another, imagine cobbling together an army led by a whole cadre of European princes who already hated each other’s rotten guts back home and who simply refused to be subordinated to any one of their number, no matter who the Pope might appoint as overall commander. Nothing illustrates the ineptitude-combined-with-dumb-luck nature of the First Crusade as well as the Siege of Antioch, which ended on this day in 1098, when the Crusaders earned the distinction of going from besiegers to besieged in what was almost literally the blink of an eye.
Ancient Antioch no longer exists, though its ruins can be found near the Turkish city of Antakya in the southern Mediterranean Hatay province. The Byzantines lost it to the Seljuks in 1085, and its stature as one of the first centers for Christian evangelism made it a prime target of the Crusade, almost as important as Jerusalem itself. In fact, looked at from the point of view in terms of its commercial importance and location as well as its symbolic value, it was arguably a more important target than Jerusalem, at least for Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. The Crusaders had promised that any cities and territory taken during the campaign would be “returned” to the Byzantine Empire, and in return Alexios bankrolled and supplied the expedition.
It’s important to remember that the whole crusading movement started with an appeal from Alexios to Rome for fighters to help him drive back the Seljuks and their allies, who were in the process of conquering huge swaths of Anatolia, and restore the Byzantine Empire to its former glory; Jerusalem only became the goal of the campaign when Pope Urban II rebroadcast Alexios’ appeal to the princes of Western Europe. “Go and recover for Christendom the city where Christ died and rose again” presumably had a much higher Q score among Catholic nobility than “go and help out the Romans, whom we all kind of hate and whom you guys would probably be fighting if it weren’t for the Muslims giving us a common enemy and for the fact that you’re all too busy fighting each other anyway.”
So, anyway, the Crusade leaders, including Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond IV of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto…Stephen II of Blois…um, Baldwin of Boulogne…uhhh, screw this, there’s like a dozen of these guys, and they all gathered in and around Constantinople starting in late 1096. While there, they took an oath to return part of the land they were sure they would conquer to Alexios. This fell short of the full loyalty oath that Alexios wanted them all to take, but since what Alexios really wanted was to get this massive army of Catholic warriors the hell out of his territory ASAP, he accepted the compromise and shipped them off to fight in 1097. They captured Nicaea, a Seljuk capital, because the ruler there was off campaigning against some other Turkish principality, and then defeated his returning army, which was unprepared for the size of the Crusader force it encountered. They marched through Anatolia relatively uncontested, but also without much by way of supplies because the Byzantines weren’t exactly quick on the resupply and the Turks had done a bit of a scorched earth thing after they were defeated. Meanwhile, all those princes I refused to list above spent more time bickering with each other about overall command than preparing for whatever resistance they might encounter.
The Crusaders arrived at Antioch in October 1097 and besieged the city. Well, they tried to, anyway, but the army, big as it was, wasn’t big enough to fully invest the city, so the Muslim defenders (led by a man named Yaghi-Siyan) were able to get supplies in to sustain their defense. The Crusaders, meanwhile, resolved that they could not take Antioch by force (particularly since they didn’t have any siege engines) and had to starve the defenders out…even though they couldn’t really keep them from bringing food in, which kind of defeats the purpose. Worse, the Crusaders set their camps and fortifications up so close to the city walls that the Muslim defenders could pick Crusader warriors off by arrow and even with the occasional sortie out of the city.
The latter miscalculation became particularly troublesome when, after two weeks, the starving Crusader army had picked the surrounding countryside clean of food, and was forced to send out foraging parties that the Muslims inside the city, and from surrounding garrisons and towns, could then attack in order to disrupt the Crusaders’ supplies. One expedition led by Daquq, the emir of Damascus, disrupted a foraging expedition that was bringing an entire flock of sheep back to the Crusader camp, and this one setback by itself basically assured that the Crusaders would spend all winter without enough food. Local Christian farmers were so happy to see a Christian army come to “liberate” them from the Muslim yoke that they offered to sell whatever food they could spare to the Crusaders for, well, really pretty massive and exploitative markups (Capitalism!). The soldiers, the ones who didn’t abandon the army and head back home, began eating their horses, who were starving to death anyway, and there are even reports that some went cannibal, though for propriety’s sake they stuck to eating Turks rather than their fellow Europeans.
In February 1098, the governor of Aleppo, Ridwan, who had been sitting on his hands because he and Yaghi-Siyan were enemies, patched things up with the Antiochan governor and led an army to attack the Crusaders. This army was defeated when Ridwan decided, for some reason, to attack a Crusader detachment on a narrow field that lay between the Orontes River and the Lake of Antioch, which negated Ridwan’s advantage in numbers. Then in early March, new supplies finally arrived from the Byzantines, and the Crusaders not only had food again but were able to build some siege engines and, at last, to fully invest the city. The siege continued into May, when a new Muslim army marched out of Mosul, led by the governor there, Kerbogha, whose forces were bolstered by those of Daquq and Ridwan. For reasons passing understanding, Kerbogha decided to spend three weeks unsuccessfully assaulting Edessa instead of going straight to Antioch, buying the Crusaders precious time to prepare. They knew they couldn’t meet Kerbogha’s army in open battle and win, so it was either time to pack up and run or time to force their way into the city so that they could be behind its walls when Kerbogha got there.
They decided to go for the city. Bohemond declared to his fellow lords that he was in contact with an Armenian guard, named Firoz, inside the city who was prepared to open the gates to the Crusaders for the right price (and there’s the problem with relying on mercenaries!), and Bohemond offered to pay this guy’s asking price provided the other lords agreed to make Bohemond the ruler of Antioch. Well, of course, this was entirely in violation of the deal they’d made with Alexios, but at this point they had no choice and plus I suspect they all had come to hate Alexios just a little bit, so they agreed. Firoz let the Crusaders into the city on June 2, today, where they promptly started killing everyone in sight, Muslim and Christian, including Firoz’s own brother. Jesus. Meanwhile, despite the fact that things had finally broken the Crusaders’ way, soldiers and even a few lords, most prominently Stephen of Blois, kept jumping ship and heading back to Europe. Stephen stopped in Constantinople on the way home, where Alexios was actually preparing to get off his behind and lead an army to relieve the Crusaders at Antioch, and told Alexios that the situation was so hopeless that he should just stay home and defend his capital. Alexios was only too happy to take his advice.
Anyway, the Crusaders now had Antioch, or most of it (a Muslim remnant still held out in the citadel), and had about five minutes to celebrate before they had to immediately turn around and prepare to be besieged, by Kerbogha. With their efficient use of resources and careful strategy they had effectively no supplies with which to hold out. Kerbogha’s forces arrived on June 5 and besieged the city on June 9. Things looked extra hopeless.
Then, on June 10, a monk traveling with the Crusader army, named Peter Bartholomew, claimed that a vision had told him that The Holy Lance was buried in Antioch’s Cathedral of St. Peter. That’s right–The Holy Lance, the one that had pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion. This came as quite a shock to anybody who’d seen The Holy Lance in Constantinople, where it was in the possession of the Romans, or The Holy Lance in the Holy Roman Empire, where it was in the possession of the Germans, but you can’t quibble over details on a thing like this. Workers began to dig in the Cathedral and found…nothing, until Peter himself jumped into the hole they’d dug and, miraculously, plucked a spear point right out of
his sleeve the ground. A miracle!
Whatever the real origins of this Holy Lance 3.0 might have been, the Crusaders, newly emboldened, marched out of the city on June 28 with the spear at the front of the army, and advanced on Kerbogha’s forces. Muslim archers inflicted considerable casualties on the Crusaders, because slowly marching across an open field toward an enemy army that has a lot of archers is really kind of dumb, but when the arrow fire failed to break the Crusader lines and it was time for the real fighting to commence, Daquq and many of the rest of Kerbogha’s emirs double-crossed their boss (ah, unity!) and took off. Kerbogha had no choice but to follow, and the now hopeless Muslims remaining in Antioch’s citadel surrendered that same day.
With the city finally under their control, the Crusader lords set about pursuing their real passion: fighting with each other. Raymond of Toulouse, the senior Crusader lord who sort of assumed that everybody was following his lead when in reality they were doing nothing of the sort, was very opposed to turning Antioch over to Bohemond, and actually sent envoys to Alexios to tell him to get to Antioch and claim what was rightfully his. Alexios, no doubt exhausted by the effort it took to almost do something that one time in June, begged off. Then the Crusaders asked Pope Urban II to personally take control of the city, but he, probably wisely, refused to get himself caught up in that mess. Raymond and Bohemond continued to squabble for the rest of 1098, until finally the rank and file of the Crusader army, once again at risk of starving since they’d once again picked the surrounding countryside clean of food, threatened to start marching toward Jerusalem without them. At this point Raymond let Bohemond have the city, but probably took a leak in Bohemond’s saddle bags or something.
Peter Bartholomew, the hero of the second siege for finding The, um, Holy Lance, was challenged by his skeptics to undertake an ordeal by fire to prove that he wasn’t lying about the whole thing; his ashes were shipped back to his next of kin in Europe. I joke, but in reality we’re told he spent almost two weeks in sheer agony before dying of his burns on April 20, 1099.
I think the “Holy Lance” found its way to Constantinople, then to Rome, but at some point it may have been conflated with the spear that was already at Constantinople, so I’m not sure what actually happened to this one. If you’re interested in seeing The Holy Lance today, you can take your pick: there’s one in Rome, one in Armenia, and one in Vienna.
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