Today in Middle Eastern history: the First Crusade captures Jerusalem (1099)

For all the grief I give the Crusaders of the First Crusade, it would be wrong not to note that they actually did accomplish what they set out to accomplish, the capture of Jerusalem. Well, OK, what they officially set out to accomplish was to buy the Byzantine Empire some relief from the Turks who were pushing closer to Constantinople all the time, and they kind of did bupkis in that regard, but Jerusalem was always the campaign’s secret-not-so-secret real goal, and they did it. In reality, the actual conquest of the city was a little anti-climactic; fighting through the Seljuks to the north was a lot more challenging than taking Jerusalem from the rapidly-declining Fatimids.

Map - Crusades, Early
The Early Crusades, now in map form!

The Crusaders invested Jerusalem on June 7 but were at an extreme disadvantage in actually taking the city. For one thing, the residents inside were well-supplied, while the Crusaders were not–water was scarce (this was true in general, but also because the Fatimids had tried to poison whatever wells they could find in the area before the Crusaders got there), which meant that food was also hard to come by. The besieging army thus had to devote as many resources to bringing water from the Jordan River as it did to the siege itself. This was a huge strain on an army that was less than half the size it had been when it first set out from Constantinople in 1097. For another thing, the Crusaders lacked siege engines and didn’t really have the means to build any. But for once, logistics worked in favor of the Crusaders rather than against them.

After an attempt to storm the city walls on June 13 failed, six European vessels arrived at Jaffa with supplies and building materials. The Crusaders set to work constructing siege engines, making particular haste after they learned that the Fatimids were assembling a large army in Egypt to relieve Jerusalem. Then, on July 6, a priest in the retinue declared that he had seen the ghost of Adhemar of Le Puy, the bishop who had gone with the Crusaders as papal legate before falling ill and dying in August 1098. Adhemar’s spirit reportedly told the Crusaders to dress in hermits robes and process around the city, which they did on July 8. Of presumably far greater importance, the siege engines were completed and ready to be deployed on July 13. It took the better part of two days, but on July 15 the forces of Godfrey of Bouillon managed to get one of their siege towers up to the wall and storm the city. They opened a gate and let the rest of the Crusader army swarm in.

It later became accepted that the Crusaders simply slaughtered everyone in the city once they were inside; that’s even what you’re told in modern fictional accounts like Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. But how many Jerusalem residents were actually massacred (as opposed to killed in battle) is still debated today among scholars. Even contemporary accounts that describe considerable loss of life say that some Muslims and Jews (who had fought with the Muslims against the Christians, something people today might not realize) were allowed to leave the city alive. Many of the worst accounts of slaughter come from much later histories or from contemporary writers who were not actually in Jerusalem at the time, so their accounts are suspect. Still, residents of a besieged city in the 11th century tended not to fare too well if the city was captured, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a lot of Muslim and Jewish residents were put to death.

The Crusader leaders, who, as you may recall, didn’t particularly care for one another, then tried to figure out which one of them should rule Jerusalem. This was not something that the Pope or the Crusaders had planned for when they set out initially. In fact, at the outset of the campaign the leaders of the Crusade promised that any conquered territory would be restored to the Byzantines. They quickly scrapped that deal, justifying their decision to welch on the fact that the Byzantines didn’t come close to supporting their expedition satisfactorily (and, hey, they kind of had a point there).

Raymond of Toulouse had been the ceremonial overall commander of the campaign, as he was the oldest (and richest) of its senior leaders, so he was offered the throne. He responded by feigning piety, insisting that he would never dream of ruling Christ’s city, assuming all the while that the crown would then be pressed on him. But, hilariously, the other Crusader leaders said, “eh, whatever,” and gave the crown to Godfrey of Bouillon, who titled himself “Protector of the Holy Sepulchre” rather than “King of Jerusalem” (which was supposed to be Jesus’s gig). Raymond was furious, but he kind of had himself to blame. As for Godfrey (who died the following year), while modern followers of the Crusades might see Richard the Lionheart as the ultimate Crusader, for people in Medieval Europe it was Godfrey who became the hero of the Crusades and the model of perfect knightly chivalry.

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